How would you describe the spiritual state of India at present?
India is a very spiritual country and there are many religions established there.
Generally, the Indian is a very religious person; there are festivals every year and people spend much money on these celebrations. People will travel all over the country to complete a pilgrimage, especially the Kumbh Mela, when 40 million people descend upon the Ganges River to have what they consider to be a holy bath. So, yes, the desire from people to have their sins forgiven and to receive blessings from God is very real.
Pain and suffering are also very connected to this, because if people’s prayers aren’t answered, there is no medical system in much of India. So, people are keen to try and please their god or gods.
With regard to Christianity, people are, on the whole, very interested. In a few places, there is opposition to the Christian message, but overall people are fascinated by the gospel, to learn about a God who loves and cares for them and wants to hear their prayers. Indians actually love prayers. If you go from house to house in the villages, saying, ‘I would like to pray for you’, they are very happy.
Do people think that Christianity has been good or bad for India over the years?
The reality is that Christianity in India has only spread along the main coastal areas and major communication routes. Approximately a third of the population, mostly residing in the interior, have never heard about Jesus.
Generally, those who know about Christianity have a good image of it. They think Christians run schools, hospitals and do good ministry that helps poor people. A very small number despise Christianity though, because in their eyes it empowers people by breaking down India’s traditional caste system and makes society more equal. That doesn’t go down well with those who want to keep the rest of the population poor and make money out of that status quo. Close to half of all Indians are uneducated and that illiteracy is the best way to maintain their oppression.
Can you tell us about your background and how you came to Christ?
My grandmother came to Christ from a Dalit background. The family was persecuted though, so they had to leave the village where they lived and run to the city. A mission school was located nearby and the missionaries there insisted to my grandmother that they educate her children. And so my parents were educated and, when I was born, my family were Christian and employed with an honourable job. So, we were able to break the cycle of poverty in our life because of education.
By the time I was born though, the faith in the family had become more nominal. My life was changed when I came to Christ through attending a student Bible study group when I was 17. At that time, an OM India Ministries team was ministering in my home town and their commitment and zeal for mission impressed me. I felt that when I finished my studies I would join this organisation, which I did when I graduated five years later. I had actually wanted to go to Bible college, but my pastor felt that people who go to Bible college and become pastors often don’t have such zeal for evangelism. He encouraged me to join OM India for a year and then go to Bible college, but I never left and 28 years later, I am still here! Of course, because the organisation provides a great way to study and apply God’s word in ministry, I have been in a place where I could learn more about the Bible and serve in missions.
What kind of work are you currently involved in?
My major role is with the Good Shepherd Community Church, where I am the national chairman of the council of Good Shepherd churches in India. We have 3,000 congregations across the country and every second day we plant another one. We call more than 25 people a ‘church’, so it’s not ‘where two or three gather in my name’. I work with 14 others in a leadership team and together we co-ordinate training for pastors. Because I come from a Dalit background, I also find it easy to connect with many Dalit groups, making friendships to open the door for the gospel. Dalit leaders living in the cities often want us to go to their villages and share the gospel with their families and teach the Bible to them, because they think that will change their lives.
You have done much work with the Dalits. How is the gospel impacting them?
In the past, OM India was only involved in caring for the spiritual condition of a person. But we realised that the gospel is about more than saving souls and the forgiveness of sins. It gives a new family to a person, a new relationship with God and a new identity based around dignity. One other Dalit leader told me that, when you preach the gospel, you should not start from Matthew 1 but Genesis 1, because people who hear about him who has sent his son into the world need to know that he has also created them. This means equality and honour for each person, including the Dalits. That is the greater Good News for them, grasping the concept that they have brothers and sisters in Christ, that nobody is higher or lower than them. That brings mental empowerment and confidence. Further-more, the gospel brings them into a family and a community that will love, care and comfort them, especially in a time of crisis. Thus, our work has become more holistic.
According to Dalit scholar Dr. Kancha Ilaiah from Hyderabad, there are three spiritual needs of Dalit people — access to God, access to Scripture and access to corporate worship. In their own original religions, Dalits cannot become priests, they cannot read scripture and they cannot go to the temple, but can only worship individually at home. Christianity provides all of these, which is why the gospel makes such a huge impact in Dalits’ lives.
What encourages you most about what God is doing in India?
It’s incredibly exciting to see the transformation in people who are hurt, abused and oppressed. Dalits are finding comfort in God, experiencing love and care as the Christian family stands with them through trials. Whole families who are illiterate are getting education. They are able to speak English and interact with us. This is greatly encouraging as they, particularly children, see a future in a world which is increasingly competitive. Furthermore, there are stories of girls who are no longer abused or kidnapped and now feel protected. Husbands who come to Christ are turning their backs on alcohol and are now responsibly supporting their families instead. Moral values are improving. All these things greatly encourage us.
What challenge would you give to young Christians in the West concerning the needs of India?
So much is available on the internet for Christians to connect to, find out, research and see what is going on. There is enormous oppression in the world, not just in India. Christians in the West should not just think how to save people and send them to heaven. Imagine what the Good News on earth is for them, what will bless them. There are so many things to do; pray, write, support, create awareness. The more people who know and talk about these things, the more difficult it will be for the oppressor to continue oppressing people.