Published July 5, 2007
Mujibar Sirijul* sat at his desk and listened to the Americans speak of their language, culture, and faith. Like many of his classmates, he plans on moving to the United States someday, bringing with him his own culture, including his faith as a devout Hindu.
In a country nearly as populated as China, there is more to India than spicy food, heavy accents, and the Ganges River. Young professionals with a bent for technology and their sheer numbers show that India will likely have a bigger impact on the United States than the average American would expect.
To put it into perspective, last year The New York Times reported that Dell, the world’s largest manufacturer of personal computers, was making preparations to double its work force in India. The company has four call centers in India, where the bulk of its 10,000 employees work.
Dell’s statement followed similar announcements by tech giants Microsoft and Cisco Systems, who plan to double and triple their workforce in India, The Times reported.
Jake and Jennifer Bayne*, members of CrossPointe Church at Gwinnett Center in Duluth, led a team of volunteers to northern India this June. “We took the opportunity [to teach college students] the skills necessary to become valuable in a global market, given freely, without the expectation of something in return,” says team member Jenny Rossie*. “[The Indian students] innately value learning and have a curiosity about America. We answered the difficult questions they asked earnestly and, without becoming defensive, bridged a gap between the cultures where we could begin to forge relationships and provide them knowledge of the gospel.”
Read what the volunteer team of Georgia Baptists conveyed about their reasons of why we must “go and tell” in the story below.
*Names changed for security reasons
Less than five percent of India’s more than one billion residents profess to be believers in Jesus Christ. In a culture where relationships are highly valued and education is focused on technology and business, Georgia Baptists are seeing more opportunities to show the Asian Indian people how to become a part of the Kingdom family.
“We could hold technological seminars and use those seminars to build relationships with others,” notes Jake Bayne*, a team member of CrossPointe Church in Duluth, who recently traveled, along with a group of volunteers from the church, to India to help college students improve their English and professional skills.
While the CrossPointe team members worked with Indian students at a school in both a group format and on a one-on-one basis, it was the relational connections made in and outside of class that made the largest impact.
“God answered my prayers by allowing us to share with several people and uniting the team. It exceeded my expectations ... ,” says team member Elizabeth Carr*.
Jenny Rossie* concedes, “I was also keenly aware of the ability to share our beliefs in a school setting ... they not only allowed it, but wanted it.”
The students were anxious to learn from and interact with the Americans that had come to visit.
Rossie expresses that “with 20 years of teaching experience under my belt, I have never been so excited about a classroom full of students so hungry for knowledge and thankful for learning. This was probably the most rewarding experience of my career in that they were so motivated. It also allowed me to be creative with the strategies and activities with students who saw them as new and innovative because their typical classroom setting is almost totally lecture.”
The team focused on teaching English so the Indian students can communicate easier in the business realm, taught professional skills such as resume building and interview skills, and shared American culture.
Cultures learn from each other
The Indian students taught the team members many of their own customs as well. “One Sikh believer shared in detail how he wraps up his seven feet of turban around his uncut hair every morning. He said it only takes him five minutes to secure the colorful fabric on his head, while he laughed that it takes his friend nearly an hour while standing in front of the mirror,” remembers team member Mike Leonard*.
The team held question sessions designed to allow both cultures to get to know one another. They also immersed themselves in authentic food, learned Indian dance steps from some of the locals, and took part in preparing food to be cooked in the local Punjabi method. “The people were very friendly and open to religious conversations. And the food was good and spicy,” notes David Lyles*.
Although most of the country is filled with Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim believers, the team shared with more than several hundred students in and outside the school. But not before breaking down barriers and building friendships first.
In the Indian culture, building relationships is important for establishing common ground. This proves challenging in reaching Asian Indians because “it is often a long-term commitment [of cultivation]; no speedy conversions [should be expected]. It requires patience and perseverance and faith that the Lord will use our willingness for His glory,” agreed Rossie.
Even William Carey, the first Baptist missionary to visit India in 1793, experienced seven years of futility before anyone came to Christ.
Leonard, a self-proclaimed Type A, results-driven person, recalls feeling, “concerned that the trip wouldn’t feel very significant – that the [void numbers in those accepting Christ] was not making a difference.”
