Note: Last name of writer and country name omitted and names of national workers changed for security reasons.
The world is filled with people groups who do not have a witness of Jesus among them. How does a people group come to know Jesus? How should we be involved in “inviting the nations to worship Jesus”? This is the story of a small but mighty work of God in a South Asian country and the way RMM has participated in his work.
There are a large number of rural farming families living in a remote region of a South Asian country who have been Hindus/animists for centuries. They are poor, marginalized, and have been exploited for a long time. Although the soil is rich and there are no stones to hinder agriculture and the landscape is flat, life is difficult because each family only owns a small plot of land and the produce from farming has low commercial value. Extended families live together surrounded by the rice fields they farm. The houses are small, one or two-room structures made of mud and thatch or sometimes tin. A few fruit trees and small garden plots often surround the home. Water is carried home from nearby tube wells. Narrow dirt paths connect each home to others in the village and eventually to the main road where small motorized vehicles take them to the nearest town. Travel to the local bazaar is on foot, by bicycle, “van” (a man-powered three-wheeled bicycle with a flat bed over the back two wheels, capable of hauling produce or people), or rickshaw. Many of the farming families increase their meager income by driving one of these vans or rickshaws or by working for a local “rich man” thus earning a small sum by the sweat of their brow. Women spend their days cooking over wood fires, processing food for local consumption, tending small children, washing clothes by hand or any number of other household chores. Children walk to the local school where they try to learn in small classrooms packed with 40-50 other students.
Coming from traditional animistic tribal ancestors, these families have also embraced Hindu gods and the Hindu system, but their heart religion is animism. Nevertheless they suffer from being at the bottom of the Hindu caste system. This system separates people according to their birth into castes or sub-groups of people who are downtrodden from birth by the more advanced castes like the religious leader castes, the merchant castes or other castes that include social privileges denied to these low-caste families. So they are born into poverty and lack educational opportunities, and are looked down upon by their neighbors. Tea shops and small local restaurants cater to people according to caste and marriage and social interaction between castes is frowned upon.
Prior to 2005 they had only heard about people called Christians, but no one had come to really live among them and present the Living Jesus to them. They had rarely left their home region and felt uncomfortable among people from the “outside.” But it is recognized by more progressive minded rural Hindus that economic advancement can only be achieved through higher education. So Deepak, supported by his father, left to go to a major city to study at a university there.
What a challenge to Deepak! He had never been to the city before and knew no one there. The city is so different—a confusing place where he didn’t know how to get around, knew none of the landmarks, nor how to live in a place so different from his home village. The noise of traffic, the hoards of people all in a hurry, the expense, and ever-present danger added to Deepak’s alienation. But since he had been a good student, had done well on his exams and was guided by an interested teacher from his local high school, he found the university, befriended some students there and eventually adjusted to city life.
Hindu background Christ-followers deep in a manuscript Bible study
During his studies, he met a group of young Christians also from Hindu background and connected to a student hostel in another city (funded by RMM), and began talking with them about their faith. Within a short time, he came to believe in the way of Jesus largely because of their friendship and the spirit of love he saw in them, so he was baptized. Together with his new friends, they set up a “Christian student residence” (patterned after the student hostel in the other city) where they met every evening for prayer, songs and Bible study.
Because of Deepak’s academic success and with the hope of financial and social benefits through having a college graduate in the family, several other families sent their sons from that remote area to study in the city. They stayed with Deepak and his new Christian friends. They too heard of Jesus and came to meet him in their evening prayers. They learned how Jesus answers prayers and cares about them even if they are from a poor and marginalized caste. “Somebody up there loves us!” became Good News to them. And several of them also came to faith. Through this outreach to young students, the influence of Jesus’ way of living came to a number of families in their home villages—a distance of twelve hours by bus from the city. When Deepak and his friends returned to visit their village families, there was a new excitement. They were hesitant at first to share openly about their new faith, but they did share privately, especially with some of their friends in the home villages and several more young people came to faith and were baptized.
RMM had a small team of workers in this country, but it proved difficult to put together a team of long-term workers from North America. When Dan left the country in 2003, we discussed how to continue the work among Hindus that had begun. Although we don't normally support "national workers," in this case we decided to support a small team of national cross-cultural workers (i.e. tribal Christians reaching Hindus). These workers serve as leadership trainers to facilitate the ongoing people group movement to Christ. From 2004 to the present, RMM has continued to provide a modest budget to support the efforts of this team and their activities related to leadership training.
