Planting Partnership with India

By Benjamin Perry

The history of the Methodist Church in India begins with a trip by American missionary William Butler in 1856. If you read Butler’s memoir about his work, however, you swiftly notice the colonial theology that shaped 19th century global engagement. In From Boston to Bareilly, Butler describes the native people as “humanity fallen so low in its rampant and shameless vice, as openly to debase itself even unto hell,” construing their religious practices as “groveling before idols as preposterous as a monkey-god.” In words you can tell Butler believes are compassionate, he exclaims “Poor, deluded, misguided souls! how much they need our Christian pity.” The goals for a relationship are clear: Butler dreams of “rugged wills and lives not only ‘bent,’ but sweetly pliant,” to Western desires.

While the ensuing centuries softened some of this blunt paternalism, the underlying ethos has too often remained sadly unchanged. The Indian people have been treated, at best, as an object for charity, not as equals with whom we can partner. Even today, as decolonial theology becomes a fixture in many mainline classrooms, that shift doesn’t always translate to structural changes in seminary education. Amid this broader context, Garrett-Evangelical sent a delegation in January to explore how we can build truly reciprocal partnerships with Indian institutions—to create exciting new education initiatives and strengthen the global church.

“There’s a trend within U.S. theological education: a decrease in U.S. applications and an increase in global applications,” President Javier Viera explains, “And many of these institutions are saying, ‘We’re just going to maximize our recruitment in these regions—specifically Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, without any thought about the extractive nature of that approach.” This desire for global tuition dollars does not often correlate, however, to a commitment that ensures students have what they need to thrive. “I’m not comfortable recruiting without deep meaningful in-country relationships,” Viera says, “We must ask, “Is this the healthiest, most appropriate, holistically formative experience for these students?”

So, after seeing a substantial increase in Indian students, Thehil Russelliah Singh, Director of International Student Recruitment and Engagement organized a trip to meet with Indian peer institutions and think together about how we can work for mutual benefit and best serve Indian students’ needs. This approach was a distinct shift from how U.S. institutions have previously approached the country. “Given my experiences in the past in India, where Americans were perceived as piggy banks,” laughs Russelliah Singh, “I was very proud of how this shifted toward ‘How can we build mutually beneficial partnerships?’” In the past, American foreign aid often came with American expectations for how that money would be used—our outreach is trying to modify that understanding.

This was such a dramatic change, says Vice President for Enrollment Management Scott Ostlund, that at first it was sometimes difficult to move away from transactional modes of thinking. “Communities are not used to U.S. institutions coming with humility,” he says, “They would say, ‘Tell us what you want and then we’ll tell you if we can do that,’ and we would have to push back and tell them, ‘We’re not coming in with a menu of options, but a desire to learn about the needs, gifts, talents, and scholarship that is already here.” Once the group was able to push past this initial hurdle, however, it became clear that there are a multitude of opportunities.

One potential site for collaboration is Leonard Theological College, a Methodist seminary in Jabalpur. “They were really interested in faculty and student exchanges,” Thehil Russelliah Singh says, “where we can learn together and be in community with one another.” Ostlund adds that these partnerships could assume a variety of forms, from traditional models to short-term intensives. “A yearlong or three-year program is not always the most accessible model for students on either side,” he says, “How rich would it be if our students could take a class on Hinduism or Liberation and Dalit Theology for a three-week intensive in India? Or for their students to complete short courses in the U.S.?”

Joe Patro—a second year M.A. student at Garrett-Evangelical and Ambassador for Indian Student Recruitment, who traveled with the delegation—thinks we’ll continue to see a rise in traditional M.Div. applicants. “A degree program in the U.S. holds high value for Indian students,” he says, “American theological education has a strong reputation.” That said, in meeting with Indian students, he also heard practical questions about affordability for this kind of study. “Students expressed concern about the cost,” he explains, “asking about possibilities for employment during and after the program, as well as visa procedures.” Innovative thinking around new educational models that are based in partnership, could help students choose the program that’s best for them.

