VIA Design

Family and change

However, some traditional values have, in fact, contributed to the problems that have always plagued the Indian family – problems such as wives being deserted, domestic violence, child abuse, female infanticide, dowry, and abuse of daughters-in-law – so returning to “traditional family values” cannot serve us well in all respects.

Christians and Criticism of Culture: God’s plan for family differs in many ways from that prevalent in South Asian culture. The Bible judges all cultures, because it is God’s word for all people. No culture is perfect, and people must change a cultural custom if it does not meet God’s standards.

Cultural behaviours are fine when they have no moral implications; however, if cultural customs lead to morally unacceptable outcomes, like casteism, that will not allow a fellow human being to be treated as an equal, then Christians must speak against it, and work against it. Judging women as less valuable and their wishes invalid, treating daughters as unwanted, or discriminating against them in food, health, education, value and love in the family, is morally unacceptable. Unjust family customs call for change

Jesus as the Example for Cultural Change: Our example, Jesus, rejected much of the culture of His time. Jews did not eat with non-Jews or associate with people they called sinners, but Jesus disobeyed, eating with people said to be unclean (Mark 2:15-17, 14:3, 18-23). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, “It was said… but I say to you…” (Matt 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43). He was explaining to His followers that they could go against their own culture. It is the task of Christians in each nation to understand the culture and follow Christ in saying graciously, “But I say to you…” All of us can work to change family structures and patterns that damage both families and individuals.

Suicide: South India has a higher rate of suicides per 100,000 people than anywhere else in the world. The four states are estimated to have 50,000 suicides a year, approximately 137 a day. In most of the world, three men commit suicide for every one woman, but research on young people in Tamil Nadu found that two young women commit suicide for every one young man. Suicide was the reason for the death of 50 to 70 per cent of young women who died. An Indian women’s group in London said, “The high instance of suicides among Asian women is linked to abusive practices within Asian families.”

Beulah Wood, a Partner with IS NZ, is an author, editor and lecturer. This article has been excerpted from her latest book, Families in the Plan of God: a Theology for South Asia, which addresses the needs and problems of the South Asian family and culture. For more information please visit the Resources section on our website www.interserve.org.nz.

The little ones

This evening ritual is not limited to the herding of turkeys, however. To go out at this time of the evening is to risk being caughtin ‘peak hour traffic’, country style, as cows, goats, sheep and donkeys return from their day of grazing on the hills. Most herds are a mixture of all of these animals, and most come from a number of different homes. Yet, somehow, as several children run along behind, ensuring no stray is left behind, each animal seems to find its way into the correct yard as the herd goes by.

Though this may sound like a story about animals, it’s actually about the children. As a paediatric nurse I hold children’s issues close to my heart. For the past few years I have been working in a project that provides health care in an isolated, geographically challenging area of Central Asia. In that time I have been struck by the high number of children who are brought to us with serious health complaints, often too late for us to make any difference, or with diseases and conditions that would be easily treated or prevented back in New Zealand. I have often become angry about what I considered to be cases of blatant neglect. However, it almost never turned out to be quite that straightforward: what I perceived as neglect was a complicated mix of desperation, ignorance and accepted cultural practices.

Sitara was a beautiful nine-month old girl, just old enough to crawl… and just old enough to fall into the family ‘tandoor’. The tandoor is an in-ground oven, hot enough to cook bread quickly, and when Sitara landed on her elbow, she suffered full thickness burns which exposed the joint. The burn was over a week old and infected when I saw her. Her father had taken her to the local clinic nearest their home, but when informed that the clinic was not equipped to deal with such a severe burn, he had refused to take her to our hospital.

I re-dressed the burn, but explained to the family that, at the very least, Sitara would need skin grafts. Indeed, she probably would require even more radical surgery, which we were not able to do. I referred them to a children’s hospital in the capital city, about 450 kilometres away, but Sitara’s father was reluctant to make the two-day journey, claiming hardship and poverty. I continued to impress on them the severity of Sitara’s situation and the necessity for further help, and they finally agreed to go. When they said they did not have the money, I eventually agreed to help with transport costs.

