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Namasté: Stories and voices from the Mennonite church in India

   
 


The first mission workers to India. (Circa 1900). Back row: Mrs. Penner, Rev. Kroeker, Mrs. Kroeker. Front row: Rev. Penner. In carriage, Linda Viola Penner. Near carriage: Mariam Hilda Penner. Children on right are Kroeker children.

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Tushar Naik attends to a patient.

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Construction has begun on the church in the village of Harrhmor, India.

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Samson Parekh, principal of Union Biblical Seminary in Pune.

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Ben Wiebe teaches a class at Union Biblical Seminary.

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Emmanuel Minj, Chairman of Bihar Mennonite Mandli and director of Mennonite Christian Service Fellowship of India.

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Hardeep Gardia checks the blood pressure of a patient

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February 27, 2009
-Ryan Miller

CHHATTISGARH, India — In 1900, one family each from General Conference Mennonite Church (GC) and Mennonite Church (MC) denominational mission programs landed in India. The GC workers arrived at Raipur while the MC workers traveled to Dhamtari, both in what is now the Chhattisgarh province.

Thus began the official mission work supported by Mennonite Churches in Canada and the US.

Forty-one years later, workers from Dhamtari entered Bihar, now called Jharkand, to start a church they hoped could grow with less reliance on foreign mission structures.

For decades, North American mission work in India continued. Though Christianity existed in India since the first century, Hinduism dominated the religious landscape (as it does today). Working alongside new Indian Christians, mission workers established schools, churches, orphanages and hospitals—teaching, preaching and healing as God led them.

“Namasté,” they learned to say. “I bow to you.” This greeting of deep respect reflected the relationships developing among them. But in the 1970s and 1980s, due to changing government regulations and political climates, the mission workers withdrew, completing the transfer of control to Indian leaders and establishing trusts to operate the schools and hospitals.

Today, three Indian church conferences remain from the work of the predecessor agencies of Mennonite Church Canada:

  • Bhartiya General Conference Mennonite Church (BGCMC): 27 congregations and around 8,000 members in Chhattisgarh and Orissa.
  • Bihar Mennonite Mandli: 23 congregations and just under 2,000 members in Jharkand.
  • Mennonite Church in India: 14 congregations and about 6,000 members in Chhattisgarh.

All three church bodies initially struggled when mission workers left. How could they afford mission when the foreign money was gone? Which structures should they lean on? What should their churches look like?

The departure of North Americans from their first mission field was painful. Decades later, Indian leaders offered continued questions about the way mission workers left. They expressed dismay over the disappearance of once-close connections with North American congregations and institutions, especially as relationships fade with the passing of generations of early mission workers.

Despite questions and struggles, the Indian church points to signs of growth, of evangelism and of energy. Today, the Mennonite churches in India are fully Indian – owned and led by Indian believers – and leaders would have it no other way.

The following stories and ministries of today’s Indian Mennonites reflect deep commitment to their faith and to their communities.


The Sewa Bhawan Hospital in Jagdeeshpur, Chhattisgarh began as a mission hospital of the General Conference. It now hosts an English-language school and features a new neo-natal intensive care unit. But the hospital has only two doctors—the husband-wife team of Tushar and Kanti Naik.

“Christian doctors have commitment. We do not do eight-hour work here. This is 24-hour work. Christians have devotion. … You are not here by choice or by your own talent, but because God wants you here. Wherever you are, you are supposed to witness Christ through your life,” said Tushar Naik.


Every adult in the village of Harrhmor, three hours outside of Korba in Chhattisgarh, is a Mennonite. The conversion of some 35 families in this area has involved preaching and teaching, but mostly healing. Because the Rev. N. Toppo of the Kosmunde Hebron Mennonite Church is a member of the same Oraon tribal group as the villagers, he began visiting Harrhmor. Nine years ago, Toppo met Sarita, the daughter one of Harrhmor’s most prominent men.

Sarita suffered from brain fever that doctors had been unable to cure. Toppo prayed over Sarita for several days. God healed Sarita. Her father gave his life to the Lord. The rest of the villagers followed.


