India's Grassroots Revival
Shivamma stands in front of her house, braiding her little girl's hair. Her feet are bare, her sari is simple, and she is rail thin, but she speaks to visitors with boldness. She is the face of the new Christianity in India.
Shivamma's home is nestled inside a concrete storm sewer discarded by the factory where she and her husband work. The neighborhood, hidden in an overgrown back lot, consists of huge pipes lined up like mobile homes. Her family of four lives within 84 square feet.
For a Dalit and a woman, Shivamma is doing well. In traditional Hindu thinking, Dalits are not quite human, lacking the right to enter the temple, read, or eat with members of other castes. A person who touches a Dalit must immediately purify himself. (One church planter notes the awful exception: "When it comes to social life, they are untouchable. For rape, they are touchable.")
To be Dalit is much worse than being poor, for no matter how much education or wealth a Dalit accumulates, he or she remains polluted, a shame on the face of the earth. Dalits are like biblical lepers, except that in mainstream Indian culture, they cannot be healed. "Not even God can save them from pollution," the Catholic Dalit advocate A. Maria notes sarcastically.
But although Shivamma comes from generations of people accustomed to bowing and disappearing, she does not cringe any more. She came to the pipe village as a new bride 11 years ago, seeking to escape the jobless poverty of her home village. She and her husband together make $5 a day, more than most Dalits.
For three years she was barren.
Then, a young Dalit Christian named Bangarraju (most Dalits are known by a single name) came to Shivamma's home to pray for her. "I didn't know why he came or to whom he prayed. I thought Jesus was one of the gods." She conceived and gave birth to a son, and later had a second child, a girl. When her daughter was three months old, the girl became severely jaundiced, passing blood. Bangarraju came to them and prayed again, and the daughter was healed.
"I realized that Jesus is the living God," Shivamma told Christianity Today.
"We used to drink and every day we would fight, fight, fight. Jesus Christ brought peace to our family. I have no fear, because I have come to know the living God. I trust him."
An evangelist and church planter, Bangarraju began outreach in the pipe village in 1996. He taught illiterate children in an informal school that met under a tree. He arranged for weekly medical visits through his sponsoring organization, Operation Mobilization. For his first year visiting the village, Bangarraju said nothing about Jesus. It was three years before he baptized a convert. Now a large proportion of the pipe village follows Christ.
Over the years, Bangarraju did more than preach Jesus. He helped Shivamma and her husband learn the discipline of saving. The couple has managed to buy a house in their ancestral village. For the foreseeable future, Shivamma is happy to live in her pipe, rent free.
Yet for her children she dreams of much more: the education neither she nor her husband received. She is determined that they learn English and rise above the pipe village. "We don't want them to suffer as we have."
With a new India rising up, a different kind of Indian Christianity is rising up with it. During a three-week journey across India, I discovered a vibrant, growing Christian community unfolding at the grassroots—a church thoroughly Indian, not Western.
The new-economy India is found in gleaming office towers where techsavvy Indians compete in a global market and climb the corporate ladder. The newly Christian India is found mostly at the bottom rung of society, among men and women like Shivamma, typically poor and illiterate "broken people" (the literal meaning of Dalit). Numbering 140 million or more, Dalits and Tribals (a grouping similar to the Dalits) have begun to shake the foundations of India's social order. They think in ways their ancestors never could have imagined. More of them are following Christ than at any other time in India's history, ministry leaders told CT.