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Loving the despised

India’s “untouchables” find hope—and a new identity—in Christ


Dalit children and their teacher at a school in Armada village Photo by Bikash Limma

Loving the despised
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The young Indian school children who have gathered to talk to me sit cross-legged on the hard floor of a one-room village church. It’s not where they usually meet. Just the closest place with an internet signal. They range in age from 10 to 13. They’re dressed in school uniforms, the boys in crisp white polo shirts, the girls in sky-blue dresses. You would never guess that where they come from, they are considered the lowest of the low. They are Dalits: untouchables.

My friend Jehu stands close to the laptop, ready to take my questions by video call and translate the answers. He is the young face of a rising indigenous missionary movement, proudly carrying on the legacy of his great-­great-grandfather in his home state of Odisha (formerly Orissa). For an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening, he helps run a tutoring service that gives these children the personalized education they don’t get in village government schools. The rest of his time is spent motorcycling at least 60 kilometers (37 miles) a day to share the gospel with as many neighboring villages as possible. Two years ago, he started his own nongovernmental organization, HopeGiving Foundation.

He and the children are among the despised majority of Indian citizens who congregate around the bottom rungs of Hinduism’s ancient caste system. For over 3,000 years, this complex social hierarchy has sorted and dictated the lives of the Indian people by occupation, duty, and birth. It finds its roots in the sacred Hindu texts, such as the Manu-smriti, or “The Laws of Manu.” Each of the four main castes—Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas, and Sudras—is associated with a body part of Brahma, Hindu god of creation. Brahmins are the highest, from his head, and Shudras are the lowest, from his feet. Yet the “untouchable” Dalits, or Scheduled Castes, are still lower than the Shudras, forbidden to marry or associate with the main castes.

There is only one way they could become even more despised: convert to Christianity.

Followers of Christ make up just 2.3 percent of India’s population. They face constant persecution from government systems, local officials, and neighbors suspicious of anyone who rejects Hinduism. The violence currently ­roiling the state of Manipur is only the latest outbreak of this long-festering prejudice. A majority Hindu tribe launched attacks against Christians, looting stores and burning entire villages. At least 100 people have died since May 1, and 40,000 have fled to safer areas. But as in other places where Christians are reviled, the church in India is growing. No matter how hard its opponents try to silence it, the message of hope, dignity, and grace for all cuts through every stratum of Indian society.

Ironically, claiming Christ places India’s citizens outside the generosity of a legal system supposedly informed by Western values. Over the decades, lower castes have been able to access a progressively generous system of government benefits, from legal protections to scholarships to housing loans. Jehu’s family holds a certificate that should grant them Scheduled Caste status, making them as eligible as anyone else. But because they are openly Christian, they could only claim what is rightfully theirs by lying. That is exactly what some Christians do: present the ­government with a signed document declaring that they fall into one of the three approved faith categories—Hindu, Buddhist, or Sikh—then practice their true faith in secret.

Jehu poses on his motorcycle with his wife Lilian and sons Harshit and Daniel.

Jehu poses on his motorcycle with his wife Lilian and sons Harshit and Daniel. Bandan Limma

“Our family didn’t want to play that game,” Jehu tells me.

Through Jehu’s translation, I listened to the testimony of Pastor Sadanand, also a Christian Dalit. His village cut him off because of his faith, and he struggled to survive. To this day, he lives in a broken-down house he cannot repair, while other households around him enjoy their government allowances. But through his faithful ministry, at least 70 of his people have come to Christ. He tells me he begins by trying to “build a friendship.” If a family is suffering ­illness or other hardships, he offers prayer and fellowship, then gradually introduces the gospel. His wife serves alongside him. Every school day, she rises at 4 a.m. to make sure the tutoring students start their day with a good meal.

Jehu and the other teachers have slowly built trust with these children’s families, who are mostly non-­Christian, but too preoccupied with basic survival to sniff out a nefarious Christian agenda. They know that without education, their sons will be considered fit for little besides rickshaw peddling or manual labor. Several of the children are growing up in single-parent homes. Even children in two-parent homes live their lives as latchkey kids—when they’re not working themselves to help the family make ends meet. The oldest student is an orphan. “We are his parents, brothers, sisters together,” Jehu says.

