Thursday, April 17, 2008
Inspirational Life of Padma Chetti
4/16/08 Chatterbox Padma Chetti Betty Kaiser Padma Chetti celebrated a milestone 90th birthday this week. This lovely woman is everything that we would all hope to be at her age: attentive, gracious, humorous and — her serene face has barely a wrinkle! She is the biblical “pearl without price.” Over the decades, Padma has seen tremendous changes as she moved from life in a tiny village to life in a huge city; from one continent to another — from cooking on a mud stove to a gas one; from using kerosene lamps to electric; from riding in a rickshaw to an airplane — and she has taken it all in stride. Padma (whose name means ‘lotus flower’), was born April 14, 1918 in the village of Narsapur on the south India coast. She was one of seven children and a sister, 85, still lives in India. In a largely Hindu society, her family was Christian, as was her future husband. Life has never been easy in rural India and it certainly wasn’t 90 years ago. A land of contrasts — with times of feast or famine; palaces vs. mud huts; drought and torrential rains; dense forests or vast, dry deserts; and suffocating heat — life in Indian villages is hard. But Padma’s father and uncle were entrepreneurs. Their business, Jonah and Joseph Brothers, began as a cottage industry to help the village women learn a trade: crocheting. In time, it became very successful as they exported beautifully crafted crochet lace doilies and tablecloths to England. “They were deeply godly people," Mercy Johnson, Padma’s daughter, said of her grandfather and uncle. “My grandfather believed in reverse tithing. You gave 90-percent and spent 10-percent! And as the business grew and prospered they built a large church — Bethany Chapel — to serve many villages.” The children were taught giving by example, as there were many hungry villagers and strangers who would knock on their door for a meal. No one was ever turned away without a bowl of rice and curry. The family also kept large bags of dry rice to generously scoop into villager’s pots. Feeding others became a way of life for Padma. She and her siblings attended boarding school in another town, where she became a champion tennis player. At 17 years of age, she had to quit school due to constant poor health. She met Devasahayam Chetti, her future husband, when he came to visit her cousin. Theirs was a long courtship — five years — during which time he was a street evangelist while he finished his education. They were married Dec. 30, 1942. World War II was raging and he served in the British Navy as chaplain until 1946. When he returned home, Chetti became the first National Indian missionary (i.e. non-European) and moved the family to a village under the umbrella of Canadian Baptists. Mercy, is one of their three children, two having died at birth. She vividly remembers village life. Cobras and scorpions not only roamed the fields but also shared their hut. “You would look up and the snakes would be stretched out on the beams. They were everywhere but ou don’t mess with them and they don’t mess with you!” she laughed. Red and bronze scorpions were also lurking in the room although no one in their household was ever bitten. Finding and killing them was a daily affair. At night, the bed sheets would be shaken and the beds moved to the center of the room because the scorpions only lived in the corners. Strange but true. During those years in the village, Padma was often alone 20-25 days a month with the children and the ministry. Her husband traveled by motorcycle from village to village teaching and preaching. Rickshaws were the common form of transportation but the family rode to church in a bullock cart. While her husband was gone she taught, fed the hungry, dispensed homeopathic medicines and kept the home fires going. This, she said, was her favorite time of life. Eventually Chetti became the Academic Dean of Serampore Theological University (from 1960-1975), founded by William Carey, from which he had graduated. There, Padma greeted the queen of Denmark and fed and ministered to homesick students from all over India. Kindness to all is a thread that runs through her life. Chetti then became the first native pastor of the Lower Circular Road Baptist Chapel in 1975. In Calcutta, Mother Teresa became their neighbor. The nuns lived in the convent next to the church, picked their flowers and admonished Mercy when she was late to school! Mercy and Steve Johnson (Pastor First Baptist Church) and their children welcomed Padma into their home when she was widowed in 1993. Grandson Matthew, now 19, remembers having fun teaching his MaMa to say “Wazzzzup!” from the Budweiser commercials. In turn, she taught him that everything in her life has a story. Even the pretty saris that she wears to church were never purchased but given to her by either a special person or for a special occasion. Also, she taught him how fortunate he and his siblings are to live in the U.S. Mercy is deeply grateful for her mother’s example: “Mom has a strong and deep faith in Jesus Christ that has sustained her all these years. During her missionary days she single-handedly ran the mission house and raised three kids. Her heart and home were always open to feeding and meeting the needs of those who came to her. She instilled in us the importance of hospitality and I try to emulate those same principles.” Looking ahead, Padma softly says: “God is gracious in keeping me. I have been a diabetic 45 years; had heart by-pass surgery 10 years ago and then broke my hip. But God is gracious.” Happy Birthday, Lotus Flower. Long may you blossom! Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart. Read her weekly columns in the Cottage Grove Sentinel.