They began to invite Protap and Hiralal (believers from a tribal background who are working on the RMM team–see sidebar) to their villages to meet their families and share about Jesus with them. Although these men were from another people group, they were so friendly and spoke with grace, knowledge, and authority about the God who came down to earth for each and every person including them. This too was Good News! Could it be true that the Creator God also cares about us? And what about this positive change we are seeing in our sons who went off to the city to study? There’s a new joy on their faces and new faith in their hearts.
Among those who came to faith was another university student, Madan, who is still the only believing member of his family. He was excited, but then a personal temptation came his way and he fell into Satan’s trap. Because of shame and alienation, Madan cut himself off from all communication with his Christian “family” for several years. But like the Prodigal Son, he recognized what he had lost and tentatively sought out God through his Christian family. They openly received him after he expressed regret for what he had done and a desire to come back to Jesus. Now he has been restored to faith and has developed an extensive vision for how God can change his biological family and the surrounding village families. After graduation, he hopes to return to his home area and lead his people in knowing Christ and the blessings he brings.
At the end of one of my trips to that country, I was pleasantly surprised as I left for the airport. Hiralal had invited four students to come to meet me before I left. When we got there, we hopped into a taxi and headed for a pond right at the end of the runway just outside the airport. There, as jet planes flew overhead, two young men, Dipak and Sabir, were baptized by Deepak in the pond! As three of us stood at the pond’s edge praying and rejoicing at the new life God gives to all who hear and come to him, Deepak with his village friends entered the water and in a simple ceremony under the tropical sun, the two men confirmed their faith to God and to us few privileged to attend. Around us we could see the bustle of life in the distance, some fishing, others washing and still others traveling to town, but we rejoiced that God was at work and that he will reach the multitudes around us through young people like these. What a blessing to share in this event and see the fruit of many prayers and the faithful sharing of God’s people! Dipak has gone on to be a quiet advocate for the way of Jesus, both among university students in the city and back in his home village. Through his testimony several others have come to believe.
How are more village people coming to hear about Jesus? Hiralal decided that because of the open door in this region, he would move his family (his wife Bindu and their two young sons) to the main district town to be more accessible to the people there. Their house is open to receive guests from the villages who have heard of them and want to know more about Jesus and his way. They are also discipling in their home several of the young men who have come to faith so that they can share with others in their villages. Their rented house in town is made of cement has a small living room, two small bedrooms, and a tiny kitchen. When guests (sometimes couples, more often young people) arrive from the village, they sit down and chat while Bindu prepares some cookies, crackers and tea. If they decide to stay for the night, the boys move out of their room to the living room to let the guests stay there. Depending on the number of guests, makeshift beds are made up on the cement floor. For any regular meals they serve, Bindu must cook the rice and dishes to go with it from scratch, often taking several hours to prepare the delicious, spicy food. They will share together the evening family devotion with songs, Scripture reading and prayer. In this way, Hiralal’s family models the life of a Christian family.
Hiralal and Bindu’s two sons (Abhra and Sagnik) also participate in the call of their parents, having left grandparents and other relatives and friends to move to a new place. They did not know anyone at the local school when they moved to this district town, but quickly made friends with some of their Muslim and Hindu classmates. There are many students from the villages who come to the district town and Hiralal and Bindu are sharing with them. In this way, the gospel is spreading to a number of the villages surrounding the town.
Seminar participants from the village who came to learn about Jesus
Bible seminars also play a role in the spreading of the gospel. Once or twice a year, Protap and Hiralal arrange a seminar in another part of the country where they can share freely about Jesus. One of the first participants was Durjoy who is a middle-aged man and an open seeker after Jesus. He brings a nice group of 15-20 young people from the villages to each seminar. For many of these youth, it is their first time out of their region and the first time they can openly interact with Christians. They learn songs, Scripture verses, and the Good News about Jesus. Durjoy has recently expressed his desire to be baptized along with his wife and two sons. When he and his wife are baptized, they will be the first of the older generation of their people group to be baptized. The parents of Rahul, another young believer, are also very interested. It seems to take longer for those of this older generation to make decisions to follow Christ, but once they do, they add stability and maturity to the young churches.