Although my heart grieved at the inevitable disability little Sitara would have to live with, I was confident that she would receive good care at the children’s hospital in the city. However, as days turned into weeks and we received no word of the family’s arrival in the city, I realised that the family must have decided not to go, and had instead taken their little girl home, most likely to die.

My feelings of helplessness and anger were overwhelming, as I struggled to make sense of the situation. One thing that helped was putting myself in the father’s shoes: what factors influenced his choice to take his seriously ill daughter home instead of to the hospital? I believe there were several: they were an extremely poor family and, even with assistance, it would have been an expensive trip which he had no real way of financing; he had never been to the city before, and the thought of travelling all that way for a treatment that, in his mind at least, would be unlikely to save her life, probably seemed pointless; he understood that losing children was inevitable – he had already seen several of his children die in infancy; he had other
children to provide for, and in his absence there would be no-one to take care of his family and his small piece of land.

For many families the decision about whether or not to seek treatment is complex. It involves the gender of the person – sadly it is still true that often women and girls will have to wait longer before they receive any form of health care; the time of year – spring and early autumn are difficult times of the year due to planting and harvesting crops, winter is difficult due to snow and higher river levels; distance from the health facility; the financial status of the family; the perceived value of the person who is sick; and religious and cultural beliefs.

I have also learnt that the clinic or the hospital is rarely the first stop for a child who is ill. The family will usually take them first to a local ‘healer’ in their own village, then to the nearest mullah (religious leader), who will provide prayers and talismans, depending on how much the family can afford. Finally, if none of that works, they may then take the child to ‘the doctor’. All of these steps are important, culturally and spiritually. There is a habit and a pattern to what is accepted and expected, and if the pattern is not followed and the child remains sick or dies, then the one who made the decision to not first consult the local healer and mullah will be blamed.

Working through it in this manner helped me to better understand the complex situations I was dealing with, but of course did not change the sad reality for little Sitara or the reality for many other children like her. In a country where one in four children will die by the age of five years, it’s easy to get the impression that a child’s life is viewed as of very little worth. But I have seen the agony as a father pleads for some action
to be taken to save his precious son or daughter, and the pain behind the fatalism of parents accepting the loss of yet another precious life. And all I can hold on to in those situations is the hope of a Father who sees when even one sparrow falls, and who will not forget these little ones, or those who mourn them.

Kelly is a Kiwi Partner and a nurse, who has been serving in Central Asia for six years.

Singing a New Song

Ethnomusicology within the context of missions-How does this help bring God’s love to people? What is this work about anyway? Do ethnomusicologists write songs for people? Do they contextualize their own songs into local forms? Do they translate hymns?

I have been working for six years doing ethnomusicology work in South Asia and at times I still find it difficult to explain what I do. People still ask me the questions above. Perhaps I can help you step back a bit so that you may gain a fresh picture of some of the main things involved in this work.

1. Ethnomusicology, in the context of missions, is first about the worship of God. We want people of any language and culture to be free to worship God deeply and meaningfully. I often work in places where there are few believers and few Christian songs and worship materials available. Sometimes the foreigners who were working with these people thought that local songs lacked variety. Sometimes they assumed that all people should love the Western hymns and choruses they love. As a result of this, they often proceeded to translate their own choruses or favorite hymns into the language of the local people. Sometimes they bring their guitars and keyboards as well. This, of course, often leads to a shallow and superficial worship of God. It also can communicate that Christianity is something foreign, or that local music is not good enough for the worship of God.

I work with believers, often through workshops, to help them explore what is already theirs – a rich heritage of songs and cultural expressions, to help them build a biblical foundation for new Christian songs, and then help spark creativity so that they may make new songs, dramas, dances, poems, or stories that are relevant to church and community needs.

