Orthodoxy in India Today
by Fr. Ignatios Sennis, trans. Tilemahos Alikakos
The Mission: Synergy with God
It is well-known that the main goal of the Church is to bring to her fold all people for the salvation of their souls. This goal is achieved basically with mission in the broader sense of the word. Mission is our cooperation with the salvific work of God who died on the cross so that all may become one in Him. Therefore every Christian who considers himself or herself an energetic member of the Church, is called to mission. That mission includes reaching out to those who are suffering, especially since Christ, whose footsteps we follow, died on the cross for them. The conclusion is that mission is not just one of the works of the Church, but it is her basic ministry for the renewal and transformation of the world, of all peoples and all nations, so that they can become the CO-inheritors and CO-participants of the kingdom of Jesus Christ through His gospel.
These thoughts, by dear brothers and sisters, guided my first steps, a few years ago, in order to journey to far lands where millions of people still live today in idol worshipping idols and false gods. Certainly, before us came many great and holy missionaries. The first missionary to India was Apostle Thomas, who preached the Gospel of Christ in South India, performed miracles, and finally martyred for His Lord in Moulapore, an ancient city near Madras. To our day, these areas are dominated by a vibrant Christian element, even though the local church has cut itself off from the Orthodox Patriarchates and is broken up to different denominations. Since the time of Apostle Thomas until the 20th century, there was no Orthodox Mission in India, even though there were many Greeks in West Bengal, who built a cemetery and a glorious church dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ. A systematic Orthodox Mission started in 1980 in the rural area of Arambah, in West Bengal, 150 km from Calcutta. Fr. Athanasios Anthides, a Greek priest-monk from Egypt, experienced in the missions in Africa, was the first to come to preach Chest crucified in India's very unfavorable and almost hostile conditions. With simplicity and patience, self-denial and humility, Fr. Athanasios worked for teen years teaching and preaching the truth of Christ and quenching the thirst of our brothers and sisters in India. In the village of Arambah he built a small church dedicated to Apostle Thomas and a humble house for each priest. He progressed in the translations of the Divine Liturgy, the Service Book, and a tome of Orthodox Catechism into the local Bengali dialect. Despite his old age and continuous ailments, Fr. Athanasios journeyed on foot to the surrounding villages, thus forming 24 clusters of believers. He used to say that the mission has to start from the villages where the ground is fertile and unstained from all other heretical teachings. He was right. His preaching brought forth fruit. His spiritual children still talk about Fr. Athanasios with love and affection, knowing him as the man who brought them to the Truth. He fought alone, and his cries for help to Greece went unanswered. He left this life with pain in his heart. The Lord however, satisfied his most deep-felt desire which was to die and be buried in India. On November 28, 1990, the warm ground of West Bengal welcomed the body of the first Greek Orthodox Missionary to India, to give rest to blessed Fr. Athanasios Anthides. Living in the same country, under the same conditions, I too feel his pain and anguish, the battle and the endurance which his love for and faith in Christ gave him. He sacrificed himself on the altar of love and lit the candle of Orthodoxy in Arambah.
Succession - Regrouping
About one year after the falling asleep of Fr. Athansios, by Gods call and the conscience of a huge responsibility, and with the hope and grace of God, we came as a small team from Greece to Calcutta.
The first few months were spent in repairs of the church building and of the adjacent house. The Church of the Transfiguration was built by the Greek merchants in Calcutta in 1924, and is located in an area called Kalighat, named after the goddess Kali whose greatest temple is less than 500 yards from the Church. The Church building is certainly impressive in its grandeur and in its Doric style. The interior is decorated with silver liturgical objects, marble floors and altar table. The throne and ambon are carved from wood, with the back of the ambon bearing the inscription : "We preach Christ crucified". The kouvouklion for the epitaphio and the icon stand are also woodcarvings, donated the faithful. For 250 years, Hellenism was flourishing in India. After Indian independence from Great Britain, the Greeks left and the church remained closed for 18 years without any maintenance or repairs.
After a few months of exhausting repairs came the time to start the organization of the philanthropic work in the name of the Orthodox Church. The essential part of the daily schedule were the daily services, in Greek and Bengali, thus witnessing to the fact that for the orthodox, worship holds the first and foremost place in life, and is the source of grace, strength and sanctification.
