In Partnership with India in the 21st Century
Over one hundred years of ‘hard labour’ have gone into the work of Global Mission Partners (GMP) in Western India. Millions of dollars have poured in from Australian Churches; scores of missionaries have done great work in the name of Christ and have overseen the establishment of the Conference of Churches of Christ in Western India.
As Australians our mission has been to make disciples and to plant churches rooted in Indian soil, tended by indigenous leaders. The shared vision of those going to the field and those sending them out as prayer and financial partners has been to ensure that as many people as possible should become disciples of Christ. This vision has led to the setting up of a large mission organization, with activities in the care of orphans and poor children, education, social services, medical services and farming projects running parallel to Christian outreach. The Lord has richly blessed the many years of service in India and the wise stewardship of our resources. The ‘now' questions are, ‘Where to now?' 'What should be our mission strategy be in the 21st century?’
My observations, as a past missionary from 1962 to 1976, and one who has visited India many times since (most recently in January 2014) is that the Conference of Churches of Christ in Western India has now reached a new exciting era of partnership with the Australian Churches through GMP.
The First Generation: The Mission-Centred Strategy
When Mary Thompson left Australia in 1891 for India she became the pioneer missionary of the Australian Churches of Christ and was supported by the “Foreign Christian Missionary Society”, as GMP was previously called. In 1905, Mr and Mrs Henry Strutton arrived in India and moved to the outskirts of Baramati where they pitched their tent under a tree, which is now the site of the Baramati Boy’s Home. There they began evangelistic work, as well as educational and sewing classes for women. In 1906, the first church was established in Baramati with 7 members and by 1923 there would be 15 missionaries in the area, 15 Indian staff, three Churches, 10 outstations and 124 members. The Conference of Churches of Christ in Western India was set up in 1927, with four churches. This same Conference still functions today.
One of these early missionaries was Mr H R Coventry who went to India in 1916. In Baramati at this time there were people known as the Takari Bhamptas (professional thieves). In 1924 Mr Coventry, in co-operation with the Government, became involved with what was known as the Criminal Tribes Settlement. Adequate land was needed to settle and to rehabilitate these people and consequently significant amounts of property was either purchased by the mission at that time or made available by the Government. The area was fenced around to house these people (see photo). The Settlement work continued until 1939 when the fencing was demolished and the people became part of the community. The settlement people had surnames like Jadhav, Gaikwad and Bhosle – some of their descendants are well-known and respected members and leaders of the Conference today.
These first generation missionaries faced difficult challenges such as cultural differences, language barriers, the different climate and health problems. The Western world had made rapid industrial and technological progress, while the East stood relatively still, creating a gulf between the two. The colour of the missionaries’ skin was different, and this set them aside as the ‘white man or woman’, and a member of the ruling class. They were easy victims of malaria and other tropical diseases, and had trouble with the Eastern diet. Also as evangelists to a non-Christian world, commissioned to share the Gospel, they soon found that many people were suspicious and not responsive to their message. Again, there was a gulf – this time between the missionary and the people. Many converts to Christianity were immediately ostracised by their communities, and were frequently left homeless and without work. They therefore turned to the missionaries for support – and the inevitable happened – the next generation of missionary work in India began.
The Second Generation: The Mission Compound
The missionaries, feeling responsible for the difficult circumstances of the converts, felt compelled to offer support and care. They constructed the mission compound with modest accommodation for themselves and the families of the new converts – often outside the village where they once lived. Under British rule the missionaries found favour with the Government and were able to purchase land for a modest price. The Mission Boards had the money and the desire to buy the land and to set up residences for the missionaries, and quarters for the new converts. Many of the new converts were able to be offered work somewhere on the compound.