Several months ago I led a workshop in India with four language groups. A young man from one of the language groups said their group had always used songs from a related language group but had no Christian songs in their own language and in their own song styles. He said that unbelievers derided the believers for singing the songs of “outsiders” or of the related language group. During the workshop a few of the believers from this group made about 8 to 10 new songs. They were very encouraged at these first new Christian songs. A few months later I received an e-mail saying that people in this group had now written around 100 new Christian songs and were ready for their own first Christian song book.

2. Ethnomusicology is also about valuing people at a deeper level. It is about building relationships. Learning a local language is the best ways to communicate value to the local people, but learning their songs, their instruments, and helping them record or develop these, can communicate love and concern for them at an even deeper level. Doing this also brings openness in the community to the gospel. As you probably know, many people may be unwilling to listen to the gospel if it is spoken to them, but they may be willing to listen to the same message if it is sung in a local song style.

3. Ethnomusicology is about meeting community needs through local artistic expressions. I lead workshops in different communities for the creation of songs and dramas which deal with physical and spiritual concerns in the community. In one workshop, people from Muslim, Christian, and Hindu villages came together to discuss significant problems or issues they faced in their communities. They then began to work on songs or dramas that would help deal with these needs.

4. Ethnomusicology is about communicating God’s word in relevant local forms. There are still many in my area who cannot read or cannot read very well. Believers need more than written forms to learn scripture truth, and unbelievers need these forms in order to hear the truth. Though nowadays many are involved in getting the scripture into stories in local languages, ethnomusicology enables an outsider to research local song or story forms at a deeper, more rigorous level. This can help an outsider give better insight and thoughtful encouragement to local people as they create songs, stories, or dramas which are in relevant local forms.

Some of you may still ask me if I write songs for people. Let me stress that I do not write these songs myself. Good poets and song writers, people who have a deep grasp of the nuances of their own language, poetic forms, and melodies are hard to come by. It would be much harder still for an outsider to attempt to do such a thing.

In the end it’s not so much about music but about cultural artistic expression. It’s not about contextualizing foreign forms, but helping people explore and use the forms which are already theirs. Its not about focusing on music or the art, but encouraging believers to focus on God and the knowledge of Christ so that, as it says in Colossians 3:16, their songs and local expressions would flow out of this.

Blood on the Streets

We’ve all had those moments – when you remember exactly where you were when you heard the news of a life-shattering tragedy. That image is frozen in your mind. For most Americans, they can recall where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news about September 11th, 2001. For me, November 26th, 2008 had the same effect.

Mumbai almost “knew” that it was the next target. I remember reading various articles in The Times of India with titles along the lines of “When is Mumbai’s turn?” In 2008, many Indian mega-cities were targeted: New Delhi on September 13th, Ahmadabad (Gujarat) on July 26th, Bangalore on July 25th, Jaipur on May 13th However, the intensity and duration of the actual attacks horrified everyone.

On November 27th, I was jolted awake at 3 am by my phone ringing. I was worried when I saw an American number on my cell phone. The call was from my friends from my church in Connecticut. In a panicky voice, Jen said: “Mindy, where are you? We are worried about you!” I, of course, had no idea what had happened. I had gone to bed a little early on the 26th, around 10:30 pm (The first attack began at 9:20 pm). Also, I do not have a television. I live in Thane, which is about 1 hour from the site of the attacks. On the morning of the 27th, I was on the phone constantly. I also received about 100 e-mails! Indian friends called me and told me not to go outside (after I had already arrived in my office later than normal). Rumours were flying! The local mobile shop owner told me that the terrorists had bombed another train station in Navi Mumbai (New Bombay). Friends told me to wear long-sleeved salwar kameez and put my hair in a braid/plat to look more Indian (since the terrorists were targeting foreigners). I was actually fine in Thane, since all of the attackers had been contained in the area around Nariman Point and The Gateway of India (South Mumbai). The next day, I was on a train to Pune, and grabbed a newspaper. The entire paper was filled with reports of the attacks. Many personal accounts and stories were listed. Heartwrenching accounts of the loss of life: a young man who was to marry his college sweetheart in a few days; a young man who was to leave for Australia to pursue a wonderful new job; the Taj Hotel manager who lost his wife and all of his children due to smoke inhalation in their room as he rescued and escorted guests to safety; a man who was parking his taxi after dropping off his entire family and extended family at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, only to find that all of them had been killed before he could enter the station to join them. The suffering and loss was massive.

