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Trip To India A Spiritual Passage

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For Mary Hilger, a passage to India became "a trip of surrender. "Her recent journey was both spiritually uplifting and emotionally draining, as she and her group witnessed mercy and misery, the divine and the wretched. Gone was the notion of time, as itineraries were ignored. A constant sense of culture shock prevailed: unbearable heat, unrelenting poverty and a mass of humanity, and Hilger had to put her faith in strangers at times, people who ultimately became fast friends and kept her group safe. "I felt protected, I felt a shield over me," she says. "It was physically taxing - but spiritually, it was awesome. "I saw God everywhere. "India was simply unbelievable", Hilger says, in the best and worst sense. It is a country where village women must dry their cooking grains on the ground and make brooms by hand. Dusty roads are filled with pedestrians who fight with bicycles, camels, carts, cows, elephants, goats and monkeys for the right-of-way. And in this land of sacred cows, beef is a rarity - even the McDonald's is burger-free. Hilger, a Columbia City art teacher whose family owns the restaurant and produce market on U.S. 30, west of Fort Wayne, spent two weeks traveling through India last month. Her mission was to deliver her original drawing of Mother Teresa to the Missionaries of Charity, a religious order founded by the nun. She was invited by her pastor, the Rev. Cyril Fernandez of St. Patrick Church of Arcola, to join him on a trip to his native country. Hilger was accompanied by two of her daughters, Kathleen and Michelle Hilger; Northern Heights Elementary School art teacher Mary Stratton; and Stratton's sister, Judy Astle of Grand Rapids, Mich. After flying into Mumbai (formerly called Bombay), their first stop was Chaibasa, home of the St. Xavier's English School, which Fernandez founded. It was one of six schools they visited. They were greeted by thousands of children, who did a dance of welcome and showered them with flowers. The students also sang for them in English, including a version of "Country Roads," where they substituted Indiana for West Virginia. "Imagine 3,000 girls singing, it was like angels," Hilger says. "That love just kept us going. I left my heart in Chaibasa. "The students, who come from a variety of backgrounds, loved dancing with her daughters and were amazed by their video camera. Everyone wanted to have their pictures taken with the Americans. One little girl asked Hilger to bring her back here. "I think they look at America as hope. They see (it) as a place to go to be free of the poverty," she says. Their reception was the same everywhere, she says. Flowers, gifts and a ritual washing of their feet were the norm at nearly every stop. "We had a very beautiful trip. God protected us and we never had any problems," Fernandez says, adding that the weather was hotter than usual. The women were overwhelmed by Calcutta, a teeming city of millions where constant traffic jams clog roads (cars, buses and taxis are so close passengers can touch each other through windows). At the mother house, Hilger gave her drawing to Sister Nirmala, whom Mother Teresa had chosen as her successor. She also visited the nun's tomb. The holiness of the room inspired her. "My heart was racing. I was so full of joy," she says. That joy turned to despair as her group toured the rooms of ill and abandoned babies who are cared for by the nuns. The sweat on their faces began to mix with tears. "Mother Teresa believed in giving them dignity, giving them love. I saw the mercy of God through those sisters," Hilger says. Fernandez had been there before, but he says that seeing the children again affected him, as well as Hilger. "I could see, she was very emotional, she was touched by all that." After the emotional visit, the group had a day of rest to e-mail family and shop. They moved on to Agra, home to the majestic Taj Mahal. Hilger snapped a postcard-perfect picture of the tomb, one of about 1,000 she and her companions captured during their journey. But the beauty of the gated grounds was a sharp contrast to the scene outside: beggars surrounding tourists and tapping on car windows, as they did everywhere. Their final stop before returning to Mumbai was Goa, an "absolutely gorgeous" resort city on the Arabian Sea, complete with lush beaches, tropical trees and mountains, and as the home of the tomb of St. Xavier, it also was a spiritual place, just like every other stop on their trip, Hilger says. Her trip of a lifetime was part of a divine plan, she believes. God wanted her to go and guided her along the way. "He just blessed me, every minute of that trip."