It would not be too long before the area would be hit by a famine or flood or epidemic which would render lots of children orphans. A compassionate appeal would be sent out to the home churches and as a result of the response the Mission was able to build an orphanage, and add quarters for the management and staff. In a change of tactics the ‘tents’ were folded up and packed away and the missionaries moved into big bungalows on the mission compound. The ‘compound strategy’ worked well in those times. The people were able to see the church at work and faith in action. The mission compound became a vibrant centre for evangelism, healing, employment, social services and children’s education.
The sick, suffering and the poor were also in desperate need, so a medical facility was added. Another appeal went out and again the response was swift and generous – enough to build a small hospital. In 1926, the Ashwood Memorial Hospital was established in Daund on land made available by the Government for medical work only. Until the building was completed, Dr Oldfield initially used a small garage as his consulting room and for minor treatments! The hospital required nurses and staff, and they worked and were housed in buildings attached to the hospital. This project provided the kind of help that was desperately needed, as well as giving employment to medical staff and assistants.
The evangelistic teams worked tirelessly in the mission areas and within the hospital as well as going to the nearby villages. The villagers needed other forms of support, so social services were added to the evangelistic programs. The sick were brought in to the medical centres; the poor were given food and clothing, as the missionaries translated the Gospel into action.
Generation Three: The Young Church Takes Root
Initially when the pioneer missionaries pitched their tents on foreign soil, they planned to make a rapid advance into the ‘enemy’ territory and to plant the cross of Christ amongst the people, then leave the Church in good shape and return home. It was expected that having done this foundational work there would follow a great breakthrough in gathering souls as the Christian faith took hold. The response did not come as expected. By and large the converts dribbled in. The missionaries would rejoice over the few who had responded to the Gospel, and they renewed their efforts in reaching those who were not responsive. Missionaries did what Jesus would have them do – they went about doing good and never lost the vision of seeing great numbers becoming disciples – if not in this generation, then certainly in the next. They believed that there would be a time of sowing, a time of watering and eventually, there would be a harvest.
Evangelism was still their primary purpose, but while they awaited the harvest, there was much more to be done. The orphanage occupied a lot of time and energy, and took the lion’s share of the budget. This did not bother them, because they knew that out of the orphanage would come many converts who would become the future Church in the area. They could see the beginning of the Indigenous Church. The general public was not responding to the Christian message but through the orphanage they could grow disciples.
Soon, however, things changed. The once hostile village leaders began to respond and persuaded the missionaries to open a school. The children from the orphanage needed to be educated, and the children from the village came along. It would be a win-win situation. The children would come from the best homes in the village to get the best education in the village. Who would be better equipped to teach the children than the English-speaking missionaries? The missionaries were pleased with this strategy because, in teaching the children, they would also be able to teach the Gospel through Bible stories.
There was considerable fruit for their labour. Many people readily absorbed the Christian ethic; the children developed good characters as they received an excellent education. Good relations were forged with the villagers and their leaders, and it was hoped that many would accept the Gospel.
The medical work expanded; extra doctors joined the staff as well as nurses and technicians and the orphanage housed many children. The institution was there to stay but the strategy was changing: it soon became, as someone said, “a conglomerate mass of mixed chicken-raising evangelism, medicine, loving service, educational work and better farming, out of which sometime, somehow, a Christian civilization would arise.” The budget was growing, but nobody worried about this because they believed it to be good stewardship. Unconsciously and unintentionally, evangelism took second place. The missionary still had the heart of an evangelist, but he was too involved in the hum of the mighty missionary machinery to find much time to share the Gospel.
Pastors were appointed and others trained; church services were held with a guaranteed attendance from the orphanage, the school and staff from the compound. A close-knit small Christian community developed. On the debit side, many of these converts converted because they needed to be ‘rescued’; others came ‘when they saw the miracles which He did’. They comfortably worshipped in mission built churches; were ministered to by mission-paid pastors; lived in mission-built houses built on mission land – and therefore it was good to believe in the missionaries’ God. For many, there was no real cost to their discipleship, while for others the cost of being ostracised by family and friends was so high that they became rusted on to the missionary Institution because they had ‘nowhere else to go’.
