night girl

A Night in the Underside

It is 6:09, Friday night. I am waiting at Platform 1 here in Jalpaiguri. I am told the train will be three hours late. The early evening is humid and sticky, and the mosquitoes have already launched out on their mission to annoy and suck. It so crowded. Train stations are part of the underside of India, where the density of the throng makes flying economy on United feel like a deserted beach.

Across the tracks is an open field where alpha dogs are establishing their territory, homeless kids are scavenging, and sacred cows are hanging out. Getting out of the taxi earlier, a little girl in the most wretched of conditions reaches toward me and begs for help. Suddenly she falls part way into a roadway grate. She cannot seem to get out so she screams, but I soon lose her in this sea of humanity. I am told her parents likely abandoned her and then headed south to look for work. Up here near Nepal and Tibet, the economy suffers. Chances are she will eventually be offered food and some shelter in exchange for selling her body on the streets. Human trafficking flourishes and authorities don’t seem to much care. Every night young girls line the streets. I can’t tell you how heart wrenching this is!

It is my sixth time here to India, and whether I am in the south or the north, there is a sameness to what I see each time. The smells are similar. The same shacks, made of tin and covered by tarp cloths, dot the landscape. The same piles of litter vandalize the roads and fields, and the constant brownish gray smog dulls any hope of beauty. Busses and trucks, cars and autorickshaws, bikes and motorcycles all jockey for space. There are no rules; just the blaring of horns. Alpha drivers also rule amidst the chaos. And yet, everyone seems to coexist. Goats and dogs and pigs and cows are everywhere, but there is hardly any evidence of roadkill or accidents. It’s like everyone can see 360 degrees.

Strangely missing are cats. I’m told they are more domesticated, living in homes. It must be a sort of feline fortune. I am headed fourteen hours east, to Nagaland to train pastors, where  dogs will be much harder to find (except in the markets, where butchers satisfy the Nagas’ desire for canine cuisine).

How does one explain this crazy place where most are poor and beaten down by the elements? A failure of governmental policy? Corruption? All of these for sure. (The NY Times might include Donald Trump. He seems to get blamed for everything these days).

But humans have turned their vocation upside down, giving worship and allegiance to forces and powers within creation itself.

The reality is that it is something much deeper. In his newest book (a must read), The Day the Revolution Began, N.T. Wright talks about the vocation God called all of us to at creation. The living God has made us to reflect the Creator’s wise stewardship and reflect the praises of all creation back to its Maker. This is the key to flourishing. But humans have turned their vocation upside down, giving worship and allegiance to forces and powers within creation itself.

The name for this is idolatry. And there is no place where idolatry is more omnipresent than India. Hindu temples seem to be on every corner, where the goddess Kali demands worship and under her are innumerable gods and goddesses (last count, 33 million). Just enough to cover all of creation.

Wright puts to words what I am feeling as I sit here in this God awful place: “We humans have thus, by abrogating our own vocation, handed over our power and authority to nondivine and nonhuman forces, which have then run rampant, spoiling human lives, ravaging the beautiful creation, and doing their best to turn God’s world into a hell.” They run wild here, and if this is not hell, it surely a foretaste.

But I dare not be too judgmental. These same forces are at work in my culture. We are just more sophisticated. Many of us give our worship and allegiance to forces and powers. Their names are money, sex, and power. They too have sent us into exile. They also lead to the same slavery and death (only of a more refined kind).

The effects of our rebellion are particularly raw in this place. Looking into the faces of most of these people, it causes the spirit to groan. Few smiles and hardly any laughter. Ironically, my morning devotions took me to Romans 8. Paul must have sensed the same hell in his pagan culture. He speaks of a creation that groans under the weight of its bondage to corruption.

The great news is that death of Jesus has reestablished the original human vocation. We have been saved to again be stewards of creation, and redeemed to reflect praises back to Him. The Spirit indwells those who give their lives to Jesus and calls us to renounce the idols that run rampant. We do this while we wait for Jesus, who will one day bring this to an end and create a new heaven and earth.

In light of this, I can think of no better place to be tonight. By God’s grace I am headed east to prepare the hope of the church—its leaders—to lead the hope of the world—the church. It’s the privilege of those of us who do ministry at Western.



About John Johnson

John Johnson is the former lead pastor at Village Church in Portland, OR. Presently, he is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Western Seminary and devoted to writing.