Dave Wiedis, Copyright 2019
In January my wife Miho and I had the opportunity to travel to India for the second time to teach at Life Theological Seminary in Bhubaneswar, the capital of the state of Odisha. Known for its tribal traditions and Hindu temples, Odisha can be a dangerous place for missionaries. It is where missionary Dr. Graham Staines and his sons were murdered by Hindu Bajrang Dal fundamentalists in 1999.
Twenty years later, Odisha remains both a fertile ground for evangelism and a hostile environment toward Christians. According to state law: “No person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religious faith to another by the use of force or by inducement or by any fraudulent means nor shall any person abet any such conversion” (The Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967). In order for a conversion to comply with this law, pastors must use much wisdom and discernment to make sure the person genuinely wants to convert, and the person is not setting the pastor up for arrest by later alleging that he was “coerced.” The person wishing to convert must sign proper documentation before a judge. Christians found guilty of violating this statute are subject to punishment by fine or imprisonment for up to two years.
Life Theological Seminary sits uniquely in this tumultuous environment among 700 Hindu temples in Bhubaneswar. Yet despite cultural obstacles and opposition from some local fundamentalist Hindus who frequently harass the seminary by cutting the internet lines or calling the police if the singing is too loud, the seminary is a vibrant biblical training center led by its President and Founder, Dr. Nimai Suna.
I was invited by Dr. Suna to serve on the faculty to create and teach a week-long course for seminary students and pastors from all over the state. Pastors in Odisha are committed to serving Christ, but many lack in-depth training, making this conference extremely special. Some traveled over eight hours by bus to attend. At each session, I could see the attendees engaging enthusiastically, asking question after question and pouring over their notes.
My course, entitled “The Life and Heart of the Pastor,” spanned five days and covered a host of messages pertaining to pastoral life including the responsibilities of shepherding, theology, pastoral responsibilities, heart issues and sexuality. A highlight was Miho’s presentation on “Creativity and Communication.” Other guest presenters included a lawyer from the Supreme Court of India who gave a two-hour lecture on how to wisely comply with the state anti-conversion laws. It was both interesting and gut-wrenching for me to watch this seminar done similarly to the way I would teach it in the United States—except that here, we have freedom of religion and expression as bedrocks of our Constitution. There, religious liberty often depends on the whims of the police who may or may not persecute pastors. For these pastors, baptizing a new believer on the spot, without obtaining proper permission from the government, would be prohibitively dangerous and risk a stiff jail sentence and fine.
During the course I was scheduled to teach on marriage and sexuality. The audience included female seminary students. Right before I began my lecture a faculty member at Life Theological pulled me aside. With an urgency in his voice, he pleaded with me to emphasize that husbands do not “own” or have control over their wives and cannot exert sexual power over them. Despite being somewhat taken aback, I hit the topic hard. I talked about how God created males and females with equal dignity and value, what it means to love, and how no one “owns” their wife. I emphasized that no one has the right to make his wife do anything sexual—or even to make him breakfast!
The women were smiling, and the men were deeply engaged and asking questions. One of the faculty members asked: “Can you please talk about good touch versus bad touch?” I was taken aback. They do not know this? Lesson learned: Never assume people know even the basics!
As the seminar went on and the men engaged in a spirited discussion on the topic, I noticed that none of the women asked any questions. I asked whether they would like to have a private Q&A conversation with me and my wife, and they eagerly agreed. After the main seminar ended and the men were dismissed, I received the first question: “Do I have to marry the boy who raped me?”
The group of female seminary students was comprised of about 10 women ages 19-25. Most were from remote villages and of the Dalit class, the lowest in the caste system. In the villages, there is no sexual education, and even in the family sex is not talked about. Many women may not even know what their period is. In this culture, a woman is considered “defiled” if she has sex before marriage or even if she is raped—and rape is prevalent. If a woman comes forward after she has been raped, she risks her family disowning her, being shunned by the village and never marrying, becoming a victim of honor killing, or being forced to marry the man who raped her. Victims often have nowhere safe to go and no one in whom they can confide.
My heart broke as I sat with these beautiful young women and listened to their questions and stories. I told them that I cannot change their culture, but they need to know and believe the truth: that God’s love is unconditional and everlasting and that they are not defiled. They are not damaged. That is the truth no matter what anyone says or does.
As we talked (mostly through one young woman acting as translator for the group), I watched their countenances lift. My hope for these female seminary students is that they will be teachers, missionaries and leaders who go back to their villages and educate. They can empower other women by helping them understand the truth of who Christ says they are.
The next day, Miho performed Clean Sheets, a one-woman show depicting her story of God’s redemption following her dark experiences as a teen. It was amazing to see the women’s faces as they watched Miho’s physical demonstration of the Gospel, and realized that I had married her, a victim of rape. That was a clear, demonstrable refutation of the myth that a woman is defiled by sexual assault, and a real-life demonstration of the gospel.
The culture is vastly different from ours—even in the large cities. At the end of the week as Miho and I were checking out of our hotel to return home, a female manager pulled Miho aside. “May I make an observation?” she asked. “We've been watching you, and we’ve noticed that you and your husband are very different from us. You walk separately from him. You sometimes walk ahead of him, or you go in different directions. He asks you your opinion and shows respect to you.” Then she noted, “My husband would never do that—he would just tell me what we are doing.”
In the weeks following the trip, I am still processing the realization that millions of people in the world are under incredible social oppression. They know the Gospel and love the Lord but are so oppressed that they struggle to apply the truth of scripture in a way that changes culture. More than ever before, I believe that as we make disciples and minister across cultures, we need to help pastors understand their role to teach the truth of God’s love, that we are created with inherent dignity, and that we are to honor and respect each other with that same love.
THANK YOU!! I do not know when we will return to Bhubaneswar and Life Theological Seminary, but they have already invited us to come again to teach at the seminary and in the remote villages—and for Miho to do Clean Sheets. I am incredibly grateful to generous ministry partners who donated frequent flier mileage to pay for our airfare and for the additional gifts that covered our hotel costs and conference materials. Thank you for your generous partnership in this work.
Violent persecution is a daily reality for our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the world. Join us for a powerful Ministry Leader Gathering with Indian evangelists and church planters Dr. C.V. John in person and Dr. Kumar via film.
Persecution Has a Face
With Worldlink International Ministries and Providence Church
Tuesday, April 2 | 11:15 a.m. - 1:30 p.m.
430 Hannum Ave., West Chester, PA 19380
You will hear incredible stories of lives transformed in a spiritually dark nation and learn how we as the Western Church can partner in this critical work. Ministry Leader Gatherings are offered at no charge and lunch is included, but registration is required. You will not want to miss this candid discussion of the daily struggle to bear the name of Christ in India--one of the 10 worst countries in the world for Christian persecution.