Gospel Encounter With Subaltern India

Stanish Stanley, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis


This work examines the role of religio-cultural resources in enabling the transformation of a broken community and people.

In the context of nineteenth and twentieth century British India, an oppressed community in India set out to explore the possibility of challenging and re-defining their own destiny. This oppressed section of Indians who lived in the margins of Indian caste defined society were considered socially and ritually polluting people and were subservient to various socio-economic and religio-cultural biases. The daily life routine of this oppressed community, called the Sambavars (Pariahs) of the Malayalam speaking princely State of Travancore in South India, involved a despair and inferiority instilling encounter against hegemonic and fearful social and religio-cultural forces. However, in the churning socio-political period of twentieth century British India, a group of Malayalee Sambavars driven by their own critical consciousness took the initiative of approaching and inviting Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod missionaries working among their Tamil speaking kinsmen in Nagercoil on the southern tip of India. The ensuing chain of events ultimately culminated in the formation of the India Evangelical Lutheran Church in the state of Kerala, along the southwestern coast of India.

By looking into the mission phase of the India Evangelical Lutheran Church (called Missiouri Evangelical Lutheran India Mission [MELIM] at that time) through the lens of gospel-culture interaction, this dissertation attempts to unveil the mission story from the perspective of the oppressed people who initiated and formed the majority converts in the mission. This dissertation argues that the MELIM period saw an interesting cross-cultural interaction between the American Lutheran missionaries and the native converts. In the midst of enthusiasm, mis-understandings, disillusionment and suffering on both sides; the gospel was preached and the Lutheran Church established in the Malayalam lands. More importantly, this gospel-culture engagement triggered a latent native Lutheran theological reflection that resourcefully spoke to the concerns of native believers, providing them with hope and strength for a meaningful present and a blessed future.