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."

As young Indians came to Christ, they joined OM's evangelistic teams. Indians and Westerners lived together on equal terms, experiencing exhilarating freedom while witnessing to their faith. "India in 1972 was very Western-led," Dance says. "Those leaders felt strongly that if the movement was going to continue, it needed to bring in and train national leaders. The ethos was discipleship." That discipleship happened as they witnessed, lived, and traveled together.

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Verwer saw a bigger picture. He urged South India Christians to go north—where few Christians lived—and to train local northerners for leadership. "Verwer trusted us, believed in us," says Alfy Franks, now bishop of the 3,000 Good Shepherd churches that make up OMI's core structure.

But in 1968, the government barred Verwer. Forty years passed before he could re-enter the country. In his sudden absence, Indian staff had to rise to a new level of leadership. In the 1980s, greater stress came with restrictions on visas for missionaries. India's Christian organizations had to look to local resources.

In retrospect, it was a blessed necessity, leading OMI to become a truly national organization. In the vast subcontinent, with its hundreds of languages and caste differences, people tend to stay most loyal to their own group.

"We were a pan-Indian, pan-caste movement," says OMI leader Joseph D'souza. "That can be very painful. We have had our own divisions and fights, but out of them we created our own special ethos."

Indian leaders recognized something that Western OM leaders might never have seen: that study and training were crucial for new believers. Many had no biblical background, nor did they grasp Christian ideas of God, sin, and forgiveness. OMI began to invest in formal education, developing training institutions.

OMI has trained 25,000 leaders since 1964. On its sprawling campus near Secunderabad, the organization prepares both pastors and schoolteachers. The International College of Cultural Studies offers two bachelor's and four master's degrees. OMI went from distributing tracts to developing the largest Christian publishing house in India.

Dasan Jeyaraj is an appropriate choice to head the International College of OMI. He grew up one of eight children in a Dalit family. When Jeyaraj was 10, his mother could not repay a significant debt and sent Jeyaraj to work for a high-caste Christian family in Chennai, 425 miles away. "I cried. I thought my life had ended. Once, I ran away, but they caught me and sent me back," he says.

As a 10-year-old, he did all the household work: grinding spices, mopping floors, washing clothes, shopping, helping cook, and taking children to school. The family allowed him to go to Sunday school and church. They thought they were doing him a favor by providing three meals a day. His wages—10 cents a day—went to pay off his mother's debt. Only after his mother died and he entered a Dutch Christian orphanage was Jeyaraj able to go back to school, eventually earning his Ph.D. in the Netherlands.

"There are hundreds, thousands, millions like me who had to work, who couldn't go to school," he says.

A Church-Led Movement

Even after investing in education, OMI was barely prepared for the dramatic changes that came to India in the 1990s. Economic controls were lifted, inaugurating fast economic growth and rapid social change. Per-capita income doubled, from US$1,380 in 1990 to US$2,420 in 2000.

Indians began discussing caste-based prejudice widely. The Hindu nationalist BJP party, which supported anti-conversion laws aimed at restraining Christian outreach and evangelism, won national elections.

It soon became impossible for OMI teams to witness. They were likely to be arrested or beat up. Moses John, a church planter, says, "Times changed, and we ha[d] to find new ways to communicate the gospel."

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For the first time, OMI teams had to stay in one place and witness locally, depending on community goodwill. Observing the needs of the community, some staff started schools. Others reached out to the extremely poor and began advocating for human rights for the Dalits and other oppressed minorities.

"We got involved, starting schools and becoming part of the social struggle of this nation," says D'souza. "Our credibility went up, and our churches started erupting [with growth]. It caught us by surprise."

At a higher organizational level, OMI joined with Catholics and other Protestants in the All India Christian Council, which tracks persecution and defends minority rights. D'souza became international president of the Dalit Freedom Network, a human rights advocacy organization.

