An ancient prejudice
BACKSTORY | Indian “untouchables” risk everything to follow Christ
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In India’s caste system, there’s one class of people more despised than the Dalits, or untouchables: People who convert to Christianity. While upper castes may look past such conversions, especially if the convert has economic potential, Indians consider Dalit Christians the lowest of the low. In “Loving the despised” in this issue, writer Bethel McGrew takes us inside the rising missionary movement of indigenous Christians dedicated to educating Dalit children—and sharing with them hope of the gospel. I asked Bethel to share the story behind the story.
How did you become interested in the plight of the Dalit? I met Jehu, an Indian pastor, through my father, a longtime friend and supporter of his work. Jehu gave me a vivid picture of what Dalits face, and God put it on my heart to support him however I could and make sure his story was told.
What surprised you most as you dug deeper into Dalit history? I was struck by the profound disconnect between India’s supposedly “enlightened” constitution and the still deeply entrenched realities of the caste system. It shows how mere “enlightenment values,” when uprooted from Christianity, aren’t strong enough by themselves to overcome ancient prejudice.
The oldest Dalit child you encountered is an orphan. What else did you learn about him? His name is Ladu, and he lives with his grandparents, who are rice farmers. He often skips his regular school and sometimes even misses meals. The teachers at Jehu’s school look after him like family.
New anti-conversion laws and rising persecution have many in India risking life, limb, and livelihood to follow Christ. How does that affect your perspective on Western believers’ approach to Christian life and practice? It’s incredibly convicting. We’ve seen how Western Christians can be far too quick to agree that their churches are “nonessential.” We’ve also seen how whole denominations like the Church of England have devolved into nothing more than a political party at prayer. There’s no excuse. We must stand up and stand out.
What can Western Christians do to help the Christian Dalit? I would encourage Western churches with a heart for the global Church to consider partnering with pastors like Jehu. Dalit Christians depend on the local ministries of poor pastors, who typically lack institutional support. Jehu has shared many community needs he would love to meet but can’t. What pastors like him really need are whole communities walking alongside them.