The Garrett Collective, a new initiative that will host virtual micro-courses and micro-credentials offers even more possibilities. “We met with a Bishop Yesurathnam, Bishop of Chennai Episcopal Area who oversees all the clergy development in India, and he described a deep need in resources for rural leaders who cannot attend traditional theological education,” Ostlund says, “We talked about co-creating some of that content, along with our faculty, to equip these leaders with tools to build the church—at a price they can afford.”

Whatever forms these collaborations take, what’s clear is that there is rich overlap in subject matter, and chances for each geographic context to inform the other. “There’s much that the U.S. can learn from India about interreligious dialogue,” Singh offers as an example, “India is so diverse religiously. Hinduism is, of course, the big religion, but there are so many gods, so many ways of being a Hindu. And Indian Christians, because they’re a religious minority, are forced to focus much more on building interreligious partnerships than Christians are in America.” The son of Christian leaders in India, Patro concurs. “It changes your lens and how you think when you’re a religious minority,” he says. One particularly apparent manifestation of this is the response to Prime Minister Modi’s right-wing government, which has birthed renewed solidarity between Indian Christians, Muslims and progressive Hindus—a model we would be wise to emulate.

Likewise, Garrett-Evangelical’s emphasis on justice across sexuality and gender could offer a growing edge for Indian colleagues. LGBTQIA+ inclusivity is not as much a part of the conversation in Indian churches and institutions, where it’s often still swept under the carpet. Singh says, “We could also be helpful thinking through questions about gender equality.” Patro remembers this as one of the differences he noticed on the tour. “In many seminaries, the women faculty were not as vocal as the men,” he notes. The vibrant explosion of Dalit theology is one place where we can already see the fruits of how Indian communities have embraced liberation theologies from the Americas. “After being told for centuries that you have no place on the deity’s body,” Singh explains, “it’s such a redeeming theology to be told you are part of the body of Christ.”

While liberative learning across difference is an essential goal for any cultural exchange, Patro shares his admiration for how Garrett-Evangelical is focused on staying true to our values without violating other people’s religious and cultural autonomy—a delicate line to walk. “We are bringing a fresh perspective to Indian seminaries,” he says, “but the ethical challenge in this approach is to not repeat what our forefathers did.”

The persistent focus on reciprocal exchange is one way to push back against colonial ethos, keeping focus where it’s rightly deserved—the joys of learning in community. “You can read as much as you want,” Patro says, “but when you live with folks from different countries and listen to their cultural frame, it totally changes your perspective.” We cannot be a global church without learning from how our global neighbors think. “The way I read a text is different from how someone who’s from Kansas reads it,” he observes, “The beauty of an intercultural classroom is how lived experiences shape the ways we learn. You can’t buy that.”

Garrett-Evangelical’s responsibility moving forward, says Ostlund, is to transform institutional structures to match the ethics of our academic commitments. “How can the business model create benefits for both Indian institutions and ourselves?” he asks, “How can we invest money into services and support for international students? How can we think beyond building a tuition revenue stream from India to nurturing an integrated relationship with the rich scholarship that’s already happening there?” It’s incredible that Garrett-Evangelical’s faculty has leading experts in decolonial theology, he says, “but a genuine decolonial commitment must change our financial aid policy. It has to change how we read applications, how we launch new programs, and how we build curricula.”

The hope, President Viera explains, is that this trip will blossom—driven by our collective needs, gifts and passions—into forms we cannot expect, as has already happened elsewhere in the world. “Whenever we see admissions energy in a new global context, our question is now, ‘How we can build investment there as much as they’re investing in us with students?” Viera says with a grin, “We went to Africa University in Zimbabwe because of a similar trend, and just received a co-authored grant that will launch a contextual program that will allow for contextual theological formation with possible collaboration between our faculty and theirs.” It’s too early to say where our Indian partnerships are headed, but one thing we know for certain: that growth will be guided by deep mutuality and respect.