In India, Baptist workers bring hope to hopeless slums

EDITOR’S NOTE: *The names of the American workers living in India have been changed to protect their work.

Seneca Calhoun did not feel right leaving. For one week she had labored in the slums of a largely unreached region of India, pouring herself into the lives of women and children and an American couple called to minister there. To return to the United States without knowing when she would be back broke her heart.

“One lady didn’t want me to leave. She wanted to leave with me,” Calhoun told TEXAN Digital.

She was one of seven SBTC volunteers who traveled to India to assist the couple and about 50 indigenous pastors.

The tearful Indian woman was a recent convert to Christianity—risky in a country dominated by Hindu and Muslim prohibitions. Anti-conversion laws and familial ostracism puts all new believers, especially women, in harm’s way. And in the slums women and children suffer at the hands of abusive husbands and fathers who often drown their own despair in alcohol or give their pre-pubescent daughters in marriage to adult men.

Yet into those dire circumstances Ben and Sara* speak hope, drawing people into the light of Christ one at a time in a land of 1.23 billion souls.

“This is a dark place. Satan definitely is working here,” Sara said via email. The couple has served five years in the region. “People here worship 330 million gods of stone. To see one come to (Christ) is such a thrilling experience.”

The SBTC has partnered with Ben and Sara and the India Baptist Society for the past four years. The mid-March trip was the second involving convention representatives.

Although it was her second trip to the region, Calhoun was nonetheless moved by the deep spiritual depravation. Given the opportunity to minister to middle-class and poor women, Calhoun recognized the same needs in them all.

“I could see the hurt in some of these women’s eyes. And the pain,” she said.

And for those without any material means, the suffering is only compounded. In the cities’ slum regions—squalid plots of land crammed with makeshift homes pieced together from scavenged scraps of tarps, cardboard, and, if fortunate, sheet metal—living is barely preferred to death for many of the women.

“It is a common practice for husbands to beat their wives. I’ve patched up several women who have come to me with bruises and cuts. The women are very sad here. They easily talk of dying and how good it will be to get out of their troubles. They only stay alive for their children,” Sara said.

Alcohol serves to fuel the violence. Ninety percent of the men in the slums are alcoholics who spend the wages for their manual labor on their addiction, Sara said. If their wives earn money it is confiscated to buy more alcohol instead of food for the family.

But Sara and the SBTC team of women were a welcome contrast last month. They graciously entered a tent home offered for an intimate gospel meeting, which was quickly filled to overflowing with women and children. A small grass mat, put out for the guests, covered the dirt floor as Calhoun’s head brushed the tarp ceiling.

As was her routine, Sara told Bible stories and led the humble assembly in songs and prayers. Calhoun, who couldn’t help noticing how young the mothers were, watched as they listened intently and mimicked the worship, not fully comprehending but learning.

Sara said she parlays the spiritual teaching into academic and vocational education.

“The lack of education makes such a difference in how both the children and the parents think,” she explained. “It’s a vicious circle to break—getting the kids in school and teaching them there is more than just slum living.”

Benefiting most from the education are young girls who, if of no economic value to their families, will be given in marriage to adult men. As of this writing in mid-April, Sara and Ben called for prayer partners to intercede on behalf of an 11-year-old girl pledged in marriage by her parents to a 21-year-old man.

Ben said March had been a wonderful month for the girl. She had completed the English curriculum with excellent marks and her English was progressing rapidly. But the first of April the girl’s mother took her from the city school to a Hindu temple in their home village 12 hours away and pledged her in marriage.

Although illegal, the ceremony is culturally binding. Ben said he could pay police to intercede on the child’s behalf. But the family could counter with a bribe to maintain the contract.

“The law is what you pay it to be,” he said.

Pleading for intercessory prayer, Sara in an email newsletter: “This child has not even ‘matured’ yet, but will be married off soon! [She] is a true believer in Christ and has renounced Hindu idols and worships Jesus only. Frankly, she is fearful, worried, and does not want to be married. Her pitiful plea to us was, ‘Auntie, I am too little. I don’t want to be married.’ But we are asking God to intervene.”

The religious and cultural hierarchy of the predominantly Hindu society relegates the slum residents to the margins of society where they have no hope in this life or beyond. But those seeking relief from mere survival find sanctuary in the Help and Hope Center, a house-turned-multi-purpose facility led by Sara and Ben. Children come for meals, lessons, showers (with lice shampoo) and hugs—lots of hugs.

“When they’re there they smile all the time,” Calhoun said.

In an effort to teach young girls a marketable skill and protect them from the ravages of childhood marriage, Sara started a sewing class. With only one machine and five students, lessons are taught by a “dear Muslim friend,” including even the teacher in the overarching gospel lesson being taught at the Center in word and deed by Sara and Ben.

The needs of the people they serve are overwhelming. Sara said there are days when she just goes home and has a good cry.

Calhoun witnessed the strain but also the incredible resilience. She said she would return repeatedly to encourage her friend and the women she met. Meanwhile, she said she will minister in prayer from Texas.

Sara said she feels those prayers.

“Without it, we can do nothing. Often I feel so tired and discouraged, and then I think of those back home who are praying for us. I feel those angels lift up my arms and give me the push I need to get back in the battle.”

In addition to prayer, the greatest resource the couple has for reaching the lost in India is its own people.

“If we can win some and train some—then pray over that work—we believe God will use them to do the work. This culture is so steeped in rituals and traditions that an American can’t break. Only (God) can change them.”

TEXAN Correspondent
Bonnie Pritchett
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