Mathews and Sissy Manaloor are Christians and members of the Mar Thoma Church in India. Until I met Mathews, I did not realize that there was a church that was birthed by the apostle Thomas in the first century. The church predates any Western involvement in India and has a strong presence in southern India. Mathews set up meetings for me in Kochi with the Mar Thoma Seminary, the South India Institute for Christian Studies (graduate) in Bangaluru, and St. Stephens College, an elite undergraduate liberal arts college in Delhi. In each place we were hosted well and we had engaging conversations with local educators.
I learned a number of things in our visit to India. At the Mar Thoma Seminary I spoke to the undergraduates (bachelor of divinity) at chapel. The service was in an older structure made out of brick. Inside the walls were white with clear windows on each side. There was almost no furniture. There were chairs at the back for faculty and pads on the floor for students. Everyone removed their shoes as they came into the building. (I learned one thing immediately – in the monsoon season, leave your shoes outside where the rain will not pour down on them!) I said a few things related to our own ministry, but the most valuable portion of the time that day came in dialogue. It was a struggle at first to get students to respond to questions, but once the “door” was opened, we developed a good conversation. At one point I asked a native Indian student, Noble, what he would like an American to know or take away with from a visit to India. Very graciously and carefully, paying respect to the president of an American college, he said, “Americans always seem to know us as the ‘other.’ It is obvious from the way that Americans relate to us that they do not see us as their equals nor as individuals who have anything to contribute to a conversation about what God is doing in our world. We want to be known as equal partners in the ministry of Christ, and we have much to teach you if you will only listen.” It was a challenging statement offered very graciously.
The subsequent task of living the life of a Christian is different in the India context where the gospel has taken root. As one of the students noted, “In America my faith is lived out in a context of relative wealth, security, abundance and technological sophistication. Most Indians, whether they know Jesus or not, do not share this context.”
Second, it became quickly apparent that God is working in very diverse theological communities in India. While I am sure real tensions exist between the church in India, there was a much greater sense of collaboration among all the groups that we met than has been characteristic of the United States. Perhaps this is the direct result of being a small minority surrounded by Hindus and Muslims. The Metropolitan (the head of the Mar Thoma Church worldwide) told us that his church has been operating as a numerical minority among a diverse religious community for almost 2,000 years. This has not made the church a “silent” voice in India but one that is actually bold. Indian Christians have been very outspoken about human trafficking, the popular practice of aborting female babies in favor of male babies, poverty, environmental degradation and other significant issues regarding the restoration of God’s world. The church broadly has reached out to the Dhalit community that has been relegated to the lower echelons of society by the caste system.
Third, our meeting with the principal (president) of Stephen’s College in Delhi reminded me of the importance of the college in the life of a culture. Stephens is one of the very finest universities in all of India. In a study equivalent to the U.S. News and World Report ranking of American colleges, India Times rated Stephens first in science and second in the arts and humanities in all of India. More than 28,000 students apply each year for 400 positions at Stephens – very competitive entry. The college reserves 40 percent of the slots for students who are Christians in order to continue to prepare leaders that will help influence India society and culture in the future. The principal spoke eloquently of the role of the college in carrying the message of Jesus and also forming students in a more personal way. “Our best work,” he noted, “occurs when our faculty get to know students outside the classroom and speak into their hearts.” He added that sometime his high-quality faculty come to believe that it is the acquisition of knowledge that is the supreme value, but he tries to remind them that the most influential work is the work of the “heart.”