A simple idea:
Around 1820 it was estimated that less than 400 women in the Indian subcontinent, out of a total population of 40 million women, could read and write. Lady Mary Kinnaird (joint founder of Interserve and the YWCA) wrote:
“If we can give them the book to read, and the means to read it, God will bless His Word.”
Based on this simple premise, the work of Interserve began in 1852 when two women were sent from the United Kingdom to establish a teacher training school in Kolkata, India. The school’s purpose was to train Indian Christian women to go into the secluded Zenanas (women’s quarters) and teach reading and writing and in so doing, share the gospel. This simple, needs based, Gospel driven, relational approach to mission is the enduring characteristic of Interserve.
What began as a teacher training ministry extended into the establishment of hospitals, schools and orphanages. Reflecting a fundamental commitment to reach out to women, all those sent out in the first 100 years were women.
Challenging the status quo:
Before 1870, there were no formally trained women doctors in India and male doctors were rarely permitted to see female patients. Even in England, there was no formal training available for women to become doctors. Nevertheless, a way was found to train British women as doctors and from 1871 they were sent to India.
There were many setbacks. The first woman trained as doctor decided, on completion of her training, that she could not cope with the sight of blood and asked to be sent in a non-medical capacity. More tragically, the first two women doctors sent out died shortly afterwards (one en route to India and the other shortly after her arrival).
The task frequently felt overwhelming as an early Interserve worker records (circa 1870) :
“The great and sore need, here as elsewhere, is for more workers, and especially more native teachers . . . THERE ARE 589,840 VILLAGES IN INDIA and we reach occasionally and partially perhaps 1,000 or at most 1,200.”
Nevertheless, Interserve persisted and by 1952, despite often severe financial challenges (reflecting the lack of a denominational base), the organisation had established many schools, hospitals, training colleges and orphanages all over the Indian subcontinent.
Responding to a changing world:
At this time, reflecting changes in Indian society and particularly the reduced isolation of Indian women, in 1952 Interserve began to broaden its ministry and so began to send out married couples to serve local communities. In addition, reflecting its desire to empower the national church, Interserve began a concerted effort to hand over all its institutions (schools, hospitals etc) to national churches in the Indian subcontinent.
These changes and the opening up of previously closed countries resulted in a rapid expansion of Interserve’s ministry over the next 50 years from the Indian subcontinent to the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia and East Asia. Today over 800 Interserve Partners (from about 15 different nationalities) serve in more than 30 countries across Asia and the Arab World.
Interserve is a community of ordinary Christians putting faith into action. We live and work among the most marginalised peoples of the Arab world, Asia and Australia.
Motivated by Christ’s heart of compassion, and in partnership with His church, we share our skills and experience to change tomorrow by what we do today.