TAMIL NADU, India (BP)–A charred body lies in the rubble of a church. Hindu extremists had blocked the doors and burned the church to the ground.
It’s a disturbing picture — one that International Mission Board representative Cole Elbridge* has carried with him on his laptop computer. He uses the image to remind himself and others of the cost of sharing the Gospel. In some areas of southern Asia, the risks of telling others about Jesus are great, even deadly. The message of Jesus Christ, however, is penetrating those barriers.
Since the 2004 tsunami, Southern Baptists have found opportunities to meet both physical and spiritual needs of those who survived the disaster. More than 4,000 people along the coast of India and into Bangladesh have professed faith in Christ and more than 1,400 churches have been started.
But the danger that comes with being a Christian in some areas of India remains high.
One of Elbridge’s friends, Vikash*, knows those risks all too well.
Vikash was a fisherman in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu more than a decade ago when he converted from Hinduism to Christianity. When word got out about his decision, Hindu extremists stormed his house. They beat him and dragged him to a nearby pond where they tried to drown him.
“After all of the persecution,” Vikash recalls, “it’s by the mere grace of God that I’m standing here.”
Fearing for his family’s life, Vikash and his family fled to China.
After the tsunami, he returned to his home along the coast to help the same people who had tried to kill him. Most of those hit hardest were in the fishing community.
“Their houses were gone,” Elbridge says. “Their money was gone.
“They had been brought to their knees and broken. They were asking for help, and the help came from Christians.”
In the months following the tsunami, Elbridge remembers Vikash unexpectedly showing up one night — accompanied by men who once had wanted him dead but, since the tsunami, had sought him out for help. Vikash turned to Elbridge.
Through the help Elbridge was able to offer from Southern Baptists, more than 900 families in Vikash’s community received food, shelter, boats, fishing nets, boat motors and other supplies.
But that’s not all.
More than 100 people accepted Christ as Lord and Savior, 35 were baptized and about 12 house churches were started.
Pravin* is one of those whose life was transformed by Christ.
Growing up worshipping idols as a Hindu, Pravin says his life was empty.
“Before the tsunami I was struggling for life,” he says. “I was facing a lot of problems. I didn’t have a real peace.”
Witnessing the love of Christ expressed through tsunami relief helped turn his life around.
On the day of the tsunami, six of Pravin’s nieces and nephews drowned. Pravin was looking for answers, and Christians got his attention by reaching out to his community.
“When I came to the church, I found a real peace, which I wanted,” he says. “I came to know the taste of Jesus Christ.”
Though Pravin still deals with threats and persecution, he describes himself as a “free man.”
In another village — located down a long road, past watermelon fields, roaming cows and roadside temples — five generations of churches have started and local Christians regularly supply new believers with Bibles.
Before the tsunami, Christians were not welcome in that same village. At a Hindu temple that is the centerpiece of the community, villagers gather in the evening to dance as they worship their gods. But because of relief efforts here, tensions between the two groups have eased.
“This is a village where you started with zero believers,” Elbridge says. Because of Christians “coming and opening up relationships, you have believers here.”
“The work is not done,” he says. “It’s just beginning.”
Elbridge is one of more than 5,500 Southern Baptist representatives serving overseas, thanks to Southern Baptists’ support through the Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions.
*Name changed. Shawn Hendricks is a writer for the International Mission Board.