.- Every day in the remote villages of Northeast India courageous priests and nuns are braving the elements of the wild – including tiger attacks and elephant stampedes – to bring the Good News to people who have yet to hear the name of Jesus.
People in these “unreached” areas “are very attracted to a sense of relating in a very human way to a God who loves them and is present with them,” Msgr. John Kozar told CNA Dec. 7.
Part of what makes this “missionary outreach” so important is the fact that the priests and sisters serving in the areas “heroically live in very crude conditions right with the people, in huts made of mud and cow dung, no plumbing and very little privacy.”
“Even their meals are taken with the entire village outside in a common setting on the ground,” Msgr. Kozar said, explaining that the ministry carried out in these areas is primarily one “of presence.”
Rather than building institutional churches, which is the focus in India's southern states, such as Kerala, evangelization in these smaller, tribal regions “is about being with the poor and sharing with them in a very natural way who this Jesus is and how He wants to share His love with all.”
Msgr. Kozar, president of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), traveled to the Northeast of India, including the country’s Assam State, Nov. 20-Dec. 2 not only to visit with the tribal peoples that live in the area, “who are just being introduced to Jesus,” but also to accompany India’s two Eastern Churches as they serve the poor and needy.
Part of the itinerary, then, was spent assisting two bishops overseeing “the Great North of India” – Archbishop Kuriakose of the Syro-Malabar Diocese of Faridabad and Bishop Jacob Mar Barnabas of the Diocese of Gurgoan – in planning missionary programs.
A second phase of the trip was spent visiting Syro-Malabar projects in both “blighted urban areas” of Delhi and in the neighboring state of Haryana, including a new school, an open school – one that isn’t accredited or recognized by the Education Ministry – in the middle of a ghetto, a special needs facility for children, and a settlement for trash pickers.
Msgr. Kozar recalled that in several of the villages they visited, “we were very warmly” embraced and frequently welcomed with dances and songs, “signs of great love and respect.”
“In some instances I was probably the first person with white skin to ever visit them,” he said, noting that the terrain in the remote tribal areas they visited is rough enough that people are still at risk of attacks by wild animals.
As an example, Msgr. Kozar said that during their trip one woman was mauled to death by a wild tiger, while a man was trampled by a herd of elephants that “poured out of a tea estate and trampled a poor three-wheeled jitney driver.”
“This is a very common occurrence,” Kozar said, noting that he met several people who had lost loved ones in similar incidents. The landscape, he added, “varies from jungle, to forest, to rolling tea estates to plains cultivating rice in paddies.”
He pointed to the “impressive” catechetical work that lay people, both indigenous and from the Syro-Malankara Church, do in the tribal areas.
Since it’s still early on in their formation, courses deal largely with basic concepts of God, Jesus and Mary, teaching the people simple prayers and bible passages, as well as the concept of what it means to pray.
“The people are responding wonderfully and welcomed us with religious singing and even did a religious enactment of the Prodigal Son in their tribal language,” Kozar said, explaining that they are likely on a two-year program to be baptized.
He stressed that there’s no hurry, and it could even take up to a year of more after their baptism before the people are fully introduced to the Eucharist. In this sense, he said the Syro-Malankara Church “is doing the evangelization in a most responsible way and I think in a durable way.”
At one event 575 tribal people came together to participate in a religious ceremony and cornerstone laying for a new Church, he said, noting that they came from different villages and tribes in the area, some of whom traveled 7 hours by truck or jitney (a small bus), or walked several miles on foot simply to welcome the delegation and be present for the event.
During the celebration, “many tribes shared their cultures with each other by dressing in their native handmade woven skirts and performed their ritual dances, perhaps for the first time shared with other tribes.”
“This was in itself probably an historic event for them,” he said, noting that “it was the Church which brought them together.”
One “sad reality” CNEWA is constantly seeking to address in collaboration with the local churches, he said, is the fact that lots of children have no opportunities for education, many because their families work on estates or because from age seven they have had to work long hours in the sun making bricks.
“Many children attend no school, some only attend for five years and drop out because the quality is so sub-standard that they cannot continue to a higher level,” he said.
The Church, then, provides opportunities for schooling via these “open schools” in the ghettos, which, though not officially recognized by the state, provide “some semblance of learning, even if it is very basic literacy class or vocabulary building about certain basic realities in life.”
At times the Church offers classes “in very crude conditions,” Kozar said, recalling how happy children have been when they go to school, particularly the ones who sort garbage outside of Delhi.
These children live “at a ‘mountain’ of garbage which is probably 4-5 hundred feet high in elevation and continues to grow as trucks deliver more garbage,” he said, noting that people there “actually live on compressed garbage – they sort through what arrives daily and some collect metal, some plastic, some cardboard and some, even human hair.”
Msgr. Kozar also cautioned that although the Church is doing a lot, she must be discreet, because “there are some very hardline Hindu nationalists” who consider evangelization as being “anti-Hindu.”
He said that he must also be cautious of his own presence when arriving to airports and public spaces since CNEWA is a pontifical foundation, and as its president he represents the Holy See.
The tribal people “are humble and even protective of us and the priests and sisters,” he said, recalling how one of them told him that if the sisters living with them were ever threatened, “there will be one-hundred tribal men to guard them within a very short time.”
“They greatly love the priests and sisters who live with them and serve them.”