Grass-Roots Evangelization

by Rev. John B. Chethimattam, C.M.I.
photos: The Diocese of Chanda

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When the Most Reverend Januarius Palathuruthi was appointed head of the new missionary diocese of Chanda, India, in 1962, there was not a single native Christian among a population of four million people. Some of those who knew Chanda well were pessimistic about the possibility of launching a mission there.

“You will have little chance of making new converts in these parts,” they told Bishop Januarius. “Bring in some Christians from the South, where the Church has long been established. Their presence will give new respectability to Christians here. That’s the only way you can hope to have any success.”

Today, Bishop Januarius says it was providential that he decided to ignore that advice. From the start, he strove to build up the Church with local people who accepted the Gospel. The bishop knew that a living local church cannot be imported; it must take root and grow among the people. Evangelization must embrace every aspect of their lives: economic growth, cultural development, social awakening, and fellowship in faith.

For the past eighteen years, Bishop Januarius has watched his missionary vision slowly bear fruit. The Catholic community of Chanda has grown from about one hundred members, most of whom came from outside in search of jobs, to over fifteen thousand, the majority of them new converts to Christianity from among the local people.

One of the most active and widely respected missionaries in the diocese is Father Canisius. He works among the Harijans, who are the poorest of the poor. In the caste system they are classed as untouchables, so low on the social scale that a Harijan’s presence or even his shadow was thought to pollute the members of the aristocracy.

Though the Harijans are destitute, Father Canisius does not dole out financial aid as an inducement to conversion. Instead, he shares their poverty by his simple way of life, and plans with them their economic development. When he obtains financial help from the outside, it is the kind that helps them to help themselves: a pair of bullocks to plough the fields, seeds for sowing, and building materials for their houses. All financial aid is channeled into developmental projects to help the new Christians become independent and self-reliant.

Father Canisius also insists that the people pay in kind for his food and the other expenses of the village chapel. Supporting their priest and their church gives the people a sense of satisfaction and self-respect; it has also helped to erase the traditional branding of Harijan converts as “milk-powder Christians,” an allusion to the freely-distributed American milk-powder which was alleged to be a bait for attracting the poor to Christianity.

Other tribes in Chanda include the Madigas, Gonds, and Uraos. All of them are poor, but they take great pride in their tribal ancestry. Some claim a nobility equal to that of the Brahmins, the top-most rung on the Hindu caste ladder. The sense of nobility prevents them from looking for handouts and from being swayed by financial interests in making decisions regarding faith. They have a strict moral code that will not tolerate any marital infidelity or sexual license. Stealing and lying are considered a social disgrace, and the people are most cooperative in common projects.

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Tags: India Christianity Cultural Identity Evangelization