Mid-day on Saturday (Nov. 7) our small party was hosted by the staff of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in India in their building on the campus of Gurukul Lutheran Theological College. Dr. Augustine, the current executive secretary of the UELCI addressed us briefly and welcomed us “India style” with shawls, gifts and refreshments.
The UELCI is a “communion of churches in the midst of struggles” (as they describe themselves in a brochure we received). Not as much a denomination, as we use that term in America, but a council of Lutheran churches—the UELCI is made up of twelve Lutheran churches spread across the subcontinent. They claim up to 2.5 million members (though church record keeping in India appears to be less precise than what we shoot for in North America)….meaning that our Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church companion synod is the largest of these twelve churches. Dr. Augustine mentioned that more than 95% of Lutheran church members in India are Dalits, a.k.a. “untouchables.”
At the present the UELCI has four central priorities:
1. “Capacity-building,” which, as I heard it described, sounded much like the same efforts we are pursuing in the NW MN Synod to move into God’s mission, renewing our capacity to pass on the faith, form disciples and cultivate life-giving faith practices.
2. Leadership development, focused it would seem in the UELCI on helping new bishops or presidents of the twelve member churches take up their callings in faithful, effective ways.
3. Embrace of the “Purpose Driven” perspective championed in the U.S. by evangelical pastor Rick Warren.
4. “Peace and reconciliation,” which as Augustine described it, has to do with intra-church conflicts that arise when new bishops/presidents are chosen by the member churches, synods and dioceses. In India, bishop elections are—not to put too fine a point on it—rather more “politicized” than in the ELCA.
We then heard brief presentations from members of Dr. Augustine’s small staff—only about ten persons in all—who lead “programmes” (I’m slipping into the British spelling…) in areas such as
• Social action—lots of emphasis on development and community organizing, and disaster response
• Youth ministries—with ages 0-8 designated “children,” ages 9-14 designated “juniors,” and agest 15-40 considered “youth” (i.e. combining the “youth” and “young adult” categories commonly used among American Lutherans). It sounds as though the delay of the onset of adulthood is a factor in Indian life, just as it is in America.
• HIV/AiDs ministries—one of these ministries is called SWAP, the “Slum Women ‘s Advancement Programme, which has an HIV/AiDs component.
• Dalit ministries, among India’s lower castes who make up the bulk of Christians in India.
• An intriguing program to provide milch cows (milk cows) for young widows—this is both a charitable and a development approach, providing a means for rural widows to feed their families and develop capacity for making a living (reminiscent of the old FFA “gilt ring” approach—whereby a farm kid received the gift of a bred gilt, to build up a swine herd, eventually returning a bred gilt to the program so that others can participate.)
• Women’s programme—There is lots of attention to this area, and I learned later in our visit that “women’s work” has been one of the shining stars in the Indian Lutheran churches. Areas of involvement include theological education for women, microfinance programmes to assist women in building up small businesses, gender justice questions, and the ordination of women. With respect to the latter, we learned that nine of the twelve member churches of the UELCI ordain women, although because of cultural traditions it seems to be difficult for ordained women to secure parish appointments. UELCI also maintains a training center to teach women basic job skills, e.g. typing.
Saturday evening we enjoyed supper with Dr. Monica Melanchthon and Dr. K. Rajaratnam. Dr. Melanchthon teaches Old Testament at the Gurukul Lutheran Theological College, and Dr. Rajaratnam was the long-time executive secretary of the UELCI--both wonderful meal companions, generous in sharing their long-term perspectives on India and the Lutheran Church in this part of the world.