“Go to Shunem” he said “you’ll love it”.

We have recently welcomed Bro Wayne Leadbeater into our Meeting, who as you may know is a great advocate for Shunem and all that it stands for, having visited there many times himself.

Personally I have wanted for a long time to do some kind of voluntary work, preferably abroad but I’ve never really got round to it, it’s never really been convenient!

After speaking to Wayne, my wife, Fiona, and I decided that we really ought to try and do something to help and to try out this volunteering idea. As Wayne would say “…if you say yes to things in life, you open up all sorts of possibilities.”

My initial concerns, knowing absolutely nothing about India, or the home, were numerous:

Am I too old to help?
How long do I have to go for?
Could I afford to go?
Will I catch some dreadful disease?
Is the food good to eat?
Will I get food poisoning?
I don’t exhort!
I don’t teach!……
In fact, when you think about it you can come up with all sorts of really great excuses not to do anything!

My first concern was soon put to bed; Wayne is even older than me so if he can do it, then so can I, and so should you!!

We arrived at Hyderabad airport full of very nervous excitement. As a character in The Marigold Hotel says “India is like being hit by a wave….stand up against it and it’ll knock you over, dive into it and you’ll come out the other side” Within minutes of being out of the airport I could  see exactly what she meant. One’s senses are bombarded, in a fabulous way, with the noise, colour, smells and general ”buzz” of the place. The faces with never ending smiles are matched with greetings of “hello uncle” everywhere you go. Very first impressions – this is going to be ok after all, I think I’m going to like it here!

I’ve often heard talk about  people having to go to volunteer at Shunem for about 3 months; having now been, I can see why that would be a good idea. The longer you can go for the better – mainly because you’ll have more chance to build lasting relationships with all the wonderful children and amazing staff. You’ll possibly also be able to help in the school or visit other meetings / areas / bible schools etc etc. However we only went for 3 weeks and Bro Tim and Sis Sarah, whilst not able to be there when we were, did all they could to accommodate our wishes, and far exceeded them.

Cost – In reality the longer you can go for makes better financial sense. You need to pay for the air fare but once there, your food, washing, shopping is all done for you which leaves more time to help at the home or school, do bible study or just visit the local towns and sample their delights!

We went to our local doctors before we left, to get advice and up- to- date inoculations for various diseases including malaria, as we thought that would be the prudent thing to do. It’s only now we’ve been and spoken to many people there, that we would perhaps re-think some of the advice, but I guess it’s better to be safe than sorry. But a couple of surprisingly quick and painless injections and I’m done.

The food – well it’s India so yes there’s quite a lot of curry and rice. But it is all delicious. The food served by the home and at Tim and Sarah’s is not only safe to eat but delicious and neither Fiona nor I had any ill effects for the whole time we were there.

Whilst I have been baptised, 15years, I have never given an exhortation. I have been happy to preside, read and give prayers but I’ve always lacked the self confidence to exhort. What could I offer an audience that was infinitely more knowledgeable than I about anything religious or biblical?

Wayne has another saying: it must be his Northern Poet coming out “surrender, smile, serve.”

So when I was asked, with only 12 hours’, notice to exhort the next morning at The Meeting, I was desperately trying to think of an excuse not to: I’ve nothing prepared, I don’t speak, I’m not ready…. Wayne’s sayings forced their way into my head. So despite trying to say no I actually said yes! Well I may not be the world’s best speaker ( although I did feel it at the time) I now know I can do it and people can be so grateful for what ever you can give them – I think that could be said for many, many things, but especially in somewhere like India. Give what you can: love,  time, knowledge, effort and you will be rewarded. Or in other words, “put a lot in because you’ll get more out!”

I have never thought of myself as a teacher but I offered my services at the school as I thought I ought to try and help if I could. I was asked to help with two classes with maths. Having not been in a class room for over 35 years, I did feel a bit out of my comfort zone, but the beautiful smiling faces of the children soon made me feel at ease. I am now somewhat of an expert in prime numbers, long division and times tables!

If I had to sum up Shunem in one word it would be “Love”. The love the children have for one another and the love the adults have for the children are both lessons for us. But without a doubt the biggest love is the love you get from the children: their beaming smiles greet you where ever you go; there are waves out of the bus, cries of uncle or auntie or and if you’re younger, then maybe “ana” (big brother) or “aka” (big sister). You get hugged- but not just a little. You get huge hugs from lots of little people. They really do fill you heart with joy – but you’ll never know how much until you go and find out for yourself!

Would I suggest or even recommend a visit to Shunem for those of you that are a bit older – ABSOLUTELY. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life and has enriched me more than I ever would have expected. Will I go back….. God willing, I hope to go again next year.