Our God at Work in South Asia
A blast of hot, odor-laden air assailed me as I stood at the top of the stairs on the Air India jumbo jet at Mumbai’s airport in April 1976.
It was the first time I had left the shores of Australia, and the scenes and sounds and smells of my first 24 hours in India were amazing, an incredible contrast to the leafy quiet pathways of Parkville, Melbourne, where I lived and worked. After a long sleep, the shock of those first hours vanished, and I soaked up the vibrancy, the color, the fascination that is India. I was there partly as a tourist, partly as a guest of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi, and of the Guild of Service, Madras (now Chennai), and partly as a preacher of the gospel to readers of literature sent out by GPL — Gospel Publicity League (Sydney).
This preaching of the Bible message in India, by a Christadelphian brother, was not happening for the first time in the world’s modern history. Over 100 years before Bro. Daniel Brown, a brother of the hymn writer Bro. David Brown, writer of many hymns in the Christadelphian Hymn Book, was captain of a merchant ship plying the Ganges River in India in the 1860s. He founded an ecclesia at that time in Calcutta, the remnants of which continued for 90 years. This is the same Bro. Brown, at the time a seeker of truth, who funded the second printing of Christendom Astray by Robert Roberts. (See My Ways and My Days — R. Roberts). Two world wars and divisions within the Christadelphian community led to the isolation of the Calcutta and Madras Ecclesias, and those in isolation in Burma. The last surviving Christadelphian sister from those earlier days in India, slept in the Lord 13 years before the work began again in 1976.
Although the GPL had over one 150 readers of their publications in India at that time, this first trip was to focus on two readers in the state of Andhra Pradesh — one in the city of Hyderabad and one in the village of Kadiam, 180 miles to the east. Those two visits led to the giving of five Bible classes, with over 100 people hearing the Word. Now over 40 years later, Kadiam and Hyderabad continue as the two largest ecclesias in India. I was not used to such an eager interest in the word of God. Notes were taken, questions asked, and requests were made for more classes than my schedule would allow. If this was the interest for just following up two names, surely I needed to plan for a much longer return trip to follow the other 150 names on the GPL list! Besides, a very interested and attractive young lady, named Sarah, had attended the Bible Class in Hyderabad.
As soon as possible I took advantage of long service leave and due leave entitlements, and I returned to India for five months in 1978. Sitting in a small guest house in Madras, I had only written to seventy of those on my mailing list (no photocopying in India in those days), when I was swamped with enough replies to keep me busy for the available time. The next 4 months involved 4,300 miles of train travel and an average of two classes a day through the five most southern states of India and one in the north. The readiness of people to sit and listen seemed to have no limit. Initially, the thought in the minds of many group leaders was that as a foreigner I had come with funds to appoint representatives for my Mission. But when I explained that I was just there as an individual offering Bible teaching, not money, the reply was nearly always — “Fine, let us have a Bible meeting then.” Until this time, my life plan was to become financially independent by my late thirties and thus be in a position to do full-time Bible teaching, preaching, etc. But why should I expect God to bend to my planning? It was clear India needed the gospel teaching now, and I should step out in faith, trusting God’s call, timing and planning rather than my own. His provision of a faithful partner from India to help me in this work made the decision clear.
Thus, Sarah and I settled in Hyderabad, India in late March 1979, later starting a printing and publishing business to support ourselves while doing the preaching work with the assistance of the ACBM. As India had earlier been under CBM purview, the initial years were a time of joint ACBM/CBM co-operation However, since I was from Victoria, Australia, and had been on the local ACBM committee, the Victorian Regional Committee of the ACBM soon took on the planning and funding. Instruction was initially all in English as, (a) I knew no other language, (b) India has 87 official languages, and (c) I wanted the initial converts to have access to the vast array of Bible study helps that were available in English. This provided a strong local launching pad from which brothers and sisters could take the message to their own languages. When we returned to Australia for a few weeks in 1981, there were seven brothers and sisters in three locations, 21 when we made another trip to Australia in 1984, and 63 by the time of our third vacation in 1988.
With this base representing seven different language groups, the work was able to spread more easily through the Indian languages, and the work of the local brothers and sisters. Today we have over 80 ecclesias with more than 2,000 members, and of those only three use any English in their services — the languages being primarily Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi, Marathi, and Bengali.
With many more preaching opportunities in the South, Bangalore was obviously a suitable center, with a pleasant climate, so when Bro. Ray and Sis. Barbara Allanson and children from New Zealand moved to India to help with the work in the early eighties, they established a base there that became a center for the work for over twenty years. Many Mission fieldworkers from various places have been based there, and although the ACBM office closed there a number of years ago, the Bangalore property still provides a spacious residence for Mission fieldworkers and an ecclesial hall for the Bangalore Ecclesia.
Over the past 40 years of Christadelphian presence in India, there have been many wonderful examples of faithfulness among the brothers and sisters in different areas. On one occasion a village ecclesia that was growing strongly, and owned a small hall for worship, aroused the jealousies of some other Christians. With the support of some non-Christians, they attempted to physically take over the hall, and charged our members with having physically attacked them, resulting in the arrest of some of our members and causing others to flee elsewhere. When the matter was settled, and a fine paid on behalf of our members, they were released, but the hall key remained with the police. (It was returned to our members about a year later.) The ecclesia continued to meet under a tree each week, but decided also to hold a special gathering every Tuesday evening at which, in addition to Bible readings, they would particularly pray for those who had persecuted them. After six months the key people who had instigated the trouble came to them and said: “We have been seeing your reaction to this trouble for the past six months, and realize you have a faith in God that we do not have. Would you please teach us, so we too may share this faith?” To this our brethren readily agreed, and a few months later the group requested baptism, attended a Bible Truth Camp at Moinabad and were baptized there. How often actions speak louder than words!
