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Spring 1991 · Vol. 20 No. 1 · pp. 115–18 

Book Review

Christians in Andra Pradesh: The Mennonites of Mahbubnagar

Paul D. Wiebe. Madras, OR: Christian Literature Society, 1988. 224 pages.

Reviewed by Peter Penner

Normally books of such a diverse nature would not be reviewed together. Nicely coincidental, however, was the publication in India of Wiebe’s sociological study in the same year as Mennonite Brethren (MB) missiologists and mission leaders gathered in Curitiba, Brazil, to fortify themselves for a new and untried approach to mission. Adrian holds that the MB World Mission Conference was a resounding success in {116} rallying the MB Church around an international strategy. Wiebe looks at the church that resulted from three generations of MB missionary work among Telegu-speaking peoples and to some extent demurs.

The two books representing the missionary and post-colonial epochs, could hardly be more different. They demonstrate the great distance the current missiological leadership has put between itself and the work of its predecessors. A comparison of the two points up the lack of any historical perspective, except in theoretical missiological terms, at the Curitiba event.

Committed to World Mission, an edited transcript of the papers given at Curitiba, includes two major statements: “Vision and Strategy for the MB Mission,” and a postscript: “Impulse for the Future” by Adrian, the Executive secretary of MB Missions/Services, Winnipeg. Included also are other major addresses by Hans Kasdorf, Hans Pankratz, and Paul Hiebert. Other presentations from various former mission fields and from North America deal with twenty-five “contemporary theological and mission issues,” such as church membership, the role of women, divorce, peace, politics, and music. Don Loewen in his “Experience and Action at Curitiba ’88” provides an overview of the Curitiba event-the emotion, the shift in focus, and the new commitment.

By contrast, Paul Wiebe, a direct descendant of some of the first American MB Missionaries to India, who grew up in Mahbubnagar, in South India examines the background, development and social features of the India MB Church from a sociological perspective. He demonstrates how North American MBs, representing one civilization, impinged on another, Hinduism, in the area east and south of Hyderabad City.

Wiebe raises a key question: Could the “new wine” from MB wineskins burst the old social boundaries among the Telegus or did the “compartmentalizing tendencies of Indian civilization retain their strengths” despite all? To answer that question he had to ask: Who responded, and who were recruited as members and leaders?

Clearly, it was not the caste people, Brahmans and the like, who responded. The vast majority of respondents to the gospel and its accompanying educational and medical ministries came from the Madiga and Mala divisions. Both of these ranked lowest in the social scale, considered untouchables in {117} pre-independence days. They had been consigned to the outskirts of caste villages, and were employed as leather workers, but were detested as carrion eaters.

What has complicated social life within the large Christian community which developed in nine principal stations such as Mahbubnagar, is the discovery that, even as Christians, Madigas and Malas remain distinct. They have not intermarried or easily intermingled, and have competed for positions of power and control of property since indigenization came into force in the 1970s. This development has completely altered the pattern established by the missionaries. Whereas the missionaries intended that pastors trained in their Bible Institute should lead, under indigenization, the educated teachers, doctors and other professionals, if they stayed in the Church, have taken control of the governing councils and the compound properties.

Those who became upwardly mobile and moved to the towns and cities never turned back to the villages from which they came. A growing gap between the educated and the villagers has developed. According to Wiebe, the latter are not very much better off socio-economically than they were before they became MB Christians.

While Wiebe raises many disturbing points, at least he places the MB Mission and the Church in India within an understandable context. The Church will survive, but he predicts that it will remain largely ethnic within the larger Hindu civilization, which is still very much intact. Adrian and Loewen, on the other hand, are entirely focused on the present and the future not regarding the earlier problems of dealing with cross-culture outreach. They are seeking support from a new plateau for a new strategy.

Curitiba ’88 was a significant historic event. It brought the mission-minded people from the entire MB Church together in a new way. Those from India at Curitiba, spokespersons for internationalization, were such India MB representatives as V.K. Rufus who spoke of the long-standing and continuing concern for a committed church membership, while P.B. Arnold issued a call for “social responsibility” on the grounds that social action and evangelism are “inseparable sides” of the gospel. {118}

Peter Penner
Mount Allison University
Sackville, New Brunswick

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