Each year, as we make final preparations to come to India, we are amazed at the small miracles that God seems to give us to increase provisions and multiply our resources. This year, Susan stumbled upon a 20% off coupon from Mardel's but still she was in a tizzy as she considered what would be useful and what could fit in the suitcases and also be within the weight restrictions of international travel.
As she was making her way through the store she came across a large set of brightly colored felt board Bible figures, from Adam to the Zachariah and Birds to Whales, it also includes a book with over a hundred stories and instructions on how to
When we arrived here in Mahabilipuram, we were more than a little happy that Noah and his animals had all made the journey from the U.S. just fine and I set to work right away, cutting out the figures. The next day, we had barely returned from school and changed out our damp clothes when I got back to cutting. The following day, I cut. Sunday, I cut. We both began to wonder if the loaves and fishes were multiplying in the felt as it seems the more I cut, the bigger the pile of uncut figures got. After 6 days, Susan decided we could start teaching with the felt figures that I had already released from their fabric captivity and I assumed the job of figuring out how to make felt boards for each classroom.
As I pondered the best materials and where to get them, my thoughts turned to our Go-To man in India – Justin. Justin is our long-time friend and companion here in India. He describes his job as driver, handyman, and watchman for Achiever Academy (since he lives in a tiny one-room house in the back of the schoolyard) but he is actually all this and so much more, as we've discovered in our 6 summers here. He hauls forage for the Fresh Winds cows, he hauls building materials for widows' houses, he oversees the maintenance of the school bus and the Acts of Mercy jeep, he runs errands tirelessly, and so much more. If it needs fixing, moving, delivering, picking up, hanging, taking down, setting up, installing, adjusting, Justin's on it. And always with a big smile and a gentle heart. In addition to all of this, he makes time to love on the children, teaching the boys and singing songs with the girls. The children love him like an uncle.
Apparently, felt is not common in India for no one we showed it to recognized the fabric. So it took me a few minutes to explain to Justin that we wanted to make 8 felt boards with firm support and hang them in classrooms. When Justin's face broke into a huge smile and he gave me a traditional Tamil head-bobble of affirmation, I knew we were in good hands. The next morning, as we hopped in our 1990's vintage Jeep and headed through town toward the Indian version of a lumberyard, I marveled at how easily Justin could slide through the gears so easily without hesitation. The gears on this antiquated machine had been eluding me for days but I will save more of this story for a future post. We pulled up in front of the store and Justin greeted the man out front and explained our needs to him in Tamil, the local language. Immediately, the proprietor started sorting through pieces of plywood in a rack until he found enough to cut 8 pieces of 7mm plywood 2' x 3'.
I winced as I watched the man cut the plywood with a 6” blade with no safety features and I felt my left wrist tingle a bit. Years ago, this same wrist had received 27 stitches inside with a few more on the outside to close up the wound when I became careless with a skill saw with an auto-retracting safety cover while working on a project with my father, Glenn. Now years later, watching this Indian man work, I was happy to see that the power turned off when he released the trigger but was concerned to see the blade continue to spin for several minutes when the man turned the saw upside down (blade still spinning in the air) as he arranged the wood and made the measurements for the next cut. I was still watching all of this when Justin spoke again and the man went to the back of the shop, pulled a couple of samples of veneer 3” x 6” out of a catalog page and hand them to Justin. As frequently happens in India, I was clueless as to what was really going on but I remembered my father often telling me that I could learn a lot from a man by just waiting and watching. And so I did, but the time came to leave without any more insight.
Back in the Jeep, Justin did a spectacular U-turn and we headed back toward school, stopping across the street from our “Walmart” store. We went in to the store, which is maybe 10 feet wide, and Justin ordered a pair of hanger brackets for each board, short screws to mount the brackets to the boards, and long screws to mound the brackets to the wall in the classrooms. The shopkeeper reached up high on shelves and pulled out the boxes containing the required items. The screws were dumped out on a scale and the price determined by weight. Justin also asked for a can of adhesive, we completed our purchase, and soon we were back in the Jeep and heading back to school.
