A sabbatical trip to West Bengal
Revd Nigel Bibbings
The story that I have to share is about the sabbatical opportunity I took to be a part of a group travelling to spend two weeks at Khristiya Seva Niketan (Home of Christian Service) Hospital at Sarenga, in India’s West Bengal.
To be honest, my preparations had not prepared me for the length of the journey and the conditions we experienced at the hospital and in the local community. As someone who has barely travelled outside Europe I had a lot of adjusting to do, and it took me quite some days to do so. Dealing with jetlag and a long unexpected delay at Mumbai airport did not help, as I have never been able to properly rest until journey’s end.
When I finally settled and I was able to pay attention, it became clear that the food that we were eating and the accommodation that we were sharing (though basic to us) was considerably better than our hosts enjoyed. This was the first inkling of a generosity that showed itself again and again. Though those who welcomed us had next-to-nothing themselves, yet they gave their very best to us. I found this both difficult and truly humbling and compared it with our own standards of welcome and hospitality to the stranger, which by comparison are so often found wanting.
This openness and kindness was extended to us, whomever we met and wherever we went, and we had a very active fortnight. We visited and shared lessons, craft and sports activities in many schools – some Christian (and Church of North India) but mostly tribal, out in the rural communities. We were always treated as special guests and without fail received meal hospitality. Employees at the hospital invited us to share food in their homes and we led worship in the hospital’s Grace Chapel.
I was privileged to lead worship and preach (through an interpreter – a first for me) at the Sunday morning service at the Church of North India Church in Sarenga town.
We were able to share in the whole of the life of the hospital and the nursing school, which felt a little intrusive at times, and I witnessed a cataract operation, post-natal and ophthalmic out patients, x ray and ultrasound facilities as well as the wards and also the work of the Girl’s Hostel for four to eighteen year olds on site.
The facilities for all these activities were so poor, absolutely not NHS, and they were making so little go such a long way. It was a privilege to be of practical help also by assisting in decorating a couple of small rooms in the maternity area – a labour room and the pre-eclampsia room, which we brightened and renewed but are still so very basic.
We went on visits out into the village communities and their churches, but there really is not space here to record properly what was a very rich, overwhelming and (I found) somewhat unsettling experience.
It is now nine months since our return and I remain deeply grateful for the opportunity to learn, through the broadening experience of travel and experiencing the everyday lives of fellow Christians in very different circumstances.