Generation Four: The Indian Church
With Independence in 1947, the government ruled that all foreign missionaries should leave India within 20 years. After this time it became difficult for missionaries to obtain visas to work in the country. This turn of events was an added incentive for the Conference and the Overseas Mission Board to work harder toward handing over the work to national leadership.
It was time for the overseas missionaries to return home and for the indigenous people to lead the Church.
Between 1958 and 1971, the leadership of the Conference was handed over to local leadership. Many believed that the days when the missionary could exert a major influence on the affairs of a developing country were over. Although poor, India was – and is – being influenced by Western ideas brought in by the thousands of students educated in Western countries. These students have been exposed to western values, customs, business practices and religious cultures, including Christianity. Development brought other changes: children, once illiterate, could now read, and literature became freely available. The poorest of houses now had television sets. Indians became more sensitive to foreign criticism as the people yearned for political, cultural and economic independence. The times had changed. The churches were also yearning for independence. Today, many Christians say that it was only after the foreign missionaries left that they were able to be themselves and to grow.
Generation Five: Global Partnership
During a crippling drought in the mid-1960s, as Mission Secretary, I was contacted by the Governor of the State of Maharashtra and presented with a proposal that our missionaries might oversee a massive Food-For-Work Program. (As the name suggested, the people would work and receive food in lieu of monetary payment). Central to this program was the construction of “percolation tanks” or large water conservation dams. As a Conference, we agreed to become involved because of the potential benefits for the local farmers in Baramati and Shrigonda.
The Food-For-Work program became crucial, as the need for water and better roads was critical for farmers. This work is an example of what can be achieved when there is a partnership between missions and agencies. Our Conference joined hands with the UN, the Agricultural & Food Resources Organization, Christian Aid for Social Action, OXFAM, Church World Service and Lutheran World Relief. Soon after this the Agriculture Development Trust of Baramati was born and is still functioning today with help of local and government leaders.
To oversee this massive project a committee was formed comprising members from the Conference of Churches of Christ in Western India. Sharad Pawar, who is now the Minister of Agriculture and Food and Processing Industries of India, took an active part. Altogether 110 percolation tanks were constructed in the Baramati area as well as 200 wells and several kilometres of road. Edna Vawser and Hazel Skuce supervised the work in Baramati and provided daily ‘wages’ in the form of oil and wheat. This work became well known and attracted interest from other districts and states of India, as well as from overseas. Edna and Hazel were interviewed by Australian TV and as a result of their work both received the Medal of the Order of Australia. This work has made dramatic changes to the farming practices in Baramati and Shrigonda with thousands of acres of barren land now being irrigated. As a result of this united effort many farmers in India were able to see the desert blossom and their crops flourish. The work continues today in a different format under the banner of Churches Auxiliary for Social Action. Edna Vawser and Hazel Skuce both featured on the ABC Four Corners Program for this work.
When Mark Twain visited India in 1897 he described it with these words, “This is indeed India; the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendour and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence... the one sole country under the sun that is endowed with an imperishable interest for alien prince and alien peasant, for lettered and ignorant, wise and fool, rich and poor, bond and free, the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined.” Mark Twain Following the Equator.
What Mark Twain wrote over 100 years ago is still descriptive of India today. The Conference of Churches of Christ that was once dependent upon the support of the Overseas Mission Board has now developed into a relatively independent and healthy Conference, although there are unresolved matters within the Committee of Management of the Conference (COM) that hinder God’s work and must be resolved. Within the Conference there are now 16 Departments, 16 Churches and fellowships and six subcommittees. The Conference is less dependent on GMP and has substantial assets that are locked up in valuable real estate. It is hoped that if the unused Conference land could be sold and the monies invested with the Evangelical Trust Association of North India, ETANI, the value in dollar terms would be sufficient to support the work of the Conference into the foreseeable future. Unfortunately some of the land in India is still locked up because of legal challenges or because the land cannot be sold as the Government has placed ‘reservations’ on the properties. The challenge for the Conference today is to have these matters resolved and to have the money available to support the ongoing work in India.
