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Understanding and Reaching South Asians

Hi, my name is Ryan and just in case you were wondering, you’re right – I’m not South Asian!

For many years, when I thought of South Asia, I pictured the India of Slumdog Millionaire. A bustling sprawl of people spread across dusty streets. Curry, cardboard shacks and colored powder. It’s funny to think you could collapse a country of over a billion people and over five thousand years of history into such simple images, but I did. As an outsider, that’s all I ever saw and, quite naively, all I ever assumed there was to see.

When I started working with Indian international students four years ago though, I was surprised and frankly overwhelmed by the richness of diversity I found. India is this incredible mosaic of a country with 29 states and 22 official languages between them – each with its own unique set of dialects, foods, dress, and festivals. It’s a place where the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor coexist side by side. Where almost every week a major religious holiday happens for some sect of believers somewhere in the city. And people from neighboring states might not even be able to communicate with one another, outside of the use of English or maybe Hindi in the north.

Spiritually too, you’ll find a wide range of beliefs among Indians. While the vast majority of Indians and South Asians in general identify as Hindu, India is also the birthplace of religions like Sikhism and Jainism. Neighboring Nepal was where Siddharta Gautama, the father of Buddhism was born, while conquering Moghul emperors from Central Asia were the source of Islam. Even Christianity had early roots in India. Tradition tells us that the apostle Thomas left the Roman empire to minister in what is now the modern day South Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

It’s no wonder then that one of the main tenets of Indian ideology is this concept of “Unity in Diversity.” Former under secretary general of the United Nations, Shashi Tharoor, said it best when he declared “we are all minorities in India.” Of the Indian experience, he writes – India is “the idea that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, colour, conviction, culture, cuisine, costume and custom, and still rally around a consensus.” India is “one land embracing many.”

So what does this all mean for someone like us, an outsider wanting to understand and reach out to Indians and other South Asians?

The main takeaway, I think, is this: beyond simply being a friend, we must be intentional and immersive learners. That is, we must be willing to open ourselves up to experience the sheer vastness of Indian culture. That might sound intimidating, and it certainly does require effort – but keep in mind that because there is much to learn, there are many fun and exciting ways to learn as well. The entry points of engagement are endless. Are you a sports person? Live stream a game of Cricket and invite your friends over to explain what a wicket is. Cheer on their favorite IPL team or Football (meaning Soccer) club. Ask them to take you to the nearest park and teach you how to hit a sixer or bowl out a batsman.

Love food? Go to an Indian restaurant and resist the urge to order your familiar, go-to dish. Try something new. Swap recipes with your friends and have them show you how to make their favorite dish from scratch in your home kitchen.

If you already regularly read up on current events, add a South Asian news outlet to your newsfeed. Even Facebook can be a powerful tool of engagement if you choose to actually read the articles or statuses that your friends post as they respond to things happening back home and use those as springboards to greater understanding and deeper conversation.

Personally, I’ve started a watchlist of movies on my phone and I ask my friends to recommend their favorite films from Indian cinema. While it is important to remember that art is not always reality, films can often go a long way in reflecting current and prevailing relational, historical, sociological, cultural, philosophical, and even spiritual truths and perspectives. Ones like “3 Idiots” (which explores the Indian educational system) “PK,” (the search for religious truth in a pluralistic world), “Sairat” (inter-caste relationships) and “Kapoor and Sons” (modern day family dynamics) are good places to start. One word of advice though, don’t just stick with Bollywood films! While many Indians do speak Hindi, many others do not. Stories and sensibilities differ from region to region. It will mean a great deal to your friend when you can say that you’ve actually seen a movie in their own heart language not just one from Bollywood.

The more you experience, and the more diverse and the more specific your experiences, the easier it becomes to connect and to build bridges. As your friendship deepens, your willingness to engage your friends’ world will communicate great love to them. When they can see that you have taken the time not only to remember general trivia, but to interact with and experience specific things like Hyderabadi Biryani or Punjabi Bhangra, it tells them that you honor not only their country but the specific regional and home cultures that they come from as well.

