This large community represents less than three percent of the total population of India.
Missionaries came to India in response to famine and poverty. People who came to faith were frequently put out of their own communities with no place to go but to the mission. Many children were orphaned by famine and they also became dependent on the mission. One mission in the 1930s reported that 80 percent of their converts were financially dependent on the mission. These factors removed the converts from their own culture. They became strangers in their own land. These new Christians were perceived as giving allegiance to a foreign land and culture. A pastor related that a tribal person came to him and said, "I have cut my hair and put on long trousers. What else do I have to do to be a Christian?"
Christians in India are discriminated against in certain government programs. The government has a program of reservations for jobs and university education. This program gives preference to people of the lower castes and those below caste. To qualify for these benefits, applicants must state their caste origin. Christians, having denounced caste, are unable to do this. Yet many Christians come from the very groups for whom these programs were devised. This represents a major loss to these people struggling for education and jobs.
Government jobs are widely sought and highly valued. The perception of many Christians is that they do not have an equal opportunity for these jobs and subsequent promotions. On the other hand, some Christians benefit by being perceived as more honest, resulting in more rapid promotions.
Despite minority status, Christians are seen as leaders in medical care and education. This reflects the emphasis of many foreign missions. There are disproportionately more Christian doctors and nurses compared to the general population. It is estimated that more than 30 percent of the nurses in India are Christian. The quality of medical care and education in Christian institutions is believed to be higher than that available through government institutions.
Christians in southern India date their origins back to the landing of Thomas on their shores. Thomas established churches throughout southern India. Catholic missionaries came in 1505 with Vasco de Gama and instituted changes including penance, prayers for the dead and the confessional. Two hundred years later church leaders became aware of their history though the help of British missionaries.
Subsequently a reform movement started from within the church. These reforms represent a return to the original tenets of the church prior to 1600. Southern Christians have a strong sense of continuity from the first century to the present. Their liturgy is 2000 years old. Members are happy to be known as part of the church.
There is a strong lay movement. Since government workers are required to retire at age 55, an impressive amount of social work is done by lay members of the church.
The church in India is a mosaic of places where the church is thriving and places where it is merely suviving. Christians face the future with caution of persecution, and hope in a loving God.
Glen E. Miller retired from medical practice in Ohio to become Director of MCC India in 1990. (from MCC Peace Office Newsletter)
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