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Spring 2003 | Volume 26, Number 2

The Risk of Embrace

Actions of Vinay Samuel Speak Loudly in India’s Slums 

INDIA, THE WORLD’S largest democracy, is a wildly colorful mélange of culture, language, religion and political persuasion. On the one hand, lavish wealth; on the other, brutal poverty. Extravagant expressions of joy commingle with signs of utter despair.

Nowhere is this perhaps more evident than in Bangalore, capital city of the Indian state of Karnataka. Called “India’s Silicon Valley” and “Fashion Capital of India,” Bangalore is the country’s fifth-largest city and said to be the fastest growing in Asia. But along with these proud statistics comes a crushing truth: More than one million of the city’s six million people live in an estimated 800 slums. Many barely survive on less than $1 a day.

It is here that an Indian-born, Cambridge-educated Anglican priest named Vinay Samuel and his wife, Colleen, make their personal stands for the cause of Christ. For four months of the year, they deliver the message of the abundant Christian life to the slums. “That’s what Christ came to bring,” says Vinay, “a multi-dimensional life that encompasses the whole person — body, mind and spirit.”

If theirs were merely an intellectual message, the Samuels would have been dismissed decades ago. A majority of the slum-dwellers are dalits, or outcastes. They suffer from poor nutrition and a multitude of diseases. At every turn, they are cheated, harassed and socially alienated. Their children are often slave laborers working long hours under dangerous conditions for only a few cents per day. Dalit women are subject to rape, bride-burning and repeated forced abortions. Illiteracy, suicide, infanticide… the litany of abuse and injustice is as long as it is awful.

But the gospel of Jesus Christ, says Vinay, empowers. For 35 years, he has been an outspoken proponent of the abundant life in Bangalore, both as pastor of St. John’s Church in the heart of the slums and through Divya Shanthi (Peace of God) Ministries. Schools, orphanages, community health work and community churches — the whole of life — receive priority treatment from the workers of Divya Shanthi.

Born in Hyderabad, India, of Christian parents, Vinay graduated from Union Biblical Seminary in Pune, India, before commencing studies at Cambridge. Today, his and Colleen’s work among the lower castes also includes unionizing downtrodden quarry workers and offering a theological education by extension program serving 18,000 Indian students.

To live peacefully among the primarily Hindu and Muslim poor, says Vinay, requires “the risk of embrace.” It means building covenant relationships with other religions and ethnicities. It means becoming an agent of empowerment.

Vinay, Colleen and their ministry workers risked that kind of engagement by helping start a lending bank in the slums of Bangalore. “The solution to poverty cannot be mere welfare,” says Vinay, “but entrepreneurial enterprise.” Loans are provided to young people to start businesses, and self-help groups are established where people can learn about savings and the nature of capital.

“No lending without saving,” is Vinay’s enthusiastic assessment of the loan plan. “It’s encouraging a different attitude. It’s demonstrating that money is not merely about consumption, but about acquiring capital. And so what they save is matched, and they begin to build something that lasts.” There are now 65,000 beneficiaries among Bangalore’s poorest of the poor. Another lending program benefits 100,000 low-income working people who have some collateral with which to secure a loan.

Over time, a number of the people who are empowered in this way are attracted to the religious faith of those helping them rise above their poverty. Vinay, who works with Catholics and Protestants to develop enterprise solutions in what he calls a gospel strategy of “nation-building,” reports that conversion to Christianity among out-caste people, particularly in northern India, has grown dramatically of late.

While he won’t for security reasons quote the figures or identify his sources, Vinay makes a bold assessment of the trend. “The present rate of conversion is significantly higher than anything since modern missions began to work in northern India over 200 years ago.” In the largest Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, alone, it is estimated that in 10 years, 10 percent of the population will be Christian.

“This is God’s sovereign work,” Vinay underscores, noting that the gospel represents liberation from an oppressive caste system into a profoundly personal religious identity. Literacy, health care and advocacy education are providing the dalits with a greater degree of political solidarity and sense of purpose.

When not in Bangalore, Vinay takes his work to Britain and the United States. He founded the Oxford Center for Mission Studies and the International Fellowship of Evangelical Mission Theologians, where he spends a third of the year working in a graduate program for scholars from developing nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The remaining third of the year, he joins other Christian leaders in Washington, D.C., to engage in strategic thinking in support of religious freedom.

It is a full life for the father of four, but one free of regret. “Christ first embraced me,” says Vinay. “To embrace others not like myself expands my world and my joy.”


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