Transcript of a Skype conversation between Student Life’s Emma Horn (EH) and Servants missionary Lisa Elliott (LE)
EH: How long have you worked in India
LE: So I’ve been to India twice this year, for about a collective amount of four months, and, uh next year I’m going to be moving to India in January for three years.
EH: And what will that involve?
LE: So I’m going to go and live in a slum in Kolkata and I’ll be joining a team called ‘Servants’ who are already there. Um, my first year I’ll just be learning about um, the language, and about how to live in a slum and the culture and the needs and the challenges of the people that I live with, and I’ll be looking at trying to use my skills to, um, do some kind of development project in that neighbourhood to empower the people that are living there.
EH: When you say empowering, are we talking education or just basic human rights or otherwise?
LE: Yeah, well one of the values of Servants holism, so they want to have a holistic approach in the work that they do with people. Um, so, Servants workers in the past have done things like start small businesses which empowers local people. Um, they’ve advocated with local governments for the needs of a slum community when they’re being evicted or when they don’t have access to clean water and electricity. Uh, some have just uh, volunteered with local organisations which are already doing great work in their community. So, there’s all sorts of different ways that Servants field workers kind of engage with their slum communities, and so I guess I’ll follow suit and find a thing that fits for me and fits for my community.
EH: So, the uh, Servants, do they have a Christian background or is it non-specific?
LE: Yes. So, um, it’s a Christian organisation and they um, come from the eh, I guess background, or the position of wanting to transform people through the power of Christ. But as I said it’s a holistic thing, so uh, rather than just trying to turn people in faith to follow Jesus, they’re also wanting to bring goods news to the poor, and um, so caring about their living situation and their relationships with one another and kind of helping in those areas as well as looking at their kind of spiritual life, is something that’s important.
EH: Do you get much of an opportunity to speak about your faith with those you’re living with?
LE: Yeah, so um, when I’ve been uh, living in slum communities just for short periods of time, all of my neighbours have been Hindu, and so, they’re daily life is um, just full of their faith and their practices and um, you don’t go a day without hearing a Hindu kind of Pujar, or worship call, or a, uh, one of your neighbours, you know, ringing their bell or offering flowers to their idols and things like that. So, it’s kind of in your face everyday, and so there’s heaps of opportunities to talk to those neighbours about their faith and then because I do the same things as what they do, in my house there might be a cross rather than Krishna idol or something like that. And there’s always opportunities for them to come to an understanding that my religion is different to theirs and then um, in the short times that I’ve been there they’ve made comments on, like, my behaviours. So, um, you know ‘oh, you’re very compassionate’ or, ‘you’re very kind, you don’t say bad things about people’, and so there’s those sorts of observational things that go hand-in-hand with that. So, yeah, because I didn’t have enough language to really talk deeply with people um, in the short times that I’ve been there, I haven’t had real in depth faith conversations, but I anticipate that as, you know, I learn more of the language and I’m able to speak with people better then those things will come up.
EH: Have you met any resistance towards your faith? Do you feel that they judge you when you say that you’re not a Hindu?
LE: Amongst the neighbours that I have friendships with, I never felt any judgment or resistance. But say, there was time when uh, my neighbour took my visiting to her family, her aunt’s house, which was a more middle class area, and they had, the aunt’s family had their business friend with them and so he was um, a middle aged Indian man who said that I couldn’t be in the country and living with his friend’s relative without having an agenda, and without having some kind of Christian thing that I wanted to push on people. So it was more from outsiders or people that I didn’t have a good friendship that I ever felt resistance or judgment.
EH: How did you deal with that situation?
LE: I just kind of repeated ‘no, I’m here to learn the language and learn the culture and so that’s what I’m doing here.’ I didn’t engage with it too much. If it was someone that I was seeing regularly then I probably would have tried a bit harder.
EH: Wow. That’s harsh. Do you feel, sort of like they look at you differently, I mean, you don’t look Indian. Um, I’m sure I’m not the first one who would say that. Um, do you feel like, going through the market place, you know, people are a little bit resistant to that?
