21 May 2015
by David Giles

Amritsar is best known for the Golden Temple – a place of pilgrimage and devotion for Sikhs. As the name suggests, it is a shimmering building covered with gold leaf – stunningly beautiful as it reflects in the water. During our visit last night, as the sun set, thousands of Sikhs lined the water’s edge – in turn prostrate and then standing reverently as holy words were pronounced.

It’s incredible that, more than 100 years ago, Frederick Booth-Tucker, who brought The Salvation Army to India, was one of the only non-Sikhs ever to have been permitted to speak at this awe-inspiring place. Such was the regard that people of all religions – and none – had for this Christian pioneer.

The city is, by Indian standards, pretty affluent – although we were approached by child beggars several times on the periphery of the temple. There are major international brands represented here, including a vegetarian McDonald’s which must be something of a rarity.

The economic success of the Punjab can be ascribed to a number of factors, but chief among them is its status as the ‘bread basket’ of India. On our journey to Dhariwal this morning, we saw extensive crops of rice, wheat and vegetables of many kinds. And yet, as with all of our travels in this country, there were also pockets of real hardship – small slum communities built up around rubbish dumps, where the sole work is scrabbling through the detritus for salvageable recyclable material.

It’s not surprising, then, that The Salvation Army’s MacRobert Hospital in Dhariwal – 65km from Amritsar – serves the ‘poorest of the poor’, and has done since its inception of 1926. It has 102 beds and 101 full time staff. We met a young girl who lives in a nearby community who had undergone an eye operation the previous day. Her family are farm labourers and unable to pay for an operation to remove the cataracts that had taken her sight. Following the op, she told us that she could now see properly for the first time in many years. MacRobert has a particular specialism in ophthalmology, but also provides general and midwifery services. There were scores of people waiting to be seen by a doctor – staff estimated that more than 100 people would be seen by a clinician today.

MacRobert, like Catherine Booth Hospital in Nagercoil, is a centre of learning and professional development. There are 244 nurses in the training college – both male and female. We were struck by the professionalism, the passion and the desire to serve a community in need. Part of our visit included an opportunity for the students to demonstrate their musical and choreography skills, showing a very human dimension. My own flailing attempts at bhangra dancing are best left unrecorded.

From MacRobert Hospital, we travelled a few miles back to Batala. Here, The Salvation Army has a school which serves the local rural community. Howard Dalziel, the International Headquarters Schools Coordinator explained why schools are important to The Salvation Army:

‘The reason we do schools is to provide an education for children who would otherwise not be able to afford or access one, perhaps because of a special need. Our focus is on breaking down barriers for the marginalized.’

With 75 staff, Batala School has 2,000 students, ranging from kindergarten to high school age. It serves the local community – children from local agricultural and brick-making families. 100 of the students also board on the campus.

Highly regarded by the local community and by the state, Batala bolsters its academic curriculum, with a wide range of sporting and cultural activities. It’s equipped with computers, science labs and a well-resourced library, on a pleasant, airy campus.

We spent a couple of hours looking into classrooms, where children were learning Hindi, drawing and illustrating. Some were also taking exams – not enviable at any time, least of all in the 40+ degree midday heat.

While it’s been a necessarily brief trip to the Punjab, we have been encouraged by what we have seen. From the corps and divisional headquarters in the city, led by Divisional Commander Major Manuel Masih, to the talented teams in Dhariwal and Batala, diverse human needs are being met – and people are literally and metaphorically seeing the light. Jesus, in Luke 7, ‘gave sight to many who were blind’ and proclaimed the ‘good news to the poor’. In 21st century India, it’s encouraging to be seeing true gospel ministry taking place through The Salvation Army here.

Tags: Education, India, Northern, Health
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