Editorial Note: Dr. Herbert Hoefer asks the pertinent question of why the dalits (or untouchables, as we used to call them) continue to come to the Christian faith even though they may have to suffer greatly for it. Dr. Hoefer indicates that our common faith provides dignity and worth to the most vulnerable in India. He holds the chair of missions at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon, and is also the LCMS area secretary for India. He is currently in India witnessing to mass baptisms and a vibrant church life. This article serves as a heart-warming ecumenical bridge to our fellow believers in the subcontinent.
It is understandable during the foreign missionary era of colonial times in India that dalits would convert to Christianity. There were significant political and economic advantages in becoming a Christian. At that time a convert could anticipate a better life for himself and his children through the largesse of the missionary enterprise.
However, since Independence it has become increasingly disadvantageous for someone to convert in most areas of the country. A major hindrance is the loss of educational and job privileges available to all other non-Christian dalits. In addition there are the social disadvantages of prejudice and rejection by the powerful Hindu community. In rural land labor Christians generally are “the last hired and the first fired.”
Yet they keep coming. I am amazed at the mass baptisms that continue among the dalits. Theologically we would understand that this is simply the work of the Holy Spirit creating faith in people’s hearts. But the fact is that people generally do not do things that are to their harm, especially when they are already in a vulnerable position. What are the human dimensions of these continued conversions?
A New Identity
I am reminded of a statement from one of our senior Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod missionaries, Rev. Mick Manns, when I first arrived as a missionary in India in 1968. As we were walking through the town of Bargur, Tamil Nadu, where he had lived for 30-plus years, he commented, “Herb, after a while you can tell the Christians on the street.” I didn’t say it to my venerable colleague, but I thought that was the strangest statement. At the time people all looked the same to me, much less telling which would be Christians. He went on to say, “You can see it in their eyes.”
After fifteen years of living in India among dalits and returning regularly the past ten years in January-February in my capacity as LCMS area director for India, I can understand Rev. Manns’s observation. You can indeed see it in their eyes—and in their gait and in their posture and in their demeanor. There is a dignity and self-confidence and a self-assertion that is noticeable. Sometimes this self-assertion comes out in negative ways in church life as people attempt to assert their rights and their worth in confrontational ways. Nonetheless, the Gospel has enabled these dalits to realize who they are and to desire to express it.
I remember about eight years ago going to the office of a major agency with a couple of other missionaries. The chief officer immediately asked us, “Are you missionaries?” I swallowed hard, anticipating a strong criticism of the missionary enterprise and a rejection of our purpose in coming. However, when I affirmed that indeed we were foreign missionaries, the man immediately stood up behind his desk and said, “I want to thank you. You made me human.”
E.V.R. Periyar, the great Tamil social reformer during the Independence movement, would say, “A man can live without food, but he cannot live without dignity.” Perhaps that is the key to why they keep coming. People are changed from the inside, and everything springs from that.
I recall going to a slum area near the town of Ambur a few years back where a little chapel had recently been erected. The lay evangelist who had worked there said that the Hindu panchayat chairwoman and the Muslim imam had both come for the dedication. Both addressed the crowd, stating how pleased they were that this chapel was here and the work of the church was going on in their depressed area. They said they could only welcome how much drinking and wife-beating and unruliness had decreased with the arrival of this ministry. People were growing into a different self-image and view of life.
Growth in Self-Realization
A few years back at one of these mass baptisms I asked a couple of the men why they were converting. They said, “We see the Christians’ children getting ahead in life.” Of course, the only way dalits can get ahead in life is through education, and it is the Hindu dalits that get all the educational privileges. Yet unless there is a dignity and a hope and a drive from the inside, all of those government opportunities won’t be accessed. The Gospel gave the Christians a new identity that was not tied to the social order of the caste system. It was tied to the affirmation of who we are by God’s creation and declaration in Christ.
As a young missionary, I remember talking with an elder in one of the village congregations. I asked him why he had originally converted. He said, “I saw the missionaries wearing shoes, and I thought I’d like to wear shoes too.” Most people—both in India and around the world—convert for many unspiritual reasons. The great strength of the church, however, is the system of pastoral care. It is a missiological truism that the important matter is not why a person comes to baptism but what happens afterward. With the church’s system of pastoral nurture and oversight, lives and hearts are gradually changed by the power of the Spirit through the Word. As one looks at the condition of the dalits who converted to other religions in India, we do not see nearly the inner transformation and social progress that we see among Christians, even though they do not lose their dalit governmental privileges as the Christians do.
The June 2003 issue of National Geographic (pp. 6–31) magazine has a detailed account of the plight of dalits in India with many graphic photographs. I made copies for our mission board staff in the USA and shared a copy with Rev. Priestly Balasingh, one of the India Evangelial Lutheran Church (IELC) pastors who were studying at the time at Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis. Afterwards, Rev. Balasingh expressed his thanks for giving him a copy. He said that he took the article with him when he lunched with fellow students and tried to show them what life was like in India.
