This month's Monthly Missions Focus is on India. At the end of September, three Ethos staff members got to visit and spend time with our seven Ethos India churches. As we head towards Birthday Sunday, we'll hear from each of them about their experiences and how they saw God at work. Up next we'll be hearing from Brooks Lokey...
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
"What is written in the Law?" he replied. “How do you read it?"
He answered, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind;" and, "Love your neighbor as yourself."
"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."
I’ve been to India twice before, and quite frankly, I just didn’t get it. Sure, I saw that there were these people who were living in extreme poverty that were now a part of some Christian churches that had popped up there, that Ethos was now getting to work with. I also saw that there were some leaders who were taking on the challenge of leading these people experiencing poverty and physical hardship and despair, as well as the challenge of preaching Christ in a context that is mostly Hindu or Muslim.
I saw how they were caring for the kids in some of these villages and communities to protect them from harm, to educate them, and to take care of them physically. I mostly knew that what they were doing was good, but I didn’t really understand how significant the work that they are doing is.
I decided to go back to India for a third time, and to be honest, I didn’t really know why I was going back. I didn’t really like the culture of India, the heat, the food, the smells, the chaos of the second most populated country in the world, which was unlike anything I’d ever seen, and yes, I’ve been to New York City. All I knew is that I believed in the work that was going on in India, and I believed in the purpose of our trip which was to teach and equip some of their leaders with leadership and discipleship tools that have been very helpful to us and others around the globe. And we'd continue to develop and grow in the relationship that we’ve established with the Indian churches over the years.
This time though, something was different.
We went as a smaller group, which has plenty of advantages. One of these advantages is that it allowed us to go deeper with the leaders there and get to know them better. As we spent more quality time with Piyas and Jaiashree (the two leaders of the SEED organization), we got to ask more questions. Which meant we got to ask better questions to gain a better picture of how they are doing ministry in the context they find themselves in.
If you’ve been with us for the past few Sundays, and if you’ve made it this far in this blog series, you probably have a good feel for the context in which they find themselves in Kolkata, India and its surrounding rural towns and villages. If you haven’t, here’s a brief synopsis...some of the areas in which they work in are among the poorest in the world. We’re not talking poverty like we see here in America (though there’s not much sense in comparing one’s suffering through poverty), but this is on a level I have never seen before in American neighborhoods or projects...
It was something else — another world almost. As if the lack of stable shelter, clean water, proper hygiene, free or affordable education, and food wasn’t enough, there are many social cycles that put the children in these communities at risk every day. The men in these communities often numb the pain of their situations with alcohol, a cheap alternative to facing the plight of their reality. The women in these communities, often still teenagers when newlyweds with young children, then will have to be the bread winners of the home, leaving the home to work menial, demeaning jobs to make ends meet. Fathers, because of their alcohol addictions can often become physically abusive to their wives and children — and when the women leave the home, if the father is still around drinking, the children become the number one target of their abuse. If the father leaves the home, the children are left alone in danger of whoever else may come by to exploit a child or influence them into falling into bad habits. To add to all this, the culture (being mostly Hindu) is built around ancient eastern traditions of pleasing the myriad of gods...leaving the people living in constant fear of punishment, shame, and pressure.
When I think of what it means to love and serve God, I think first about feelings and the heart. We often talk about how to get our hearts connected to God, how we experience God through our feelings of Him. And I think this is important. Look to the Psalms and you’ll see how important it is that God has a person’s heart. Psalm 51, Psalm 86, Psalm 119, and on and on. I think it is necessary for a person’s heart to be engaged with the Father for that person to begin looking like Jesus in word and in deed. I always knew that Piyas and Jaiashree loved God with their hearts and with their souls. You can’t spend more than 5 minutes with them and not hear them go on and on about how much God has done for them and how much they want to live for God and do His good work. It really is inspiring to listen to them talk about their faith in such a volatile environment and how much they are willing to suffer physical and emotional harm just to love and serve God.
What I have often overlooked in my life and have been learning in the last few years is — to love God with the heart doesn’t mean that you just love God with your feelings. This is what took shape for me in listening to them and watching them in India this time.
The passage from Luke that I began this blog with says that we are to love God with our heart, soul, strength, and mind. What does it mean to love God with your strength and mind? For Piyas and Jaiashree, it means that they don’t just invite these people to church and tell them about how great Jesus is, it means that they show the heart of Jesus by using not only their hearts and souls, but also their strength and minds.
It would be so easy for them to have some church services for these people, hear their stories of hardship, pray for them, and tell them “it’s all going to be all right, we’re going to a better place after this life,” but that’s not what they do. They decided to make this place, this earth, this country, this city...a better place now.
How? By engaging their minds and using their strength to bring the kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven. Piyas and Jaiashree have decided that rather than throw their hands up at the injustice and pain of the world around them, they will enter into to it, learn about it, invest of their own resources and selves to bring the Kingdom of God to Kolkata, India and to transform a generation.