Another positive result from this incident was that, as in the days of the apostles, “They that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word.” (Acts 8:4). In their new locations, three families continued their faithful witnessing. As a result of this preaching work done by the families who fled the village, two new ecclesias developed and continue years later as vibrant, growing ecclesias. God at work may bring hardship and pain, but that can bring glory to God, a glory that those who show such faithfulness will one day share.
The growth in Pakistan has been particularly rapid since the first baptisms there in 2002. We now have over 1,200 brothers and sisters in more than 20 ecclesias.In a similar incident in a different village, jealousies led to an attack on our brothers and sisters. A recent young convert fled the scene, and we had no news of him for nearly nine years. Then quite unexpectedly he contacted us to ask our assistance; he had been preaching for the past nine years in the village of a relative to which he had fled, and there were now six people seeking baptism. He felt too embarrassed to contact us earlier because of his fleeing on the day of the trouble. We reassured him and welcomed him, of course, with many hugs, and arranged a Bible Truth Camp in his village and the six had all been well prepared and were baptized. One of those baptized became his wife and a very faithful family they are. “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” (Romans 11:33).
The countries bordering India: Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and more recently Myanmar and Afghanistan, all have a Christadelphian presence, usually arising from new initiatives in conjunction with the work in India, with cultural and language similarities being major factors in that regard. The growth in Pakistan has been particularly rapid since the first baptisms there in 2002. We now have over 1,200 brothers and sisters in more than 20 ecclesias. Urdu being a common language for most in Pakistan, has made our task somewhat easier here. In addition to regular ecclesial meetings, three Bible Schools and two CYC Camps each year help provide a spiritual focus. We are a registered religious Trust here, and provided we appear to keep a low profile, are allowed to worship in private. Some of our members who actively preached the gospel have faced persecution and life threats, and have either been resettled in other countries by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or are currently refugees or asylum seekers registered with the United Nations.
As one seeks to follow the Lord Jesus, one constantly becomes aware of the general needs of those in society around you, particularly in a country like India. Our primary focus has been to preach the good news of the Kingdom of God, but when requests come from people genuinely in need, I found the response — “Sorry, we cannot help you” — was not an honest one. We could help if we really cared and made the effort. And so, in 1976, with the co-operation of a retired medical superintendent, we began the Supplementary Nutrition Program, providing natural ingredients, for a locally prepared supplementary nutrition drink three times a week, for children in vulnerable areas. This has continued to this day for around 2,400 children at any one time. It has been of great assistance to children generally, to Sunday School children, and to the brothers and sisters involved in running it. Later the needs of poor and abandoned children were addressed through the Moinabad Homes project, and many children who grew up there are driving forces within ecclesias in India and abroad. Moreover, the needs of the homeless suffering from Hanson’s Disease (Leprosy) on the streets of Hyderabad have been addressed in ongoing treatment programs, currently covering medical needs of over 250 patients in our street clinics or residential center. The educational and care needs of their children then became a priority, and so Shunem Home was born, providing also a facility for the care of aged brothers and sisters and other aged in need of care. Today there are 128 children and about 20 elderly persons under Shunem’s care. Later, Nithsdale School was established to provide quality education for these children.
Our primary focus has been to preach the good news of the Kingdom of God, but when requests come from people genuinely in need, I found the response — “Sorry, we cannot help you” — was not an honest one. We could help if we really cared and made the effort.
An early program in Hyderabad was VIPSIB (Visually Impaired Persons Services and Information Bureau). Some years later this moved to Bangalore and operates today as the Bartimaeus Center. The local brothers and sisters have been active in all these programs, and in initiating and running similar programs – “Faith Home” and “Christadelphian Compassion India” at Kadiam, “Elvira Home” at Tampatapalle, “Edith Home” near Madurai, “Aadharana Home” at Hyderabad, and many others. All these have been a wonderful adjunct to our preaching work as we seek to show the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ to a troubled world.
On the day of Pentecost it is recorded; “…how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?”(Acts 2:8). There would have been one or two common languages that could have been used, but the vast array of languages mentioned clearly indicates the importance God gives to people hearing the gospel in their mother tongue, the language of their heart. Thoughts, feelings and actions must all be involved in the conversion process, and hearing the gospel in the language heard at your mother’s knee is hugely important to help this process. Because they are in cosmopolitan cities both the Hyderabad and Bangalore Ecclesias still use a lot of English in their services, but in all other ecclesias the preaching, the worship, Bible study, singing, etc., is done in the mother tongue. Incorporation of activities using the mother tongue is important in any ecclesia worldwide, where there is any member who grew up with a language other than English.
Gradually the bubbles that persisted to the seventies and eighties that the “West is wonderful.” and “Whites have all the answers.” have burst, and workers in India, and in many other parts of the developing world, realize it is not in man to direct his own steps (Jer 10:23). This is the Lord’s work, not ours, and so as we await the coming of Christ, we are confident that as our brothers and sisters continue to sow and water, our Lord will give the increase for His glory, not ours.
Tim Galbraith (Hyderabad, India)