LE: So staring is our culture in Australia is not a good thing, it’s not polite to stare. But in Indian culture, they don’t have any of those, kind of, politeness things about staring and so, um, I’ll just be, I was sitting on a train for about 10 hours and this one man stared at me practically the whole journey and I was just kind of, by the end of it I was just like ‘go away!’ So yeah, I get a lot of stares, um, people just call out when I’m just walking around and things like that. So there’s just this part of you that’s like, puts up a bit of a barrier, then the challenge’s always to not let that interfere with developing relationships and being compassionate.
EH: I can’t even imagine, like, if I was on a train and someone was staring at me I’d be like ‘alright, stop it.’ So, you haven’t been approached by anyone or, asked ‘what are you doing here?’ or that sort of thing?
LE: Um. No, I haven’t. Most of the places where I’ve stayed in India, so Kulcutta for example, has a relatively large number of white people that will kind of come as tourists and stay for a time, uh, so it’s not unusual to see out and about in town, you know, someone of my skin colour or hair colour. So it’s a bit more unusual in the slum communities and so, um, yeah that’s where it’s a little bit different. However, every time I’ve kind of been in a slum community and walking around, it’s been a community where a Servants worker has already kind of established themselves, and so I guess, for that community then it’s less of an unknown thing because it’s like ‘oh, well they already know that Megan lives with them, and so this is just Megan’s friend’ or something like that.
EH: So, when you first went to India, did you know much of their culture? Did you know about the, you know, staring rules, and such?
LE: No, I didn’t. It was a bit of a learning curve, yeah.
EH: Right, so was there any, um, miscommunications?
LE: Yes. Oh, so many. I can remember one day, um, I was living with a month during an internship, in a community, and um, kind of went into the community with no language, and so was through emersion I think I learnt a lot, but um, still not enough to really communicate with someone who didn’t know any English at all. Um, and, part of the arrangement for me was that one of the families in the community would cook my meals for me. And so, they didn’t speak any English at all, and so when I, couldn’t, like when I had other plans and I wasn’t going to eat at their house I had to try and communicate with them that that’s what was happening and I tried for weeks and just they never understood me. I would hear from, um, Megan who whose community I was in, that they’d call her again to say ‘she was trying to tell us something again today and we couldn’t understand her at all.’ I remember, towards the end of my month there, I spent like an hour with this Bengali language book trying to construct a sentence that would say ‘Tomorrow I will not eat at your house.’ And, so then, Megan was eating with us that night, she’s been in Kolkata for three years, so her Bengali is very good and so the conversation was going and I was just sitting there going ‘um’. Then there was a lull and I was like ‘here’s my chance, I’m going to deliver my sentence.’ And so I did and everyone understood but they all burst out laughing, and I was like ‘oh, no, what I have I said?’ Apparently I said “Tomorrow, I will not eat your house.”
EH: Well, that’s good to know. Good information! So, you said you’ve been twice this year.
EH: The first time you went to India, how did that come about? When did you decide ‘I’m going to go to India’?
LE: So, I had been a number of times to Africa doing mission stuff, and was trying to find a fit for myself so that I could go long term into a mission placement… So, found out about this organisation, Servants, and, so yeah, I organised to do an internship with them. But aside from that, I also had friends travelling to India at the start of the year so I went initially with my friends, um and did some touristy stuff around India and then ended up in Kolkata for my month of internship and then did some other travel and visiting people after that. So, I think it was three months that I was in India the first time.
EH: Right. And you just thought ‘This is what I’m going to do. This is where I want to be.’?
LE: Yeah, so about a week into my internship with Servants in Kolkata, it was really hard. I was getting sick, and um, the food was hard and washing my clothes in a bucket was hard but um, yeah it was just like ‘this is amazing, this is what’s really satisfying. Even though it’s really hard, I just really want to do this with my life.’ So, yeah, it just seemed like I’d finally found a good fit.
EH: How did your family respond to that?