They have been observing and studying the cultural cycles of injustice, poverty, and hopelessness and using their strength and minds (fueled by their heart and soul) to make the next generation in Kolkata a safer, more loving, more empowered people than it is now. In studying the cycles that lead to the perpetuation of poverty, they have identified a few key areas of the culture in these villages and slums that need to be addressed, and they are working to change them.
They feed 750 kids one meal a day roughly 20 days out of the week. Many of these kids do not have food unless they find it in dumpsters and trash heaps. This means many of them will not eat most days, and what food they do have, their parents will often take from them. Piyas and Jaiahsree knew that without food, these kids wouldn’t be able to pay attention in school or listen to the gospel being shared...or worse they wouldn’t survive. They knew that to love these kids meant that they’d have to meet their physical needs first. They are paying for and sending 750 children to school every day in a place where free education does not exist and families do not have the means to pay for it. They cover tuition, school supplies, books, and tutors so that these kids can get an education, pursue their dreams, and not have to drop out at age 12-15 to work low paying jobs to support their parents.
They learned that many of these kids are creative and artistic. More than just food and education, they want a way to express themselves and to just be kids. Dance is an important cultural art in India, so they’ve hired a dance teacher to teach any children that want to learn to dance. It may not sound like much, but to some of these kids, it brings them immense joy. The joy on their faces when they get to express themselves through art is invaluable.
Another way they’re meeting needs is by hiring extracurricular tutors in areas that can help the kids get ahead and prepare for jobs. Learning English and how to use computers is a huge way that kids can get ahead in their job preparedness. Another thing they observed is that some of the kids just don’t do well in school. For some, it may be a disciplinary issue, but for many others, school is just not how they learn best. For these kids, rather than shame them for “being a bad kid" or punish them, they continue to find ways to empower them. For a few children, they provide special training programs for vocations that may not require secondary education, but can still be a career. They are finding every way to give these kids opportunities to succeed and get out of their cycles of poverty and prevent them from turning back to old ways.
They’ve also given many of the adult women vocational training to be beauticians or seamstresses. These are jobs that provide more money than their current vocation and will also allow them to stay at home to work; therefore, they are able to be present with their young children and protect them from harm.
Another way that they’ve chosen to work is through something called the Dream Home. For some of the girls in the most dangerous of situations, they’ve created a safe home for them to live with other girls from their village — where they can go to school, receive private tutoring, eat, be spiritually fed. Currently, they only have a Dream Home for girls, but they plan to finish construction on one just like it for teenage boys in 2018.
Piyas and Jaiahsree do all of this in addition to providing spiritual guidance and care through the 7 planted churches in and around Kolkata.
It wasn’t until this trip that I got it.
I saw that they weren’t just doing some good things for people out of guilt or compulsion — or that they were trying their best, but needed their buddies in the good ole U.S. of A. to come help them and tell them what to do and how to do it.
They were doing it. They did the research, they got to know these people, lived with them, spoke with them, prayed with them, got to know their families, believers and non believers, and they were caring about loving the Lord with all their heart, soul, strength, and mind by loving these people the same. They were truly loving their neighbor and doing for their neighbor as they would for themselves.
And who is their neighbor?
Anyone that they encounter who they love with the love of Christ. They just needed the funds to do it. In their context, it’s not like they can start a fundraiser campaign and get what they need or that they can operate off of the tithes of their people. They’re working with some of the poorest of the poor. There’s also no such thing as a government grant for a non-profit like them there. The government doesn’t really want them around anyway. So, revenue streams are basically impossible without outside help, and this is how we’ve gotten to partner with them to use what we have to bless and empower them to continue.
These people are for real. They have provided me with the best example I’ve ever known of selfless sacrifice and joyful service to the Lord. It’s not a burden to them to give their lives for this. Yes, it’s hard work. Yes, it’s long hours. Yes, it asks a lot of them. No, it’s not always fun. But through it all, they find joy in their sacrifice and in the transformation that God is doing through their partnership with Him.
They’re teaching me a new concept of the word "joy" and teaching me what it means to be selfless. I believe that they will change a generation of people in Kolkata, India — that the next generation will become the next leaders and continue the work and multiply...who will raise up more leaders who will continue this work after they’re gone, and so on and so on.
They may only know 800 or so people in a country of 1.3 billion, but what if those 800 people reach another 800, and those 800 reach 800 more?
Soon thousands will have been changed by their love and know the true and living God, his Son Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. What started with only 2 people has now touched 800. Isn’t that how Christianity always goes anyway? What started with 12 men a few thousand years ago now has reached over a billion people throughout history. I believe that God will continue to do this good work in India through these leaders both now and for many years to come. It is our joy and our honor to continue to work with them, know them, be in relationship with them and support them both spiritually and financially.
To read more of the India Experiences written by our staff, go here.