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The Best of the Old and the Best of the New

By Jewel and Richard Showalter

Over the last two years, CMC and RMM have developed relationships with KMM in South Asia – a rapidly growing network of churches, training centers, and schools. We traveled in South Asia for five weeks last fall accompanied by KMM’s president, Jolem*. We encountered both encouraging glimpses of new work and amazing stories of Mennonite connections with this group that date back over 100 years.

We sat in house church meetings in the middle-class homes of recent Hindu-background believers in the mud-walled village home of a house church leader on an island. We met dozens of house church leaders who are part of KMM, an exciting web of resourcing and relationships.

In multiple communities EduCare Centers for underprivileged children are springing up alongside these house churches. They’re sometimes sprawled in vacant lots or on the verandas of neighborhood schools – and in one case, the yard of a Hindu temple where space is donated by a local Brahmin priest.

One such center is beginning in a city. So far it’s only a bare plot of ground that floods in the rainy season, but KMM sees the possibilities. They are determined to give the children from the neighboring slum a chance to receive a good education. We visited the plot to hear the children’s program of songs and verses as the children sat cross-legged on reed mats in the empty field.

After the program we strolled through the neighboring slum. Soberly, Jolem pointed out the home of a young girl who used to attend the children’s center. Last year she hung herself with her saree – discouraged and hungry after being robbed of food by her brother.

Jolem has a soft spot in his heart for disadvantaged children. He knows how quickly children can find themselves living on the streets. Although his own parents had come from a line of wealthy Brahmin Hindus in a neighboring country, the family lost everything during the communal riots in the 1970s, and they migrated to South Asia. Then when a work accident blinded his father, they were reduced to abject poverty.

Jolem had grown up in a Christian orphanage where he received care and education intermittently while also helping his blind father beg on the trains to support their family. He became the first person in the orphanage to take a Bible correspondence course offered by a Bible institute which was initiated through the efforts of the United Missionary Society (formerly Mennonite Brethren in Christ) in 1963. At the time he knew nothing of those Mennonite roots.

There was yet another Mennonite connection which is only now becoming clear. Isaac Burkholder, a member of a KMM support team in the Chambersburg, Pennsylvania area found a 1905 letter from Amos Horst to his great-uncle Henry Burkholder. Horst had just arrived with his family in the area as a missionary.

Horst had been sent out by the Hephzibah Faith Mission in Iowa, a holiness group which appealed to many Mennonites. He was met in South Asia by D.W. Zook, another Hephzibah missionary, who helped him settle in. (Jewel’s grandfather, A.D. Wenger, had also met Zook in South Asia on a trip around the world in 1899.) Horst died in 1908, perhaps of yellow fever.

When Jolem learned of this, he shook his head in amazement. Now he’s more determined than ever to treasure both his old and new Mennonite roots while simultaneously thrusting down new ones. He reaps the fruit of the sacrificial service of those who have gone before while sending out more runners into every district of South Asia.

Though the churches planted by the efforts of groups like the Hephzibah Faith Mission and the United Missionary Society (which merged in the 1940s) grew strong among the tribal peoples of South Asia, there are still very few believers in Jesus. As a first-generation South Asian follower of Jesus from Hindu background, Jolem is determined to see that change.

Most of those who work in the KMM network are first-generation believers from Hindu background. They know firsthand the pain of shunning and ostracism. It can’t be avoided as most live in multi-generational, joint families.

One woman told of how their oldest son, a married man who lived with them in a home they had built from their life’s savings – ordered them to leave. Life became so unpleasant in the joint family they moved into small rented quarters in another town.

But their second son is also a believer. He’s dedicating his life to reaching out in witness to this new community. Along with another government worker, this young civil engineer has started several house churches in the region.

“I’ve lost my one son, but I’m giving my second son to the Lord,” his mother said, smiling even as she wiped away tears with the tail of her orange-red saree.

Another pastor who lay in a coma at death’s door after being drug from his cycle and beaten over the head, recovered with assistance from KMM. He’s back to leading a house church out of his home. Different from most other KMM associates, his family was sent as missionaries here to the north of the country some thirty years ago.

For three nights we stayed in the joint family compound of Ropah* and his wife Alina,* long-standing leaders in KMM’s largest district. They work in the small village where they share a compound and surrounding farmland with three of Ropah’s brothers. Through the leadership of this couple, there are now twenty-six house churches and numerous EduCare centers springing up in surrounding villages. Even after more than 10 years, two of Ropah’s brothers remain hostile, shunning the believers. Only recently did his oldest brother become sympathetic. After he lost his wife, Alina supplied him with food. At first he was too ashamed to take it from her hand, but she left it on the doorstep. Then he broke, overcome by her kindness.

On our visit he opened his home to give us lodging. Ropah is known as “Brother Jesus” throughout the region. Tirelessly visiting the young house churches and their leaders, counseling, mentoring, and providing transportation.

After bouncing along a narrow dirt road on a dike between two rice paddies we joined one of the neighboring house churches. They’d invited the community for this special event. The leader’s wife and daughter led beautiful worship singing as fifty curious villagers sat cross-legged on reed mats. The church planter runs a small copper business in the village. Even his wife isn’t fully a Christian yet – but she loves the music and joins him in supporting the work of the growing house church.

Further south in a community near a big city, a retired railway worker who’d grown up in a nominal Christian community began reaching out to his neighbors after attending a KMM equipping seminar. The church he knew didn’t seem to care about the lost. Gripped with a new vision to reach South Asia for Jesus – and with his own resources – he now leads a thriving house church in his spacious home. As we joined the worship, the group was passing out blankets to widows and other needy persons they’d invited to their meeting that day.

“Resources are always welcome and further our work – but that’s not what drives our vision! God does.” “We don’t have the resources to support the church planters,” Jolem said. “But we try to give some ministry support. There’s so much more we wish we could do. Someday we hope to have a training center in each district, and better buildings for the children’s centers.” Currently the new training center – where two out of four planned stories are completed – serves as a base. But there’s a plot of land in another region poised to become a training center for that area. Even before the first center is finished there are plans for a computer center on the second floor – an income-generating business that could provide some ministry support. Still in the planning stages, this could provide a model for sustainability in training centers in other districts. “Our vision is to mobilize and equip for mission in South Asia,” Jolem said simply.

A few of those who serve under the KMM umbrella are veterans of work with other Christian organizations. Most are new believers eager to begin house churches in their home villages along with tent making work like farming, teaching, tailoring, barbering, or bike repair. “We long to see the church really rooted here, indigenous,” Jolem said. “That is our focus. The needs and opportunities are enormous. Resources are always welcome and further our work – but that’s not what drives our vision! God does.”

In the meantime, there is already a KMM network of 68 house fellowships, with more being rapidly planted. The goal is to see a house fellowship in every one of the more than 30,000 unreached South Asian villages. It is a God-sized vision, and opportunities for partnership abound.

Please pray that the good news would continue to spread throughout West Bengal. Pray that the believers there would boldly share their faith so the name of God is known and loved in every village.

*Names changed for security