Especially for us Christians, this posture of a learner is very important. In order for trust to be built with South Asian Hindus, they must know not only that we are looking to love them, but that we are looking to love and understand them on their terms, not just ours. They must know and they must see that we are interested in them as individuals and not as targets. That we see their culture as beautiful and valuable, not just something quaint and trivial. Certainly, not something to be discarded or traded in in favor of the prevailing culture here in the West.

Why is this? Because a great number of Hindus actually arrive in the West already knowing that Christians want to tell them about Jesus. But while they know what it is we want to share, few actually know why we want to do it. Most assume that our intention is to convert them for selfish, and often financial, gain. Having heard and seen the effects of foreign gods and powers throughout their nation’s history, many equate evangelism with colonialism. To convert, then, is to turn their back on their own culture, their own country and even worse, their own family. As a result, there is great wariness and suspicion of Christians and Christian organizations. There is a usually unspoken but sometimes even verbalized need to know why you are being so nice to them or, in the case of an organization, who exactly is providing the funds so that you can serve them as you do.

For us to ignore this reality of deep distrust – for us to communicate the gospel without first communicating our deep love and respect for our friends and for their culture is to do our witness a great disservice. It is to play into the narrative that they have long learned to expect from Christians, that all we want is for them to forsake everything – not to be like Christ but sadly to be more like us.

For Hindus, Hinduism is, but is also much more than, a religious belief system. It is a way of life and of orienting life. Though there is no one doctrine or one theology or even one god that necessarily unites all Hindus (in fact there are over 33 million), this internal identification with Hinduism bleeds into all facets of life. This is true even for those who would otherwise claim to be atheists or have no actual stake in the existence of God. Even in this age of growing materialism and secularism, Hinduism continues to give structure to culture, and society, and family. It has the power to dictate job opportunities, potential spouses, political power and dietary restrictions. Hinduism is a matter both of social and personal significance, with social and personal obligations. In many ways, a Hindu is defined less by what he or she believes and more by who he or she is. Who their family is. What their community stands for. For most, to give this up is nothing less than to give up their own identity.

So what does it look like then to actually share Christ with a South Asian?

For starters, it is learning, in some ways, to redefine what successful evangelism looks like. It is taking a cue from Christ and sharing spiritual truth early and often in relationships – You don’t need to tiptoe, by all means, share the gospel! But do it with an understanding that worldviews don’t often shift in a day. Do it in smaller pieces, one concept at a time, in the form of stories, and personal testimonies, and sometimes even in the form of questions. So often we feel like the burden is on us to provide answers, but some of my best conversations have involved me being the one asking the questions. As I seek to share my own faith, I seek also to understand where my friends are coming from. Their personal beliefs, yes but also the familial, communal, and societal influences which have emerged to shape those beliefs. How do they see God? How does their family see God? How has seeing their family interact with God affected how they personally interact with Him?

I have learned too that there is great power in the question, “Why?” For the asker, it allows us to step deeper into our friend’s world as we uncover an underlying story, meaning, purpose or intention. For our friend, ‘Why’ can shake them out of their mental inertia, reminding them not to take their own world for granted. Many times I’ve found that my friend is unsure why things are the way that they are or why they believe a certain thing is true. And that’s ok. In actuality, sometimes I’m not even looking for an answer from them. Done gently, asking questions can lead our friends to question and to begin seeking for their own answers. I think often this is where they first begin to see Christ in a new light.

Beyond this, sharing Christ is learning to live in a deeply relational way, truly living life among those whom we desire to love and serve. It is accepting their invitations to break bread in their homes even as we extend our own invitations for them to eat in ours. It is setting aside our western conceptions of time and personal boundaries and allowing ourselves to be pressed and pushed and inconvenienced in ways that are sometimes uncomfortable. Many of us are not used to the level of relational intertwinedness that is the South Asian reality. I sure wasn’t. At times it was really hard for me to understand how much of myself and my time I should give. Whether I should take them to the grocery store for the fiftieth Sunday in a row even though all I wanted to do was take a nap. And yet I have found that it is in this involved and often messy relational space, as the Holy Spirit guides me into pressing in and not pulling out, that the sacrificial love of Christ has been communicated in ways that were not just doctrinal but also fully experiential.

