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Visit of Emeritus Bishop Rt Rev Dr V. Devasahayam

The Right Rev. V. Devasahayam, Emeritus Bishop (retired) of the Church of South India – Diocese of Madras, is in Melbourne for a few days.

Born into the Dalit, or “untouchable,” community – those who fall outside the Hindu caste system – he has experienced discrimination and contempt throughout his life.

He reflects:

As a child, I wasn’t permitted to enter the village shop. The shopkeeper fetched the provisions my mother had asked me to purchase and set them on the ground outside. And before the shopkeeper touched my money, which she also refused to take from his hand, she poured water over it to “clean” it.

Returning by bus to this village years later as a well-respected university professor, Bishop Devasahayam sat down in a row of empty seats. A man sat down next to him and struck up a conversation. As they chatted, the man asked his family name, and when it was given “he moved away, saying he needed some fresh air, and was prepared to stand all the way rather than sit beside a Dalit.”

“Dalits are treated as unapproachable, unseeable. It’s an inherited inequality. You are born into a caste and you die into the caste and even the bodies are not buried together.”

Although discrimination is now prohibited by Indian law, the social stigma lingers, especially in rural areas. So it is perhaps not surprising that Dalits, who make up a quarter of India’s mostly Hindu population, now account for about three-quarters of India’s Christians.

The gospel of Jesus, with its message of inclusion, has found fertile ground in the hearts of India’s untouchables. But it wasn’t always that way: During the British rule, Christian missionaries avoided the Dalit.

“In India, when missionaries came, they recognized a hierarchy. They thought that if they converted the upper caste people, the others would be converted. They shied away from approaching the untouchables, because if the untouchables came into the church that might serve as a deterrent for the upper caste people. More recently, Dalits have taken the initiative to come into the church. They are attracted by God’s mercy to the last and the least. They are untouchables no longer, because Jesus has touched them.”

The recipients of Jesus’ mercy in the gospel stories were outcasts – tax collectors were shunned by the religious establishment, menstruating women were considered ritually unclean, and women and girls were treated as second class citizens, “impure, inferior and ranked little ahead of slaves.” Each was excluded from society, and suffered from shame.

“It is the same in India. The untouchables are considered outcasts and are excluded from society. Jesus was against this ideology that legitimized exclusion, and he spoke of a God of mercy.”

The message of mercy is one that India’s Dalit community is hungry to hear and eager to share.

“This has been the story of the untouchable Christians in India. Because we have been given life, we have a responsibility and honor to propagate life. We take our evangelistic calling very seriously. Many of the dioceses in India will say that evangelism is our first priority: We have experienced the Gospel and therefore we are duty bound to share it. The wholeness, the fullness of life that Jesus came to give us is constantly unfolding. We’re not just here to offer people saving of the soul. We want to give them fullness of life.”

“We were no people, but now we are God’s people,” he said.

This article has been adapted from one that first appeared in Washington Window Vol. 77, No. 7, July/August 2008 as “Touched by the all-inclusive love of Jesus: Bishop-in-Madras describes the power of Christ’s message to India’s ‘untouchables’”