India: Suffering makes the Church grow

The leader of the Church of North India - the supreme decision-making Protestant body - said that the suffering endured by Christians beset by Hindu nationalists has but strengthened the Church and its ecumenical resolve. Interview.

The violence and suffering the Indian Church underwent recently did not discourage it, and in fact has only strengthened it, says the newly elected head of the Church of North India (CNI).

On Oct. 20, the CNI synod, the supreme decision-making body of the Protestant Church, elected 59-year-old Bishop Purely Lyngdoh of North East India as its moderator, or top official, for a three-year term. His diocese covers seven states. The united Church was formed in 1970 through the merger of six independent Protestant Churches and denominations.

The soft-spoken bishop, a member of the Khasi tribe from Meghalaya state, which his diocese covers, was the Church's deputy moderator until his election to the new office. Bishop Lyngdoh says he considers the new post an added responsibility at a challenging time.

The prelate spoke with UCA News on Nov. 6 on a wide range of issues, against the backdrop of anti-Christian violence in the eastern Indian state of Orissa, where close to 60 Christians were confirmed killed since Aug. 24. He stressed Christian unity to face fanaticism and other issues.

The interview follows.

UCA NEWS: How do you feel after being elected CNI moderator?

BISHOP PURELY LYNGDOH: It is an added responsibility. I have my own diocese, which covers seven states in northeastern India. It was called the diocese of Assam [before India's independence in 1947]. After independence we named it the diocese of North East India. The CNI's 26 dioceses cover most parts of India [except the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu]. One more diocese was created in this synod. All the 26 bishops attended the latest synod.

The synod decided to use the Internet to make Church decisions more transparent. Has transparency been lacking?

No, not because we lack transparency, but we should advance with the times. Everything around us has progressed so much; we try to go with the time. We thought we would try to make it easy for the people to access decisions about the Church and information available to people through the Internet. We know most members are in rural areas, where internet facilities may not be available. But where it is available, we want to make everything available at the click of a button. Again, it doesn't mean we are not transparent. We want things easier and accessible.

You have also given a new thrust to educating the poor. Why?

It is not a new thrust. Education was, is and will be one of the strongest means of changing the lives of people. When missioners came to this country, their main thrust was to educate the poor. In the course of time, education became commercialized. Now we have realized we have gone wrong, so we are going back to the original thrust.

Christian leaders say a major issue before them is to work for Christian unity in India. How is your Church collaborating?

Lack of unity is a problem among the various Christian denominations in India. This is our problem. The first step to remedy the situation was taken in southern India in 1947, when four denominations [Anglican, Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian] came together and formed the Church of South India. In 1970, six denominations came together to become the CNI. These are all small steps to fulfill God's will.

Another challenge is to work together as one united body of Christ, even though we are not an organic body. We can be one in so many ways. In the NCCI [National Council of Churches in India] we have all Protestant Churches together. Here we are painting a united picture of Christians. We are all working together on issues of national importance.

The CBCI (Catholic Bishops' Conference of India), the CNI and the NCCI are working together on several issues. One organic Church for the whole country seems very impractical, but it may be possible by the grace of God. At present it is difficult because of our diverse traditions and cultures.

Can you cite an example of united action in recent times?

All the protest rallies and programs Christians organized against the violence in Orissa have been done together. From our side we would say we have done our best, but the response from the government takes its own time. We need to put pressure; we need to pursue matters.

How seriously does CNI view the attacks on Christians?

It is a very serious matter, as many of our churches were also destroyed, especially in Kandhamal [district]. We have our diocese there. We are also raising resources for reaching relief to the affected people in our diocese. We have sent teams to visit people. Our work is restricted because the situation is not yet normal.

Is the Church in India directionless regarding the continuing tension in Orissa?

I will talk on behalf of CNI. We are not discouraged. We are not directionless. The Church is not merely a human organization; it is the body of Christ. It is God's Church. The history of Christianity has been one of suffering and challenges. The Church has grown with each suffering. What the Church is today is the result of the sufferings it faced in the past. What is happening in Orissa and other parts of our country are very unfortunate. But they have not surprised us. The more the challenges, the stronger the Church's faith will deepen.

Many people suspect Orissa was a test case and predict similar events in other parts of India. Do you have strategies for facing such violence?

First, all Christians should come closer and look at this not as a regional problem but as a problem facing all Christians, all religious minorities.

Secondly, what is happening is not simply an attack on Christians but on our constitution, which guarantees religious freedom. They are attacking the very secular fabric of our nation, the very character of our country.

We have had some discussion among Churches and religious minorities. It is not only that we come together as Christians; we should also bring together other minority groups such as Muslims and Sikhs. Our recent synod had recommended taking up interfaith dialogue seriously. All religious minorities should come together, stand up for our rights and assert the need to safeguard our nation's democratic and secular principles and its religious freedom.

Does that mean the Church will get involved in politics?

No. The Church will not support any political party. The Church will have no objection if Christians get involved in politics as the citizens of this country. We will encourage our younger generation to get involved in the political process by training them in leadership and personality development. I will be happy if our people get involved in politics.

The Church's face in India has changed.

You must understand that 60 percent of Christians in India come from tribal and dalit [lowest castes, formerly called "untouchable"] background. The Church is with the people and of the people. It is not the buildings, bishops or priests. When you have all these people inside the Church, the face of the Church has to change. Earlier you looked at outsiders to lead the Church. Then the Church in India had a different picture. But today Church leaders are local people.

Does your tribal background inform your priorities in leading CNI?

I don't look myself as a tribal leader. My priorities are the priorities of the Church -- building people, leadership, education, evangelization, ministry for children and so on.

Most of our people are dalit and tribal, who are uneducated. In our education policy we said our first priority is to educate our own people, particularly the poor. All our educational institutions would give preference to our children, because we have realized this: Christians, who form less than 3 percent of the population, have educated 80-90 percent of the Indians, but after availing all our services, they still look down on us. So we will try gradually, slowly, step-by-step to educate our own people. We hope by the next generation, within the next 10-20 years, we would have a strong group of educated Christians.

How do you plan to find funds for your projects?

We are trying to use our properties in a better way, particularly in cities. We must evolve financially viable projects and use our landed properties for hospitals, schools and hostels. Some land also could be developed commercially to bring some permanent resources to the Church.

But this is a tough proposal. When we discuss this with people, they misunderstand our good intentions sometimes. Some would oppose the proposals saying the Church is selling its property and engaging in moneymaking business. Making better use of our resources is one of the means to become self-reliant. Then, we also encourage our people to donate money to the Church. Right from parish and diocese levels, we encourage people to do this. Most money collected is used for local projects.

What is your message for Indian Christians?

Let us be faithful to God; faithful to one another. Let us make a difference in this country. That's what Jesus said. Let people see the good works we do; not that they should praise us but give glory to God.

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