However Leonard realized that reaching a people group with a culture and religion so different from his own can’t happen overnight. “The trip [was] rewarding because it was so personal – developing friendships and connecting with people on a one-on-one basis. Understanding the Indian culture was very fun,” Leonard recalled.
Rossie agrees and hopes “in time [the Indian people] will see the work of Christ.”
Cultivating relationships, breaking down cultural barriers
Rhonda King*, another CrossPointe team member, developed a friendship with a young girl named Lasahnee Heicka*. Heicka is often teased by her friends for befriending many of the foreigners, who visit the area or pass through her shops doors. “They say I should become a foreigner too,” she says. Her friends don’t see the larger picture – that cultures are coming together as technology makes the world smaller. Like many Indians, once personal connections are made, they tend to be open and warm with their new friends. Rossie recalls seeing the connections through the Indian’s eyes, “their eyes spoke volumes about their interest in America. I also felt the warmth of their smiles. As soon as I smiled first, they became very responsive, accepting, and welcoming.”
Heicka thought of her new friend from the United States as she was cleaning her house and found just the thing to fix King’s necklace, an American who had been visiting her store everyday, and who’s necklace kept turning over backwards. As Heicka fixed King’s necklace, which had a charm of a mustard seed hanging from it, King shared with her its meaning for a believer in Christ.
Heicka, 30, dreams of finding that special someone whom she can marry and call “mister” (the Indian term for husband). She asks if families are still a commodity in the United States, because word is getting back that strong family values have been lost.
“Stepping inside an unbeliever’s world and loving them where they are is the way Christ loves,” said Jennifer Bayne. On a busy street packed with young people, this popular outdoor hangout exuded air as thick and crowded as the shops and alleys that connected them. Girls on the team, adorned with Indian bangle jewelry, stopped by a group of street vendors to further accessorize themselves with mahendi – or Henna, a plant used to temporarily decorate the hands or body; originally used to teach females patience before they entered marriage. Team member Rossie was refused mahendi in the drawing of a cross on her foot because of the Indian’s beliefs in who a god is – a symbol or picture, not a person.
The 120° heat and stirred up dust of unpaved roads makes the feet the dirtiest part on one’s body in India. The vendor said he would not put a god on her feet. Rossie shared with him that the cross is not her God. A belief centered on a person rather than an image, idol, or symbol is unknown to most Indians.
She shares that the cross is a symbol of what Jesus Christ did for her. If it was a case of where the symbol should be in reflection of where God worked in her, Rossie shared, “ ... it would need to be placed here,” as she pointed to her heart.
The biggest challenge for Georgia Baptists in reaching the Asian Indian people are two-fold. The rate of the population growth, culture, and temples are exceeding the rate at which efforts are being made to reach out to them.
In view of this, the interest in technology, and the impact of India’s younger people, Leonard* agrees that engaging with them means building relationships first. “We need to spend time with them. [The other challenge is] there are so many misperceptions on both sides of who we are and what we stand for. The first step has to be breaking down of those barriers. Technology, as a facilitator, is a large cause for bringing people together.”
Maintaining those relationships are key as well says Carr, “I would like to keep in contact with the Indian teens and students through exchanging emails that we collected, [now that we’re back home.]”
Reaching through generations
In a small village of India, a missionary’s efforts in 1893 reached a man who was a Brahman-Hindu believer. Later, generations were influenced by his new found faith.
His granddaughter decided to reach out to her own people as a counselor in an open air crusade by Akbar Abdul Haqq, a former Muslim who became a staff evangelist for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. While there to counsel others, she made the decision to accept Christ.
Her name is Norma Charles, and she has been the South Asian church planting missionary for the Georgia Baptist Convention since 1982, when there were only 5,000 Indian Asian residents in Georgia.
She agrees that the Asian Indian culture and religions are having a growing impact on Americans, and specifically Georgians. Her voice carries native Indian accent although she’s been an American citizen for 30 years.
Charles states, “in order to minister to the Asian Indian people there are key factors.
“Offer events of fellowship and family-oriented time, visit the families within their own homes, take in prayer needs, pray for them, and attend the cultural programs held around Georgia.”