LE: Yeah, so my family, they want to have near them. I guess, they don’t want me to move away. But, they’re starting to understand a bit more about why I’m passionate about helping people who are suffering, um, so yeah, there’s kind of that mixed, they want me to be happy and to be do what I want to do with my life, but they also don’t want me to move away.
EH: Did you feel any resistance from your family when you said ‘I’m going to go to India’?
LE: No, not resistance, more just sadness with my family. Yeah, uh, my immediate family that is, uncles and aunts, they don’t really understand, but that’s okay.
EH: What do you mean? They don’t understand why you’re going?
LE: Um, I can remember one Christmas Day lunch with the extended family, this was before I was heading off to Africa for 10 months, I was scooping some food onto my plate and my uncle who was standing next to me, turned to me and goes “What are you going off to Africa to get yourself killed for?” And I was like ‘oh, that’s a lot of ignorance you’re showing there.’ So, they just make those sorts of remarks, um, which yeah, just tells me that they don’t really understand, I guess what I’m doing or what things are like for me when I travel.
EH: So how do you deal with that?
LE: Um, most of the time I laugh it off and then I’ll go and talk to my sister or someone who I know does understand me. But yeah, they’re all, like I will send out emails with stories and updates while I’m away and all my uncles and aunts are on that list, so hopefully over the years of sharing stories with them, they’re starting to get a bit more of a perspective and an understanding.
EH: Catching the vision. Yeah, I suppose it’s a different sort of career move, for you know, I’m thinking as your parents to sort of go ‘Well, my daughter lives in a slum’. It’s not really something that you want to highlight over a dinner party, but you know, absolute respect for you and your family. Um, when you were over the first time, did you really feel like God was speaking to you, calling you to be in fulltime ministry in Kolkata or India?
LE: The first time I was there I only felt that Servants was a good fit for me. But Servants has two teams in India…. So, there was, the second time I went to India this year was really to spend with the other team, and to um, discern which was a better fit for me. Through that process, I got to really love and value this team, but in the end I chose to join the Kolkata team long term.
EH: What was the defining element in that choice?
LE: Yeah, well ultimately it was in prayer this was just what God led me to. But there’s also a few other logical factors, so, um, we talk a little bit about self-care and, so in a seminar I was in on self-care, we had to look at in Australia, or in our home country, what do we do at the moment? So when I reflected on that, and reflected on what opportunities were available to me in each team, and each location it just seemed that self-care in Kolkata would be a bit easier. Easier in the sense that I could keep doing things which I already do in Australia, more so in Kolkata that would be easier for me.
EH: Is that because Kolkata has a European mix?
LE: It’s a much bigger city. There are a number of other kind of mission organisations with teams of people in there to connect with and also just the dynamic within the team. The [other] team is made up of couples, whereas the Kolkata team has some families and some single people. So, um, I’m a single woman it’s helpful for me to have other single women around sometimes.
EH: Is it particularly difficult to be in a situation where, you know, you might like some support from a husband, from a family, and you don’t have that?
LE: Um, sometimes I’ve felt lonely when I travelled by myself and I think to myself ‘Oh gosh, if I was married I wouldn’t be alone right now I’d be forcing a husband to be with me and I wouldn’t feel like this!’ But I guess that I’ve got enough great Christian friends and for the most part I don’t feel that loneliness. I have heaps of people in my life who love me, and I know will support me and so, I guess most of those needs, I guess, for a family or a husband to be supporting me are met through other ways. It’s just been those occasional times when I’m in a hotel room, in a foreign place, by myself sometimes I’m sort of like ‘Oh, I need a husband!’
EH: We all go through it I suppose! Has there been any times when you’ve feared for your life or safety?
LE: Um, I’ve never really feared for my life. I’ve made some stupid choices where put myself in a situation that was potentially dangerous. Just with uh, I guess, with going to places with people I didn’t know, that maybe I shouldn’t have. But yeah, I kind of quickly learnt the error of my ways there! I’ve kind of freaked myself out going ‘Wow, if these people aren’t trustworthy, no-one knows I am or how to get in touch with me’ and things like that.
