Operation Mobilization India
I came to India to write about the Dalit crisis, and one of my sources was OM India, a Christian group that I knew was highly involved. In the process of learning from them about caste, I’ve been fascinated to learn how the organization itself has been transformed.
Operation Mobilization began as a hot gospel street preaching band that eschewed intellect. They came out of America and Europe preaching, handing out tracts, selling gospel literature, and moving on. The teams that first came to India started in Belgium, where OMers would have an annual meet-up, and drove old donated trucks and vans all the way–then lived out of their trucks while crisscrossing India and witnessing to anybody who showed an interest.
Such was the beginning, but the current reality is very different. For one thing, you can’t preach the gospel on the street in India any more–the climate of persecution just doesn’t allow it. Also, it wasn’t too long after the first OM bands came that missionaries were banned from India. In particular George Verwer, OM’s leader, was kicked out and not allowed back in under any terms. So OM was forced to rethink, and to rely on Indian leadership. In the process they gradually arrived at the need for thoughtful biblical training and for community-transforming churches. The center of their strategy is often a school–they have started more than 100–because English-language schools are seen as a transforming benefit to the community. Around the schools they offer health clinics, self-help women’s groups, micro finance, and job training. Their teachers live in the nearby villages and are social workersras much as teachers. Only after the community has come to value the OM initiative do they start a church. The community protects the church, because (even if they are not converted) villagers see its benefit.
According to the OM staff I’ve interviewed, this is a time of great growth for the church all over India–not just the Good Shepherd churches, of which OM has launched 3,000, but for many other groups. This growth is linked, they say, to a sense of crisis over caste. Dalits particularly, and many other Indians, are seeking some way of deliverance from a social system built on oppression. If the church can show itself as genuinely liberating, demonstrating how society as well as the individual can be transformed, many Indians stand ready to listen.
I need to add a note to yesterday’s post about Dalit discrimination. It’s not quite true that Dalits are indistinguishable from other Indians. On the whole, they are darker skinned. But there are many exceptions–Dalits who are fair skinned, and upper caste Hindus who are dark. Skin color is sometimes a clue, but it’s not the fundamental point of identity. What makes a Dalit is that he or she is a Dalit–by decree of the universe. Polluted and not even worthy of humanity–thus the term “outcaste” which means not included in any caste–the Dalits are indelibly designated as slaves and servants.