Now, more than 2 months after the attacks, there are still reminders of the attacks around Mumbai. I recently saw a billboard in Mumbai that read:

Recession

Terror attacks

What’s next?

The billboard was advertising life insurance. But, what is next for Mumbai? How do we try to make sense of the whole situation?

Suffering is defined as “enduring hardship or experiencing loss”. On Dictionary.com: “To feel pain or distress; sustain loss, injury, harm, or punishment; To tolerate or endure evil, injury, pain, or death”. In Mumbai, people have responded to overwhelming suffering caused by the terror attacks by uniting together. Peaceful, silent candlelight memorials have occurred. Hindus, Muslims, and Christians have come together as one to unite for peace as they endure suffering and loss.

As I try to grapple with the suffering caused by the terror attacks on November 26th – 29th, as well as the hardship that many people endure on a daily basis in Mumbai, I am reminded that Jesus was “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (Isaiah 53:3). Jesus suffered many things (Mark 8:31). However, his suffering was part of God’s plan for restoration. Acts 3:21 brings us comfort in suffering: “Jesus must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as He promised long ago through His holy prophets.” As Christians, we have hope that in the future, God will restore everything: you, me, Mumbai. As Peter wrote, “And the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will Himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast” (1 Peter 5:10).

Thank you Father God, that you are familiar with our suffering, that it will only last a little while, and that you intend to use it for good and restore us and the world!

From local eye-witnesses “The 26/11 day was the blackest day in the history of Bombay. The aftermath of it was too bad. I remember reading about some schools in South Bombay. The South Bombay is a place where the elite of the city live. Many of the children in a particular school of South Bombay have been orphaned, their parents were caught in the Taj, Oberoi and Trident hotels. Its so disheartening to think that how would these children survive now. May be some relatives, near and dear ones could take care of them but what if they had no one to take care of them.

This then reminds me of the commotion at Nariman House where the Jewish Rabbi and his wife were killed mercilessly. It was revealed afterwards that the terrorists abused the women folk. The Rabbi’s wife was pregnant too. I can’t think of the ordeal she must have gone through. Finally Moshe their son was left without his parents and his cry for his parents was reducing everybody to tears.

The NSG Commando Major Unnikrishnan who lost his life in the operation was a brave man but unfortunately the only son of his parents. The trauma his parents are going through is indescribable.

The top cream of the Mumbai Police force ie Hemant Karkare, Vijay Salaskar and Kamte falling an easy prey into the hands of the terrorists just was heartbreaking.

The plight of all those who died at the CST Station mercilessly was terrible. There was a mountain of slippers / sandals of the deceased / injured and many people could identify the dead through sandals / slippers.

We travel through CST and traverse along the same spots where there was bloodshed and mayhem. We too could have fallen victims to the bullets of the terrorists.”

Church Finding

When people hear that I worked in South Asia for many years they often ask “Were you involved in Church Planting?” Oddly enough, the answer to that is “No, not really.” It was more like Church Finding. Church Finding is a lot easier and probably more fun, though just as stressful.

There are seasons of sowing and of reaping. My great uncle served in South Asia in the 1950s and 60s, and saw no church growth among the Muslim community whatsoever. In 1995, on our first Home Assignment, we went to visit him. He had been diagnosed with cancer and we spent a lovely day with him. At one point just he and I were sitting together. “Tell me” he said. “Are there any believers from the Muslim community at all?.” I was able to tell him of meeting forty men in the city in which he had worked. Then he started to cry. Quietly wiping a tear from his cheek, he said in a soft voice “I gave up hope you know. Oh, I worked with the church and we saw tribal people and others come to faith. But we didn’t see anyone from the Muslim community. I didn’t think it was possible” Six weeks later he went to meet Jesus face to face knowing that God was able to do more than he could have thought or imagined.

