This time last year I was visiting India as chaplain to a group on a cultural awareness program, hosted by the Church of South India, and organised my wife Sandy, who coordinates the placement of volunteers overseas for the Uniting Church in Australia.
The Bishop of Madras thought it would be a good opportunity for an Australian to open a little church in a rural village, not far from where we were staying. Australians had played a key role in establishing schools and hospitals in Southern India, particularly for the “Untouchables”, now known as Dalits. The Bishop was one who benefited; born a Dalit, he had no hope in society, but the church enabled him to gain a tertiary education and to fulfil his human potential. So for him, it was time for a little pay-back! He found a sponsor to help finish the little church this village had been struggling to build from their meagre wages. Then the village, and all the surrounding people – Hindus, Christians and Muslims – were invited to the opening and the feast!
The big day came, with loud “crackers” let off for all to hear, as the colourful procession marched into the village to drums and dancing. It was like being in a movie! What a celebration!
The crowd gathered under a multi-coloured canopy outside the church for the speeches and blessings. The Bishop turned to me and asked if I could take photos – the photographer, hired for the day, had not turned up. I thought little of this until later – this was a Dalit show!
The Bishop spoke in Tamil and then broke off to give us a summary in English: his text was Luke 2: 8-20, the angel inviting the shepherds to come see the Christ-child. The shepherds did not own the sheep – they owned nothing. They had to be invited to come into the town, they were excluded. So this church will be called “The Church of the Good Shepherd” – it will be open to all, not just for Christians worshipping on a Sunday, but for women’s groups, literacy classes – any activity that was “good news”. The invitation is given to all to “come”!
Then, in a radical counter-cultural departure, he asked Sandy, a woman, to open the church!
I learnt a lot about the meaning of Christmas that day. Their feasting was about celebrating new possibilities in the face of continuing injustice, grounded in the timeless message of peace to the shepherds (the Dalits of that time), and the recognition of their equality, dignity and future as human persons.
I wish you a feast with as much joy, in the face of whatever hardship, injustice or disappointment, this Christmas!