After graduating high school, Michael Haslett spent a month in Southeast India as part of a companion relationship between his New Jersey parish and a rural Indian pastorate.
“The trip just completely changed me,” he says. And from the moment he arrived back at a U.S. airport, he was determined to return.
This summer, he did, with the help of an outreach grant from his home parish, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown. He spent much of his time volunteering at St. Peter’s English Medium School, Kothapallimitta, which St. Peter’s helped found.
Joining Haslett was Danielle Allatta, another St. Peter’s graduate. She had missed the chance to join Haslett on his first trip in 2001. “It was like a dream that I hadn’t completed,” she says.
In a chance e-mail, the friends discovered each was planning a summer mission trip to India. They decided to go together.
The visit proved a profound cultural experience, highlighting the joys and difficulties of mission work in a developing nation. Allatta came home early after suffering serious illness and spending a week in a diocesan hospital. Yet she remains upbeat about the trip, even talking about “next time.”
“I don’t want other people to be deterred,” she says. “I had such an unbelievably excellent experience, I feel that no matter how bad you think it could be, you’re so likely to walk away with so much more than any pain that you could have while you’re there.”
“You get sick, and you get better,” says Allatta, who suffered infections, tonsillitis and possibly malaria-induced fevers. “If you don’t ever get sick, you don’t ever get to go to an Indian hospital and see what that’s like.”
The New Jersey duo began their trip with a haircut. Haslett planned to shave his head in India, a practical gesture because of the heat as well as a religious one. “This was a Christian adaptation to a Hindu ceremony in which you sacrifice your hair,” he explains. “It’s a sacrifice to God.”
He tried to convince Allatta to shave hers. Instead, she cut 24 inches of her hair right before leaving for the airport. She donated it to Locks of Love in memory of her aunt, who had died of cancer the year before.
Joel Lee, a St. Peter’s member studying and working in India, met the pair in Bombay. Lee had a small acting part in a major Hindu film set in 1857 and invited them to join him on the set for eight days.
Lee got Haslett a part as an extra. Allatta, a senior at Moore School of Art and Design in Philadelphia, spent the night shoots drawing portraits and chatting with actors. “It was a great way to really get some inside stories,” she says.
Teach the children, learn from them
A short trip to the seaside tourist spot of Goa followed. Then they headed to Kothapallimitta in the Diocese of Madras to fulfill their main goal: helping at the school.
Kothapallimitta is a village but also the name of a pastorate, encompassing more than 30 churches, Haslett explains. The pastor, the Rev. Ernest Selvadurai, visits each church every two months. Laity are responsible at other times.
The school serves pre-kindergartners through fifth-graders, with plans to add higher grades. At least half of the more than 150 students are Dalit (formerly called “untouchable”) Christians, Haslett says. The hope is that being inclusive will help break down caste barriers, he says.
“The first week was kind of awkward, feeling each other out,” he recalls. Their appearance -- white, American, Haslett very tall, Allatta with short hair -- attracted attention.
“I was a novelty -- in the villages, even more so,” Haslett says. “Heads would turn, and crowds would form. That part was unnerving for me, that kind of international celebrity.”
In the school, he says, “Mainly, I was teaching English, but I also taught math and science.”
Recalls Allatta, “We were filling in everywhere. We had such specific plans. We learned quickly that India just isn’t the place you bring a plan to. I think the first day I was teaching math and science, and then I was teaching English and social studies.”
Allatta did some drawing with the first grade, but she didn’t do the amount of art teaching she had envisioned. When she saw students writing with half-inch pencils, sharpened with razors, she felt embarrassed at how much she had spent for art supplies for the trip. “I think they were teaching me a whole lot more than I taught them.”
Allatta’s health deteriorated, and she entered the hospital. Haslett stayed with her, returning to Kothapallimitta for a final three weeks after she went home.
“An Indian hospital is absolutely nothing at all like an American hospital,” Allatta says. Western medicine is practiced in a setting with hallways open to the outside.
“It’s expected that you have a family that’s taking care of you,” she says. That includes providing meals, washing clothes, even bathing the patient. So Allatta didn’t fit neatly into the system. “It was an education maybe for them as well as us.”
Church was different, too. Congregants sit on the ground, men and women separated, Haslett says. Services have a similar flow to those at home, “but their songs are a bit more lively.”
“Religion there seems to be taken more seriously,” he notes. Living in great poverty, the Dalit Christians “turn to God because what else do you have?” In America, he says, “we don’t necessarily turn to God as much for the wants of life.”
After his first trip, Haslett changed his career plans to become an international studies major with a concentration in international development at American University in Washington, D.C. He’s spending the first semester of his senior year studying in Spain.
“The beauty about the Indian companionship is it doesn't take a lot to help,” Haslett says. “You could change a family’s life for a dollar a day.”
He’s trying to raise money for school tuition (45 rupees -- or $1 -- per month per child), school supplies, textbooks and uniforms.
To learn more about the fund raiser, contact Haslett at mh4148A@american.edu.