Since the mid 90s, numbers have grown. Conservative estimates of this new form of Muslimbackground church in our region are 50,000! Some estimates are a lot higher. Much of my role was finding new groups of believers, listening to their stories and documenting them, and helping link them to other groups around the region. It also involved walking beside a couple of key leaders as they looked at what it meant to follow Jesus coming from their heritage and in their setting.

Leaders are subject to huge pressures. I would like to report that the guys I walked beside did really well and had no problems. That would, however, be to embellish the truth. As it was, some of them grew in maturity and leadership, but others struggled with issues like finance, use and abuse of power, personal integrity, and didn’t really give clear guidance on some major theological issues.

Nor were the problems confined to leadership. The growing groups saw almost all the problems of the New Testament churches and even some problems that hadn’t been invented then. When the church grows so quickly there are bound to be problems, but there is also bound to be real growth, maturity and solid foundations. I saw an illiterate young man explain to the police the basis to his faith, that it wasn’t illogical or immoral, and that he refused to turn back. I saw families have their crops destroyed and their irrigation systems wrecked, and yet they acted with love and compassion towards the very families who were attacking them.

So the question arises: what real advice can a foreigner give to groups going through genuine, gut-wrenching, painful persecution? Can any advice be more than just fine sounding words from a rich person with a passport? Fortunately, I was able to draw on the experience of others who had been through such times themselves. They were able to give the call – “Be faithful.” In the midst of this there are three things that stand out as helpful for people and groups under attack for their faith.

1. Memorise scripture. The more the word dwells in our hearts, the more it guides our heart responses in times of trouble. And if it’s memorised it is with us in the times when our Bibles are taken from us.

2. Have a heart song. Have a song that embraces all that’s dear to you about Jesus. Sing it daily. Have it embedded in your heart. In those times of hardship, that song will help shine his light into your heart.

3. The believing community commits to look after your family. If someone is taken away from their family, maybe put in jail, what happens to their family is a major concern. One thing that helps hold people firm is to know that the rest of the community has committed beforehand to look after the family. No matter what the situation, no matter the amount of mud flung or violence used, others will work to look after the family. If I know that, then I can face what is thrown at me.

Being involved with the rapidly reproducing church is fantastic. To see lives transformed by Christ, and to see this happen time and again touches our hearts in deep ways. There are problems, of course. There are real hurts, mistakes and wounds. However, many testify that “it’s worth it.” The change in people’s lives, the joy that is radiated and the peace that fills them is thrillingly infectious. Having come back from South Asia where this change is now expected and planned for, it’s been an adjustment to come to churches in the UK who fear that they are dying or have little hope that a ‘mission’ will transform many people. The body of Christ is growing dramatically around the world. For those in areas where it doesn’t seem to be, take heart. He is able to do more than we could think or imagine.

Healthcare for the poorest of the poor

Poor people cannot usually afford to pay for skilled medical care, but a Health and Development NGO in South Asia is challenging that norm by finding ways to make healthcare accessible even to the poorest of the poor.

From humble beginnings as a TB clinic over 30 years ago, it has grown to include a 150-bed hospital and 23 community health care centres, and directly impacts over three quarters of a million people within its community. Despite its impressive growth, the organisation still retains its original mission to serve God through serving the poor and underprivileged, particularly women and children.

The hospital receives people sent from its organisation’s community target areas as well as those who arrive off the street. In the target areas, trained paramedical staff provide basic medical care from community health care centres, and refer patients with more complicated conditions to the hospital. Volunteer village health workers give preventive health education, pregnancy care, supply simple medications and report back basic statistics.

Patients admitted to hospital are expected to pay what they can afford, but if they are unable to cover the full bill they are assessed by a team, which decides on a reasonable payment. Approximately two-thirds of all patients receive assistance in this manner. However, for those patients who have no resources at all (about one in every five people), the bill is completely cancelled. All patients receive the same high standard of care, regardless of their financial situation.

