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Churchgoers from India visit ELCA members

They bought hats and jeans, visited Paul and Babe and took a pontoon ride in the afternoon on Lake Bemidji.

But they certainly weren't your average tourists.

Already bound together as "companion synods," the Northwestern Minnesota Synod and the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church in India helped strengthen their bond Monday in Bemidji,

Four members of the AELC in India, enjoying a two-week trip to the United States, spent Monday afternoon at People's Church in Bemidji and on a boat on the lake.

"When we walk together, when we hold each other's hands, we have no fear, no expectations," said the Rev. Subhashini Bondu, who is the director of the Women's Wing of the AELC.

Bondu said the reason for the trip was to continue to build relationships with those within their companion synod, the Northwestern Minnesota Synod.

"If you know each other's culture, it is easier to build relationships," she said. "And then we can be family. When good things happen, we can rejoice with you; when bad things happen we can do something good and get down and kneel and pray for you."

The two have been companion synods since 1993. The Rev. B. Suneel Bhanu, the president of the Gurukul Lutheran Theological Church, said the bond was considerably strengthened when Bishop Rolf Wangberg of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod was elected.

"He invited us here," Bhanu said. "Because of his faith and efforts, our dream came true."

Wangberg said members of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod have traveled to India before - but being able to bring members of the AELC here was important.

"We are learning something about evangelism," said Wangberg's wife, Pat Wangberg.

The group, which also included Bishop V.E. Christopher and his wife, J. Mani Kumari, had been trying to come to Minnesota for six years, but they were unable to obtain visas.

Since they have arrived, however, they have now seen how different life is in America. While eating at an Indian restaurant in Fargo, the visitors asked where all the people were.

"They have 12,000 people per square mile there; here in our synod we have 16 per square mile," Rolf Wangberg said. "If this was India," he said, motioning to the streets surrounding People's Church, "there would be four lanes of traffic."

With motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians and automobiles, Bondu said people would be speaking to one another, even those outside their own vehicles, and honking happily at one another.

"We like noise," Bhanu said.

"Traveling in India is a social thing; here it is an isolated thing," Rolf Wangberg said.

The Rev. Bob Kelly of People's Church said it may be a cultural trait. American Indians, he said, also are more apt to ride together in larger numbers.

The group is visiting different churches and congregations in the area before heading east. They will make a stop in the Twin Cities before hitting Wisconsin and, eventually, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America headquarters in Chicago.

The AELC is more than 300 years old and was founded by a missionary from Pennsylvania. It has 800,000 congregational members and more than 5,000 congregations. Its mission, according to its Web site, is to serve the poor.

Bhanu teaches theology is India. Because the country has such a strong class system, he said the poor often are not allowed to go to school.

"Education is power," he said, explaining that a large part of his mission is to go out and talk to parents.

"We have schools already," he said. "We try to encourage parents to send their children to school."

Often, due to economic hardships, parents send their children to farms to work, he said.

"We tell them education is important," he said.