Tutoring is a high-value service in a country where education is big business. But for Jehu, it would be “unpardonable sin” to accept money from the poorest families. In a year, a family like this might make 1-2 lakhs, or 100,000-200,000 Indian rupees, which translates by raw conversion to about $1,200-$2,400. Adjusting this number relative to India’s national average salary, we might compare one of these poor families to an American family trying to get by on something like $15,000 a year.

“There is power in education,” Jehu reflects hopefully. “Once our children grow up and learn to speak English and write, they will experience freedom.”

Dalit school children receive tutoring assistance in math, English, civics, and their own regional language, Odia.

Dalit school children receive tutoring assistance in math, English, civics, and their own regional language, Odia. Bikash Limma

OFFICIALLY, ARTICLE 15 OF THE Constitution of India forbids discrimination against any citizen on the basis of race, sex, religion, or caste—language that sounds familiar to Western ears. In 2004, lawyer and social activist Pratap Baburao Pandit appealed to the Supreme Court on behalf of religious minorities, building his case on Article 15. But the appeal sat in legal limbo for almost 20 years. It eventually came up for a final hearing last fall, when the government appointed a new three-member “commission” to “examine the issue” over a period of two more years. Pandit knew well that numerous similar “commissions” had been formed through the decades to “examine” this particular issue, all concluding without any change to the status quo. Predictably, his challenge to this one was ignored.

Social reformer and philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi explains this disconnect to me. India may have a law and a constitution inspired by the Bible, but “we do not have that ethos of justice and righteousness.” And right now, “it is injustice and unrighteousness that is ruling.” When I ask him to tell me the single biggest misconception Westerners have about India, he says it is the idea that India shares the assumption of universal human equality. On the contrary, the average Indian holds it to be self-­evident that men are created unequal. No sage philosopher has declared otherwise. No god in the Hindu pantheon has granted any of the “unalienable rights” Thomas Jefferson took for granted.

The state of Odisha is infamous for the martyrdom of Australian missionary Graham Staines, who was burned alive with two of his children by a gang of ­fundamentalist Hindus in 1999. His murderers were riled up by the false accusation that dogs all foreign and indigenous missionaries: forced conversions. And that was when anti-conversion hostility was still primarily a grassroots tribal movement, just beginning to be codified in law. Mangalwadi believes he may have been the first Christian arrested under one of these laws in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Since then, he says, the situation for beleaguered Christians across the nation has only worsened. A total of 11 states now have anti-conversion legislation on the books. I examined two maps someone sent me for comparison, one showing the regional distribution of Christians, another showing the regional concentration of different political parties. At a glance, I could see that a strong Christian presence is inversely proportional to the strength of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This is the political arm of Hindutva—Hindu nationalism.

These days, Mangalwadi can barely keep up with the stream of persecution updates in his inbox. The acting vice chancellor of one university, for example, is in jail without bail, the rest of the administration scattered underground. Last April, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, a mob surrounded and besieged the small evangelical church where Broadwell Christian Hospital staff members were celebrating Maundy Thursday, the day when Christians traditionally remember the Last Supper. Soon, the police arrived to round everyone up, then detained them on the usual trumped-up charges of “forced conversion.” Everyone was released on bail, but the authorities would spend the rest of the year harassing and terrorizing the Christian medical workers, along with their families. They also rearrested Pastor Vijay Masih in October. In June 2023, he was released, and the Supreme Court finally granted the hospital workers interim protection from ­violence. “If the emperor wants to burn you alive, he has the militia,” Mangalwadi sums up matter-of-factly. “All you can really do is take up your cross.”

For now, state persecution is less rampant in Odisha. That gives Jehu and his ministry colleagues more freedom than they would enjoy elsewhere. But in the villages where they minister, the way of Christ remains a way of costly obedience.