Common medical problems in adults include infectious diseases (including TB and tropical diseases), surgical problems, chronic conditions (such as diabetes), and pregnancy and childbirth complications. As in similar countries, children are mainly ill with gastroenteritis, pneumonia and/ or malnutrition. Most babies are born at home, without trained help, and otherwise well newborns die of cold or infection. Many women die in labour, and others suffer medical problems as a result of prolonged obstructed labour.

Pregnancy advice and care is provided by the community health care centres, many of which are set up to enable expectant mothers to give birth in a safe environment: in 2007 alone, 1320 births were recorded at the health care centres. Over the 25 years that the hospital and community arms have worked together, pregnancy-related and childhood deaths have decreased in the community areas, compared both with when they started, and with surrounding areas not served by the NGO.

While the NGO strives to be sensitive to the cultures and religious beliefs of the various ethnic groups in their area, their vision is to see people living as God intended, in spiritually, physically, socioeconomically and emotionally healthy communities. Even though about 50% of the staff and 90% of the patients are not yet followers of Jesus, all are encouraged to care for the people in their community on the basis of scriptural values and the example of Jesus Christ, who came so that all – even the poorest of the poor – might have abundant life.

The author is a doctor from NZ, and has been based in South Asia since 1998.

Roshida married when she was about 12 years old, and her first pregnancy followed fairly quickly. The baby was lying across her womb rather than head down, and when she went into labour the baby’s arm came out first, and the baby died. When her second baby also died in childbirth, the prolonged labour caused an obstetric fistula – she became constantly wet and smelly and people could not bear to be close to her. She was also regarded as spiritually unclean, so was unable to pray or participate in worship.

When her husband divorced her Roshida returned to live with her parents, but they could not cope with the constant smell. She had to move into a separate hut, similar to a cow shed, and was unable to work in any job that required proximity to other people.

After suffering for about eight years, she came to our organisation for help. Her fistula was easily repaired, and 14 days later she was dry. Her condition had brought deep shame to her, so before she left the hospital, our chaplains prayed with her, for Jesus to cover her shame and make her whole again.

Three months later she returned to the clinic a different woman. She was now earning money and playing an active role in her family and community. When we asked her if she’d be willing to speak at the opening ceremony for the hospital fistula unit, her response was, “Why not? People need to know!” And so the woman who had been too embarrassed to show her face on the ward told her story in front of 100 people, including local dignitaries and journalists. Not only had she regained her physical health but her self-esteem had blossomed – she was healed in the full sense of the word.

Noor Jahan was in labour for four days with her second child before suffering a double tragedy – not only was the baby stillborn, but the prolonged labour had caused an obstetric fistula.

“Nobody liked me after that,” explained Noor Jahan, “not even my mother or my husband. I was very neglected. My husband married again and separated from me without divorcing me.”

She was discovered by one of the village health workers who had been to a seminar on fistulas. When initially approached about coming to the hospital for surgery she refused: “I would rather die than have other people know.” But after she and her husband (who had already spent a lot of money on previous failed attempts at treatment) had further discussions with hospital staff, she decided to have the surgery.

“After being cured I got a new life. Now I am with my family and my husband. My husband loves me very much after my successful operation. Now my neighbours and the villagers like me very much. I am grateful to God and to the hospital.”

She now tells all her neighbours about the dangers of early marriage, and encourages all the pregnant mothers in the village to go for antenatal care. She has become an advocate for women in her own community.

A partner with IS England & Wales (but with a strong Kiwi connection), the author is a doctor who spent 16 years serving in South Asia.

Knowing how to read the wallpaper

I used to pass through the village like a tourist – admiring the variety of sights and sounds, the colour, the amount of life lived on the street. It was like looking at a bright wallpaper. But I can’t do that happily now because I know too much. I “read” the wallpaper.

The villages I walk through are each within one or two kilometres of one another on the outskirts of Bangalore city in south India, some commercialised and some still rural.

