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Fall 1999 · Vol. 28 No. 2 · pp. 262–65 

Book Review

Russians, North Americans and Telugus in India: The Mennonite Brethren Mission in India, 1885-1975

Peter Penner. Winnipeg, MB and Hillsboro, KS: Kindred, 1997. 441 pages.

Reviewed by Clarence Hiebert

Russians, North Americans and Telugus in India is an extensive and detailed history of MB ministries in that country. Dr. Penner, now from Calgary, Alberta, was named Professor Emeritus of History in 1992 after teaching British and European History for twenty-seven years at Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick. Prior to that he had engaged in five years of Christian ministry and teaching assignments in Manitoba, British Columbia, and Ontario.

His record of findings is a particularly useful resource for libraries and for researchers in history and missiology. This study offers helpful insights into some of the complexities of cross-cultural realities faced by missionaries and mission agencies. Intense experiences felt by those involved are brought to life through detailed incidents. The writer offers his readership the story largely from the standpoint of persons involved as individuals rather than by focusing on the institutional aspects.

Because I was a member of the Mennonite Brethren Board of Missions and Services in the 1960s and 1970s, I did not find Penner’s research on India’s Mennonite Brethren entirely new. A rehearsal of some of the difficult, ongoing problems in that endeavor were frequently alluded to. Many complex angles were recognized in missionary relationships, both to each other and to the native people. The contrast of worldviews was very real: religiously, culturally, economically, and politically. The traditional socialization of these missionaries was dominantly Germanic, from Russian and North American moorings. Because I knew many of the missionaries and mission administrators involved, as well as some of the nationals in the India MB Conference, it was not difficult for me to understand Penner’s descriptions. I also visited that setting in India in 1984, which afforded me the opportunity to recognize some of the realities he cites.

Fascinating information about the first major MB “foreign country” outreach effort is given at the outset. German-language histories, documents and letters to and from missionaries, interviews, as well as the files of the Board and its administrators through those years, served as resources. In general, I sensed that Penner tended to interpret his findings from the perspective of emerging insights from the social sciences, an approach not generally known or practiced by MBs (or many other mission agencies) during much of that era. Also, it appears to me that there is insufficient recognition of how radically different the milieu was {263} for these missionaries, coming largely from an isolationist, rural background.

Seen in hindsight it seems to be an almost impossible expectation for them to attempt to shift from their own “positions of advantage and privilege” to the circumstances faced by these Asians. To find meaningful ways to relate to the locked-in, socioeconomically despairing, outcaste-fettered, impoverished, illiterate/semiliterate people of India must have been daunting. The missionaries were assigned the task of communicating the Gospel: to evangelize, nurture, and plant churches. Yet it has usually been understood that the first order of business was surely to learn and understand the people of this culture.

The German-speaking Russian MBs who first went to India were schooled in Germany’s Hamburg-Horn “Missionary School.” For various functional reasons, they were required to learn English during their time in India. Ultimately, the difficult but more important language needed for their targeted mission in India’s Andhra Pradesh was Telugu. At their Nalgonda station in the State of Hyderabad, Hinduism was the dominant religion. But the outreach audience that the Russian MB missionaries (serving under the ABMU) targeted was a sizable population of Muslims who also resided in that area. Culturally and sociopolitically many characteristics of India’s Hinduism had become part of life for these Muslims: the caste system and the sense of being powerless to change realities such as poverty, primitive farming and living conditions, and illiteracy.

I found Penner’s account of these beginnings and relationships one of the most fascinating. The major part of his study focuses on the North American MB endeavors that followed, up through 1975—the decade in which India’s MBs moved more aggressively toward indigeneity. Gradually, a decreasing number of North American fraternal workers served there under the direction of the Indian conference’s national leadership.

Penner offers many illustrations of difficult situations experienced by MB missionaries: adjustments, interpersonal conflicts, physical dilemmas (illnesses, heat exhaustion, overwork, etc.), spiritual ups and downs, Missionary Council and leadership dissension and power conflicts, differences relating to goals and appropriate methods “imposed” on them by a faraway board, public relations, and finances.

Many hurdles ran alongside their primary missionary mandate. They were to evangelize, establish congregations, disciple converts, develop leadership, provide schools, and medical services. Working in the desperate milieu of the situation of the native population was an overwhelming challenge. They faced the struggle of seeking to exist, in {264} reasonable measure, by some semblance of North American standards. This was complex. It had to do with matters like arranging for and maintaining acceptable schooling, housing, food, clothing, vehicles, recreational opportunities, congenial social relationships, and spiritual fellowship opportunities similar to those that nurtured them in America. Breakdowns at any one or more of these levels could and did trigger feelings of insecurity, distress, and even depression by one or more members of a family.

There are gripping stories of superstition, murders, drownings, accidents, deaths, and all kinds of illnesses in this saga. Penner regards one aspect as the most persistently difficult: the schooling of missionary children. Appropriate schools were available only in distant places. The distance and costs for frequent meetings of parents with their children were almost prohibitive. The long separations were often traumatic. Agonized parents tried to instill in their children the need for such sacrifice as missionary children. The casualties of “faith defection” of some of these children are often traced back to these experiences.

In matters pertaining to the ongoing administrative operation of missions, seniority by age and experience was assumed but was not always suitable. Often single missionary women were not regarded as full-fledged missionaries.

The board’s insistence on indigenization was conveyed and deemed acceptable at their 1957 North American General Conference. This was basically accomplished in the 1970s. Since then, North American personnel have served only occasionally, as needed and desired, under India’s conference leadership.

It appears to me that Penner focused primarily on some painful and unfortunate things that transpired through those years in his quest to “tell all,” or, as another person has stated it, to write “history from below.” Penner records less about some of the very significant challenges and the heroic people who made meaningful contributions. Readers of this account, not aware of the many positive outcomes, might assume from the rather general gloomy picture painted that there were too many things that went wrong for anything significant to have happened. Not so!

Earlier this year, Werner Kroeker, a contemporary North American fraternal worker in India, reported in the Christian Leader (“How Do They Connect?,” January 1999) the deep gratitude of India’s MBs toward missionaries for bringing the Good News and for improvements in lifestyle: “Indian brothers and sisters would be the first to correct us if we tried to minimize the contributions made by foreign missionaries and the commitment with which they worked.” {265}

Recent missiological terms reveal the increasing sensitivities developed since the era of time on which Penner focused, such as: incarnational evangelism, contextualization of the gospel, indigenization, international partnering in ministry, tent-making strategies, whole person ministries, word-and-deed congruency in communicating, internationalization of the church, becoming “world” Christians, and the priority of God’s kingdom over nationalism.

While some intensely disturbing problems have continued, it is notable that today’s census of Indian Mennonite Brethren stands at more than seventy thousand members and more than eight hundred congregations (the second largest among the quarter million Mennonite Brethren throughout the world). Aggressive evangelistic, educational, medical, and social ministries continue, with some financial assistance (because of the continuing dire poverty of most) that comes from North American MBs. In spite of all of the unfortunate aspects of the development of the India MB Conference detailed by Penner, the phenomenal growth, mature and capable leadership that has evolved, and active evangelism engaged in by India’s Mennonite Brethren exhibits amazing vitality.

Clarence Hiebert
Prof. Emeritus of Biblical/Religious Studies and History
Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas

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