The Conference Churches and leadership is now somewhat independent of Australia but the outreach work in other areas will only be possible if there is strong global support and partnership with other churches. The Ashwood Mission Hospital (for example) is doing amazing work at Daund with ministries like the HIV/AIDs Positive Program that reaches people like Divya* (*name changed to protect identity). This is her story.
When ‘Divya’ first arrived at Ashwood Memorial Hospital she was so weak she could not stand. HIV positive, and previously rejected for treatment by five doctors, her uncle begged Dr Philemon Pawar to treat her. Divya’s haemoglobin levels were dangerously low. Treatment at the mission hospital began with a blood transfusion while the chaplain and his wife committed themselves to pray. Philemon also provided transport to Pune for more specialized treatment.
When Divya improved and returned to Ashwood, Shalini Pawar listened to her story. Divya had lost both her parents and her sister to AIDS. She was being cared for by her 95 year-old grandmother. Most other relatives refused to have any contact for fear of contracting AIDS. Shalini learned that Divya had a Science degree and computer skills. She had been working in a call centre until she was not well enough to travel to work. Shalini was keen to utilise Divya’s skills in training others at Ashwood’s HIV/AIDS Support Group. Divya is now working at Ashwood teaching computing skills to others.
Divya said, “I haven’t seen Jesus, but I have seen Jesus working though Dr Philemon and the staff of this hospital.” "She has become a role model for other people living with AIDS,” says Shalini. They are encouraged by her story. She brings hope through the miracle that God has done for her.”
The Ashwood Memorial Hospital will need support as they do an amazing work both within the cities and in the nearby villages. Most patients who come to the hospital are being treated at a fraction of the cost charged by other hospitals. Thousands of people are being reached in several outreach programs to the villages around Daund. Hundreds of men, women and children who are HIV positive are being supported. Thousands are being checked in village camps for diabetes or rubella. Many women are being offered antenatal checks. Modern medical equipment is being purchased by the hospital to improve the diagnostic ability of the staff. All this work requires partnership through GMP. The children’s boarding homes at Baramati, Shrigonda and Ankoor, and some slum churches will also need ongoing support.
One worrying fact about the schools and hospital buildings is that they are very ‘tired’ and difficult to maintain. Many of the buildings are rundown and have become a significant maintenance burden to the Indian Conference. The Conference will need to evaluate what buildings need to be ungraded, rebuilt or demolished in order to maintain the important work of the Conference.
Another significant change affecting the work is that since 2011 the Indian Government requires that all foreign contributions to projects be sent via a registered Foreign Receipts Contribution account. (FRC). The Australian government now also requires that funds transmitted to India be used for the projects for which they are sent and not be used for other purposes. Strict accounting and accountability of funds going to India must therefore be maintained. The Conference of Churches of Christ in Western India is now facing an exciting new era of Christian work.
The Church and the Conference in India, like the nations, is today waiting for a charismatic Christian leader who will unite the people and lead the work into the 21st century. The Church is a Christian minority amongst a massive unreached population. While the church is more prosperous now than ever before and does have huge assets, the question still remains, ‘Can they undertake this work without some support from Australia?' I believe the answer is ‘No’. There does need to be an ongoing partnership with GMP. The Conference therefore should work with GMP to do three things:
i) Determine which are the most vital programs and projects to be funded.
ii) Ensure the excellent management of these programs and projects, with ongoing accountability and transparency in the ways they are funded.
iii) Prayerfully seek God’s will in knowing where and what ministries to undertake.
The churches from the West and from the East joined hands over one hundred years ago to introduce Jesus to the people of India. Now, the West and the East must join hands again and work together in partnership. This is the vision of GMP for our Indian partners.