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Thousands celebrate milestone, Christ


On Feb. 8, for the first time ever, participants at the Golden Jubilee mela (festival) in India’s Chhattisgarh region celebrated their faith by marching about two miles from nearby Basna to Parrapat.

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April 23, 2008
-Ryan Miller

PARRAPAT, India — Indian Mennonites from the Bharatiyah General Conference Mennonite Church celebrated 50 years of Bible festivals Feb. 6 - 10 by proclaiming Christ’s victory to their neighbors and worshipping thousands-strong.

On Feb. 8, for the first time ever, participants at the Golden Jubilee mela (festival) in India’s Chhattisgarh region celebrated their faith by marching about two miles from nearby Basna to Parrapat, which has hosted the gathering since 1959. Two days later, nearly 3,000 people attended the culminating worship service.

Former Ontario pastor Ben Wiebe attended the celebration as a representative of Mennonite Church Canada. At the time, he was on serving on a special assignment with MC Canada Witness as an instructor at Union Biblical Seminary in Pune, India. Wiebe said that he found it personally rewarding to see Mennonites from various regions of India gather as one group despite the challenges they have faced over the years.

Only 2.3 percent of Indians are Christian and in Chhattisgarh, as in many regions of India, public preaching is banned, and some persecution of Christians exists. Still, the ban did little to inhibit marchers, who spent more than two hours joyously, and slowly, covering the road.

Mahendre Kulbeep, an agent of BGCMC, said, “The public should know there are Christians here. … This is a peace rally. By this rally, we are leaving a message for the name and hand of Jesus.”

The Rev. Ismael Kumar, pastor of the Church of the Savior in Orissa and mela chairman, said melas are common in his region of India but this mela was different. “This mela is worshipping. This is completely Mennonite.”

Barkat Chandu, who claimed his grandmother was the first Mennonite convert in India, said the mela, the march and other forms of witness are important in an age when outright public evangelism is difficult. “You can do it, but many government regulations have to be gone through,” Chandu said. “We can teach from the Old Testament, the New Testament … but we’re not able to talk about conversion.”

Officials at the mela did offer an altar call, though the ceremonies were more about worship than about conversion. An all-night rainstorm put a halt to activities on the morning of Feb. 9, but nearly 3,000 people returned to the mela the next morning for the final worship service.

Speakers used at least five languages to offer messages of challenge and praise, culminating in a celebration of the Lord’s Table. Pastors in robes and parishioners in street clothes passed out juice and wafers, supplementing them with chapattis for those at the rear of the crowd.

Ibrahim Nand, a Jagdeeshpur Mennonite who has attended each of the Parrapat melas said in an electronic age, the mela retains its importance. “This is not just fellowship with God, but fellowship with people also.”

This fellowship resonated with Ben Wiebe, who noted that gathering together has given Indian Mennonites collective momentum. “They are together and they can now go on to further work in India.”

Worshippers welcomed a visit from Ajit Jogi, a Christian member of Parliament and former Chief Minister, with ceremonial garlands, fireworks and other means of celebration. Witness’ ministry partner Mennonite Mission Network also sent representatives to the five-day festival.

Bharatiyah General Conference Mennonite Church formed in 1922, twenty-three years after General Conference Mennonites from Canada, the United States and Russia arrived in central India as mission workers. Since mission workers left more than two decades ago, the church has grown to 27 congregations with more than 7,000 members.

According to Nand, the spiritual committee of BGCMC worked with mission workers Jacob Giesbrecht, now from Abbotsford, B.C., and Edward Burkhalter, both from Commission on Overseas Missions, a predecessor to Mennonite Church Canada Witness, and Mennonite Mission Network to start a mela in nearby Naranpal in 1958. Nand, whose small book chronicling the 50 years of celebrations was distributed during Sunday’s services, said the festival moved to Parrapat the following year.

The Parrapat mela is not the only celebration in the region. An ecumenical festival started by Mennonites celebrated its 100th festival earlier in February and another BGCMC gathering took place in Champa, farther north, later in the month.