Saving Souls

NEW DELHI ( — On a sun-kissed Saturday morning in March, Rahul Kumar whips through a squalid Delhi neighborhood, his ashen buttoned-down shirt tucked into his dress pants and his thick black hair gelled back from his forehead. He is headed to the Sanskar Centre, a bare, one-room school run by a Christian nonprofit in the city’s Shahbad Dairy slum. Every day, Rahul walks to the schoolhouse for his lessons, the best education to be had for many of the district’s poor migrant families.

Just twelve years old, Rahul is already a leader among the neighborhood children, who flock to his side as he walks, eager to embrace him. Though short for his age, he has an outsized ambition: one day, he says confidently, he will dance in Bollywood’s biggest productions. But first, Rahul says through a translator, “I need to get a job to help my family. I need to study hard.”

Rahul’s family moved to Delhi from northern India several years ago, lured by the prospect of a better life. But the situation for Shahbad Dairy’s 100,000 residents is overwhelmingly grim, their opportunities circumscribed by severe, endemic poverty. While some parts of the district enjoy government support — a public school, a maintained latrine, a health care center — most of the slum’s inhabitants live in jhuggis, or slum dwellings, without running water or proper sanitation. A thick expanse of garbage and sewage surrounds the slum and is patrolled by scavenging children and feral pigs alike.

“[Shahbad Dairy] has the dynamics seen in every ghetto or slum,” says Alfred Gnanaolivu, special projects director for Cooperative Outreach of India (COI), the Christian group that runs Rahul’s school. “You have turf warfare. You have the influence of drugs and alcohol … Unfortunately, the main victims are the children.”

A nongovernmental organization, COI works extensively in Shahbad Dairy’s slum blocks, offering clean water, food, and education to local families. Children account for 50 percent of the district’s population, Gnanaolivu notes. That’s where COI — along with the hundreds of other faith-based NGOs operating in India — can have an impact: educating the children of impoverished families that are neglected by the Indian government.

But like many NGOs working in India, COI has a slant. It provides the 500 children enrolled in its schoolhouse an education — but with evangelical undertones. Young boys and girls recite Christian hymns during class, not conscious that they are being indoctrinated. Their faith-driven education is reinforced by COI’s pastoral care workers, or religious counselors, who help the slum’s families with their economic and personal problems using a Christian form of therapy. COI says this “results in transformation of the communities.”

While Shahbad Dairy’s families — most of which are Hindu and from India’s lower or scheduled castes — are aware of the Christian sculpting, they believe that COI is giving their children a better chance at life. And as their relationship with their Christian benefactors deepens, some families are even converting.

“Very often, children are lured in the name of providing [a] good education,” says Chandan Mitra, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) representative in India’s upper house of Parliament. “They don’t understand very often why they have become Christians until they are older.” Religious conversion is banned in many Indian states, but the laws are “violated frequently,” Mitra adds. (In Delhi, conversion is legal.)

Of course, proselytizing Indians is not a new phenomenon. Christianity has existed in India for centuries, and Protestant missionaries have been working in Delhi since the early eighteenth century. Today, Christianity is India’s third-largest religion, with approximately twenty-four million followers.

What is different today is the growth of a politically independent, economically powerful India, a rising nation of a billion-plus people that has become more comfortable asserting its culture. In India (and Indian America) today, there is a willingness now to question the outside influences that for many years were tolerated as the price of doing business. Meanwhile, India has become home to roughly a third of the world’s poor, according to World Bank data. As a result, the country is a magnet for humanitarian aid organizations, many of them Christian.

The conversion of destitute Indian families to Christianity enrages many Indians, and on blogs wild accusations fly that Christian NGOs are committing “culture murder” in India. Mitra — whose Hindu nationalist party is one of India’s two major political forces — takes a more evenhanded stance. Christian NGOs may be indoctrinating children with Christianity, he says, but they are also educating and feeding an entire community that would otherwise remain overlooked.

For its part, COI believes that its religious message helps break down some of the barriers that keep Shahbad Dairy’s residents in poverty. “The caste system has dehumanized human beings,” says Ramesh Landge, COI’s executive director. “We need to help these children, give them a reason to live, and provide them with a childhood.” Among “the few hundred families that have adopted our changes, our teachings,” Landge adds, “we’ve seen success.” He notes that before COI began working in the slum, none of the children had birth certificates, making it nearly impossible for them to enroll in government schools.

Donald Miller, a professor of religion and sociology at the University of Southern California, points out that the evangelical Christian organizations working in India today tend not to fit the colonial-era stereotypes: brazen missionaries coming over to save souls by any means necessary. “Conversion by these groups is more often a side effect as opposed to a direct, manipulative attempt to indoctrinate people,” says Miller, who studies the social ethics of religion. It’s not that they don’t want to see conversions take place. But today’s faith-based humanitarian work, particularly by evangelical organizations, “has much more language about partnership and shared goals,” he says.

Before it was a slum, Shahbad Dairy was cattle country, settled by a Hindu Haryana community of dairy farmers. In 1987, the Indian government ceded a small parcel of land to the local inhabitants to build slum dwellings. Today, most of the shanties in Shahbad Dairy are illegal. Their occupants are immigrants from across India, who left their villages to find work in the sprawling city of Delhi, India’s second largest.

Rahul’s family is originally from Uttar Pradesh, a state about 500 miles to the north. His mother, Reena Kumar, supports the family by extracting the iron from automobile tires to sell as scrap metal. Asked why she moved to the slum, far from her ancestral homeland, Kumar’s response is simple: “To survive.”

The Kumar home in Shahbad Dairy amounts to four scantily constructed shacks, which house Rahul, his mother, and five siblings. A lone television is mounted in the master bedroom, powered by stolen electricity patched in from a nearby power line.

Back from school, Rahul navigates the Indian airways to his favorite Bollywood channel. His brothers, sisters, and friends pack the tiny room, waiting to watch him perform the dance steps.

Gnanaolivu watches the children with a smile. The work that his Christian group is doing, he says, will give children like Rahul much-needed opportunities, so that one day they can achieve their dreams — in Bollywood and beyond. “If they can be given that direction and sustained love … then we can save them.” In the end, it still comes down to saving souls.

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