Some Christians are outcasts among outcasts: Dalits rejected even by their own tribe. Jehu sent me an interview he had conducted with Christian villagers whose community cut them off from their own farmland and from clean water sources. They were told that if they renounced Christ, all would be restored: “They are asking us to leave Christ, ‘then we will give back your lands.’”

If the emperor wants to burn you alive, he has the militia. All you can really do is take up your cross.

I decided to launch my own small fundraiser for the village men to drill and secure a new borewell so their families would at least have water security. With contributions from family, friends and social media followers, we successfully met the $3,500 goal: Not so much to Western eyes, but from the villagers’ perspective, nearly two years’ wages.

Though Jehu has a special burden for the poor, he will boldly evangelize anyone of any background who is willing to hear his message. Knowing he has only a small window to plant a gospel seed, he looks for quick and natural ways to initiate a short conversation. If he meets a runner in the park, he asks, “Do you have any goals? What do you want to accomplish by running?” Once, he met an older man who was a carpenter. “This makes me think of a person who was a carpenter just like you.” Sometimes people are friendly in return. Sometimes they’re uninterested, “and that’s OK,” Jehu says, smiling.

Once, he met a serial TV actress who said she wished all the Christians would leave the country. Another time, a villager threatened him, frightening him so badly he returned home shaking. His pastor encouraged him not to give up. The next day, they returned to the same village, together.

Predictably, Jehu encounters a good deal of theological confusion. One Brahmin teen told Jehu that he hoped to become a Hindu priest—a lucrative profession—even though he was actually more attracted to Christ and Christianity after reading parts of a Bible someone gave him. When he prayed to idols, he said, his prayers were never answered. But his parents had discouraged him from reading more before he got to the part where Jesus rose from the dead. Jehu was only too happy to finish the story. The young man listened with interest and agreed to exchange phone numbers. So far, he is the only one who has responded when Jehu follows up. Following up with Jehu is socially risky, a chance most people are not ready to take.

Some encounters are unexpectedly funny. Jehu met one man waiting to undergo hand surgery in a hospital. When he asked the man if he’d ever heard of Jesus, the man said yes, then confidently said Jesus was born from a cow—his interpretation of the manger scene. Further ­conversation revealed that he had mixed feelings about Christians. He knew they ate beef, a practice he considered sacrilegious. At the same time, he was unsettled as he watched them endure beating and persecution in his village. Still, he was afraid to pray with Jehu, nervous about angering his god. He seemed unconvinced when Jehu reassured him that Jesus is the most powerful of all gods.

Jehu took his cue to leave that day. But on another day, he visited the man again with a fellow pastor. As they prayed over him together, the man’s eyes filled with tears.

Jehu (far right) and Pastor Sadanand (far left) pose with family, other teachers, and the children after our Zoom call in Khandava village.

Jehu (far right) and Pastor Sadanand (far left) pose with family, other teachers, and the children after our Zoom call in Khandava village. Samuel Jena

MEANWHILE, IN THE BUBBLE of upper-caste Hindu Twitter, rumors fly thick and fast about how Christians in Odisha are inducing the poor to convert for fast cash. I lurked on one thread where a woman was bragging about having “averted” the conversion of her maid. She said she began to suspect something when the maid refused prasadam—food offered to the gods. Later, the woman noticed her wearing a “Christ locket” and confronted her directly. After this, the family applied their own “soft convincing” and subtle inducements, including financial support for the maid’s marriage, until the young girl no longer acknowledged Christ—at least openly. “Good job,” ­someone commented on the woman’s tweet, hopeful that “lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of fellow Hindus” could be “saved” from conversion like this. “Yes,” the woman replied, “my little contribution.”

