The Dalits are a forgotten people, and yet they have taught me one of the most valuable lessons in my Christian faith. They are called the “untouchables” and “outcasts.” Some know them as “slumdogs” from the 2008 Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire. But officially, they are known as the “Dalits,” and there are 250 million of them living in India. (Compare this to the 300 million Americans in the United States!)
The Dalits are victims in the largest modern-day slave trade in the world today. Daily, Dalits are raped, murdered, sold and discriminated against. Within the unjust religion and caste system of Hinduism, Dalits are considered to be worth so little as humans that they are considered to live “outside” of the four-layered caste system. Hinduism claims that Dalits are where they are because they committed grave acts against others and against the gods in their previous life. Dalits are so despised that there is little hope for them to gain any dignity, much less individual rights, safety, jobs and education. The system works against them, not because of politics (though politics do play a part) but because of false religion.
I serve as the college and young adult pastor at Friends Church in Yorba Linda. Over the past three years, our church has been gripped by the plight of the Dalits. We have responded to a clear call to help bring them freedom. To do this, we are building 200 Dalit educational centers in India over the course of the next 10 years, to equip and empower the future generations of Dalits.
When asked by our partnering missions organization what the biggest need was, national Dalit leaders replied, “Educate our children.” Thus far, we have built 27 schools, each educating children from preschool through high school with a robust Christian liberal arts education. The children who attend are predominantly Hindu or Muslim. Through the schools, the children are exposed to the gospel, study the Bible and are surrounded by Christian teachers who model Christ-like love and respect. Roughly 200 to 500 children attend each school, with many more on waiting lists.
The gospel is having a holistic effect on Indian culture. I had the opportunity to see it myself when I visited India this summer with my wife and a group from our church. We spent time in the slums where the Dalits live in tiny shacks made of trash, tires and mud. All around India, thousands of Dalits live in villages just like the ones we visited. Within these villages, there can be over 50,000 Dalits living in a one-mile radius. The smells, the poverty and the hopelessness in the slums were overwhelming.
We also visited the schools that are being built. These are places of hope. Children run and play, smile and enjoy a safe place to learn and grow up. We encouraged the teachers, played with the children and taught Bible lessons. Finally, we visited the local Christian churches. As a pastor, these were my favorite times — we prayed for Dalit widows, who had been scarred by sex trafficking, we encouraged shame-filled Dalit men with God’s Word and fellowshipped over chai tea afterwards.
I was stirred by my time in India. I returned more focused and gospel-centered in my ministry. I learned something valuable that will forever define my Christian life. I learned that the reward for serving God is more of God. The reward of serving God is not a meaningful life, nor is it Christian celebrity-ism. The reward is not building Christian community or relationships (though community is a by-product of it). The reward for serving God is a great capacity to know and love God.
I learned this lesson through the joy-filled Christians who labor for the gospel in India’s educational centers and local churches. These brothers and sisters go beyond an American “work week.” They are no longer slaves to Hinduism, but slaves for Christ. Their reward is more of God. As they serve the cause of the gospel, their capacity for knowing Christ grows and deepens.
Since coming back, I have found that routine ministry tasks that once had been a chore and a barrier to “real ministry” have now become a doorway to enjoying more of Christ. Our church has continued in its partnership with the Dalits. We even finished filming a feature-length film this summer called Not Today.
The Dalits might be known in India as “forgotten” but they are far from that to me. To me, they are beloved partners, fellow ambassadors and friends.