On November 2, 1845 four German Lutheran missionaries arrived in the province of Chotanagpur in the jungles of northern India. They were sent there from Berlin by their professor and superior, Rev. Johannes Gossner. They settled in the city of Ranchi and began their work among the Oraons and other area tribes.
Hinduism was the religion of most of India’s population, but the indigenous tribal people of the jungle people have their own primitive religions. These tribes had, for the most part, resisted many centuries of attempts at conversion by both Hindus and Muslims, and were quite set in their traditional ways.
The Oraons also resisted the work of these four missionaries. Years of preaching fell on deaf ears, and eventually the Germans were convinced that their continued presence would be a waste of time. Not only were there no conversions, but there was no response of any kind. Certainly, they felt the time and energy of four eager and willing missionaries could be put to better use in some other area.
Finally, they wrote to their old teacher, Rev. Gossner, and asked permission to either be reassigned or return home. They did not get the answer they wanted. “No,” replied Rev. Gossner, “you do not have permission to leave Chotanagpur. You were sent to preach the Gospel and you are to stay there and continue preaching the Gospel. Leave the results to God. You may or may not succeed, but if you leave, there will be no Gospel proclamation at all among those people.” So they stayed and continued their work.
In their preaching they described the man Jesus who lived long ago, was killed, rose from the dead, and is still alive. Eventually, they received a response. Four men of the Oraon tribe came to them and said, “We want to hear more about this man Jesus. Did you say he rose from the dead and is still alive?”
“Yes,” said the missionaries, excited about this new interest in their message, “Jesus is alive, and you can know him as your Savior and friend.”
“Good,” said the Oraons. “We would like to meet this Jesus. Take us to him so we can see for ourselves.”
“Well,” stammered the missionaries, “you can’t meet him in person. He is in heaven.”
“How then can we know he is alive?,” the tribesmen asked.
“We believe in Jesus by faith,” replied the missionaries. “We don’t see him either. Someday we will see him in heaven, but not until we die and we too are raised from the dead.”
“We don’t understand these things you are telling us,” said the seekers. “But if Jesus is alive, and if we could see him, then we would understand and could believe.” The discussion went on like that, with the Oraons continuing their diligent seeking, and the missionaries doing their best to explain their faith in things unseen.”
The tribesmen knew that the missionaries worshiped each Sunday. They thought that this could perhaps be where the white men saw Jesus, but for some reason they were unwilling to let anyone else see him. So they showed up unannounced at worship one Sunday to see for themselves. They were invited to stay, but were disappointed again when they did not see Jesus.
One day, the four frustrated tribesmen came to the four frustrated missionaries and said, “We have done enough talking. Today is the last day for talk. If we do not see Jesus today, we will not return.”
The missionaries were sad to hear this and said, “We have told you all that we know. We don’t know what else to tell you to help you understand. But if this is your last day with us, let us at least pray together. We believe Jesus hears us even if we can’t see him.”
They all knelt in prayer. The missionaries prayed earnestly that these seekers with such open hearts might somehow come to faith.
At the end of the prayer, as soon as the missionaries said, “Amen,” all four tribesmen jumped up excitedly and said, “We have seen Jesus!” The missionaries saw nothing, but the four tribesmen did, and they immediately believed in Jesus who had appeared to them. On June 9, 1850, they were baptized. They were the first converts after almost five years of work.
The church began to grow, and in a short time it was growing rapidly. The believers faced persecution almost immediately, and after some violence in 1857 the missionaries were forced to leave. But the church was already firmly established, and it continued to grow even without the missionaries, and, in the face of continued persecution. Its steady growth has continued to this day.
This church among the Chotanagpur tribes has grown not by mass conversions, as is sometimes the case among tribal peoples. Rather, it has grown one by one, as believers share the Gospel with their families and friends. The church has received much praise, even from unbelievers, for enriching the local cultures and not destroying or replacing them.
The spiritual descendants of those first four converts in 1850 now make up the Northwestern Gossner Evangelical Lutheran Churches in northern India, with over 400,000 members.
Nijhar Ekka is a fourth generation Christian from the Oraon tribe. Nijhar and her husband Neeraj are both ordained Lutheran pastors. I met them in 2005 while they were studying at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. As they told me this story, I thought the name Johannes Gossner sounded familiar. I was then serving Redeemer Lutheran Church in rural Henderson, Minnesota, which was started in 1855 (referred to in yesterday’s meditation). I reread the history of the church and learned that its first pastor, August Wolf, had been trained in Germany by that same Johannes Gossner. In the same decade that Gossner sent the four missionaries to the remote jungles of India, he sent August Wolf as a missionary to the remote American frontier. Our two churches, on opposite sides of the world, were started by men sent “to the ends of the earth” by the same mission-minded pastor and professor in Berlin 160 years ago.
The Ekka family in India
John 12:21 — They came… with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.”
Isaiah 45:22 — “Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.”
Acts 1:8 — Jesus said, “You will be my witnesses… to the ends of the earth.”
Day by day,
Dear Lord, of thee three things I pray:
To see thee more clearly,
Love thee more dearly,
Follow thee more nearly,
Day by Day.
–From the 1971 musical Godspell; by Stephen Schwartz, based on a prayer by St. Richard of Chichester (1197-1253)