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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. ...

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In the Magazine

July 2011

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