EH: Yeah, so I know you said you send out emails to your family and friends back home, do you get much contact with them while you’re over in India?
LE: Yeah, so um, I have regular internet access and so I’m able to Skype with my family regularly, and yeah, email at least twice a week and that kind of thing. So I also a mobile phone when I’m there and there are cheap ways to make those international calls with my family which I haven’t done yet but I plan to do next year when I move for longer.
EH: How did they take the news that you’re going to be going away for such a long time?
LE: Yeah, I guess they could kind of see it coming. They knew that my most recent trip back to India was to um, kind of discern where I would be committing long term, so coming back and saying ‘This is what I’ve decided and this is when I’m leaving’ was not an unexpected thing for them and so they kind of have coped pretty well. There have been some days which are hard where someone in my family will get upset and so then I’ll get upset because I’m like ‘Oh, I’m causing them to be upset’. But for the most part,w we’re doing okay.
EH: Have you met any situations when you’ve felt particularly discouraged and thought ‘Oh, I just want to give this up’?
LE: Yeah, um, when I was in about the three mark of my one month internship at the start of the year, in Kolcatta, I was walking down my lane and one of the ladies who I see regularly just had this big, long kind of, conversation, but it wasn’t really, to me in Bengali and I understood nothing of what she said. But she stood there really expecting me to understand and to respond and I was like ‘Really? You wanted me to know fluent Bengali after three weeks?’ And so I got really discouraged by that because I was becoming a bit self-conscious of not knowing enough language to really deepen any relationships that I’d formed in that time. So I went back into my room and had a bit of a downer day and just sort of hid from everybody, and hid from the world. But after a couple hours of that I got out my Bible and wrote in my journal and I forced myself to start walking around in my community and just randomly on the street, met a fifteen year old girl who was in grade ten at school and wanted to tell me all about her science classes and wanted to take me to meet her science teacher, and take me to meet her family and her home and that kind of thing, and so just, you know, having that encounter with the hospitality of people and just the love that people freely give, it all just really bounced my spirits back up. The people I was hiding from where the ones who really encouraged me to be positive again, so that was one of those times.
EH: Is there a particular passage of Scripture you hold onto when you’re feeling low?
LE: I wouldn’t say there’s a particular passage of Scripture, but one of the things that I’ve been reflecting on was that God is concerned more with who I am than what I do. So, feeling good about myself in a sense and being confident in who I am and knowing that God loves all of me and doesn’t love me according to the good works that I do, but just as who I am. That’s something that I really hold onto at those times.
EH: Have you had any experiences whilst you were in India where you’ve clearly seen God’s hand and known that the events were guided by Him?
LE: That’s a bit harder to say. I haven’t had those big miraculous moments, where you’re like ‘Oh, this is definitely a God thing’ or when it’s undoubtedly God. I guess I’ve had a bit more of an experience of the still small voice in the way that God teaches me new things and teaches me to be more loving and more caring and less selfish and those sorts of things. They’ve been my main experiences. I guess Mother Theresa always writes, or has written about Matthew 25, the story of the sheep and the goats, where Jesus says “When you’ve done one of these things to a brother or a sister, you’ve done it for me.” She talks about encountering Jesus in the life of the poor and so that’s been my experience as well. Those times when I’ve experienced love and hospitality and friendship from people who don’t know me from a bar of soap and don’t have to give me anything because one of those rich white westerners who contribute to their oppression and injustice that they suffer from, but yet they’re so open and inviting of me and they just want to love me and accept me as I am. I really just experience God’s love through that, and see Jesus in their lives, even when they’re a Hindu! It’s God through them.
EH: What is the main thing you’re going to miss from your life here in Australia?
LE: The main thing I’ll miss will be my family and my friends.
EH: Good answer!