Finally, I have learned that for reaching Hindus, prayer is an invaluable thing. There is power in praying for your friends, and there is power in praying with them. Hindus are very used to praying to their gods in times of need. I guess that at least is something that transcends culture. They are much less accustomed to seeing others pray for them. For a friend to hear you approach the throne of God on their behalf is for them to encounter the tender confidence of our father-child relationship with God in ways that theological conversations simply cannot and will not easily express. As I have entered deeper into my friend’s lives, I have looked for opportunities to pray for them and for their family. Whether for a driver’s test, a job interview, a sickness, or the loss of a loved one, for them to see God work through your prayers and actually affect change in the real world is for them to see that God is not only alive, but that He truly hears and cares as well.

For many Hindus, the journey to know Jesus is one taken over many small, sometimes even imperceptible steps: from trusting a Christian, to growing in curiosity, to actively pursuing, to finally accepting the gospel and stepping into new life. It may take days or it may take decades. And yet our call is not to demand fruit, but it is to be faithful.

[When I first met Ramesh two years ago, it was outside the airport as I pulled in to pick him up. He was pretty chatty even from the beginning and as we drove from the terminal to his new home on campus, I remember being surprised by how many times he managed to casually drop an expletive into his sentences, almost as an afterthought. That first week, we built a quick rapport and friendship, I drove him to Walmart and then to T-Mobile, to my house and his house and back numerous times for different meals. As our relationship deepened, he began meeting my friends. He started to hang out with us not only in casual settings but also in spiritual ones as well. Sitting in on Bible studies, he silently took in our conversation, asking questions only to clarify certain words or phrases. On one occasion, when I took him to the Hindu temples where he would sometimes go to pray, I asked him what he thought happened when he bowed down before the idols. He didn’t have an answer. He didn’t know if god really heard him. All he knew was that his dad believed that God did, and that was good enough. As a member of the priestly caste, it was his duty only to honor his father by performing these rituals of prayer and purification, not to ask questions, and certainly not to expect answers.

But even still, Ramesh began asking me questions. These ones about the meaning of sin and the purpose of forgiveness and in time, he even asked to come to church with me. For an entire year, almost every week, I would pick him up and drive him to service with me on Sunday morning. Our friendship continued to grow. Sometimes we would talk about deep spiritual things together. Sometimes things about his budding relationship with his girlfriend. Often times, we would just go and watch the latest Bollywood flick and I would ask him how closely he felt the movies reflected his reality. But just this February, he began saying “we” instead of “you” when he talked about the concept of following Jesus and I realized that somewhere along the way, his encounter with Jesus had moved out of the purely theoretical. For that, I praise God. My prayers and the prayers of so many around Him were not lost. To date, Ramesh has still never fully declared to me that he is a believer, but in my heart I believe that he not only knows but has decided to follow Jesus. And it is my prayer that one day his family will too.]

As I have continued to grow and develop friendships with Ramesh and with other South Asians like him, I have felt God’s deep and enduring delight in and for them grow within my own heart. I pray that He would do the same in you as you seek to love his children from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Thank you so much for your desire to understand and reach South Asians with the love of Christ. May the Lord bless you and your relationships richly and deeply wherever He takes you.

Understanding and Reaching South Asians

Ryan

India is an incredible mosaic with over a billion people, dozens of states and languages, and five thousand years of history. There is so much to learn about our South Asian friends, and this is a great opportunity! Ryan details the ways in which you can build friendships with these students by exploring their culture. 

India is an incredible mosaic with over a billion people, dozens of states and languages, and five thousand years of history. There is so much to learn about our South Asian friends, and this is a great opportunity! Ryan details the ways in which you can build friendships with these students by exploring their culture. 

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