Four main requirements of Christian missions in the midst of India’s hopes, appeals, and yearnings

In the back slums of Calcutta, a school dropout who was learning to work as a shoemaker for eighty-three cents a day showed me his library. Locked in a tin box that he eagerly opened for me were a portion of the Hindu scriptures, a school textbook story of India, and a large, attractively illustrated Soviet magazine in clear, simple Hindi. These items reflect the three worlds of the Indian masses with whom I lived in recent months. First, their roots are in the religious Hinduism of the past. Second, their lives are in the changing India of the present. Third, their hopes are in a better society for the future.

After I had been away from India for some years, I returned to try to discover at first hand what rapid social change has meant in the lives of the people. Christian compassion is based on understanding and on listening, with acceptance of those listened to. It is at heart a mission of love. To live among people and be one with them, to listen to them and love them, is essential to the Christian missionary effort. Part of my time I spent in old village India, and part in crowded new urban India.

Village India was for me mud-walled hamlets scattered round a bazaar town and separated by fields and orchards. I was in a thickly populated part of the state of Bihar in east India. My two-room house had a small courtyard, surrounded by a wall and veranda. The food was cooked on a mud stove fueled by cowdung cakes. My clothes were the broad-trousered white pajamas and the long-skirted cotton kurta or shirt of India. A grass-rope village cot under the open sky was my bed.

The urban India in which I lived was a web of alley-ways in Calcutta’s slums, where ancient crafts are being absorbed in modern mass production. Here my hours were spent in windowless rooms lit by hanging electric bulbs—rooms crowded with men who sat cross-legged on mats working at their craft. Our food—mountains of rice with lentils, highly spiced, served twice a day—was cooked in a common mess. The men rose at dawn and went into the alleyways to relieve themselves and clean their teeth and wash their faces at a common tap. Then they worked until noon. Food was brought a little after noon. After eating they worked on until 10:30 or later at night, when another meal of rice and lentils was brought in. After eating and sharing a bit of tobacco and an occasional bottle, the men stretched out for a night’s rest on the floor of the shop.

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It was in this sweatshop of Calcutta that I met the village boy with his tin box library. His mother had given him the scripture portion when he left home. From his school he had brought the textbook on India. And in the bazaar he had spent his first earnings on the Soviet magazine.

I saw through India’s eyes the hopes for the future. A Brahman farmer said to me, “I want to sell my fields and go to the city. Life here is dying. Surely there will be chances in the city for a better life for my family.” A middle-aged worker in Calcutta said, “I have to work from dawn till midnight for only four rupees. But not my son! He will be educated.” A horse-cart driver, with glowing eyes, told me that he hoped India would some day be like the Soviet Union, where “no one goes hungry, and there is work and equality for all.”

I heard through India’s ears the appeals of the present. On Sunday afternoons, when work was stopped, political speakers harangued in the city park. In the streets modern Indian music lured passers-by to cheap seats at the latest Indian film. Sweets-sellers, biri-cigarette vendors, gamblers, and loose women enticed the money from the workers’ pockets.


O way of crosses—

Shall I count it strange

That my way too

must lead unto a cross?

Should only Thine contain

the gall, the jeers,

the shame?

And mine be merely mystical?

A thing of words?

A name?


I felt through India’s heart the yearning for the past. The ragged holy man would come by, clanging his cymbals, and the worker would give him money. Religious pictures hung on the workshop walls—especially pictures of Hanuman, monkey godling of might, and of Ganesh, elephant godling of good luck, and of Ravidas, the god who was patron of the worker’s craft. A Hindu scripture was kept in each workroom, and men would pause to read it or recite its passages aloud from memory. Now and then they would leave the shop to worship at shrines by the streetside or would pass the night in fervent religious Hindu singing.

I asked myself, Where is the Church and what is the Church amid these hopes, appeals, and yearnings? I asked and listened. And I learned that to most Christians and non-Christians, the Church is a foreign agency whose duty it is to help when help is requested. That is all. It is foreign, and one must be careful not to get involved in it. In downtown Calcutta are many old churches—some as old as 150 years—but the crowds pass them by because they are still thought of as foreign. In the new sections of growing Calcutta, there are almost no churches and no Christian workers. In the villages, the temples and shrines of Hinduism are multiplying, and public worship is everywhere evident. But among Christians there is little evidence of worship, of faith, or of any dynamic relationship with a living Christ.

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Deep into the night I watched my Indian friends chant and make offerings to Ravidas, or to Kali and Durga, goddesses of antiquity. All through the day I heard the sound of their tools and the muttering of their complaints at a hard and meaningless existence. And on weekends I felt their uncertainty as they marched in demonstrations and listened to fiery political oratory.

An ojha, a witch-doctor, told me that he could summon demons to surround a man at midnight, making him afraid to go forward or backward or to stay where he was. Many in India are in such a plight—caught in frustration somewhere within their past, present and future.

Can India’s past redeem it? Can the Hindu religion make India whole? No long-range observer of India can doubt the increase of religious fervor in recent years nor fail to see the sincerity with which old and young alike worship at Hindu shrines. Yet it seems to me (and for many years I have been a sympathetic student and observer of Hinduism) that the religion of the masses discourages ethical responsibility. I met many men of strong, clean faith in Rama and in Hanuman, but never one who had any comprehension of what it means to trust in a personal and concerned God and to be guided by his Spirit. They all said, “We are all searching. None has found.” In the uncertainties of social change, they were clinging to the unchanged religious traditions of their grandparents.