LE: Yeah. Some of the creature comforts of an Australian house will be hard to do without, I guess, for a time. Squat toilets are the norm in India, so I’ll be bathing myself from a bucket and doing all my laundry from a bucket and things like that. When I was back in India in August this year, it was monsoon season and so a lot of slums are built in low-lying areas that flood easily and so it was a daily exercise to walk through flood water just to go to the shop or the market, or to visit people. So I guess, yeah, there’s those little adjustments that need to be made and just being open to having that as a part of daily life. It’ll be a bit different.
EH: Yeah. It will be an adjustment. Since life is very different in India to how you’ve been living in Australia, I mean I don’t know much about India but I know that the water isn’t particularly clean and disease is quite rampant, have you encountered anything particularly confronting?
LE: So, really, really confronting, I don’t know I guess part of me is maybe a bit too accepting of horrific situations now, because I’ve been and seen them maybe too many times. So I don’t feel really, really confronted by a lot of stuff anymore. But going and traveling around India, there are beggars everywhere and many of them have leprosy so they’ll be missing fingers or things like that. You don’t have to walk very far in India to see something that should be horrific and really confronting. Yeah, just even the people I’ll be living with in the slum neighbourhood, with Western eyes it would be easy to look at a family where the mother and father both go off and work and leave their children at home unattended all day, and to say that they neglect their children. But yet they’re working so that they can feed their children and do the best that they can for them, so there’s just those confronting things where it’s about putting on a different set of eyes and seeing things in a different light so that I’m understanding the different intentions of people’s actions, rather than just judging them straight away.
EH: When you see those situations, do you feel powerless to help them?
LE: Yes. I think about lots of things in the world, in Australia and overseas, the poverty and injustice that happens and I feel completely powerless to make any change. That was one of the biggest learning curbs that I went through when I went to Africa for a long time. It was really coming to terms with whatever I do will be such an insignificant amount of change in people’s lives, so is it worth doing? It really came back to a faith thing for me, so to share love in something that’s really small in the eyes of the world, it doesn’t meet objectives or criteria, it may not be worth funding and all that kind of stuff, but really when I think that the Gospel is Jesus came to give good news to the poor, to love those who are suffering and that I am called to do the same thing, then it’s worth it. Then definitely I should go and I should live in a slum and love people there, even if I feel that I’m not making any tangible change in their life.
EH: Sounds very much like the account in Acts when Peter is walking and finds the lame beggar on the side of the ride and says to him “Silver and gold have I none, but what I do have I give, stand and walk.” It’s very much that sort of situation, which is just incredible. It’s something that I guess a lot of Australians, and a lot of the world wouldn’t really encounter, but you’re seeing it everyday. I can understand why a lot of people would get very discouraged in that sort of situation. So how can we support what you’re doing from where we live?
LE: So you can jump on the Servants website, which is www.servantsasia.org, and find out more about Servants. You’ll see contact details there for the Australian office as well, so if you get in touch with them then they can pass along my details. So, if you wanted to get email updates and hear stories from my time in Kolkata, then let the Servants Australia office know that you want to receive those and I’ll put you on my list. I’m also getting financial sponsorship from friends and family to cover my living costs while I’m away. I’m not going into a paid job, so I’m raising support from people who believe in what I’m doing back here. So again, get in touch with Servants Australia if you want to get onboard with that.
EH: How have you been fundraising?
LE: Through Facebook and emails and speaking at churches and sharing with friends. I started a kind of slogan ‘Would you like to buy Lisa a coffee once a week?’ and inviting people to give me $3 a week for the three years I’m away, so there’s been a bunch of people who’ve jumped onboard with that. I’ve been so blessed by people’s generosity and people’s belief in what I’m doing and support of what I’m doing. It’s been really encouraging.
EH: Are you meeting targets?
LE: Yeah. If people follow through on what they’ve pledged, I’m pretty much set which is great.
EH: Well thank you for your time Lisa, I’ve enjoyed hearing a lot of your stories.
LE: Yeah, thank you Emma!
You can find out more about Servants Asia by visiting http://www.servantsasia.org/ and contacting the Australian office. Also, check out our video of interview highlights taken from this conversation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m0HUXt4ZwNI&feature=youtu.be