The difficulties of the Missionary activities
India is a Republic of 26 independent states. West Bengal is under a communist regime which by law forbids any kind of missionary activity. Therefore, our actions must always be discrete and cautious. There is always the danger of being expelled if the authorities ever wish to strictly enforce the letter of the law. This fact alone, along with the domination of Hinduism in Indian society, presents great difficulties for our baptized Christians and our catechumens who face contempt from both friends and family, and from the society as a whole.
It is easily understood, that these newly illumined are like small trees which have been freshly planted and are about to face great storms and winds. They have the need to be continuously supported and nourished, so that they can further spread their roots and become strong. This great responsibility of nourishment falls on our shoulders. When the Church prays for the catechumens, they are given strength and the fullness of the faith, salvation from deceit and heresy, and the ability to become members of the Body of Christ. Every Christian has to personally feel the responsibility which is accorded to him, and to show with deeds his sincere interest for his brethren in Christ on this earth.
Journeys - Catechesis
Soon we realized the need to travel frequently to all the villages where there were Orthodox Christians who have minimum opportunity for spiritual nourishment. Our Indian brethren have been raised in a usually Hindu environment, have heard the basic truths of the faith from the catechizer of their village, have read very few books if any, and have had some chances to attend the Divine Liturgy even though they have never seen a church building. This is all that makes up their knowledge of Orthodoxy. However, their limited knowledge does not stop the Holy Spirit from working in their hearts and from granting them the call to become members of the Body of Christ, to work with humility and patience in order to educate themselves in Christ. When they see us they consider it an honor and they imitate everything we do: how we stand in Church, how we cross our selves, how we talk, whatever we do carries great meaning because, like little children, they are forming their spiritual self by imitating us. Unavoidably there comes to our mind the gospel passage : "whoever scandalizes one of these little ones who believe in me, it is better for that man to tie a rock around his neck and drown himself." This is how we try to the best of our abilities, to visit the villages in order to hold the Divine Liturgy, to catechize, to hold discussions of various questions, to provide help with food and medicine distribution, to visit schools, to give advice, and to fulfill their spiritual and material needs.
The difficulties in this task are various and many. First of all, these travels are difficult. West Bengal is very much behind in technology and in infrastructure in comparison with other nations. Consequently, the roads are terrible, motor vehicles are old, and the congestion is unbearable as too many cars, buses, bicycles and even livestock exceed the capacity of the roads. In the city, the situation is even worse as noise, pollution and the heat require great patience and endurance. A distance of 120-150km take about 4-5 hours. In case of a breakdown or other problems, there is no roadside help or telephones. This is why, every time we set off, we cross ourselves, and pray to God that we come back safe.
Divine Liturgy in a hut
We depart around four o'clock in the morning so that we can arrive to our destination by morning, taking with us all the liturgical appointments needed for the Divine Liturgy. The faithful are awaiting us. In a small hut made out of mud, two small tables are set up. One is the altar and the other one is for the preparation of the Holy Gifts. There are no luxurious churches, great choirs, comfortable seats, or beautiful iconography. However, our Lord and God offers Himself as a sacrifice to all of us for the forgiveness of sins and life eternal. Slowly people keep coming. Some are not even Christian, but with fear and solemnity observe what is going on. Almost all of the Christians draw near the chalice of Life in order to quench their spiritual thirst. They are all enjoying their blessed day, but in the back of their minds they wonder when the next one is going to come. What is going to be their spiritual nourishment? Their battle is great and the human resources are few. In India, illiteracy is widespread, and thus it becomes very hard to find educated Christians that would comprise capable members of the Church and would carry on catechisms, pastoral care, and translations.
Seminars and Translations
For the education of priests and catechists, we have put in place a yearly seminar given by volunteers from the US and Greece, who sacrifice their vacations in order to contribute to the mission. In the translation department there are many delays and difficulties. There have been a few books published, with both liturgical and spiritual content, and many are awaiting printing. The procedure for publishing a book is complicated beyond belief, beginning with the problem of finding a good translator. Translations are done from the English text since there is no Greek-speaking Indian suited for Orthodox theological terminology. The printing press companies work at their own pace, and are often very slow and irresponsible. Continuously we run to the site to supervise the work so that it is done correctly and so that they do not cheat us in time and resources. Timeliness, trust, speed, organization and efficiency are words unknown to the life of Calcutta.
