This week I attended the Sunday morning service in the San-Ker Institute of Mental Health. This centre in Mawroh is one of the most beautiful places in Shillong, blessing the eyes and mind as well as the soul. Begun (like most places of inspiration) as one man's vision for affordable mental health care in a converted cow-shed, the institution now has more than 70 residential patients as well as a busy out-patient set-up. The centre is well-known throughout the North East and has many patients from the farther flung corners of the country as well. Set in the middle of a pine forest, the ambience of the drive to the place itself moves one towards inner peace and centredness. Once inside, the variety and beauty of the different plants is the first thing that catches the eye. I visit there nearly every week and every time my first objective is to spot a new flower. So far, I have not been disappointed!
The bold facade of the out-patient block proclaims the motto of the institution - by love, serve one another (Gal 5:13). And then the innovative gate of the in-patient area, which has a mirror strip at face level, calls for a moment's pause and reflection. How often are we reminded that 'those people in there' are just like us? In fact, they could be us.... Scott Peck in his book 'The Road Less Travelled' suggests that every human being would be helped by time with a professional who could help him or her introspect.
The philosophy of caring for patients with mental challenges with love is only just beginning to become a part of our medical system and it has taken people like Dr. Sandy Syiem, the founder and CEO of San-Ker to change the way we have looked at them. The mirror on the door is a small symbol of this passion to bring mental illness into the mainstream of medical consciousness in the country.
The story of San-Ker (which means growth within protection in Khasi) and Dr. Sandi will have to wait for another post, but those of you as impatient as me can read about them here. I, meanwhile return to the Sunday morning service. It was attended by about 60 of the people staying in the centre as well as the care-givers and was led by members from a local church. The service was (as are most services in Meghalaya) well-planned out with a 'chairman' and a programme which included initial praise and worship, bible reading, special number, sermon and closing prayer! Isn't it interesting how we can always fit into a service anywhere as it most probably will adhere to some pattern that we are used to! Even the most charismatic of services I have attended have a similar structure. I guess some of the house groups will have the freedom to make changes to this 'protocol' but then, I remember reading somewhere that 'even having no liturgy is actually a type of liturgy!!' The challenge, I guess is to allow each part of the service to minister to you each week and not let it become a routine..... But, I digress! (Again!!)
The well-rehearsed 'order of service' did not however go according to plan, as time and again, the congregation members would interject with comments, thoughts, questions and songs. It was a true time of worship for them as, bereft of the restrictive shackles of what we 'normal' human beings call embarrassment, they were free to let their inmost thoughts and desires be verbally and publicly displayed. The leader however, did not find it so easy and though he gamely soldiered on with his programme, it was easy to see that he was nonplussed. But as I sat there, I realised that this was the sort of church I would love to worship in. Where a personal interaction with God transforms (if and when the Spirit moves) from a private encounter to a public testimony of God's goodness. Where every member feels free to pour out their heart like Hannah, without worrying about the accusing Eli's around. Where freedom is not some esoteric ideal that is to be spoken about and discussed, but a practical reality that overwhelms us when we come into God's presence. Where we truly believe what we speak about being accepted just as we are, so that our imperfections and foolishness are not things to be hidden but rather to be rejoiced over, as they only magnify God's perfection and His strength in our weakness. But I also know that I have far to travel along my road before I can shed my own inhibitions that are firmly attached to my pride and ego.
The most moving event of the morning was when a girl of around 13 suddenly started wailing and got up from her seat. Wailing continuously, she ran back down the aisle and was just running out when she saw one of the doctors sitting in the last bench. She stopped, turned around, sat down next to her and put her head in the doctor's lap. She stayed there for the rest of the service, whimpering once or twice, but then calming down as the doctor stroked her head and just loved her. It all took just a few moments, but there were powerful truths for me. I realised that just like that young girl, there are so many experiences, thoughts, habits or desires that prevent me from entering fully into the presence of God. I need to take of my sandals, leave them behind, before I can enter. But what struck me more, was the loving hand of the doctor. I know that none of my patients would come to me to put my arm around them. The children in fact, start crying every time they see me, for they know I have come to cause pain by poking them, or removing their dressing or starting an IV line. But in her time of need, that little girl knew where she would find comfort. The true comforter is the one who sees the inner pain, accepts without asking questions and gently soothes the pain away. There is no accusation, no condemnation and no retribution. Only acceptance and overwhelming love.......