The Methodist Bible Seminary Project
Imagine that when your child goes to school, he is not allowed to eat lunch with his classmates. He and other children deemed “filthy” are instructed to eat lunch at the back of the schoolhouse and are warned not to touch the food and water of the other children.
Imagine that as your son gets older, he elopes with a female from an “upper class.” The girl’s furious family finds you in the marketplace, strip you naked, parade you around and beat you with sticks for 2 hours before escaping. You report this to the police only to be told that such incidents are common in your community, and that they cannot do anything about it.
Imagine that as your son prepares to graduate from high school, he talks excitedly about his plans to go to college and pursue a profession. You can’t find the words to begin to explain to him that his future is pre-determined, pre-destined—to become a bonded agricultural laborer like you to help pay off the high-interest loan you took from your “upper caste” boss to fend for your family.
You live in a barren neighborhood separated by a wall from the upper class. You have to walk miles to fetch water since you are not allowed to use the communal pipe. And despite being polluted, at least 3 women from your “caste” are raped every day, with a 1,000 women raped on the average per year. Ninety percent of all rapes against your caste go unreported as less than one percent of the perpetrators are ever convicted.
The above stories may sound like accounts from the time of Apartheid in South Africa or segregation in the United States, but they are a reality for members of the Dalit population in India in 2012. All of the above stories occurred in 2012.
The Dalits are a group of people in India who were historically ranked at the bottom of India’s caste system. The word Dalit comes from the Sanskrit root dal- and means “broken” “oppressed” or “downtrodden.” It is a word chosen by the Dalit people themselves to represent the hardships and inhumane treatment they have endured. Dalits all over India have traditionally been forced to undertake the most filthy and menial work such as cleaning human excreta, disposing of dead animals and digging village graves.
They are not allowed to live, sit, eat, give water to, marry or perform any other daily tasks with members of the upper castes. In 1950, the Indian Constitution banned discrimination based on caste, but the system is still practiced today, especially in rural areas.
Today, many from the lowest castes live in extreme poverty, are insulted, banned from certain public places, and face violent attacks such as lynching, rapes, and burnings. Poverty and suffering is a part of their lives, and their social and economic problems affect their children and future generations.
The Methodist Bible Seminary
For 15 years United Methodist Women has partnered with the Methodist Bible Seminary in the village of Vasad, India to teach academic and Christian classes to Dalits in villages in Gujarat state. Vasad is village well known for its abundance of divine temples of gods and goddesses.
The “Social, Educational and Evangelism Work in Small Rural areas and Slums” project primarily provides academic and Christian classes to children of Dalits and other socially and economically marginalized people in rural areas and slums. The project also often visits the homes of the children encourage parents of such children to take an active interest and part in their children’s education.
The Methodist Bible Seminary is one of the important and unique organs of the Gujarat Regional Conference of the Methodist Church in India. It was established in 1981 when Reverend Dr. Raiji. M Rathod, a dynamic and visionary leader of Gujarat Regional Conference, created a small Bible college to train church workers to preach the gospel in rural areas and to eradicate social problems such as poverty, social exclusion, and spiritual turmoil.
The aim and main work of the Seminary is to provide pastors and missionaries for rural areas. In the last 33 years, the seminary has not only survived, but flourished in different ways. It has evolved from offering two-year degrees to four-year degrees that combine theological education with resident, full-time, and practical training in slums and villages among people of diverse faiths.
The “Social, Educational and Evangelism Work in Small Rural Areas and Slums” Project
This project serves children of such castes as they are in an especially vulnerable situation. Because their families are landless and impoverished, the parents do not allow the children to go to school, and rather have them work. Children are an important source of income for the parents, and some parents try to have more children to have more income.
Children who do not support their families are often beaten, harassed and not given food for days. They can develop behavioral problems from their childhood. Illiteracy, unemployment and drug addictions often become a part of their lives.
The Seminary’s project believes that the law must protect these children and that education is one of the great mediums for eradicating poverty and suffering. It provides these children with a free education, motivation and educational facilities to help them succeed in life and escape the claws of poverty.
The project conducted the following activities in 2011:
Academic And Spiritual Education
Seminary students taught both academic and Christian classes in the villages to youth. The classes are held in six rural areas in Gujarat, teaching Math, English, Science, Sociology and General knowledge. These classes meet regularly on Sundays. During the summer, vacation bible school is held for 10 days; students are taught about a particular social justice subject to bring awareness about the changing world and how to improve it.
Youth were also taught hygienic habits such as taking regular baths, washing hands after using the toilets and cutting their nails regularly. In 2011, a total of more than 250 youth attended the classes, and about 100 attended regularly. Seminary students conducted regular door-to-door visits, listened to the concerns of families, prayed with them and taught them the gospel.
Social Justice Seminars
The Seminary held social justice mission seminars to raise awareness of the human rights and responsibilities of the youth and families. In 2011, social justice seminars discussed topics such as land rights, discrimination, educational opportunities, and governmental resources available for marginalized groups. Fifty lay people and 20 youth attended these seminars.
Overall, children seemed to understand the academic teachings and many passed their exams with good marks. They seemed to appreciate all the teachings and are improving in their studies. Sixteen-year-old Mukesh, a boy from the village of Bhadran, expressed his thanks for the academic classes. “I am from a financially poor family. My parents are laborers in a farm. I want to thank you for giving me free tuition. Because of you I am doing well in school and I ranked tenth in my class examinations.”
Children have also corrected negative behaviors. Jayeshbhai, a father in the village of Bhadran, shares, “Your work among children and youth is life transforming. Children who were not going to school are now going. Some were angry all the time with their parents, but they now talk pleasantly and humbly with them. Many young men have given up alcohol because of your visit and classes.”
Many of the youth are now motivated to seek higher education and obtain suitable jobs. Many plan to learn technical trades at the Methodist Technical Institute and at Butler Polytechnic in Vadodara City. The youth are now using their time to study in village libraries, and to seek suitable jobs.
Thirteen-year-old Priti, a girl from the village of Bhadran, shares her story: “I was from a Hindu family that is socially and economically poor and outcast. My father and mother are farm laborers, daily workers, and do not have a permanent source of income. Your classes and prayers have encouraged us to study more and get good jobs. My father’s alcoholic habit has changed because of your visit and prayers. You taught me many subjects, so I am doing well in school. I had stage fear in my life; because of your help I have overcome that problem.”
Parents have also begun to understand the value of education for their children. They are not sending their children to work for daily wages. Many have started taking an active interest in their children's education and send them to school regularly.
Rameshbhai, a father of two children from the village of Vasna said, “I work as a daily laborer. I am glad that seminary students visit my family, offer prayer and take care of my children by providing free tuition. My children are now going to school. We never allow them to come with us on the farm. I thank you for your prayers and for taking care of my children.”
Through the spiritual teachings, many of the children and their families are becoming Christians. Rameshbhai adds, “we are learning about Jesus Christ. It was new to us but slowly we begun to trust in Jesus Christ and I and my family felt peace and love.”
Jesus says, "Truly, I say to you, as you did to one of the least of these my brethren, you did to me" (Matt. 25: 40). Education is an agent of social change, and can change poverty and suffering. Through Christian education and academic training, this project is alleviating poverty and suffering, and building up a future generation of educated leaders. Both seminary students and the communities served have learned to have compassion for the poor and needy, and to work with people from diverse faiths.