When I arrived for my study abroad semester in Bangalore early in January 2016, I would never have predicted that the bizarre new world I found myself in could become in any way like home. It was, I think, my first true experience of culture shock. Rarely have I embarked upon an endeavour and been so poorly prepared for what the experience would bring.
Not that I didn’t try and do my homework beforehand, but what can really prepare you for the chaos of a South Indian metropolis? It just blazed with life: car horns and birds squawked throughout the day, packs of dogs howled in the dark hours, piles of litter and leaves were set alight and left on the pavement to burn themselves out. And everywhere there were people, and everywhere there was colour. The United Theological College, with luscious trees and a quiet library, took on the shape of a refuge from the madness of city life. I was a stranger in a strange land indeed, but the welcome I received there was overwhelming.
I guess that is the first step towards a feeling of being at home: feeling like you belong. My three and a half months in India tested me in entirely novel ways, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Sometimes a dull kind of loneliness would creep into my heart, tugging on my sleeve and reminding me how much I missed my friends and family. From time to time difficult situations made me bitter, and I questioned why on earth I’d come to such a place.
But, even when I felt utterly at sea, there was always someone I could talk to or confide in, someone who offered a kind word or even home cooked food (rice and dhal and more rice). Little by little, a sense of belonging blossomed inside me and the strangeness of India became rather less strange, because now it included real friends.
Applying to study in Bangalore was a weighty decision for me. I knew that it would be unlike anything else I’d experienced, and I would have to lean on my faith perhaps more than I had needed to before. I made myself a stranger by going on this adventure, and God truly showed His love for me through the kindness of others. This was something I had always been taught as a Christian - that much of God’s love manifests itself through right relationships - but I think I hadn’t comprehended it so fully until I came to Bangalore, knowing absolutely no one and depending on other people for so many simple things like how much a taxi ride should cost or where to get good chai. I came to recognise that the generosity I was witnessing and receiving on a daily basis wasn’t just between people. It was something divine, in its own small way.
During my time in India I came to know God as God of the stranger and the lost. I’m certainly not qualified to make any pronouncements on the subject of spiritual health, but maybe it’s something we could all try to do once in a while: find the stranger within ourselves and experience God’s welcoming embrace.
Written by Rachel Blackhurst, theology student and member of the SCM group at the University of Edinburgh.