Touchable at Last
Hidden but not forgotten, India’s poor hope in Christ
Joab Lohara traveled to the United States during July 2007 to attend the General Conference of the Free Methodist Church and visit friends of AIM Asia. Lohara also met with SPU President Philip Eaton
Upon first meeting, Joab Lohara is a gentle, unassuming man, his words soft, his smile warm. It becomes quickly apparent, however, that this is a man of action propelled by a radical mission: the emancipation of India’s “untouchables” or Dalits, the poorest of the world’s poor.
Lohara’s vision for his fellow citizens goes far beyond ensuring them enough work and food to get by. “I am talking about the liberation and transformation of the total person,” he explains. “Liberation is when the poor can eat equally from the one common dish. It is when [a Dalit] can know equality and live together with everyone else.”
One of three Free Methodist bishops in India, Lohara is also director of AIM Asia, a nonprofit Christian agency dedicated to serving the poor. He has watched the Christian message land with meteoric force among the Dalits, whom Lohara calls the “hidden” people of India. That message, he says, offers compassion, acceptance, practical help, and, most of all, equality in Christ. And it brings, in Lohara’s words, “total emancipation from a life of despair to a life of hope.”
He began to work among India’s poor in 1986, feeding lepers, caring for widows, teaching orphans, providing vocational and literacy training — and sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. God, he says, provided him with an army of 518 men to take this work throughout 12 Indian states and Nepal. Today there are 820 churches and 78,000 believers as a result.
“It is grassroots faith working in the lives of people,” notes Lohara, who speaks six Indian languages and holds undergraduate degrees in journalism and missions, a master’s degree in English literature, and a doctorate in comparative religions. “There has been a release of the Holy Spirit, with many physical healings. Former haters have become lovers of people. The church cannot help but experience massive growth.”
Official 2001 Indian census data indicated that Christians accounted for 2.34 percent of the predominantly Hindu country’s population — up from 2.32 percent at the last census in 1991. However, the top Christian leadership in India puts the figure today at more than 6 percent of India’s 1 billion people.
AIM Asia is one of several similar non-denominational efforts — Lohara calls them “common cause” among Christians — that have become a lifeline for the country’s poor. Among AIM Asia’s offerings are a computer academy, training for female slum dwellers to operate home sewing businesses, hundreds of literacy centers, and the Asian Center for Theological Studies.
“When thousands follow Christ as they are now doing in India, there is a great need to train lay leaders,” says Lohara, who lives with his wife, Suchitra, in the central Indian city of Hyderabad. “We have opened Bible schools and equipped portable schools to reach remote areas. We sponsor literacy classes to help people become literate and participate in transforming their communities. In the process, they too have an opportunity to read literature that tells of God’s tremendous love for them.”
Born into the home of a village chief, Lohara watched his father become a Christian because of the witness of a missionary from Canada. Though he was ostracized by the village residents because of his choice, Lohara’s father would never recant his faith.
Adversity, says Lohara, is the fertilizer of faith: “Where persecution exists, rest assured of coming growth in the church. People take their faith seriously when they are cursed and reviled.”
As a youth, Lohara contracted malaria so severe that he could not care for himself. He says he thought he would die, but was reminded by Psalm 103:3 that God “forgives all my sins and heals all my diseases.”
“It was only Jesus and me in my bedroom,” Lohara remembers. “I prayed for mercy, and in 15 days I returned to health. From that time, my faith was lifelong. Though I trained to be a journalist, my mother prayed for me to become an evangelist. I knew the verse that says ‘having put your hand to the plow, don’t turn back.’ Ever since, I have been addicted to advancing the kingdom of God.”
Through work with agencies such as Every Home for Christ and AMG International, he learned to couple evangelism and humanitarian outreach. One day in 1984, he traveled alone up a mountain to witness to primitive tribespeople. Suddenly, they closed in, threatened him with axe and arrows, and demanded money for food. He told them he had money in the town where he was staying and would get it for them.
“They trusted me and let me go,” he says, the awe evident in his voice almost 25 years later. He honored that trust and returned later to assist them. “That day, in my hotel room, this ministry was born as I pleaded with the Lord on my knees.”
— By Clint Kelly [firstname.lastname@example.org]
— Photo by John Keatley
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