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Immersing in South Asian Culture

Regret and Dishonor
Thomas. Teresa. Carey. Carmichael. The earliest apostles. The most recent saints. The fathers and mothers of missions as we’ve known it. In one sense, India has a rich Christian heritage. Yet, in another, very real sense, she has been the most formidable missiological challenge in the history of the world. No country has had more resources put in and less visible fruit come forth (3-5% of India is known as “Christian”).

Nevertheless, every Sunday, a barely literate pastor faithfully shepherds his one-room church. With the help of one of India’s powerful ceiling fans, he crams in 2,000 people, an indigenous, rural congregation…where members take turns worshipping so that someone can stay back to tend to the family’s farm animals. Stories like this have many wondering if India is turning the corner regarding the reach of the gospel, especially among her lower-caste Dalit/tribal peoples.

Which is it today? Fallow ground or flourishing movement? When engaging the topic of missions and India, it’s common to launch with either/both of these. However, I want to start somewhere else. I want to begin with two regrets that cause me to reflect on the mission of God to South-Asians, especially Indians, especially Hindus. Two regrets. Let me tell you about the 1st one. Actually, let me show you.

Regret 1: my culture
This is my father and mother—Baba and Ma. Prasad Adhikari was 1:6 from an upper-class, Hindu-Brahman family on the banks of the Ganges River—the “Ganga”, and Suparna Biswas was 1:5 from a poor village in Bangladesh that flooded during every monsoon season. So much of what I am is so much of what they are. I wanted to honor them.

Then, there were the artifacts of my youth, the everyday images and icons of my home, paintings by Baba’s hand, altars by Ma’s. Add to that the rites of passage—my rice ceremony at 6 months , my thread ceremony 13 years later—both of them calling me to walk worthy of a Hindu-Brahman to fulfill my parents’ immigrant desires for cultural faithfulness and career fruitfulness.

I wanted to honor it all. I should’ve…but I didn’t. Maybe there was too much pressure to assimilate with Irish/Italian Catholic northern New Jersey, so I distanced myself from my Indian/Hindu culture. Before becoming a Christian, I did. After, I did even more. That’s my first regret. Maybe you can relate to it; maybe not. Try this one, my second regret.

Regret 2: my calling
Recently, I was invited to share some of my thoughts on engaging South-Asian students with the gospel. My big push was for ministries to reimagine themselves as a kind of hybrid home where South-Asian students could explore cultural and spiritual questions as well as the tension between their native AND emerging selves. I called us to new methods, models and ultimately, new mindsets to replace old ones that effectively say, “these other cultures—South-Asian, Indian, Hindu—-are fine, but we must be able to locate them within our own grid.”

However, during the Q&A, I failed to do just that. A question came from a young, blonde-haired man to my right. He asked, “I’m used to doing ministry in a certain way. Can you tell me how to fit in what you’re saying into what I’m used to?” I responded with a few resources so that he could tweak what he was already doing. That’s my second regret. Because while his question was problematic, he was merely demonstrating the prevailing mindset. The real problem was me. I was supposed to offer an alternative. I was supposed to go back to this slide and gently use it to present this young man’s question as a case study of the old mindset. Instead, I answered his question…on his terms…according to his grid. While I wanted to honor what God had called me to teach, my response didn’t. It should’ve, but it didn’t. Regret #2.

Both of these regrets are about dishonor. Personally, I dishonored my South-Asian, Indian, Hindu culture; pastorally, I dishonored what I’ve learned and deeply believe about cross-cultural ministry. While I’m not haunted by these regrets, I want their sting to stay. Here’s why. The ways I’ve dishonored my family and the cross-shaped/cross-cultural shape of Christ’s ministry are reminders of our tendencies to dishonor God-given cultures and distinctly Christian callings. Therefore, these are not only my starting points; I believe they are ours.

Ministries of Honor and Immersion
Now, if that’s dishonor, what does honor look like? To put it plainly, ministries of honor are ministries of immersion (repeat). Like study abroad programs that immerse students in a culture and language, ministers must subordinate their experience to that which feels foreign. Specifically, I want to encourage us to immerse ourselves in new spaces to make them frequent locations for learning about Hindu thought, culture, and community. Here’s how it’s looked for me.

A Case Study: My Frequent Location
Until two months ago, my Sunday mornings probably looked similar to yours, for the most part. Wake up, shower, eat, and make the 1 mile drive to church with my family. However, about seven weeks ago, I believe that the Lord began asking a bit more of me. Something new, something unfamiliar, yet an offering of faith that God wanted to use for my sake and the sake of a people to whom he was sending me.