At a water tap women stand with the yellow and green plastic water-pots that have replaced the traditional brass – red saree, blue, floral, another red. Of course, it’s women standing and women who will carry the heavy load. Well, let me be fair. Things are changing. Men carry pots too, these days. But there’s a difference. Men bring a bicycle and carry six pots slung around it to ease the burden and finish the job quickly. Women carrying are usually stuck with one 15 kg pot at a time on head or hip, back and forth, back and forth.

A group of boys playing volleyball. Good – young people need games and exercise. What are the girls doing? No games for the girls? Nothing. They are never seen playing games.

Oh, I see some girls there. They’re carrying their younger siblings. More girls come by from a further village, returning their goats and sheep after the day’s grazing. Of course, that’s work for old people and teenage girls. Boys have to go to school.

I’ve come to a construction site now. Women work hard here carrying dishes of concrete, concrete blocks and sand, and get paid more than they used to. Their wages have gone up from 40 to 75 rupees a day. Men on the same site stand at the top of the chain gang and put the blocks in place. They get 150 rupees a day.

Wait, here’s something for young women – I have reached one of the six new nursing colleges on the way out from the city. Scores of young women and some young men train to be nurses. I hear the high number of training institutions is because of the demand for nurses in the Gulf, and that these young people will head overseas. But why? Parents invest in their training so they can send them off to earn and remit money back to them in India. So that’s why they get the opportunities! For whose benefit is the education then?

I head back to the Theological College where I teach mostly single and married men, with wives looking after the children.

The college welcomes women students. A single women’s hostel, built nine years ago, has rooms for 22. There have never yet been more than 14 young women. There were only two new girls this year. What’s the problem? Parents. They will pay for their son’s further theological education but few pay for a daughter’s. That would waste money. Anyway, our college offers Master’s degrees after earlier study, and everyone knows one must not let a daughter reach 24 still unmarried.

“Girls don’t need Bible training,” parental thinking goes. “People might say they are not ‘home-makers’ when you are arranging their marriage.” But aren’t women needed to reach out to women? “Yes, but let someone else do that.”

It’s a bit like the ancient Vedic saying, “Let a girl be born, but let her be born in someone else’s house.” Population statistics reflect that – more males than females, especially aged under ten, since the widespread use of ultrasound technology, and termination of female foetuses.

There are so many ways of keeping women down.

Beulah Wood has been in and out of India for 40 years, and longs for change for women and men whose family life is damaged by the traditional system.

23 years later

Distant thunder and first Spring petals

“Should we tithe the money we earn from cheating?” This question was put forward by a young local Christian in a Bible study group where a church leader was teaching on tithing.

“If I became a Christian, I would have to become an honest businesswoman – then where would my business be?” asked a woman in another city, who was discussing the implications of becoming a Christian.

These two people demonstrate something both worrying and exciting. It’s exciting to see a non-Christian understand enough of the lifestyle U-turn the gospel asks for that they pause to count the cost – it’s worrying to think of churches scurrying to teach new Christians about practices like tithing when they obviously haven’t spent enough time on some of the basic values Jesus embodied.

Since 2001, we have been running a small software company in this mountainous country of South Asia – we make software that helps keep track of medicines. We consider it to be both fun and interesting… well, actually, only 25% of our family thinks that – the other three can do the eyes-glazed-over thing with aplomb. They’re busy with school and looking after other people though, so don’t need to gain significance from what the male in the family is up to.

Now at this point we’re starting to sound like the average Kiwi family – and in some ways we are. We try to balance work and church life, friends and visitors, and wonder if the kids should spend less time on the computer and more time doing their homework. You’d think that this would allow your average Bruce and Debbie to relate to us, but often it feels like we’re not measuring up to their expectations of what people like us are supposed to be doing: teaching theology; slicing and dicing the sick; watering the thirsty, and stuff like that. We regularly get a response along the lines of – “That’s great about your business, but what are you actually doing for a ministry?”

