Well-known tourist sites were visited: the Jama Masjid, Lotus Temple, India Gate and Gandi’s Tomb in New Delhi; the Taj Mahal in Agra; and in Hyderabad, the Laad Bazaar, Charminar and Golkonda Fort. Yet the purpose of the tour was not so much to visit India’s historic sites, as it was to visit the ministries, clergy and parishioners of the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church. Located in southeastern India, the AELC is the second largest Lutheran church in India and the third largest in Asia, with more than 5,000 congregations and approximately one million members.
In Guntur, where the AELC’s churchwide offices are located, Pastor Brenda Irving preached at the North Campus of the denomination’s largest congregation, St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church. Approximately 2,000 parishioners attended. Later that morning at St. Matthew’s West Campus, where more than 1000 parishioners awaited our arrival, we were honored with garlands of flowers, cashmere shawls and commemorative gifts. Pastor Perucy Butiku and I brought greetings on behalf of the Metropolitan New York Synod. Before the worship, videotaped interviews were conducted. After the worship, photographs were taken. Here as everywhere on our visit, dozens of parishioners sought prayers and blessings from their guests. That evening, while Pastor Paul Block returned to St. Matthew’s North to preach at a service for youth, other members of our group visited small village churches to witness the revival ministry of the Lutheran Laymen’s League.
At the denomination’s annual Pastors’ Day, also held in Guntur, the Reverend Fedrick Pardesi Babu, Moderator Bishop of the AELC, introduced us to his fellow bishops and to the 900 clergy who were present. I was guest preacher at the opening worship -- a surprise! A huge banner listing our names hung outside the church near the entrance. Later that week, we were invited to Bishop Babu’s home for a dinner with several AELC officers, bishops and dignitaries.
In New Delhi we toured the impressive facilities of the YMCA and learned of the organization’s extensive ministry throughout India. In a slum village outside Hyderabad we visited the Samay School, whose founder and principal is the sister of Daniel’s wife, Sarah. John Ogren, a lay member of our group, preached at the English language service of Hyderabad Lutheran Church, the city’s largest. Later, I preached at the congregation’s Telugu language service, which included a special Sunday school presentation by children and teens. At a reception after the service, Pastor Mary Chang told of her ministry as a parish pastor and hospice chaplain. At the Theological College, divinity students greeted us with a standing ovation; our visit there included a time for dancing. In a poor village near the city, we participated in a colorful and uniquely Lutheran celebration, Church Day, which honored the first Lutheran missionaries to southern India. Among the congregations visited in Rajahmundry was St. Paul’s Lutheran Church where Daniel and Moses were baptized. In Guntur a group of students at Andhra Christian College shared their goals and expressed their curiosity about life in America. At a clinic for Hindu women, a dedicated Lutheran physician explained the importance of her ministry and her prayer for its success.
The AELC is a growing church, yet remains a minority within the Christian minority of India’s vast population. As observers we were inspired by the faith, enthusiasm and courage of the pastors and lay leaders we met. From the pastors we learned that their salaries were low (even non-existent), but their commitment was high. From the laity we learned how effective evangelism can be when entrusted to them. We were shown how Lutheranism in India is shaped by its multicultural and multireligious context. We heard how resurgent nationalist movements present new challenges to its witness. We saw the extent to which poverty and injustice complicate its mission. We learned how confusing competition between Christian denominations can be to the newly converted.
Like every denomination, the AELC has its challenges, yet the Lutherans we visited in India impressed us with their dedication, faithfulness and vitality. For those of us privileged to travel with Pastor Daniel to his boyhood home, to meet members of his family and to commune with those who helped form his faith, our Lutheran Pilgrimage to India was a reminder of the universality of the Gospel and its continual power to bring hope, grace and salvation to the world.