Since that time, my Sunday mornings have begun to look very different. About two hours before my church opens its doors for worship, I drive a half an hour in the opposite direction to join a different community…to sit under a different teacher…in a different verse-by-verse study. This one hosts about 60 Hindus as they sit under their guru’s teaching on the Bhaghavad Gita, a 700 verse wisdom song in the middle of the Mahabharata, the great Hindu epic (Psalms-Proverbs right in the middle of the Pentateuch.

After two months, this is becoming a pretty predictable morning. I offer up a prayer of protection before I walk in. I grab a corner seat, and the guru begins. He recaps the previous week and then launches into the current week. First, he plays the recording of a verse (it is a song), comments on that verse within the context of the chapter, book, and Hindu worldview before fielding questions. Then, we move onto the next verse and do it all over again. After 90 minutes, I put my shoes back on and drive back to meet my family for worship at our church.

You might have some questions. Why this way? Why can’t I just read a book on Hinduism? There’re plenty of resources. I think of it this way. When I’m journeying with a non-Christian, eventually, I have to help them unlearn their preconceived notions of Christianity. While I can do some of that one-on-one, eventually I want to bring them to church on Sunday or a small group or some gathering of believers so that they can see our community, how we teach, preach, speak to each other, and think about ourselves, the world, and God. I want them to know us on our terms.

This is the same. I want to take a genuine interest in Hindus and know them and their beliefs…on their terms.

Another pushback might be, “That’s easy for you. Most of us weren’t born in India to a Hindu-Brahman family.” Here’s the reality. To them, I sound different. I look different. I feel different. As a 2nd generation Indian-American, my accent-attire-affect have far more in common with European-Americans watching this video than the 1st-generation Indians sitting in that room. Not to mention, the small cohort of white people studying Hinduism in that space, who are welcomed as honored guests. On the contrary, if this community knew my story, I would be viewed as defective because I’m a defector, someone who consciously converted from Hinduism to Christianity, from a Brahman to a minister.

As this picture symbolizes, I am an outsider, likely to violate accepted norms…such as having my shoes touch someone else’s, a definite no-no among Hindus.

How long will God have this new location be a frequent location for me? I don’t know. It’s a verse-by-verse study. There are 700 verses. We’re in 1:15. But, can I let you in on a secret? This is extremely enlightening and exciting. In 7 weeks, I’ve asked 2 questions but have taken way more notes than anyone in that room. I’m listening and learning. A few weeks ago, there was a fascinating message on wisdom vs. folly in which the guru pit intelligence vs. intellect, the former being academic and career education while the latter is emotional capacity to flourish amid life’s challenges and struggles. He told his people that they—and most elites—had a ton of intelligence but very little intellect. The week after that, he discussed the 2nd birth, what it means for a Hindu to be “born again”, so you see there is beautiful continuity and radical discontinuity with the gospel. This is the elective my seminary never offered, a university course without fees and forms.

More than that, this is getting to do what Jesus did. This is incarnation. This is immersion. Jesus immersed himself in a community under someone else’ teaching for most of his life so that he could eventually teach a people—Jew and Gentile—that he was the fulfillment of their story. My Hindu people are among those Gentiles, and Jesus is the fulfillment of their Gita, their Mahabharata, and their fears, idolatries, hopes, and stories. Every Sunday morning with them, I am learning to connect the dots. Then, I head to church, and I do it even more.

Friends, some of us have flown/are willing to fly to India for short-term missions. Others have developed initial or even ongoing relationships with Hindu people. That’s great. Let’s keep doing what we’re doing, but let’s allow the Lord to ask us for more. Let’s become ministries of honor, honoring their culture and the cross-shaped and cross-cultural shape of his call. Let’s join our campus’ South Asian societies. Commit to our campus’ Hindu chaplaincy. Make these communities and their lectures, events, even retreats frequent locations. I’ll leave us with the wisdom of Wati Longkumer from the Indian Mission Association.

“In light of the current situation, we should relook at our missions methods and not provoke…We should not temper our evangelizing; instead, we should get more creative.”

Brothers and sisters, I’m encouraged to be creative with you…in Christ, by the Spirit, for the Father’s world, including a billion Hindus or the 60 or so near you. It won’t be comfortable. It may not even be ideal, but our ministries of immersion will be joyful, exciting offerings of faith that the Lord will honor.

Immersing in South Asian Culture

Protim

What does a ministry of honor look like? Protim suggests that taking a posture of humility toward that which feels foreign and immersing oneself in Hindu culture is essential for an effective ministry of honor. Are you willing to immerse yourself in a new culture for the sake of the Gospel?

What does a ministry of honor look like? Protim suggests that taking a posture of humility toward that which feels foreign and immersing oneself in Hindu culture is essential for an effective ministry of honor. Are you willing to immerse yourself in a new culture for the sake of the Gospel?

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