We often hear mission being expressed as a numbers game – how many people have come to faith? But if that’s the only question asked, then we’re in trouble. We want to see lives being transformed by encountering Jesus – yes, what we believe, but also how we act, what we buy, what we think, how we relate. We want to see lives that are a bit like distant thunder, and a bit like the first spring petals – lives and communities that clearly demonstrate that “the times they are a-changing”, that the world that’s coming is going to be very different to what we know now. We want that sound, that smell, to permeate every area of society – even the business community.

In so many ways (in spite of their “Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood” protestations), the business world is setting the agenda for how the world works, thinks and lives (sometimes that’s good, sometimes it’s a nightmare). It’s no different where we live. It’s a country that has a rapidly growing Christian population, a culture based on distrust, and a rather sick economy. In the midst of this, we’re just one small company trying to do a bit, talk a bit, be a signpost that there’s a different way. For us, being involved with a business as part of one’s calling isn’t a second-rate option. Business is our ‘mission’ – the task we’ve been given – and we’re quite enthusiastic about it.

One of our aims is to develop our staff in their understanding of what it means to follow Jesus in the workplace. We have a mixture of Hindu and Christian staff. We hope that in working with us they’ll have picked up some of the things we care about, things like: valuing people for who they are as well as for what they produce; honesty; and treating our small clients with the same attention we give the large ones.

Once, one of our Christian staff was recounting his experience of a tax inspection at another office he worked in. The tax inspector had caught them running two sets of books – one with GST and one without. “So, what do you do now?” I’d asked, expecting that they’d felt guilty and mended their ways. “We hide the second set much better now,” he informed me. There’s lots to be done to get Christians, as well as Hindus, to understand what following Jesus involves!

We hope we will also be a positive example in our society of a different kind of business. We know we get watched by all sorts of people – clients, officials, other businesses, neighbours (the only people who don’t watch us are the secret police – they’re too busy taking bribes!). We hope that what they see is at least a pale reflection of the One we follow, and a rather strong contrast with the dominant business culture. In all this we get a steady stream of opportunities to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing. In New Zealand it often seems like sex is the trendy topic, and discussing religion is taboo – in our part of the world it’s the other way around!

As well as making software we also want to actually help our clients run their organisations better. Many of them are Christian organisations that work with the most disadvantaged people. A lot of them are doing great things, and can tell you heart-rending stories of poverty and the difference they’re making. However, when it comes to providing their donors and supporters with a good account of where the money’s going, they sometimes struggle.

We also have this wacky idea that even the software itself makes a difference. The use of our software might result in the right medicines being in stock in some remote location, and someone might get better who otherwise wouldn’t have.

There’s a bit of vulnerability in doing business in a developing country – a couple of accusations and $100 under the table can see a visa rescinded. If you’re an employer and a foreigner, you’ll almost never win a court case. We hope that our trust in God in this sort of environment gives a message that following Jesus is more important than minimising risk.

As for the unanswered questions about what we’re doing, they centre around the stories that businesses and business people tell. It’s the story that’s been adopted by our whole Western world – “Study hard to get a good job. Work hard at your good job to earn lots of money. Spend all the money you earn on products that will define you as a person and make your life effortless, enjoyable, envied and elongated.” Of course we Christians know that’s… aah… err… less than accurate, but it’s quite hard to be in business without participating in that lie in some small way. We hope that we express enough truth and grace in what we do that the other messages get ignored!

We do wish that what we do could have a more direct impact on the poor. As much as we wish it wasn’t so, most of our employees are from well-off families – that’s how they got an education. You’ve got to be a stronger believer in the trickle down effect than we are, to feel that will be sufficient.

We’re trying to compensate a bit by supporting two organisations that give scholarships to needy Christians, in the hope that in the coming years there’ll be a sizable group of Christians who love God and their fellow citizens enough to want to transform this society in every aspect – even its business culture!

The author and his family are living in South Asia, where they started their involvement in medical support roles, and have pioneered a Business as Mission venture for a number of years now.