Monday, March 2, 2009
I’m not ready to make the parallel between this Indian social reformer and say, Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King or Abraham Lincoln or William Wilberforce or Martin Luther for that matter. It would be a stretch to suggest that he is poised to have this level of national impact. But there is the clear sense that his inspiration comes from leaders like these; and perhaps the revolutionary course he has carved out for himself will lead him in this direction. Maybe someday, the entire nation will know his name. Maybe the world.
As a young collegian, I was content to be an observer. I was not prepared to accept the consequences of a headlong jump into the protest movements of our time. There was tumult all around. Assassinations. Marches. Speeches. Riots. Action groups. Sit-ins. Shut-downs. The generation gap split families apart – sons and daughters writing off their parents as hopeless conformers. Parents writing off their children as hopeless dropouts. Me? Generally, I played it safe.
I was curious enough. I read the literature. I spent two years on a university campus embroiled in the student revolution. My classmates were anti-war, anti-establishment, anti-industrial military complex, anti-capitalist and anti-government. Freedom showed up on banners and generally meant freedom from oppressive rules and restrictions so there was free love, free drugs and free concerts. The other six years of formal education I hid away in Christian schools with students and faculty who were pretty much like me.
So for the most part, I kept my distance. I knew about the civil rights movement. But I didn’t give it a lot of thought. I came close to being drafted, but truth be told, I did what I could to avoid it.
And somehow, it was easier just to stay aloof. Now, a little later in my life, I’ve come across a real life Christian who has done anything but play it safe, keep his distance, stay aloof. He has dedicated his life to securing the freedom of a people from a dreadful systemic injustice that has been in place for three thousand years. His work has inspired me to rethink some things.
We met with him on the day of our arrival in India in his spacious office. We are here because it is a week of significant celebration for Dr. Joseph D’souza and his staff. For most of his career as a Christian missionary, he has studied the plight of some three hundred million Indians who have been labeled by their Hindu religion as “untouchables.” Dalits. He even married one. She’s an elegant woman with bright eyes and a quick wit and the racial divide that keeps people segregated in this country had no affect on his determination to make her his bride. Now after all these years, D’souza’s team has made substantial progress in bringing an entire people group to a place of dignity and opportunity. And in many ways, it is only the beginning.
So we gathered with over a thousand people last night, many of them here from distant parts around the world, to celebrate an impossible milestone – the high school graduation of a collection of Dalit children. When they started, there were no schools for Dalits. They don’t even rank to be included in Hinduism’s caste system. They are excluded from religious life, political life, economic life and social life.
It’s an injustice that D’souza finds intolerable. So he started schools. He recruited teachers. He brought a message of hope and new identity. He talked about freedom – freedom from the tyranny of an ancient system of cultural norms that robbed an entire people group of their dignity as human beings. His message is rooted in biblical truth and the love of Jesus. He’s not out to forcibly convert these vulnerable people, as his Hindu critics have charged. He simply declares that Jesus loves the Dalits. They are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God. They bear the imprint of their creator; and they have full access.
There has been opposition. But is has not deterred Dr. D’souza; or those who share his conviction. And now, some twelve years later, there are over eighty schools providing education in English, in the basic disciplines, good nutrition and most of all a strong foundation in healthy self-awareness and confidence in a future brimming with opportunity.
To say that I’ve been inspired would be a serious understatement.
As a fellow leader with you on this Monday morning, I’m asking myself some serious questions. The headlong pursuit of material accumulation this past decade has brought us all to a precarious place. Maybe it’s time to rethink.
Dr. D’souza’s commitment to the children of the Dalit world inspires a new way to think about investing in a new generation. Not so much our money (there’s less of that to go around these days). But our values. Our faith. Our confidence that comes from the God who made us for a purpose.
As we immerse ourselves in the lives of those who are far away (as I write, I am on the other side of the globe), it impacts the way we think about those who are around us. These children are teaching us.
They’ve moved to hope from hopelessness. To vision from despair. To enthusiasm from misery.
We need to hear their voices. Sense their joy. Share in their accomplishment.
Maybe these Dalits will show us the way.
Copyright Kenneth E. Kemp 2009
In Hyderabad, India