Every Tribe, Every Tongue
Santhosh Thomas has been serving the Lord in Jamtara, a district in the Indian state of Jharkhand since 1999, together with his wife Rinu and their three children, Gaius, Rufus, and Charis. His ministries involve a small Bible school called Bengal Bible Training Institute (BBTI), where young men are trained in the Word, and from where over 250 brethren have since gone out to pioneer assemblies in difficult places in North India. They have a secular school, Edwards English School, where more than 1,500 local children study, and where they’re able to hear about God’s love during chapel time. His wife, Rinu, helped found the Sisters Bible Training Centre (SBTC), where, along with Biblical training, the women are given free vocational training in computers, tailoring and other handicrafts.
Here, he talks of the challenges of ministering to a people who are deeply rooted in a culture of illiteracy, witchcraft and idolatry.
How did the Lord call you to serve in Jamtara?
I was born in Kerala to a Christian family and became a Christian at the age of 17. I felt the Lord clearly call me to the ministry through Ezekiel 3:15-18, and prayed the prayer of David Livingston, “God, send me anywhere, only go with me. Lay any burden on me, only sustain me. And sever any tie in my heart, except the tie that binds my heart to Yours.”
I prayed the prayer of David Livingston, “God… lay any burden on me, only sustain me”
I spent seven years in two seminaries in South India, but always had a heart for North Indian missions. I wanted to serve the Lord in Jamtara for two years and then pursue my higher studies, but eventually the Lord put a burden in my heart to continue His work in this place, and I stayed.
What were some of the biggest adjustments and challenges you had to make when you started living in Jamtara?
There are several struggles living in Jamtara. First, the climate is extreme. In the summer, it can get as hot as 46°C and as cold as 4°C. The high heat coupled with little access to air conditioning and frequent power cuts bring many challenges. During these months, we are limited to indoor programmes. Furthermore, there is a language barrier. There are three main languages in Jamtara: Hindi, Bengali and Santhali (which has different dialects in itself). We have learned Hindi and some Bengali, and have help from translators too.
Tell us about the people you minister to.
Jamtara is surrounded by Santhal tribal villages. Since this place is at the border of West Bengal and old Bihar, we minister to different people groups and languages. The Santhal people are one of the primitive tribes in India and very superstitious. Their beliefs have been passed down through oral tradition. They have very little education and illiteracy rates are, therefore, high. They lack education in many basic areas of life, including proper hygiene. As a result, there is a high amount of mortality from cerebral malaria and black fever. There is a lot of poverty and many struggle to have even one good meal a day. Alcohol plays a major role in their lifestyle. For a Santhal to give up drinking alcohol is hard; they drink liquor like they drink water. The women are downtrodden and often bear much of the responsibility at home.
For a Santhal to give up drinking alcohol is hard; they drink liquor like they drink water
How receptive are they to the gospel?
The Santhal people’s superstitious beliefs are one of the biggest barriers in our ministry. They believe in witchcraft, and most are animist. Most of them don’t believe there is one true God. They worship nature, the sun, spirits and Satan. They are pleasant and welcoming if you are one of them and communicate in their language. They can become agitated and hostile if questioned about their belief systems. The label they give to the outsider is “diku”, and it has a meaning of one who is an exploiter. They are very receptive to the gospel, as long as you don’t insult their religion.
What methods do you use to share the gospel, seeing as the illiteracy rates are high?
We have the Bible as well as literature available in all three languages. But because many are unable to read, we use other methods to share the gospel. One such method is music; the people love music (especially the children) — and music will usually draw a crowd. We also use chart illustrations and screen gospel movies. Of course, we also share the gospel through direct interactions and personal conversations.
The Santhal people are very receptive to the gospel, as long as you don’t insult their religion
Once a person comes to faith, however, the challenges continue. Due to their illiteracy, many are unable to read the Bible to study and grow more. In addition, they are in an environment that is against the Christian faith. Many of these new believers come to our Bible programmes to learn about God’s Word, but also to get out of their own environment. After staying with us, they often do not want to go back to their villages, because they return to a very hard life.
What are some things you do to encourage faithfulness in the ones you disciple and mentor?
It has been very discouraging to see people walk away from the faith, after we invest time, money and other resources into their lives. But, based on the example of the Lord Jesus, we should not lose heart when those we have poured so much of ourselves into eventually walk away. We take comfort in knowing we are doing what the Lord has called us to do. So, we move on to the next person and continue to pour into them. As we disciple and train, we give them small responsibilities, which we gradually increase as they prove themselves faithful. We have an open home and always welcome them into our family; we minister together, have meals together and share our struggles with one another.
How can we pray for you, your family and the ministry in Jamtara?
We would like to see assemblies in every town in Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand, so pray for more labourers in the vineyard, and all our fellow workers.
Pray that the Lord would continue to help us meet the operational expenses of the BBTI/SBTC students every month.
Pray for the Edwards Christian School that it would continue to share the gospel and love of Christ with many children in darkness.
Pray that we might see a medical mission hospital facility in Jamtara in the near future.
Pray for our family, especially our oldest son Gaius, who is in Grade 10.
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