But conversion is not just happening among the lower castes. Higher-status Indians are converting and speaking out too. In a viral YouTube video from February 2023, web outlet National Dastak interviewed some of them at a protest against the BJP. As peaceful protesters sing the hymn “I Have Decided” in the background, the new converts speak their mind to the reporter in rapid Hindi. When the journalist says people have suggested “all our problems would be solved if we just became a Hindu country,” one passionate woman interrupts, “Look, there can never be a ‘Hindu country.’ There just can’t be.” While this woman is proud to have kept her Hindu name, she insists that India belongs equally to Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and Christians. When she calls out Christian persecution, she fiercely rejects the received propaganda of forced conversions. “Jesus Christ changed me. No one else did.”

A friend of mine recalled a defining moment from her own childhood in a Nepalese Brahmin home, when her family chastised her for sharing a meal in the house of a low-caste girl. She needed to be “cleansed,” they told her, ritually pouring milk over her head. Years later, she married an Anglican Christian from America. One Christmas, they walked into a cathedral in Myanmar together. To her astonishment, she realized that she recognized the family sitting in the pew in front of them. They were the family of the girl she had befriended, all those years ago. All at once, she realized that in that place of worship, there was no rich or poor, no upper or lower caste.

Such is the great equalizing power of Christianity, a power that gives Vishal Mangalwadi hope for the growth of the Indian church. India’s lower castes are a mission field ripe for harvest, full of souls who are gradually beginning to feel their worth. As they recognize the oppressive system of Hinduism for what it is, they will perceive that they are welcomed into the upside-down kingdom of Jesus Christ.

As a Dalit and a Christian, Jehu has experienced this firsthand. He used to struggle with his identity, with the way an upper-caste Hindu recoiled if Jehu so much as touched his shadow. Listening to sermons by pastors like Tim Keller taught him how to see himself properly: not as an “untouchable,” but as a forgiven sinner, a beloved son of God. That’s the same gospel message missionaries brought to his forefathers, so many years ago. “Missionaries came to us … and loved us. They gave us Christ and a new identity and hope and heavenly status.”

India’s lower castes are a mission field ripe for harvest, full of souls who are gradually beginning to feel their worth.

In the one-room church where we’re conducting our interview, the children wait patiently as I talk to their teachers. I can feel them getting restless, so I decide to ask them a few questions through Jehu. First, I ask what they would like to be when they grow up. A teacher’s son is the first to stand up, grinning wide. He tells me he’d like to be a pilot. Another says “soldier.” A girl says ­“doctor.” I compliment her beautiful blue dress. Another girl gets up and says she would also like to be a doctor. Jehu gently prompts me to tell her that her dress is also beautiful.

After another boy says he’d like to be a pilot, I ask if there are any other answers besides “pilot” or “doctor.” That’s when Manas, the first boy to speak, indicates that he’d like to say something more. Jehu tells me, “He’s ­saying once I grow up, I want to be a servant of God. I want to serve God.” When I ask if he has a favorite Bible verse, he quotes Psalm 121:1 in his native language: “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” Pastor Sadanand’s wife tells me this is her favorite psalm as well.

A question suddenly occurs to me: Do the children know any songs? Indeed, they do. Would I like them to sing? Yes, I would, very much. So they stand and sing a song in Odia, so loudly that the sound cuts out, and I have to be content with watching the joy on their faces. When they sit down, I ask Jehu what it meant. He tells me it’s a new worship song, praising and praying, “Help us, holy God, to serve you.” Only about a quarter of the children fully understand what they are singing, I am told. I am asked to pray that this will change.

Do the children have any questions for me? They don’t seem to. But Manas, the boy who wants to be a servant of God, stands up with one last prayer request: “Please pray for us, so that we can become good people in the future.”

—Bethel McGrew is a Michigan-based writer and author of the Substack newsletter Further Up


Bethel McGrew

Bethel McGrew is a math Ph.D. and widely published freelance writer. Her work has appeared in First Things, National Review, The Spectator, and many other national and international outlets. Her Substack, Further Up, is one of the top paid newsletters in “Faith & Spirituality” on the platform. She has also contributed to two essay anthologies on Jordan Peterson. When not writing social criticism, she enjoys writing about literature, film, music, and history.

@BMcGrewvy

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