The same holds for the erecting of buildings. At the present time there are two churches being built, one youth center, and an orphanage with a church on the outskirts of Calcutta. The tools that the construction workers use are primitive; there are no machines, and they carry the building material in straw baskets on top of their heads. Everything is done at a slow pace. The building material is carried over a distance of 20 minutes by foot, on bicycles or rafts since there is no road for automobiles. Often, we have to travel to these villages for supervision of the work, since, unfortunately, there are no trustworthy people for this kind of work. As you can understand, my beloved Christians, the mission is one of continuous exhaustion, stress, disappointments, and huge responsibility.
We would be ignorant and ungrateful if we did not confess the blessings which God grants us. Often we have more and more people come to the mystery of baptism, beginning a new life in Christ. It is a sacred moment when people willingly come to confess that they reject Satan and all his works, and join Christ and believe in Him as King and God, and worship Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Trinity one in essence and inseparable. It is a tremendous joy in heaven when the houses with the awful idols of goddess Kali and the elephant formed Ganis, are replaced with the peaceful figures of Christ and His all-holy Mother. It is a great blessing to see people replace their violent and bloody sacrifices to idols and false gods, with their drawing near Christ Who is full love, peace, and compassion. We are truly blessed and grateful to be His humble coworkers in the salvation of men. We were overjoyed especially when multitudes of faithful came from the villages to participate in the services of Holy Week and Easter. Even though they heard little in their own language, their willingness to learn was beyond description, and the awe in which they attended the services was incredible. We felt inadequate and sad in the fact they could not sing and praise God in their language in the hymns of Holy Week with which our Orthodox tradition has enriched us. We hope that by next Easter the translations will be complete. We were also impressed with their willingness to come to the sacrament of Holy Confession and then to the Holy Eucharist. On the night of the Resurrection, their lips uttered the Christos Anesti with joy and strength. The work is difficult, but the joy of seeing our Indian brethren rejoice in the resurrection of our Lord, gives us rest and spiritual peace.
The Philanthropic work
India is third world country, poor and backwards in comparison with the western world. Especially West Bengal, maybe because of long years of colonization, and because of the communist government that took over after independence, is one of the poorest areas in the country. People who live in the industrial world, have no way of imagining the conditions of living in Calcutta. Nevertheless, we will try to sketch a few scenes from this life. Calcutta is a big city with population of 11 million people which features misery and poverty in every corner. Every building is very old, blackened by pollution and humidity, and poorly maintained. No matter how many years pass, the view of city life gives a sharp pain in our heart. Millions are homeless, living in the streets, with only some rags for their possessions. Like the poor Lazarus in the parable, so do these people live in poverty, hunger and disease, side by side with dogs and rats, unavoidably thinking about the injustices in the world: others travel in spaceships to outer space, and others fight for survival in the streets, forsaken by all. Isn't this the greatest cross and burden which the modern man daily places on Jesus Christ Who by his sacrifice on the cross willed to give us the supreme example of love and philanthropy?
How can we sleep in peace when we hear a baby across the street crying because of fever, or when the monsoon rain falls mercilessly on a homeless family that looks in vain for a shelter? Who can we rest in our cool room and comfortable bed when our brothers and sisters, creatures of God, are baking in the hot tropical sun in the streets and sidewalks for days, months, and years? Life for these people has no yesterday or tomorrow. There is only today. Are they going to survive today? Garbage which is plentiful everywhere, comprise a source of hope for people, animals, and crows. There they will find old scraps of paper which they will sell for a slice of bread. There they will discover something to burn in order to cook their rice so that they can fool their hunger. Wherever ones eyes turn, they witness indescribable despair and human degradation. How can we respond to this abyss of human suffering? Where do we start? Human efforts are limited, and we know that no matter what we do, it will be a drop in the ocean. Nevertheless, we are still responsible to try with all our strength, with the hope that our all-merciful Lord and the God-fearing faithful from all over the globe will be our supporters both materially and morally.