Under the awning in front of the school are three concrete tables where the children eat their lunches. Justin took the plywood and there and I went to get the felt to cover them. Justin took the first piece of felt and spread it out on a table top then laid one of the sheets of plywood on top. Remember those pieces of veneer? Once everything was laid out and ready, he grabbed one of the veneers and deftly snapped it in two, lengthwise, creating two 1.5” putty knives. Justin took one and dipped it into the can of adhesive and began spreading it around the edges in a swath wide enough to glue down the felt that would wrap around the board. I think I may have been mesmerized in watching Justin's skills with his homemade scrap-of-veneer-putty-knife because soon Justin pointed to the second putty knife and invited me to help. I finally got the hang of it but I think Justin probably did 3 edges for every one I did. Careful to pull the edges snug and miter the corners, we soon had 8 boards beautifully covered and ready for hanger brackets. Justin used the larger screws as a center punch to start the shorter screws, which was fine, but the hammer he used was a five pound short-handled maul, which I describe as killing “spiders with a shotgun”. I asked him if he would enjoy a good hammer when I come next year and he smiled and gave me another head-bobble of agreement. The screws used for the mounting brackets were a little too long and stuck through the felt but four sheets of cardboard scavenged from cereal cartons provided just the right spacing. This how it is done, Indian style.
It was very entertaining watching the reaction of curious students and teachers as they walked by and observed the work in progress and I enjoyed watching Justin patiently answer their questions. Some smiled in understanding and anticipation, but most were puzzled over something they had never seen before.
Later that afternoon, the children greeted Susan with great delight when she appeared in their classroom carrying one of the beautiful new felt boards. As she began to tell the story of God's marvelous creation, they sat with mouths agape, cheering as the clouds and trees and animal figures appeared on the felt board one by one. When the story concluded with the 7th Day, a special joy awaited them. How do you depict the Sabbath? The Bible story kit included a number of modern day figures as well so Susan used the large church figure to teach that we should go to church and pray. She also included a small figure of a modern girl and boy, kneeling in prayer and when she placed them next to the church, one of the girls asked, “Is that Eve, Susie Mam?” “No”, Susan replied. “That's you, praying to Jesus!” Squeals of joy and laughter erupted in the classroom as she continued to name every child in the room as she pointed to the praying boy and girl. When the story was complete, she invited them to come forward and re-tell the story, placing the figures on the felt board as they told the story once again. How great was their joy to not only hear the stories of God, but now, to be a real part of them? As the sounds of delight poured through the open windows and down the hall, other children came to watch from the doorway. Headmistress Chitra came to see what the commotion was about and gave a warm smile of acceptance (and a head-bobble) as she paused in the doorway and watched the happy, engaged children.
Later, as Susan used the felt board figures in teacher training, she noticed the teachers' smiles broaden as she brought out the colorful figures of Creation, day by day. When she was finished, Bharat spoke up to say that he was so thankful for the felt figures because it reminded him of very wonderful childhood memories in Nepal more than 30 years ago. There was a faraway look in his eyes as shared that he had always loved Bible stories and especially when his beloved Sunday School teacher, “Amma Ruth” told them with colorful felt board figures. The other teachers loved the figures, too, and soon, we watched them add their own personal touches as they delighted the children by using the felt boards in their classrooms.
What a gift that Susan would heed the soft voice of the Spirit in the aisles of Mardel's. I received the blessing of a day of learning with my friend Justin. Justin received the gratitude of his service for his role in this gift. Susan and I received an outpouring of appreciation from students and teachers, alike. And the children received another path to Jesus. Although old-fashioned felt may seem backward in this era of hi-tech learning, today we are reminded that sometimes it’s nice to feel a soft touch. Sometimes, childhood experiences bring loving memories, even 30 years later. Like Bharat, I, too, remember felt figures from my own Sunday School class in Illinois 60 years ago. Our prayer is that our children here today remember these experiences with great fondness 30 years from now and that God gives them an opportunity to share them with other children 60 years later, as well.
Praying you receive the soft touch of the Spirit today,
“Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them: for such is the kingdom of heaven.” Matt 19:14
P.S. - We've been here 18 days and I'm still cutting ….