Can India’s present redeem it? Can modern society make India whole? The most powerful human motive for the people among whom I lived was their passion for status. Status, in the tradition of Indian society, means not to serve but to be served. It means not to work with one’s hands. It means to be a generous benefactor to all, who need repay the benefactor only with honor and respect. This attitude has contributed to the widespread graft and corruption riddling Indian public as well as village life.

Can its future redeem India? Can a new ideology, perhaps, integrate its society? Many Indians delight in arguing politics and haranguing the public, whether a small group on a street corner or a great crowd in the city common. Yet those great men and women of India who are dedicated to the hard work of national welfare and civic improvement are a tiny minority. Many will demonstrate their dislike of present evils; few will patiently toil for future good.

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Can the Church be a means for the redemption of India’s life? For all my admiration of the beauties and wisdom of Indian culture, I have struggled to understand the roots of the general failure of the masses to be clean, honest, industrious—qualities without which no nation can be truly great. And I have concluded that the poverty, the disease, the difficult climate are not a sufficient explanation. There is one basic lack in India’s past, a lack that makes its people unable to rise above their sufferings and to endure them with integrity. For what is needed is known to the West as the Protestant heritage. This heritage includes cleanliness, honesty, integrity, diligence, and industry—virtues that are consequences of a life in Christ. (Looking from India back toward home, however, I am also alarmed at the disappearance from America of this heritage and its ideals.)

India has no such heritage. One morning, in the verandah of the Brahman meeting place in a village, an elderly, illiterate, leather-skinned farmer told me an ancient myth of Hinduism. As he spoke, I realized that I was listening to a kind of folklore that is dying out in India. For India’s past is losing its hold on the people. India’s youth is impatient with it.

One afternoon in the workshop in Calcutta’s slums, I heard a Hindu laborer stretch and sigh, roll his tobacco in the palm of his hand, yawn the name of his god.—“Hey, Shiv, Hey, Shiv”—and say, “I work all day and half the night, and what do I have to show for it? Nothing.” This was the sigh of the masses who find no meaning in their present existence.

Very late one night on an almost deserted street of the city, a Christian laborer held my arms and said, “Surely, surely there is a way, a better way of life than this. God must have a better life for us than this!”

His statement was more question than declaration. Does God have a way for the people of India and for the world? Is Christ the hope for the people of India and for us? If we really believe so, then we have a mission to India and to the world.

What then is our mission to India? It is to channel God’s healing wholeness into the evil of her life. Here are some leading needs of Christian missions in India.

1. India’s masses must become familiar with Christian literature. To be sure, we have been teaching the people to read. But what do they read? Attractive Soviet magazines and books written in the language of the people are found in nearly every bookstall, home, and workshop. But even in most Christian homes Christian literature is absent. Why? The Church must answer the question.

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2. We need to stimulate India’s students to become Christian disciples. The Church has dealt out thousands of scholarships and has educated youth from nursery through graduate school. Few of these students know Christ dynamically. Not many have been given Soviet scholarships, but selected Soviet students are in the universities of India, living in the dormitories, going to classes, and engaging their fellow students in ideological discussions.

3. We need to provide India’s representatives among us with examples of Christian prayer. There is much rivalry for church scholarships and for election to church conferences in America. When Indian students come to us, we entertain them and lionize them. And yet we do not spend time looking with them for God’s will in their lives and in ours. We do not include them in the fellowship of prayer. We need to help them—as well as ourselves—discover and answer God’s call.

4. We need to challenge the Indian Church to crucifixion with Christ. The average Christian community in India is self-interested and only nominal in its faith. Most Indians do not think the Church has anything to say to them or to their needs. Does the average American? Are our church members crucified with Christ?


What a tragedy!

To kick open the gates of heaven

and rushing in with precipitate haste

to approach my Lord

with hands full of patches and pieces

and the hurriedly woven strands

of a life spent so busily “working for God”—

only to see the sorrow rise in his eyes

as he turns me to face a vision

of the person he wanted me to be

and to hear him say so softly:

“If only you hadn’t been too busy

to spend some time with me.”


When Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and that they may have it more abundantly,” he was talking about God’s life imparted to man. To creatures of time he was promising the life of the ages. But that life must be accepted. And how can it be accepted if people are unaware of it? Or put the question another way: “How can we have that life without really sharing it?”

Mr. Thomas is an Indian government worker for community development, and he is a Christian. Indians are usually convinced that government workers are out to feather their own nests. But those who know Mr. Thomas realize it is not so with him. He listens to them and lives among them and understands their needs. He offers them the advice and help his government can give. At the same time he shares with them the stability and integrity of a Christ-centered life. He comes to them that their lives might be more abundant. This is the Christian commission.

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If our Church is God’s, then it is the instrument of his mission. If we are in Christ, then we are part of his mission. His mission, and so our mission, is to proclaim the Gospel. To proclaim the Gospel we must share Christ with others. To share Christ we must understand others. To understand them we must listen to them. To listen to them we must love them. And to love them, we must be channels of God’s love.

God’s love reconciles. That is why we can say that God’s love through us could reconcile India and the world. For God to reconcile the world means to restore it to himself. But to restore it, God’s love must reach the world. And to reach the world God has chosen us.

In India I lived in a populous area of richly growing rice fields. Once this land had been barren. When the rains came, they quickly drained off, leaving the ground cracked and parched. Then channels were dug from the great river Ganges, and from the channels a network of canals. These canals did not exist for themselves. They were not dug to bring the soil of the fields into the canals, but simply to bring the living water from the river to every field.

It is so with the Church and with us in the Church. The Church does not exist for itself, nor does it exist to bring converts into itself. It exists to bring God’s love to every man.

Our mission to India, as to the whole world, is to listen to it, to understand it, and to let God’s redeeming love in Christ pour through us to all its people.

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