Rev. Balasingh said that sometimes a student would be bold enough to ask, “Priestly, may I ask you a personal question? Are you a dalit?” Rev. Balasingh said that he would reply, “Until 1895 when your missionaries came to India, I was a dalit. Now I am not.” Priestly says he would add: “The Word of God has freed me from the bondage of dalitness, for ‘in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek.…’”
What society said about him, Rev. Balasingh no longer accepted. He now defined himself by what God says about him. With God’s help he would now strive to become what God in grace had made him.
Gratitude to the Church
One of the great features of the dalit church is gratitude. LCMS visitors to the IELC often are shocked and embarrassed by how they are greeted and honored in the congregations. I tell them they need to remember that these expressions of heartfelt respect have nothing to do with us personally. The congregants see us as representatives of the organization that gave them life and hope in the Gospel. They are not honoring us; they are standing up and saying thanks to the LCMS “for making us human.”
We see this same spirit of gratitude in the dalit Christians’ attitude toward their own church. For all the struggles and chaos of church life, people stick with it. They still enthusiastically invite people to join it. They talk about its politics, and they care about its health. There is no doubt in my mind that, given similar church life in the USA, people would be leaving in droves. Yet the dalits in India stay loyal and active. Why? I think it is simply gratitude. They look in the eyes of those who are not in the church, and they too see the difference: “There but for the grace of God—in and through His Church—go I.”
Dalit Christians love church activities. It is really in the church that they have the opportunity to develop and express their God-given talents. They have the opportunity to sing and to dance and to act and to speak—even in English!—and to hold offices. They race to the front during worship to be able to read the lesson for the day as it is announced by the pastor.
Once a dalit steps outside the church, the society defines who they are and restricts who they can become. But inside the church they can be something. They can even proudly share a business card once they have been elected secretary of their congregation’s youth group! They can wear a business suit or a jibba or a fine silk saree at church events and really feel for a while what God says about them: human and a child of God.
Visitors from abroad are immediately struck by the sincerity and intensity of church worship among the dalits. There is a fervor and focus that we rarely see in Western congregational worship. Christian worship is to be characterized by joy and celebration. It is palpably there in the singing of lyrics. It is there as they come to the altar to receive the Sacrament and as they bring their children for baptism.
Dedication to the Gospel
I tell people in the USA that it was in India that I first learned what it meant to believe in God. As a young missionary in Ambur, I met some men from a nearby village who had come to discuss with the pastor of the large congregation in the town. I asked them what the issue was, and they said they had finally approached the government about the harassment they were experiencing from the landlords. Their girls were getting raped continually by the landlords’ sons, and they just couldn’t take it anymore. In consequence of their action, the landlords had now refused to give them any employment or to frequent their shops. They were starving. The men were on their way back to their village. I asked them, “What are you going to do?” To my practical American mindset their reply was befuddling and shocking: “We trust God.”
The faith of these village men had given them the courage and dignity and righteous anger to stand up against the oppression, and it gave them hope to press on. They saw their life as part of something greater than themselves, as part of the work of God. It was their privilege and responsibility to trust that vision.
As one goes around India, it is amazing to find Christian evangelists and social workers in the most remote and dangerous places. I often think to myself, “What are these people doing here? Don’t their wives try to talk them out of it?” So often these people had good jobs and bright professional futures. Yet they left all that to put themselves and their families into the way of great potential harm. They have to face radical RSS cadres, demonic attacks, landlords’ armies, corrupt politicians, hamstrung bureaucrats and police and possible imprisonment either for political activities or conversion activities. Why do they do it? Where do they get the strength and motivation and courage?
These Christian workers realize personally what the bondage—spiritually and socially—is that their fellow dalits are facing. They realize personally what release is possible in the Gospel. They cannot sit still and let it happen when they know they can help. In spite of all the attacks and beatings and murders, the workers just keep coming—often supported totally by indigenous funding.
These workers and the Gospel that they proclaim have impact far beyond church walls. There is no doubt that the dalit movements for social justice today have their roots and their impetus from the church’s Gospel work. People no longer accept the definition and the limits placed on them by the society and its religious rationale. They know they are more than “untouchable” and “outcaste.” Conversions are political events. They are social protests.
Converts no longer accept their traditional Hindu leaders. They no longer accept that they deserve their lot in life. The laws of social justice and the legal system are all there, but it takes an inner drive and self-respect to access them with courage and determination. Mass conversions are greatly feared not so much because of their religious motivations but because of their political ramifications.
Why do they keep coming? The factors are many, but the fact is clear. As long as the inner spirit of a person senses one’s essential human dignity, s/he will seek to affirm and express it. We of the universal church pray that we will be as generous, courageous and determined as these dalit Christians are. They deserve to see in us the hand of God, who loves and welcomes them as his own.