Once renowned for its roaming teams, OMI now settles down to make a lasting difference at the local level. Once decidedly "parachurch," OMI now calls itself a church-led movement. Churches even have bishops, a development that was difficult for some OM staff outside India to swallow. (India's legal structure recognizes the nomenclature of bishops, so OMI adopted it for their Good Shepherd churches.) Through this holistic missions model, the entire OM organization is also being reshaped. OMI comprises nearly half the total staff of om worldwide.

'I am giving back what was given to me. We are bringing the gospel to people's doorsteps.'—Ragland Rameshwarren, OMI

According to Verwer, other OM countries have made significant ministry gains after following OMI's path into holistic ministry. Peter Maiden, OM's international coordinator, says that "OMI has been in the vanguard of our missional understanding in the past 20 years. Its integrative approach to mission has hugely impacted the way om thinks about mission."

With a church-led structure, OMI is riding growth such as it has never seen. D'souza says he worked like a dog for 15 years in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, a highly traditional state in north India. "If I saw a half-dozen new believers, thank you Jesus!" In the past ten years, through a more holistic ministry, OMI has started 45 churches in Lucknow alone. Nationally, it has grown from 300 churches to over 3,000.

While many educated Indians see caste withering away in a globalizing India, D'souza believes it remains a battleground where the church must engage. "Globalization has empowered the upper caste even more. Why, 20 years in, is not one telecom owned by a Dalit or an OBC [another poor tribal group]? Why does no media organization have a Dalit editor?"

Not that OMI's ministry is for Dalits only.

"In urban congregations that are bilingual, the upper caste happily comes in. The first responders are often upper-caste women, because they are asking the same questions that Dalits ask. A Brahmin woman is a slave to her husband," says D'souza.

Leadership that Serves

Perhaps the best way to grasp the new Operation Mobilization is to follow one of its pastors making his rounds.

Raised by his nominally Christian grandparents, Bangarraju committed his life to Christ during college and subsequently felt God's calling to ministry with OMI. Now he walks through a small cluster of homes built on abandoned land on the site of a deserted quarry.

He began to pastor the quarry villagers in 1997. The most obvious change, he says, is that most people have replaced makeshift huts with simple brick houses. Less obviously, thanks to Bangarraju their children go to the local Good Shepherd school. They remain very poor, but their trajectory is upward. With Bangarraju's regular visits a house church began to meet; now they have built a small neat structure, about 18x12 feet, decorated with Scripture and colorful banners. During the week, black treadle sewing machines occupy most of the small room. Three times a week, an OMI teacher comes to teach tailoring, providing potential careers to village women.

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As he strolls through the village, Bangarraju is greeted respectfully by women cooking over open fires and by girls decorating the ground with brightly colored powders for an upcoming Hindu festival. At one home, a loud fight breaks out—a drunken man lifts a rock and threatens violence, then tries to tear apart the hut where his mother lives. Bangarraju helps restrain him; he explains to his guests that the man's wife has left him and his mother has refused to keep feeding him.

Another family stops him to talk. It is impossible to miss their respect and appreciation. "They believe that Jesus is one of the gods," says Bangarraju. "I'm not criticizing them when I say that. They open their home for our Tuesday meetings. I believe one day God will speak to them.

"The people here respect me. They say so much change has come since I arrived. They say I brought education to their children. I say, 'No. Give glory to God.'?"

Tim Stafford is a senior writer for Christianity Today.

This article appeared in October 2011 issue under the title, "A Local Witness: A leading missions agency transforms itself in the wake of persecution."


Related Elsewhere:

Find out more about OMI at its website.

Previous Christianity Today articles featuring church growth and missions in India include:
India's Grassroots Revival | With its people turning to Christ in waves, India hosts more believers now than at any time in its 4,000-year history. (July 8, 2011)
Worse Than Ever | Christians knew the attacks were coming, but no one knew they would be this deadly. (October 9, 2008)
India's Burning Issue| Conversions in Orissa—and the violent reaction against them—highlight tension in India's not-so-dead caste system. (January 1, 2008)
India Undaunted | Escalating repression can't seem to dampen the church's growth. (May 1, 2004)