One of the first programs we instituted was the daily rationing of morning breakfast consisting of milk and biscuits for the poor children of the area. Very early in the morning they come and wait outside the gates, until the time when the gates open and quickly they come and sit in the courtyard and anxiously await for their morning meal which for many is the only meal of the day. Dirty, with hair uncombed, half-naked, these children beg us for one more biscuit and a little more milk. Often they show us their scars infected by disease and other health problems. When we walk on the street, as soon as they see us they yell: "Father, Father", and they surround us. I once wondered, what are they were yelling for; Later I understood that all they want is some love and affection. One smile, one affectionate touch makes them happy. If we have some candy to give them, they are not going to forget it for days, whenever they see us. If we look to see where these children live, we will be beyond words. Most of them live in an abandoned Muslim burial site. The dark graves are their homes, full of mud, garbage, rats and cockroaches. No one cares for these people. Therefore, we decided to help them as much as we could. We chose some of the most desperate and poor families, about 400 families by now, and gave them cards which they use every two weeks in order to collect a ration of basic substances like rice, sugar, beans, oil, Soya, soap and matches. Every Monday, the courtyard fills with the blind and the lepers, paraplegics and skeletons who await for the distribution of food. A pair of crutches is a luxury item as most who are crippled are condemned to crawl on the ground, looking at us with sadness and supplication as their only hope of survival.
One must wonder: Who is the one blessed in the eyes of God? Our conscience tests us every time we see this suffering. If these people who are not illumined by the light of Christ suffer this terrible life without protest, then how indebted are we to God for having given us so much. Sometimes one sees these people push each other in the lines, or forget to bring good bags for their ration? But what could one expect from such people who grew up in the streets, who never found out what is a home, a school, a family? Furthermore, our main purpose is not to give food or money to these people, but to provide them with an example of love, patience, meekness, and so by our example to witness Christ. If the material help does not contain this aspect, then the mission has lost its meaning.
Along with poverty and hunger, the health problems that people face are many and insurmountable. There are very few hospitals which are in terrible condition. Doctors are too expensive, and so is medicine. Very few can afford either. That is the reason why one of our first concerns was the building of clinic with Indian physicians who would give free medical care. Today we have three such clinics, one in Calcutta, and the other two in distant villages of West Bengal. Along with the free medicine, we also provide bedside care when needed. In cases where hospitalization is necessary, we cover the cost when the patient cannot afford it. There is no consideration of social status or religion when medical care is provided. Every human being is created in the image and likeness of God, and deserves our love and our help which is not measured against our budget but by the love of God. As a result, there have been many cases of long term support for patients who have required operations, and extended care.
Distribution of clothing
An additional philanthropic effort which is done thanks to the loving support of faithful in Greece and Australia is the distribution of clothing to the poor. These clothes become instant hits among the people. We often take them to the villages where we distribute them from a moving vehicle for fear of a mob disabling us from moving any further. For some people, these clothes are such a luxury, that they refrain from wearing them until a special occasion. Others will sell them so that they can buy some rice. Many times we will notice children who are suffering from a serious ailment, but instead of complaining about their illness, they are satisfied by a piece of clothing. It seems strange that the child does not care about its health as much as it cares for a piece of clothing that we consider to be useless. This alone is a witness to the misery and the suffering of these people.
The care of children, and especially of their education, comprises an integral part of our mission. For a child to attend school, money is needed for tuition, books, uniforms, etc. Many children, orphans or from poor families, cannot afford school. We try to cover some of their expenses so that they go to school. Our happiness is to see these children clean, wearing their school uniform, full of hope for a better future for themselves and the Orthodox Church in India. Very soon, two schools will belong to the Church, one in the area of Katal, and one is Avamgal, where tuition will be free. Difficulties arise when religious fanaticism, and political disputes get in the way of people seeing what is better for them. Many times we visit other schools and distribute notebooks, writing tools, and other supplies such as clothes, desks, seats, lamps, repair material etc.
We also have under our care an orphanage which houses 50 children, for which we provide food, clothing, schools supplies, toys, and whatever other need they have so that can live a human existence. Every time we visit them is for them a special day. We depart early in the morning before the traffic and the heat becomes intense. On the way we stop to buy some fish for their lunch. If we do not bring them that fish then their lunch would be the usual plate of rice with some yellow sauce. For breakfast and dinner there is also rice. We wonder how these children can grow just on rice. Nevertheless, this is the rule for the majority of people.
