(Updated): For many Western Christians, an enduring memory of the pandemic will be the division it exposed in local churches as believers found themselves on opposite sides over Sunday service reopenings, mask policies, and vaccinations.
That’s not the picture Johnrose Austin Jayalal, president of the Indian Medical Association, paints of the Indian church. The Christian doctor has observed churches supporting members suffering from poverty, church hospitals serving the community at large, and fellow Christian physicians volunteering to serve in some of the places hardest hit by the coronavirus.
“I am able to see, even amid persecution, even amid difficulties, even amid the control by the government, even among the restrictions we face in openly proclaiming the message of love, by various means and ways, God Almighty is present,” he told CT.
India has reported 11.9 million cases of COVID-19 and 161,000 official deaths (compared to the US reporting 30.2 million cases and almost 550,000 official deaths), while only 58 million people (4.2% of the population) have received at least their first vaccine dose.
Jayalal recently spoke with Christianity Today about the pandemic’s silver linings for Indian Christians and what Western Christians can learn; tensions with the government over modern and alternative medicine; and how his faith has affected his leadership of one of his nation’s largest professional councils of health care workers.
What has the pandemic looked like in India?
The majority of people who got sick were from the middle or top socioeconomic statuses. The people on the lower level—yes, it was a problem, but most of the time it’s really the churches who were taking care of them. Because the churches were able to actively support the congregations, these people somehow managed. With the grace of God Almighty, I think that the crisis has now turned over. The mortality is also less among the people from the low socioeconomic status. People here have already been exposed to various kinds of other diseases, and their immunity was built up.
How has the church cared for people during this time?
This was during lockdown, so the churches were closed for six or seven months. Church leadership identified the families that needed support and offered financial and material support and counselling to the church members who were below the poverty line.
Only in the last two or three months have churches begun to meet. There are restrictions, but they can meet with less people. For instance, instead of one service, now we are having two services.
How did people worship during those months that churches were closed?
The congregational churches and independent churches were doing two things: social media and mass media support. Two main groups, Jesus Calls and Jesus Redeems, were systematically conducting services at particular times. In fact, people were able to spend a lot of time on religious activities.
I personally think that during this time, people have prayed and worshiped more than ever. People have also been able to spend their time with their family. We have seen how much time people will spend in front of the televisions and in front of the computers. But during the pandemic, families have come together, listening to the Word and participating in the prayers. That is a very good thing to happen.
I feel personally it was not a time of real difficulty for the Christians at that moment. We were able to worship and carry on our special assignments and duties. The only thing we were not able to do was meet as a congregation.
A Delhi megachurch pastor predicted in CT last year that the pandemic lockdowns would spur revival because Indian churches were turning unity efforts that started from persecution into service to community that extended beyond their church buildings on Sundays.
That was exactly true. Many times, people had put their faith in materialistic things. But through the pandemic, they were really able to realize that our protection is only through the grace of God Almighty. We have seen members of parliament and ministers of the states succumbing to the disease. Whatever amount of money or power they had, it wasn’t enough to protect them.
It’s only the grace of God Almighty that helps us to get over the crisis and stay safe, and it was his grace that protected us. Through night-time prayers, family prayers, Christians began shifting from the materialistic things to the blessings in heaven. They began to concentrate more on that.
How have Christians helped others, whether it’s the Hindu population or the Muslim population, during the pandemic?
Not all doctors were willing to come forward and serve in the ICUs or areas where the most casualties were coming from. Many committed doctors did come and serve in those areas and helped.
Most church hospitals don’t just serve Christians. They serve anyone from a low socioeconomic status. In the small, local areas, Christians offered health care not only for the members of the congregation but also to the other downtrodden people in the area, including in tribal and rural areas.
What do you make of the disparity between the West and India with regard to the severity of COVID-19?
The UK and the US technologically are advanced countries. But the number of people getting infected and the number of people dying is very high. India has certain limitations in different parts of the country, but we have been affected far less than the US. There are various reasons for that.
In India, we are exposed to so many types of bacteria, and so our immunity has been built up. Our people who live in rural areas are exposed to all types of unsanitized water and environmental problems. But most of the time in the UK and US, you are not exposed to those kinds of bacteria and viruses. You have a protected environment, and the resistance power is less with you. So when you are exposed to it, you are more likely to succumb to it.
You also have a very fragmented medical system. If someone wants to give some medicine to you, it is very difficult. But here in India it is very easy to get any medicine. Most of the time we mix many kinds of medicines. You have drugs which have been proven efficacy and unproven efficacy. But all can be used.
People here were able to get a lot of treatment, more than what people were able to get in Western countries. I know people in countries where they had a fever but they still were asked to stay home and could not come to the hospital. Here anyone can walk in. You don’t have to go to your specialist from your family physician. Here if you want to go to a superspecialist, you can automatically go. So that kind of system is there. The health care infrastructure and manpower had clearly helped us in this coronavirus pandemic.
The third reason is that one of the vaccinations that we have used is an anti-tuberculosis. It’s called a BCG vaccination. That is, as soon as a baby is born, the baby is given the BCG vaccination—everyone has received it. And these vaccinations also have played a major role in making people not susceptible to infection.
I personally feel God must have been distracted with the US and now he is focusing on India, and he is having some grace on us in India [laughing]. So we want to proclaim the message that it is the grace of God, and it is not by our power, not by our might, but by the grace of God along with the good health care delivery system, that we are getting that positive response.
