2/3/2009

By Jacob and Glory Dharmaraj
UMNS Commentary

Not far from where terrorists staged attacks in Mumbai, the Methodist Church in India celebrated its 28th year as an independent Methodist denomination.

The call of the minaret, in the predominantly Muslim area where the Methodist Center is situated, occasionally interrupted the Jan. 7 celebrations and reminded the worshippers of the interfaith matrix of Mumbai.

During our recent visits to the places where the terrorists had acted, we observed the resilience of Mumbai as it came back to its bustling routine life, gathering its teeming multicultural, multi-religious, multilingual, and multiethnic mosaic in a mega-embrace.

When we visited the three sites of the November terrorist acts, we saw tourists haggling and shopping as effusive vendors beckoned on the sidewalks and street corners of South Mumbai. Gun-toting national guards and police bunkers, however, could be seen everywhere.

When we initiated a conversation with a few people near the Taj Hotel and Leopold Restaurant about the attacks, it was clear the residents have moved on. They were ready to talk about the present and future, although some were displeased by the way the government officials had handled the crisis.

The newspapers in India continue to analyze the impact of the terrorist tragedy, while offering nonviolent options as a response to the events. The Hindu, a leading newspaper, carried a Jan. 4 article by Tabish Khair, who called for a celebration of the new year by “being alive to the alternative experiences and realities” amid “specters of economic crisis and terrorism” and being open to shaping a future that would not be haunted by the nightmare of shrinking economic options in the current global crisis.

Celebrate Methodist legacy
Against this backdrop, church leaders gathered in the Methodist Center to affirm the church’s independence and celebrate the mission legacy of William Butler, the first Methodist missionary to India. The Methodist Church in India has affiliated autonomous status with The United Methodist Church.

The Rev. Subodh Mondal, the denomination’s top executive, thanked God in a special worship service for “all those missionaries, itinerant evangelists (and) pastors who, like William Butler, with the Bible in their hands and the cross in their hearts, have left the comfort of their homes and have traveled to distant lands and places, to preach the Gospel of Christ and to save us from ‘the second death.”

Bishop E.P. Samuel, presiding bishop of Mumbai Regional Conference, spoke about the role of the church as a provider of “meaningful intervention” and peace and reconciliation.

In the wake of the “hideous act of November 26, 2008,” though many still felt insecure, he said, the church remembered that Jesus came “to teach forgiveness, compassion, and peace.” Throughout Advent, the church lit candles of peace in demonstration of this Christian witness.

Despite recent violence against Christians in other parts of India, Samuel declared that the Methodist Church in India had grown in strength, and its mission had always been to serve the less privileged, the lost and the least.

Rather than bemoaning the loss of lives and property in recent violence against the new Christians in India, he said, the church should hail this as an opportunity to witness. “When you have been through something, and when our Lord has been our comfort and joy during these days, we will not be ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” he explained.

In times such as these, Samuel said, “God stretches us, like a rubber band. It does not break. It only stretches.”

Visible unity
Just like some of the missionaries who journeyed to India to convert its people and who themselves were transformed by the encounters and became mediators between the East and West, we were transformed by our visit to the Methodist church in Bhandup, a town on the outskirts of Mumbai.

We saw people chatting, smiling and enjoying each other’s company at this newly built church. There was a sense of community. People in that community knew each other, and there we witnessed a visible unity among diversity. Their communal unity dispelled the negative image we form sometimes about “slum dwellers.”

We noticed firsthand the joy of praying, sharing and rejoicing of a minority Christian community surrounded by people of other faiths. We were touched. The poor in the Methodist Church in India give joyfully, willingly, for they all have a testimony. Every year, during the anniversary celebration, they remember the missionaries sent by the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and renew their commitment to serve and witness.

Our visit ended with celebrations of the opening of a woman’s center by Samuel and his wife, Monica Samuel. Vijaya Deverjankar, a deaconess, and Martha Peter Reed, president of the Women’s Society of Christian Service in Mumbai Regional Conference, shared their ministries among children in the slum areas of Mumbai and the work among the widows respectively.

The poor continue to evangelize us.

Jacob Dharmaraj is pastor of the Shrub Oak (N.Y.) United Methodist Church and a vice president with the National Federation of Asian-American United Methodists. Glory Dharmaraj is a staff executive with the Women’s Division, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.