Georgia’s Asian Indian population was nearly 28,000 in 2000 according to the U.S. Census. Projections say that number nearly doubled by 2006. There are nine Asian Indian Georgia Baptist churches in the metro Atlanta area, yet a misconception exists among some who call themselves Christians. Because the culture values tradition, they naturally consider themselves a Hindu if their father was a Hindu believer. This idea is carried over as one person in the family accepts Christ, the following generations consider themselves 2nd and 3rd generation Christians although they never personally accepted Jesus.
Asian Indian pastors have long seen the need for evangelism in their native country. “Almost all Asian Indian pastors have been working to reach India through their ministries here in Georgia. This is done by working with sponsoring churches, Baptist churches, or by individuals planting churches. Providing resources and training for evangelism are ways they reach their culture across the globe,” stated Charles.
On Friday nights at the Global Mall in Norcross, shops and restaurants are ample evidence of the impact Indians are having on the metro area. In a modest fast-food Indian restaurant, the Parmar family is the minority among their fellow vendors because they are Christians. As a member of First Asian Indian Baptist Church of Marietta, the family’s second daughter, Tina, says she has classmates who are Christian, Muslim, and Hindu at Woodstock High School.
Those numbers of her Asian Indian classmates will increase as she registers at Kennesaw State University after graduation. KSU’s number of Asian Indian Pacific Islander students registered during the fall 2006 term was 729. The University of Georgia registered 285 Asian Indian students, while Mercer University had 334 Asian Pacific Islanders registered for the previous fall term.
Although Parmar was born in America and raised in a Christian home, she has yet to visit her family’s culture in India. She has friends within both cultures and finds it easy to be open about her faith in Christ.
Charles relates that openness in the Asian Indian culture is nominal. She has found that many Asian Indians “are not in the practice of being open about their converted beliefs due to the persecution, opposition from family, friends and society, separation from family, property, and inheritance, and sometimes death as possible consequences of conversion back in their country. It’s typical that because past generations had to be silent about their newfound beliefs, the tools of evangelization has not been passed on to younger generations. If it’s done, it is done quietly,” adds Charles.
The largest influence of Asian Indian culture on Atlanta can be seen in Lilburn. The Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported the $19 million Hindu temple under construction as “the closest metro Atlanta may ever come to having its own Taj Mahal.”
Parmar agrees that attending to cultural events would help those who are not familiar with relating to Asian Indians better understand their culture. Events like the annual Christmas party hosted by Beech Haven Baptist Church in Athens brings Asian Indian students of various faiths together for fun, fellowship, and free food. The students’ motivations may be different, but the key is building those relationships for one-on-one evangelism.
The Gwinnett Civic Center in Duluth hosts an annual “Festival of India” which will be held August 11, nearing the time Lilburn’s temple will be completed. Many opportunities will be there to connect with the Asian Indian people in the area while learning about the culture’s food, clothing, jewelry, and traditions. In past years, Charles has had a booth at the festival offering free DVD’s titled HOPE.
“The title alone, HOPE, attracted them. If it said Jesus on it they probably wouldn’t have been interested,” notes Charles.
Whoever’s turf Georgia Baptists engage the Indian people in, Rossie expresses, “there is nothing that can prepare you for the experience [of working one-on-one with Asian Indians.] There are no words that truly represent submersion in the culture, interactions with the people, and the complete reliance on God that it takes to totally let go of control of your surroundings.”
For further information on how Georgia Baptists can reach out to the Asian Indian community, contact Norma Charles of GBC’s Language Missions at (770) 446-0627.
Kelly Murray contributed to this report.
• Encourage Hindi language-speaking Georgians can tune into WGUN 1010 AM on Sundays at 2:00 pm for a 15-minute message and music hosted by Norma Charles, the Georgia Baptist South Asian Church-planting missionary.
• Aug. 23-25 – Asian Indian Pastors/Leaders & Spouses Retreat weekend, Toccoa. Training is provided in Evangelism and Ministry with Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, etc. Experts in these ministries are invited to speak.
• Sept. 22 – Asian Indian Family Retreat, Atlanta Encourages and strengthens South Asian believers; opportunity to meet, fellowship, and reach out
• Attend local cultural events Aug. 11 – Festival of India, Gwinnett Civic Center, Duluth
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