Christian Hospital, Bissamcuttack – Wednesday, Feb 9
I’ve just awoken after a good night sleep aboard the midnight train to Bilaspur, on our way back to Mungeli.
The full-day adventure in Bissamcuttack was an important part of our time here. The Christian Hospital, Bissamcuttack is where Nancy (Lott) Henry and Dr. Viru Henry spent most of their time in healing ministry. Dr. Anil Henry spend his adolescence and young adult years there as well before he went to medical school.
We were greeted warmly at 3:00am by Dr. Johnny Oommen, director of community health programs, in Muniguda. Loading into the jeep, we were told that the main road to Bissamcuttack was so torn up it was unusable – we were taking the back roads. The main road must have been like bombed out craters, because the back roads were pretty rough too.
Arriving in Bissamcuttack, we settled in at the guest house and got a few hours of sleep before morning prayer at 7:30am. This schedule, and many other similarities with life at Christian Hosptial, Mungeli, are the evident fingerprint of Nancy and Viru Anil’s legacy.
The chapel service was fairly brief with a sermon from Deuteronomy 11:8 – the people receiving a land of their own – and in Hindi. Following the main service the Avon Lake UCC was introduced as visitors from “Maam’s” church. A resonant smile spread across the staff and nursing students when they heard we were not only friends of Nancy’s, but from the church that sent her to mission in India.
There are many perceptions of what mission is. Some feel it is merely a cover, a ruse, for forcing religion on a population. And it surely has been that. Some feel it is a vehicle for westernization – making people look and act just like Europeans and Americans. It has been that too. Some feel it is a political vehicle, attempting to instill democratic ideals in tribal or oligarchic societies. And it has been that throughout history.
But there is a purer form of mission, Christian or otherwise, that is driven from the heart of religious experience – the embodiment of the ideal that God is love and that all people are created in God’s image.
With this conviction there is no need to force conversion – of religion, lifestyle or political ideology. Rather, the goal of mission in this context is to discover the needs of people and to offer them assistance and empowerment so that their needs are met.
One of the biggest changes in mission thinking over the last 30-40 yeas has originated in the concept of accompaniment. How can those who serve in mission, use their skills and resources to walk alongside those they are called to serve – not lead or assume to know what the need is. It is a humbling of western know-it-all and an acknowledgement that people are fine as they are created.
And that is the spirit of the two Christian mission hospitals I’ve visited in India. Caring for the whole person in these places includes education of children and providing a career path for local children in medicine. They have nursing schools and internship opportunities. They offer free, or pay as you can medical care, to the poor. They have on-site facilities for families who have come to care for their sick relatives.
A unique program in Bissamcuttack is their network of community health stations and nurses in the tribal villages surrounding the town. Nancy Henry took over this program when she and Viru arrived in Bissamcuttack in 1975. The network serves a population of 12,500 people in 53 villages from two village-based nursing centers.
Nurses are stationed in the villages and sent on rounds to asses health needs and follow-up care for post operative patients. Over the long term – more than 30 years – this system has changed the way the hospital is perceived. Being involved in non-emergency pre-natal care, early diagnosis, basic wound cleansing with antiseptics and a myriad of quickly treated problems has decreased the need for emergency care that happens when some of these issues are untreated.
We were given a presentation on the legacy left by the Henry’s and taken on a tour of the hospital wards, the nursing school, the primary/secondary school (1-10) and other Bissamcuttack hospital facilities. Our late afternoon included a trip to a tribal village and tribal primary school located in the hills surrounding Bissamcuttack.
The school has boarding facilities for the students, grades 1-5, who can’t commute from their villages. Buildings are named after Ghandi, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Theresa and others who have served as models of liberation for poor or enslaved people.
The children at the school and people in the villages offered us a warm welcome. The school has recently received running water via 1.5km of PVC tubing that feeds from a stream up the mountain. Though the living accommodations for the children would seem primitive by western standards, they seem well cared for by the school staff and are eager to share a smile and a laugh.
Though the caste system is technically illegal, it is firmly in place throughout these rural Indian areas. Dr. Oommen described a peculiarity of those considered lowest in the caste system. Dalits, the untouchables, rank higher than tribal peoples in this system. And to those who find power in maintaining the stricture of the caste system, educating “the lowest of the low” is seen as dangerous.
These Christian hospitals and schools do not consider caste in offering medical care or education. This has caused some friction with Hindu groups who see these ideas as subversive – even provoking riots against Christians in Bissamcuttack as recently as 2008. The hospital and school were spared because of their service to all the community, but the local Christian church was vandalized.
With the backdrop of the Exodus story – God, through Moses, freeing the Hebrew slaves from the Pharaoh – and the Christian teaching that “there is neither slave nor free,” the lowest castes have converted to Christianity and make up a majority of the Christian population. Though only 2-3 percent of the population of India, this vocal minority has continued to challenge the caste system and its stratification.
After an entire day in and around Bissamcuttack our group agreed what an important side-excursion this had been. For the nearly 50 years Nancy (Lott) Henry was in the mission field, Avon Lake UCC had supported her – even after the UCC dismissed her as a missionary in 1964 when she married Viru, and Indian.
Dr. Oommen says with a grin that when Nancy retired it was a special hardship to the hospital because they needed to hire five people to replace her. I don’t think he was exaggerating because the hospital now has individual administrators in all the areas – nursing, nursing education, supply management, community outreach and the school – that Nancy oversaw when she was active in ministry.
Back to the hospital from the village tour, we have a few hours to take showers, rest and chat before dinner at 9pm. The chief staff of the hospital gathered for dinner in the home where Nancy and Viru lived, now occupied by the hospital administrator and her husband. We’re all exhausted, but did our best to make conversation and eat. Egg drop soup as en entree and another great India feast to follow.
Final packing and a jeep ride back to Muniguda to catch the midnight train. We are in a 3rd-class cabin, meaning the bunks are three high instead of two as we had with our 2nd-class seats on the outbound trip. On the top bunk I get my sheets out, position by bag near my head and put my iPod on shuffle. Pretty sure it was one of those “I was asleep before my head hit the pillow” moments.
After six hours of sleep I’m up writing and watching the flat landscape of central India pass by. Still an hour and a half to Bilaspur and then on to Mungeli for the rest of our stay there. I’m looking forward to spending time at the hospital interviewing staff and following more of their daily work.
It’ll be nice to be in one place for a few days, but I’m thankful Anil and his parents arranged a very meaningful whirlwind 36-hour tour to Bissamcuttack for us.
More photos from our day in Bissamcuttack can be found on Flickr.