Persecution Prompts Missions Agency to Transform
Not far from the city of Secunderabad, in a boulderstrewn landscape, the Uddamarry Good Shepherd School models the new approach of Operation Mobilization India (OMI). A simple cement structure, Uddamarry educates several hundred bright-eyed children from 14 villages. Most students at Uddamarry are Dalits—members of the "untouchable" caste that composes the lowest rung on Indian society's ladder. They long for education.
In this rural setting, where Christianity has never gained a foothold, children are learning Bible verses—and so are their families. Almost three times as many students have applied for admission as the school can accommodate.
OMI teachers live in the surrounding villages, one married couple per three villages. OMI teachers are viewed with great respect. When they start church fellowships in their homes, they do not encounter the same level of resistance as do traditional missionaries.
Churches are opened as the school gains credibility. Then comes a variety of development schemes. In Uddamarry, OMI has started a tailoring school where workers stitch the students' blue uniforms.
There is also a small health clinic, a microenterprise office, and a self-help center. All projects work in concert, demonstrating a holistic gospel in a place where the name of Jesus is scarcely known. OMI offers Christmas programs, Awana children's clubs, vacation Bible school, and other programs. They invite local officials to these events. The gospel gradually becomes less foreign, hostility fades, and interest in Christ grows.
Ragland Rameshwarren, who oversees OMI's community development projects in Uddamarry, says, "In the old days, there was no place for me. You had to become a pastor or an evangelist. But now we are so happy. I am giving back what was given to me. We are bringing the gospel to people's doorsteps."
Banning Westerners Helped
OMI did not start out this way. "When I first went to India in 1964," says Operation Mobilization (OM) founder George Verwer, "I knew right away this was my nation of destiny. I immediately moved my whole family there and made it a priority."
Historically a hot-gospel, street-preaching, tract-distributing ministry, OM is one of the world's largest mission organizations, working in 115 countries through 6,000 staff members.
In the early years, leaders convened annually in Belgium and then dispersed teams around the globe. Some headed overland for India in donated vans and trucks. They spent the year living in those vehicles, crisscrossing the subcontinent and telling anybody who would stand still about Jesus. They sold tracts and Bible portions to support themselves.
Those gospel pilgrims were inclusive, evangelistic, and itinerant. OM attracted countercultural young people who were open to adventure. Many of the first missionaries to India had studied at Oxford and Cambridge. As Verwer notes, "Indians admired university students," and the fact that the elite students had adopted a simple life of discipleship "got gossiped [about] across the country."
Peter Dance remembers his first trip to India in 1972, driving a truck that had been reconditioned in England. "It was cold and wet and scary. We went across the Austrian border, and I had the feeling of, there is no one there to help me anymore except Jesus.
"Before I crossed that border, I had everything I needed; even my mother was there if I needed her. I went to India many times, and through breakdowns and difficulties, the Lord always came through."