What happens when a people group hears the gospel in a country full of unreached people groups? In this episode of Neighborhoods and Nations, Steven Morales explores how Christians in the Indian state of Mizoram reach millions of non-Christians worldwide. In this encouraging story, Christians are reminded of the unique ways that God works in hard-to-reach places.
There’s a story you hear a lot about in the missions world, and it’s about a group of women in rural India who by many standards lived in poverty. And yet somehow, they managed to raise millions to support evangelistic work in their area. It sounds impossible, but in order to understand how they did it, we have to go back about 100 years.
A Handful of Rice
In a small, agricultural state of Mizoram, an evangelist known as the Bible woman needed help raising funds to keep spreading the gospel. A local group of Christian women in the region heard about it, but they didn’t have much to give. Now, what they did have was rice. So each woman set aside a small handful of uncooked rice at each meal, and these small handfuls of rice accumulated to a big, selfless offering the women sold to support the missionary. They called this practice, Buhfai tham, or a handful of rice.
The Mizo community still does this to support missionaries and church leaders, and not just with rice, but with whatever they have. This simple effort that started with a small group of women years ago now raises support for more than 1500 church leaders and missionaries in the Mizoram State. And maybe you’re thinking, how does this even happen? Like, that’s crazy, right?
Well, what may be even crazier is that Mizoram is in northern India, the region of the country that suffers the most persecution against Christians. In the state right next door to Mizoram, Hindu mobs had recently destroyed hundreds of churches, killed believers, and caused more than 10,000 others to flee their homes, all because of their faith in Christ. But despite the persecution at their back door, the population of Mizoram State is almost 90% Christian in a country where only about 2% of the entire population are believers. That means Mizoram’s gospel success is not normal. It’s an outlier in a nation with a lot of unreached people.
But think about that outlier for one moment. 2% is a small number, but it’s still a lot of people. In fact, India recently overtook China as the most populous country in the world, clocking in with about 1.4 billion people. 2 or 3% of 1.4 billion might not sound like much, but it means that India may have as many as 30 million Christians and that number is growing. No doubt, there’s a long way to go to reach millions more for Christ. But the women of Mizoram had a long way to go when they started gathering tiny bits of rice over a century ago.
What would it look like then for a tiny percentage of Christians in the world’s most populated country to end up spreading the gospel further than anyone imagined, even while your next-door neighbors are trying to stop you? And how can we help?
A Massive Population
So, it’s 1950. The United Nations is meeting in Lake Success, New York, and they decide it’s time to keep track of how many people live in each country around the world. This kind of data is helpful for understanding global trends around health, education, economic, and social issues. You get the idea. And since the U.N. began counting, every year the world’s most populous country has always been China, but that changed this year.
If you look at this map, it might be kind of surprising that India is at the top of the list. I mean China’s physical size is three times larger than India. And take a look at Brazil. It’s twice the size of India, but it has less than a fifth of its people. And look at Russia. It’s massive, making up 11% of the world’s landmass. And yet it only has 1.87% of the world’s population. Compare that to India, home to 17.7% of all men, women, and children in the world, and it comprises only 2% of the world’s landmass.
The truth is population size isn’t really a matter of how much land you have. It’s a lot more to do with the people who live there. So what happened? Well, in China, families have had fewer babies over the last several decades, and the country’s government has gone to some extreme measures to make that happen. Even though they finally rolled back the government’s one-child policy, the birth rate is plummeting, and China’s elderly population is swelling. Meanwhile, India has the world’s largest youth population, and its birth rate is higher.
For India, this brings progress since it means a growing labor force in one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. A couple of months ago, the first Apple stores opened in Mumbai, and Levi’s opened its largest Asian store ever in Bangalore.
Not too shabby, but there’s still a lot of challenges. Widespread poverty still exists, and it’s hard for those at the bottom of the ladder to make their way up. Life can also be really difficult for Indians who don’t embrace the country’s predominant religion, Hinduism. And that’s partly because Hinduism is seen not only as a personal religion but as a national identity. For many, to be Indian is to be Hindu.
