A curious gallery watches from rooftops and doorways when new believers gather for worship in the courtyards of Indian villages first opened to the gospel by deep water wells provided by Christians.
In the desperately poor villages in Bihar, commonly acknowledged as India’s most illiterate and backward state, new wells are going down and churches are popping up all over. In each village where Christians have brought fresh water, church planters bringing the news of “living water” find a receptive audience.
Biju Thomas, an Indian with Bihar on his heart, formed Transformation India Movement in 2002 to reach the vast numbers of his countrymen who have never heard the name of Jesus.
“I saw so many unreached people and the harvest force was few in number,” Thomas said. “I wanted to see a movement taking place.”
Thomas was introduced to Richard Brunson, director of North Carolina Baptist Men, during a visit to the United States in 2006. Brunson was struck by Thomas’ sincerity, vision and abilities and led N.C. Baptist Men to add Transformation India Movement to its list of active partnerships.
Thomas has outlined for himself an extraordinary task, as Bihar is a state a little larger than North Carolina with 10 times the population – 85 million people. Bordering Nepal to its north, Bihar’s people crowd into a few big cities, like Patna and Muzaffarpur, but mostly they scratch out a subsistence living in 45,000 villages of 200 to 600 people.
In most villages, open sewers slice through narrow walkways and drain toward the fields. Cows are staked to front doors and their dung is patted into disks and slammed against the walls to dry in the sun, each with a visible hand print. When dry, villagers peel off the dung patties and store them in stacks to use later as fuel for heating and cooking.
Empty rice and wheat stalks are piled nearby to feed the cows, whose skin hangs loosely from protruding hip bones, and who chew placidly, not daring to strain against the ropes stretched tightly through their nostrils. Everything is brown. From the swept dirt courtyards to the unpaved streets and paths between the mud wall houses to the stacks of stalks, and brown air carrying the dust kicked up by brown people and brown cows.
Only the brightly colored saris covering diminutive women head to toe break the relentlessly drab and dusty landscape. Curry spices a steady diet of noodles, rice and potatoes and fried bread.
Thomas was working in Faridabad, near Delhi for Trans World Radio (TWR) when TWR wanted to begin planting churches there and asked Thomas to take the lead, but he resisted. A third generation Christian, born in Kerela, where more than 30 percent of the people are Christian and all can read, he had little desire to move permanently a world away.
It would be a 56-hour train ride from his parents and a century or more behind his present.
Eventually, he felt the tug of God and began to see the people through His eyes and in 1995 he pioneered TWR work in Bihar. In 2002 he formed TIM and is gathering resources globally to transform the state.
Thomas is looking for sponsors to adopt each of the 45,000 villages in Bihar. For about $4,000 a sponsor can fund a new well, a church planter, a bicycle for the church planter, a one-day medical clinic, literacy training and 200 Bibles and hymn books. To fund a well alone is $800. Sponsors can easily round the numbers up to provide some operating capital for TIM.
TIM operates a Great Commission Training Center in Patna that has prepared 120 church planters and 50 other church volunteers. TIM also has started the Mercy Home orphanage that keeps 15 boys off the street and provides security and education. Its Bridge of Hope Tailoring Center teaches women to sew and provides a new machine with which they can start a business.
Having a skill like a seamstress and a business too offers a woman the chance to support a family and increases the value of a single woman in the eyes of potential in-laws.
Thomas, who started TIM with no sponsors in 2002, employs 48 people and operates on a $150,000 budget.
The North Carolina Baptist connection has been especially fruitful as they have provided funds to adopt 50 villages and to dig an additional 180 wells. Thomas employs local well digging teams, which helps the local economies.
A well requires 7-10 days to dig if drillers do not hit rock. The equipment is ancient: a weighted pipe tied to a lever and hinged on a vertical frame is lifted and dropped. A man halfway up the frame holds his hand over the pipe end to create suction to pull a small bit of water and mud up with each stroke.
They can dig as much as 60 feet a day with this method in soft ground. Although they often find water around 30 feet, they dig each well at least 100 feet deep.
Thomas leaves a committee of seven in charge of each well. They are responsible for maintenance. Each well is dedicated in a Christian ceremony and a permanent sign tells villagers this well is provided by Christians and represents the “living water” of John 4.
The new well and the “Jesus” film which church planters show in the villages, work together to make tangible the “living water” offered by Jesus. Deep water wells with a closed system and a pump provide water much cleaner and safer than the open wells they replace. Dirt, dung and debris can fall into those wells and in the rainy season, worms make them totally unusable.
Caste system begs for wells
The ancient caste system of the Hindu religion still plagues India, especially in rural areas. Even though every person in a village may be dirt poor, castes still exist within the same economic strata.
That means that the available water source in some villages is restricted by caste. When Christians build a new well it is open to all. Those new wells bring a palpable hope and joy easily apparent to visitors.
Christian believers often are not allowed to take water from other people or wells, according to Thomas. It is not uncommon for new believers to be ostracized from their families and to lose their jobs. Landlords can expel them.
With a laborer earning an average daily wage of 120 rupees — about $3 — even an entire family or village would have difficulty funding a new well on their own.
Wells are like a key to the village. A new well opens all the doors and villagers are receptive to the message of the ones who provided it.
Five North Carolina Baptists visited Bihar with Biju Thomas to participate in a well dedication and to assess progress and opportunities for work. With Brunson were the Biblical Recorder editor; Mark Abernathy, who directs the N.C. Baptist Men partnerships; Chad Lingerfelt, administrative pastor at the River Community Church in Fayetteville; and Ted Menster, a member of Troutman Baptist Church, which has adopted the village of Mohan Chak, where a medical clinic was held.
A worship service in Mohan Chak demonstrates the equalizing power of the gospel. Populated primarily by Dalits, the lowest caste, the church in this village includes at least one believer from the highest caste.
In Babhanpura a new Christian stands to testify. Through an interpreter in a crowded upstairs room in fading light the stone mason confesses to an earlier problem with alcohol. Since he found Christ, he said his prayers seem to be especially effectual and now even high caste persons seek him for prayers on their behalf.
“We have drilled wells in some villages where they heard the name of Jesus for the first time because of the well,” Thomas said. “One hundred die every hour in Bihar who never heard the name of Jesus. Every day and a half, the twin towers fall again in Bihar.”
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