[Washington Window] The Right Rev. V. Devasahayam, Bishop-in-Madras of the Church of South India, knows how it hurts to be excluded.
Born into the Dalit, or “untouchable,” community – those who fall outside the Hindu caste system – he has experienced discrimination and contempt throughout his life.
During a June 8 visit to St. David’s, D.C., he struggled to describe his social status to members of that parish: As a child, he said, he wasn’t permitted to enter the village shop. The shopkeeper fetched the provisions his mother had asked him to purchase and set them on the ground outside. And before she touched his money, which she also refused to take from his hand, she poured water over it to “clean” it.
Returning by bus to this village years later as a well-respected university professor, Devasahayam sat down in a row of empty seats. A man sat down next to him and struck up a conversation. As they chatted, the man asked his family name, and when it was given “he moved away, saying he needed some fresh air, and was prepared to stand all the way rather than sit beside a Dalit.”
“Dalits are treated as unapproachable, unseeable,” Devasahayam said. “It’s an inherited inequality. You are born into a caste and you die into the caste and even the bodies are not buried together.”
Although discrimination is now prohibited by Indian law, the social stigma lingers, especially in rural areas, he said.
So it is perhaps not surprising that Dalits, who make up a quarter of India’s mostly Hindu population, now account for about three quarters of that country’s Christians.
The gospel of Jesus, with its message of inclusion, has found fertile ground in the hearts of India’s untouchables. But it wasn’t always that way: During the British rule, Christian missionaries avoided the Dalit.
“In India, when missionaries came, they recognized a hierarchy,” Devasahayam said. “They thought that if they converted the upper caste people, the others would be converted. They shied away from approaching the untouchables, because if the untouchables came into the church that might serve as a deterrent for the upper caste people.”
More recently, “[Dalits] have taken the initiative to come into the church,” he said. “They are attracted by God’s mercy to the last and the least. They are untouchables no longer, because Jesus has touched them.”
Preaching on the day’s Gospel reading (Matthew 9: 9-13, 18-26), Devasahayam compared the accounts of Jesus dining with tax collectors and sinners, healing a hemorrhaging woman and raising a girl from the dead, to life as a Dalit.
The recipients of Jesus’ mercy in this story were outcasts: Tax collectors were shunned by the religious establishment, menstruating women were considered ritually unclean, and women and girls were treated as second class citizens, “impure, inferior and ranked little ahead of slaves.” Each was excluded from society, and suffered from shame.
“It is the same in India,” Devasahayam said. “The untouchables are considered outcasts and are excluded from society. Jesus was against this ideology that legitimized exclusion, and he spoke of a God of mercy.”
The message of mercy is one that India’s Dalit community is hungry to hear and eager to share.
“This has been the story of the untouchable Christians in India,” Devasahayam said. “Because we have been given life, we have a responsibility and honor to propagate life. We take our evangelistic calling very seriously. Many of the dioceses in India will say that evangelism is our first priority: We have experienced the Gospel and therefore we are duty bound to share it.”
Devasahayam has set out to “bring them back the esteem that they are children of God and are not untouchable,” said the Rev. Sathianathan Clarke, who was ordained in the Diocese of Madras and now serves as professor of World Christianity at Wesley Theological Seminary. “During his nine years as bishop, he has led the church as both a missionary and as a person that is empowering untouchable communities to find wholeness in Christ.”
This year, the Diocese of Madras baptized 4,000 new members, and expects that number to reach 10,000 before the year is out. It employs 120 full time missionaries, and is actively involved in the organizing and provision of social services and education.
“This is important, challenging, demanding work, because we want to show [untouchables] that this is the life Jesus offers them: a new life,” Devasahayam said. “We don’t stop with baptism. The wholeness, the fullness of life that Jesus came to give us is constantly unfolding. We’re not just here to offer them saving of the soul. We want to give them fullness of life.”
He has been there. He knows how it hurts to be excluded. And now he extends the heart that Jesus touched to reach out to India’s “untouchables”.
“We were no people, but now we are God’s people,” he said.