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Memphis Volunteers Experience India Quake First-hand

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Afraid they were experiencing another earthquake, four United Methodist volunteers from Memphis, Tenn., were awakened at 3 a.m. Jan. 30 while staying at Maninagar, a suburb of Ahmedabad, India.

Panic-stricken, the volunteers soon discovered that it wasn't an aftershock from the large quake that hit the area Jan. 26. Instead, it was the Indian army dynamiting a damaged, five-story building nearby. Many bodies were trapped inside but the army decided to blast the remainder of the building at night when nobody was present.

The Volunteers in Mission (VIM) team included dentist Solomon Christian and his wife Saroj and Jacqueline Little, members of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, and the Rev. Everett Porter a member at Christ United Methodist Church.

The team went to India with four goals: opening a dental clinic in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh; visiting the United Mission to Nepal office in Katmandu; participating in the "Hind Rattna" award ceremony where Christian was honored and 2001 Republic Day of India parade; and repairing a 64-year-old church building in Antroli, Gujarat.

While a crowd of many thousands in the Republic Day Parade surrounded the volunteers Jan. 26, the killer earthquake shook India, Pakistan and Nepal. Its epicenter was Gujarat where the team was to go the next morning. The hardest-hit area was Ahmedabad, especially the Maninagar suburb. The building blasted by the army was two doors from Maninagar's Prithvi Hotel where the team was housed.

The next morning, as the volunteers visited the building, a young woman showed them the exact place in the rubble where her two-year-old son was trapped.

"I was carrying my youngest son with me and my two-year-old was a few feet behind me," she said. "We were talking and the roof fell on him, burying him and killing him right on the spot." Pointing toward a tricycle, she added, "We lived on the second floor and that is his tricycle."

January is wedding season in Gujarat. Sixteen of Christian's extended family from Memphis and Chicago were in India to participate in the weddings. Except for the VIM team, all the visitors were in Ahmedabad. One of Christian's brothers reported that his family's two-story house moved like a tree branch in the midst of a fiery wind. The killer earthquake lasted for little more than 60 seconds, leveling many buildings in Ahmedabad. All the multi-story buildings shook and many have cracks in the walls.

All members of the Christian family escaped injury. Sophia, a niece who lives in Memphis, her husband, G. P., and their nine-month-old son Gabriel, felt the jerk as her bed moved from wall to wall. Panicked, Sophia jumped from a second floor balcony and was caught by family members. Son Gabriel was safe below with grandparents and her husband escaped down the stairs. Christian reported damage of church properties. The Methodist Church in Nadiad, 12 miles from Ahmedabad, has cracks, one separating the church tower and the building. A few miles south in the city of Baroda, the Methodist Technical School has many damaged buildings. Dormitories are badly shaken and are unsafe for occupancy. The students are sleeping in tents in an open area. A clergyman from the Memphis Conference was one of the school's founding missionaries.

Bishop Dinesh Kumar Agarwal, of the Bombay Episcopal Area of the Methodist Church in India, visited the affected area soon after the quake and called an emergency cabinet meeting to work out the church's response. It was decided to observe Feb. 11 as Relief Sunday with a collection going to relief work.

According to the bishop, the support work will be divided into relief -- an immediate response to the affected area; and rehabilitation -- follow-up work on damaged property. Methodist congregations are stepping out with funds to provide food, clothes, shelter, medicine, and hospital transportation. The Memphis VIM team joined the cabinet for a few minutes and made a contribution as seed money to start relief work.

Aid organizations have opened kitchens and shelters. The VIM team members visited one of the many kitchens providing three meals a day to many thousands of people. They also distributed food in Vastrapur, one of the hardest-hit areas, and contributed 2000 Rupees.

Christian recalled sitting down to eat with the earthquake victims. "In the midst of tragedy and great loss, there were still smiles on their faces, telling us that no matter what happens, they will keep on going," he said. "The Hindus, Moslems, Christians, and people of other faiths were in one harmony, working together to help humanity in need."

The killer quake wiped out many small villages near Bhuj, a city now in ruins. The biggest city, Ahmedabad, was the hardest-hit. Many bodies are still buried in the crumbled buildings, leaving many children without parents and many parents without children. When the VIM team visited the area, cries to search for survivors could be heard everywhere, Christian said.

Buildings that remain are unsafe to occupy, so many people are homeless. Christian said the survivors don't know where the next food will come from or where they will spend the night. Aftershocks were occurring days after the initial quake. People were sleeping outside and were afraid to go in their homes.

Having direct contact with churches and the leaders of the Methodist Church in India, Christian encourages United Methodists to give generously to the relief work through their local churches.

Donations to UMCOR's relief efforts in India and Pakistan can be made to UMCOR Advance No. 274305-0, "South Asia Earthquake." Checks can be dropped in church collection plates or mailed directly to 475 Riverside Dr., Room 330, New York, NY 10115. Credit-card donations can be made by calling (800) 554-8583.


*Information for this story was provided by Dr. Solomon Christian, a Memphis dentist and active United Methodist who is president of the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission Southeastern Jurisdiction Medical Fellowship.

February 7, 2001

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