This is Narendra Modi. He’s been the prime minister of India since 2014, and he’s really popular with Hindus who make up around 80% of the population. That’s more than 1.1 billion people. Modi’s popularity comes at least partly from saying he wants to give people lots of things for free. And he says he doesn’t want to discriminate, right? He recently said “True secularism is where there is no discrimination of caste, creed, or religion. There is no social justice greater than working for the happiness and convenience of all.” And that sounds really awesome, except it doesn’t really always work that way.
For example, the second largest religion in India is Islam. There are about 200 million Muslims living in the country. But in 2019, when the government passed a law to make it easier for immigrants to fast-track citizenship, Muslim immigrants were not included. And it just so happens that three of India’s neighboring countries are Muslim-majority countries: Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. If that’s an attempt to keep Islam from growing in India, well, it’s not the only religion the country is concerned about. In some corners, they’ve also turned their attention to that much smaller 2% minority we talked about earlier: Christianity.
Have you listened to Natu Natu yet? It made big news by becoming the first Indian film song to win an Oscar. RRR, the movie that features ‘Natu Natu,” tells the story of two Telugu freedom fighters fighting against British colonists. The song and movie may be fictional, but it’s based on the history of British colonialism in India and all the consequences that came from it. Almost 200 years of British rule in India came to an end in 1947, largely because of this man, Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was a leader known for his nonviolent, civil disobedience, his desire for unity, and his Hindu faith. After India gained independence in 1947, its new constitution said that all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion.
But as we’ve seen, that’s not always the reality on the ground, even if it sounds good on paper. In fact, 12 out 28 of Indian states have now put in place anti-conversion laws, saying just the opposite. These laws aim to keep Indians from converting to any religion outside Hinduism, and they threaten Christians and other non-Hindus from trying to spread their faith to others. Citizens in the state of Karnataka have to notify the district magistrate to make a public call for any objections before becoming a Christian. In Haryana, citizens can be fined or imprisoned for up to five years if they change religions. And in Uttar Pradesh, unauthorized inter-religious marriage is prohibited.
But believers in some parts of India face more than just legal pressure. In the Uttar Pradesh state, there’s a very small village called Gora. On New Year’s Day, 500 people assembled and summoned every Christian to make themselves known. When a group of 15 believers came forward, a Hindu extremist mob attacked them with rocks, sticks, even their bare hands, and pursued the Christians who are now fleeing for their lives. And back in 2008, Hindu mobs attacked a Christian community in Kandhamal in Odisha. During three days of violence, the mobs burned down 395 churches and over 5600 houses. They ransacked the village and left more than 15,000 people homeless. Many Christian families were burned alive. More than people 500 died, and the mobs tried to force those still alive to convert to Hinduism. The horrific attack provoked fear in Christians all over India.
In some places, believers are even meeting in secret house churches, scared of being caught and stopped from worshiping. And all of this really makes the story of Mizoram and the handful of rice just all the more remarkable. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if 100 years ago these women had not decided to support that missionary. How different would that state and the whole region be? And it was all possible because, in God’s kindness, a missionary went and was received and was supported by the locals. If it happened in the past, could it happen again today, even under such intense persecution?
God’s Cause Will Triumph
So you may have heard of this guy, William Carey. We’ve talked about him before. He’s known as the father of modern missions, and he served in India, where he shared the gospel, opened a theological university, and translated the Bible into many different dialects and languages. When Carey came to India, the population was somewhere around 170 to 180 million, which was a lot of people at the time. And while he was serving in India, in the middle of many challenges, many tribulations, he remained convinced that God’s cause will triumph. And we know, right now, that God is still triumphant. Despite the challenges, Christianity is growing in India. Despite intense persecution and pressure, a small minority of people is making a huge impact in their communities, and they’re even reaching other nations.
Recently, thousands of refugees have fled from Myanmar into India to escape an ongoing civil war. And you know where they’re heading? Mizoram, that small northeastern Indian state that’s making such an impact for the kingdom with handfuls of rice. Locals have set up an asylum and welcomed over 48,000 refugees. They’re not only showing Christ’s love by giving Myanmar refugees a home, but Mizoram Christians are able to share the gospel with those who so desperately need an eternal home that can only be found in Christ. It’s an example for us to follow as Indians migrate to other places around the world, including our own neighborhoods.
We don’t know who was the first person to bring the gospel to India. Many believe it was the Apostle Thomas. But whoever it was, thousands of years later, believers are still planting seeds and praying for growth. And we know that the harvest will be plentiful.