Although most of the baptized believers so far are young, unmarried men, their sisters are also hearing the gospel. Girls in the villages live a very protected life, so it takes more time to reach them with the gospel message. But several young women were able to participate in the latest seminar and one of them came recently with her parents to Hiralal’s house in the town to hear more about Jesus. If she comes to faith, she can share more easily with the other girls in her village. There are many young women students from Hindu families in the main district town where Hiralal lives. Among them is Saibal, whom Hiralal has hired to teach his two sons academic subjects. While interacting with the family, she is hearing about Jesus too. They have a vision to share Jesus with village girls who live in rented rooms in the town as they study. What is attractive about the gospel to these young girls? They too have direct access to the Creator God through Jesus His Son. He answers their prayers and has a plan for their lives. Women from Hindu background who come to faith in Jesus have a unique role in raising their children in their new faith and sharing with other women in the village.
The church has been given the task and privilege of seeing the Kingdom of God extended to unreached people groups like the one described above. How is your local congregation involved in catching the vision, seeking God’s will regarding who to send, preparing them to go, sending them in the name of Christ, and supporting them as they engage an unreached people group?
Key Factors in Reaching a People Group for Jesus
Key People—God opens the hearts of key people (in this case Deepak and his friends who first came to faith) so that through them others come to faith and fellowships of believers are formed. So an early task for those who go, is finding the key person or people that God has already prepared to receive him and open a door to the Good News for others from that group.
Prayer is another important aspect of reaching a people group. Seekers learn early on that Jesus answers their prayers and this encourages faith. Many receive healing after praying in Jesus’ name and the fear of evil spirits is overcome. But they also learn (often after baptism) that Jesus doesn’t answer all their prayers in the way they want. He is not a Divine Genie who gives us what we want. He is a God who is infinitely wiser than we are and knows what he wants to do in our lives. So, even challenges offer an opportunity to know Jesus in a more complete way.
Church fellowship is another way they learn more about Jesus. They are not isolated believers, but learn to see Jesus in the sharing of life together. They learn to assist each other, forgive each other, and to appreciate the different gifts each person has been given for the good of all. And they continue to see new ways God is blessing their lives and families. For example, in recent national school exams, young believers from this and two other people groups ALL passed their high school graduation exams–an unheard of blessing for these students from poor families when they were walking in Hinduism/animism. They celebrated together the blessing of God and they now see how God leads them to new horizons in life.
“Outsiders”—Christians from outside the people group have the purpose of being God’s instrument to facilitate a movement to Christ among unreached people groups. It takes vision and faith, recognizing the openings God creates and taking the initiative to follow up on these openings—often at personal sacrifice. Although outside money is used sometimes, what is happening is not and should not be dependent on outside money. The key is people, not money, and the flow of God’s Spirit through people of faith. Christian teaching, encouragement in times of difficulty, and just being there requires “outsiders” to be close enough to walk with them as brothers and sisters. And that often requires that these outsiders make significant sacrifice to be available for teaching and encouragement. They must be mobile—to follow up on the people coming to faith wherever they live. They cannot be bound to the location where they have lived in the past. In the case of Hiralal and his wife Bindu, they had to leave their families and home area (think Abraham and Sarah) to move to a new town ten hours away where they were “strangers in the land.” Hiralal spends considerable time traveling on dangerous roads, visiting the scattered believers where they live and study. Narrow roads are filled with trucks, buses, motorcycles, bicycles and human powered vehicles all moving at different speeds and vying for road space, so there are many accidents which kill and injure people. During frequent political clashes, buses are set on fire and vehicles travel at the risk of being beaten with rods or bombarded with stones or bricks. But the risk is worth it when Hiralal sees believers meeting together and sharing their faith with others.
Intercessory prayer is also very important. Many within Conservative Mennonite Conference have been interceding for this people group, for those coming to faith, and for those working with them from the outside since the beginning of the work. Faithful intercessory prayer is required for the spirit of Hinduism to be broken and for families bound by spirits to be released into the freedom Christ offers. Intercessory prayer moves the protective hand of God over these people and the entire movement to Christ.
Jesus—The principle role is always taken by Jesus himself. He loves each person of that people group and he has prepared “key people” in the group to be the first to know him.
The time is here, God is at work and CMC churches need to join with his work so that the harvest can come in. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’” (Luke 9:36-38, NIV)
Dan serves as RMM’s strategic missions catalyst and is based in Bangkok, Thailand. He works with the RMM and Latin American Missions Partnership (LAMP) teams there and also teaches English to university students. In addition to his work in Thailand, Dan oversees RMM’s work in the South Asian country described in this article. Dan mentors a team of church planters who are working among Hindus in this country. Dan also serves on the committee that gives leadership to LAMP. He has served in various locations with RMM since 1973.