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Pilgrimage to India: A colorful view of the Lutheran church

January 16, 2014 11:16 AM
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By Pastor Jeffrey Kolbo 

 

Last spring when the Rev. Daniel Peter, pastor of St. Paul’s International, Floral Park, announced his intention to organize a tour of India, he received an immediate response from colleagues who had long encouraged the effort. Following a series of preliminary meetings, twelve participants, all members of the Metropolitan New York Synod, assembled at JFK on November 10 for the 20-hour journey to New Dehli. The delegation was made up of five pastors (who received grants from our synod's Trexler Fund), two synodical deacons, and five lay leaders; Pr. Peter’s brother, the Rev. Moses Penumaka, Director of Theological Education for Emerging Ministries at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, also participated.

 

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Village church outside Guntur at revival sponsored by the Lutheran Laymen’s League.

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Pastor Jeffrey Kolbo distributes Holy Communion at the opening worship service of the AELC Pastor’s Day in Guntur, where he also was guest preacher. The service was videotaped.

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52% of the population in the New Dehli region live in slum villages.

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Honored guests at a reception for pastors of the Rejahmundry area

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Outside St. Matthew’s – North Lutheran Church for Pastors' Day in Guntur

During the 16-day trip, well-known tourist sites were visited: the Jama Masjid, Lotus Temple, India Gate and Gandhi’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 to 2,000 parishioners at the North Campus of the denomination’s largest congregation, St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church. Later that morning at St. Matthew’s West Campus, where more than 1,000 parishioners awaited our arrival, we were honored with garlands of flowers, cashmere shawls, and commemorative gifts. Pastors Perucy Butiku and Jeffrey Kolbo brought greetings on behalf of the Metropolitan New York Synod. 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, a huge banner listing our names hung outside the church near the entrance. The Rev. Fedrick Pardesi Babu, Moderator Bishop of the AELC, introduced us to his fellow bishops and to the 900 clergy who were present; Pastor Jeffrey Kolbo preached at the opening worship. 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 Pr. Peter’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, at the congregation’s Telugu language service, which included a special Sunday school presentation by children and teens, 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 multi-religious 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 Pr. Peter 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.

 

To see more pictures from the pilgrimage, visit the MNYS Lutheran Pilgrimage to India Facebook page.

 

 

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