After three hours we are there. On the side of the road some of the children are waiting for us and climb on the car. The rest of the children encircle us asking for a hug and to show us their love. After we unload our supplies, we give candy, school supplies, brushes, soap, and other things. The children, in an orderly fashion, come and receive their small gifts and thank us from their heart. Afterwards, some go to play, others get a haircut from the barber we brought with us. Then lunch time comes, and after a short prayer, the rice is accompanied by a little bit of fish. In a little while comes time to depart. They surround us again, begging us to return soon. We promise them that we will, and as we are leaving, we glorify God for His great care, in that He did not let these children perish. It is a special blessing by God that the founder of this orphanage, a Protestant Christian, let us know, from the time he met with us, that he wanted to baptized Orthodox along with his family and all the children of the orphanage. Therefore, after a systematic catechesis of the family and the children, they were all baptized last fall. With amazement we recount the miracles of the Holy Spirit in the souls of men and exclaim: Which God is as great as our God; You are God, which does wonders.
The Building of the Orphanage
Moved by the same motivation to help as many people as possible, especially the orphan children which are abandoned in the garbage dumps of Calcutta, we decided to build our own Orthodox orphanage in the outskirts of Calcutta in order to accommodate about 100 children. The plans also see for a clinic, a school, workshops, and a chapel. The aim is that the education of the children will revolve around worship life and orthodox teachings. After many efforts, we managed to buy the necessary land, and having gone through the maze of bureaucracy, we built the wall around the lot. This work is tremendous and needs not only money but also a spirit of sacrifice and love that will mold the souls of these children in the mind of Christ.
Human needs never end. Other than the usual ways of philanthropic activity, there are countless opportunities to help those who continuously knock on the doors of the mission house. Where can one start? The repairs of homes damaged by storms, unpaid loans, the support of widows, orphans, handicapped people and other s present us with the opportunities to respond to the words of the Lord: "give to the one who asks and do not turn away from the one who wants something from you", "and if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is it to you? For even sinners lend to sinners so that they receive the same. Therefore be merciful just like your Father is merciful." Certainly, in many occasions we have witnessed improprieties, but with the grace of God we have avoided them so that we can responsibly handle the least of the goods that God has entrusted us.
Words cannot contain what one will feel when he or she witnesses the misery and suffering of the people that surround the mission. What is important is that in every possible way the word of Christ is preached? We know our spiritual and material shortcomings, especially compared to the other Christian denominations who have missions across the globe, and tremendous resources both in personnel and materials. We do not consider our mission to be in competition with theirs. Something of that nature would come in direct opposition of Orthodox teaching which says that mission is first and foremost an act of the Paraclete and secondarily of a human being: "When the Paraklete comes... He will witness for me." This does not mean that we should be restful. "We are coworkers with God". God wills our active cooperation for the spreading of the gospel for the glory of His name and the salvation of our brethren.
Let us ask ourselves: Are we responding to Gods will responsibly and honestly? The ways we can help are many. God presents us with plenty of opportunities when there is good will. Maybe not all can serve in the distant lands of mission, but they can all offer an equally valuable asset. Even if we pass the word to our fellow man about the mission, that is a valuable offering. The most needed offering one can make is heartfelt prayer for those who are serving missions around the world, and for those not in the Light, so that they too can become members of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
This is the prayer I humbly ask of you, and in conclusion I want to thank you for your care and love for the work of God.
A Word on the Indigenous priests:
Fr. Patapios has been a priest for 10 years, ordained at the time when Fr. Athanasios had come to Calcutta. He has two daughters who are married and a son in college. He serves eight different centers in a 40km zone. Each center has an average of 80-100 baptized Orthodox, who need to be continuously catechized in order to learn how to live an orthodox life.
Fr. Jacob served in the area of Goshpur, with the faithful being scattered in four different villages. The Church is under construction but the 400-500 faithful try to accommodate the Divine Liturgy in different homes. Fr. Jacob has one son and one daughter and together with Fr. Patapios mainly occupies himself with catechism, visitations and the daily services.
Fr. Demetrios used to be a security guard at the mission compound. He was interested in the faith and was very pious. He became a reader, and under the spiritual direction of Fr. Ignatios, he was ordained a deacon by His Eminence Metropolitan Nikitas. He assists Fr. Ignatios with the various tasks in the mission center as well as accompanies him to the surrounding villages for the Divine Liturgy.
The above three priests converted from Hinduism. Fr. Andrew used to be an Anglican, and worked for a group of people whose efforts were to prevent church building from being sold to private buyers. The Orthodox Church was about to be sold so he came to inquire. It was in 1991 when he kept on searching and became Orthodox. Fr. Andrew is married and has one daughter who just had a baby girl Irene. His wife Maria works at the clinic in the center. Even before converting, Fr. Andrew helped with the legal aspects of the Philanthropic society, and used to handle the accounting.