Growing up in India, I never imagined I would end up following Jesus Christ. I belong to the Adi tribe, one of the indigenous tribes in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, located in the remote, far northeast part of the country. Members of my family practiced a traditional animistic religion that was popular in our culture.
I considered myself an omnist—someone who believes in all religions. On some level, this even included Christianity. Before my conversion, I occasionally went to church services at the invitation of friends and I would celebrate holidays like Christmas. I also frequently read a Gideons New Testament Bible.
But all the while, I kept idols of all the deities, including the Hindu gods, Buddha, and Jesus Christ. And I visited a variety of places of worship: Hindu temples, a Buddhist monastery, and a gangging, where Adi people pray to a god called Donyi-Polo (in the Adi language, donyi means sun, and polo means moon).
Afraid of Hell
In 2008, a friend invited me to join an evangelistic youth camp organized by the Jawaharlal Nehru Evangelical Union, an organization affiliated with the Union of Evangelical Students of India. I cannot recall all the things I learned at the camp, but I remember asking one of the speakers whether a non-Christian can find a place in heaven. He replied that one can only enter the kingdom of heaven by accepting Jesus Christ as one’s personal Savior.
As someone who had read parts of the Bible before, I was familiar with stories of God throwing all who did not believe in him into hell on the final Day of Judgment. And I was scared of being tormented in a fiery place for all eternity. Driven by a desire to escape that punishment, I decided to accept Christ as my savior. In hindsight, I can see how God, in his grace, led me to the truth despite my shallow understanding of the Bible and Christianity in general.
In Arunachal Pradesh, many people perceive Christianity as a Western religion and therefore a threat to indigenous culture and identity. Christian converts, of course, can retain a good portion of their cultural heritage; they often continue, for instance, to speak, read the Bible, and sing hymns in their local language. But conversion also involves giving up certain rituals that are tightly woven into the fabric of local society, which is viewed by some as an irrevocable loss for “tribal” cultures. In my home state, there is even a formal, registered organization, the Indigenous Faith and Cultural Society of Arunachal Pradesh, which exists mainly to promote, preserve, and patronize traditional Indian expressions of religion and culture.
All of this made me quite uneasy about professing my faith openly and telling my parents that I had accepted Jesus, especially as the first convert in my family. Knowing that this news would make them unhappy, I decided to keep my faith a secret. While away at college I attended church on a regular basis, but I stopped going whenever I came home, lacking the courage to practice my faith in their presence. In fact, fear of being found out caused me to delay being baptized until four years after my conversion.
A turning point came in February 2013, when I underwent major heart surgery after two months of sickness. Doctors had recommended the procedure much earlier, when I was diagnosed with rheumatic heart disease, but my father was too nervous to let me go forward. By 2013, however, we both recognized that I was out of options.
As I lay in my sickbed, my parents and relatives got a firsthand look at the love and care offered by the Christian community. My church and my believing friends helped me financially. This got the attention of my parents, who began to appreciate the value of Christianity. My mother even stopped performing traditional rituals, which she had been practicing for over a decade with the hope of ensuring my continued good health. Neither of my parents became Christians, but they no longer had any problem with my conversion, although some tension remained on account of our clashing worldviews. (Unfortunately, my father passed away in 2015 without knowing Christ.)
During this period of illness, God helped me realize the importance of living a purposeful life. I saw that what matters most is how I live—not how long I live. My health scare turned me away from self-centeredness and molded me into someone motivated to meet the needs of others, regardless of their religion. Serving my community became the way to fulfill the Bible’s second Great Commandment: to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Mark 12:31).
Growing in Maturity
After accepting Christ as Lord and Savior, I started getting involved in the Union of Evangelical Students of India (UESI), a ministry that equips believing students to transform their campuses for Christ while serving the church and the broader society. I attended many training programs organized by UESI to better understand Scripture. My grasp of the gospel remained very shallow, however, until 2015, when I attended an Intensive Summer Study organized by the North Delhi Evangelical Graduate Fellowship.
At this point, my life took another new turn. I started taking my faith more seriously than ever before. In part, this took the form of developing sustained reading habits. This was an arduous task, since I had grown up in an environment that lacked a strong culture of literacy. But I was eager to know God’s Word on a deeper level and to learn the habits of thinking like a Christian. The more I studied the Bible, the more I learned that the primary reason for being a Christian is not merely going to heaven when you die but is participating in God’s work of establishing and growing his kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven. I started reading Scripture as the long, overarching story of Israel, with every page pointing to the birth, death, resurrection, and eternal reign of Jesus Christ.
Meanwhile, I was pursuing a PhD in economics and starting to gain some experience teaching in undergraduate college classrooms. As I grew in my understanding of the gospel, I started to see my work in a different light. When I began my degree program, I lacked any genuine interest in my research. But the conviction that God had created everything under the sun for our good and his glory helped me integrate my faith with my academics. I realized I had been given a weighty responsibility to pursue and teach the truth about the world, which meant I needed to devote myself to my studies.
When I contemplate my experience as a believer in Christ, I’m always astonished at God’s amazing work in my life. Growing in Christ is a journey where God is the driver and believing communities are his passengers. Without reliable mentors, both within my church and among my Christian friends, my faith would have remained shallow and self-centered. There have been obstacles to overcome, but riding along these bumpy roads has made me stronger, and God catches me every time I fall. My mission today, inside and outside of the classroom, is to care for the world as much as God cares for me.
Apilang Apum is an assistant professor of economics at Jomin Tayeng Government Model Degree College in Roing, India.
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