“Once upon a time, [North Americans] were carrying the baton. Now the baton has been handed to us. Now we are preaching the gospel and extending the kingdom of God. And there will be a time that we hand the baton to the next generation,” said Shekhar Singh, a Mennonite from Janjgir teaching at Union Biblical Seminary (UBS) in Pune, an hour from Mumbai. “The churches need to feel they are part of the larger church. … Let groups come from various churches on mission trips, just to explore, to develop partnerships again. Let’s renew that relationship we had in the past.”

Christianity is growing in India. Many non-Christians are coming to the Lord. What happens if the person who takes care of them is not trained theologically? You have to give right teaching. Otherwise, the church will not stand,” said Samson Parekh, principal of UBS in Pune.

As UBS expands, increasing distance-learning possibilities and offering doctoral programs, leaders’ desires for outside connections increase. Seminary administrators look for visiting scholars to teach for a semester – or a year – at a time. Mennonite Church Canada Witness has assisted in sending teachers to UBS on Special Assignment. Former pastor and professor Ben Wiebe has returned to Pune six times in recent years to teach at the institution.


In the last two years, Bihar Mennonite Mandli has added four new churches.

Members at the Mennonite Church in Ranchi, led by pastor Walter Khakha, slowly are expanding their current facility, building piece-by-piece as they are able.

“We don’t have resources to be whole and to build new buildings like this, but we have God’s word to build in people’s hearts,” said Khakha.


Many Mennonite churches run hostels for students who leave home to attend school. There is no compulsion toward conversion, but as youth attend chapels and worship services, they cannot help learning more about Christ.

Surendre Kujur came to the Ranchi Mennonite Church hostel because it was affordable. He now insures lives – for an insurance company as a job, and for Christ as a calling. As an indigenous tribal member, many considered Kujur an untouchable, but Christians offered him love, acceptance and the word of God. Through Kujur, Mennonites have entered the remote area of Mahuwe Tand and grown in numbers in Gari Pajantoli.


Emmanuel Minj, Chairman of Bihar Mennonite Mandli and director of Mennonite Christian Service Fellowship of India (MCSFI), has a dream of 500 peace workers in local churches training peace promoters – a network of reconciliation that can connect religious, governmental, police and rebel groups.

In the Jharkand region, Maoist rebels control much of the rural countryside through fear and violence. Lakhan Paul Minj, who pastors Emmanuel Mennonite Church in Ranchi-Damar, told a story: Pairs of rebels often enter houses and demand to be fed. One day, 11 arrived at his home in Baman Hirwa. Two planned to stay, but Minj instead served all of them. The rebels stayed long into the night and left as friends. The word soon spread – these are good people, these Mennonites. Keep them safe.


More than six decades after British rule ended in India, many Indians still connect Christianity to colonialism.

“In my day, a missionary entailed a white standard – a person from the West. Now, we are also calling Indians ‘missionaries,’ but ‘missionary’ still brings a picture of Westerners [to most Indians],” said Barkat Chandu of BGCMC.

Emmanuel Minj said many early Indian Christians were drawn by the missionary lifestyle. Most mission workers hired cooks, gardeners, drivers, watchmen and servants. Some Indians converted to Christ expecting a similar standard of living.

“The church has to change from the Western pattern to the Indian pattern. Then, only, I think, India will come to Christ,” said Minj.

"I think it is good to be small. That closeness and nearness to each other is very high. We know each other,” said Minj. If congregations grow too big, he added, only administration and managing remains – there will be no resources left for mission work, evangelism and service. “If you are small, you are free to preach and share the gospel.”


For Hardeep and Sebastian Gardia, being faithful means running a two-bed obstetrics and gynecological clinic and ministry in Saraipali, near Jagdeeshpur.

“I talk about Jesus to every patient,” said Gardia. “They give a ‘Namasté’ [a bow] to God in front of me. If all goes well, sometimes they will come back to see more about Jesus.”


In August 2008, persecution of Christians in some areas of India has increased. At the height of violence in Orissa in October of 2008, the All India Christian Council estimated that as many as 50,000 people were forced to flee their homes to escape the attacks, which also damaged more than 150 churches and schools.

While persecution has been a consistent presence for Christians in many parts of India, the current level of violence is a severe escalation of previous persecution. Please pray for the health, safety and faith of Indian Christians during this time and for reconciliation among all people in India. A version of this story first appeared in the Mennonite Mission Network publication, Beyond Ourselves, Vol. 7, No. 3/ Winter 2008.