What can Western Christians learn from Indian Christians?
The change in mindset from the materialistic perspective to the heavenly perspective. We now realize that we are powerless in front of this pandemic, and we are not able to predict what is going to happen for this, and we need to be pressed upon the almighty God to come to help us. After this lockdown, may God’s grace cultivate more people to look into the church as the place of blessings for them.
The pandemic is an opportunity for us to show to the world we can care for each other and share the burden of each other. That was able to be exemplified and amplified due to this pandemic. Indian churches were able to take care of the needs of others, not only taking care of their personal needs. They were able to realize the importance of the family as a unit, and they would also take part in the difficult areas and show the compassion of Christ. Indian Christians can practice the message of the goodness of God Almighty and the hope of salvation in their life.
Tell me about your work as head of the Indian Medical Association.
As a Christian, one opportunity which I was able to include in the medical association is the concept of family medicine. It is slowly vanishing from India. India is moving to a culture of the specialty-oriented health care system. We are trying to reintroduce the family medicine concept and make comprehensive, community-oriented care a priority concern for the association.
I feel this is a good opportunity to lead the country with an example of Christianity under the principles of servant leadership. Though Christians make up less than 2.5 to 3 percent of the population in this country, as a Christian doctor, I have the privilege to lead this organization. I pray to God Almighty to give me the wisdom, knowledge, and courage to lead this country in the medical profession.
You’ve been quoted about concerns over how the current government views modern medicine. What did you mean?
The most common system is modern medicine based on the scientific evidence. The government of India, because of their cultural value and traditional belief believes in a system called Ayurveda. It is an ancient system of Medicine been practiced for a long time. Now as per the New Educational policy you will have to study modern medicine alongside Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha, homeopathy, yoga, and naturopathy. The government wants to make it one nation, one system of medicine. We the modern medicine people, is not against any other system but do not want the mixing one system with another. We are carrying on various means to impress this upon the government.
As the leader of the Indian Medical Association, I need to continue fighting against the government on this issue. We have organized various demonstrations and protests. In the last 14 days, I have organized a hunger strike across the country, and most of our modern medical doctors have participated. I am also seeking the wisdom and guidance of God Almighty about what further I will do in this difficult time.
So would you say that you are not actually fighting against this type of medicine in particular, but you’re fighting against it becoming the only system of medicine in the country?
Yes. We are not against any system. Each system has basic principles that are different, and when you are mixing the two systems of medicine, it will lose the specialty and the purity of the profession. And that will only produce the quackery of the system that cannot be good for the profession or good for the community. But I am sure and confident that God Almighty will strengthen us and sustain us and ensure this medicine, which just comes out of a lot of dedication and research, will definitely continue to grow.
Say more about the hunger strike that you organized.
Usually, any protest from our organization might end in shutting down the hospital. But I personally feel that by closing down the hospital, we are only harming the common man, and that is not our purpose. We are not against the common man; we are against the principles. So I thought it is the doctors who should take the pain on themselves and fast. I believe in the power of fasting, and fasting takes you to a spiritual area.
It was not a usual practice of our association, so I was very happy that it was well accepted across the country. Now we are waiting for the response from the government, and we are also fighting the case in the Supreme Court that this mixing of the systems is not good for the country.
What is the Christian community’s relationship with other nationalists?
Most of the people are soft minded. There are fewer hardcore people, apart from excluding the people who are in power. Often people are more understanding; people are more tolerant; people are more able to go along with them.
One of the things we must always remember is that Hinduism or Hindutva is different from other religions because of polytheism. They accept different gods. They have no difficulty in accepting or proclaiming that Jesus is one of the gods or Muhammad is one of the gods. So religious restrictions are less when comparing them with systems of other countries. I personally feel that it is healthy in India.
What are specific ways where you see a link between your convictions as a Christian and how you live out your faith at work?
I firmly believe that wherever you are or whatever position you are, you can be a Christian doctor as it is a way of life. Normally in the medical profession we talk about the physical curing. I believe we are not here just here to physically cure, but God Almighty has called us to give holistic healing, which includes the spiritual healing, the mental healing, and the social healing. The World Heath Organization also defines health as not mere absence of disease, but a positive state of physical ,mental and social well being.
My primary concern when I work as a Christian doctor is to ensure that I have time to talk about the mental well-being and wholistic healing of the person. We need more Christian doctors to work more in secular institutions, mission institutions, and medical colleges. I am working as a professor of surgery in a medical college, so it is also a good opportunity for me to carry on the principles of wholistic healing there. I also have the privilege of mentoring graduates and the interns.
There’s this idea that if you want to be a serious Christian, you need to be a pastor or a minister or work in a church.
You can be a Christian police officer or work in the revenue department. The place does not decide how you are going to be a Christian. It is your relationship with God Almighty. When we have a relationship with the Father above, we know who we are and who is our master.
The opportunity in front of every Christian is splendid. It is not solely the responsibility of the pastor; it is that every Christian who is born again and who has experienced the love and affection of God Almighty will respond to the calling to go and preach the good news of love. I am able to see, even amid persecution, even amid difficulties, even amid the control by the government, even among the restrictions we face in openly proclaiming the message, of love by various means and ways, God Almighty is present.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity.]
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