By: Sophie Spencer
MUMBAI, India — The city flows by in streaks of color, green foliage blurring into grey water, mottled concrete and the occasional brown cow. The train rumbles steadily through the alternating scents of burning trash, baking asphalt, car exhaust and stale fish.
The “common man’s car” is unusually subdued today, as dozens of curious brown eyes flick shyly toward the two pale Westerners standing calmly in the corner, smiling and talking easily with the passengers around them.
Dylan Foster and Caleb Buechner are no ordinary tourists. They are determined to find Mumbai’s Christians. For months, they have scoured the streets, alleys and rails of Mumbai. These two young men came to India to find and map churches in India’s largest city.
The megacity of Mumbai sprawls out over several islands, much like New York City. More than a dozen languages are spoken on its streets. Often, one area’s residents will speak a completely different language from neighbors 20 minutes away.
Although Mumbai boasts one of the highest gross domestic products (GDP) in all of Asia, it is estimated that over 50% of its more than 20 million citizens live in slums, propping their tin houses on the splintering banks of creeks that run with trash and sewage.
This is no simple task.
Despite the logistical nightmare before them, Foster and Buechner set out to discover the believers in Mumbai. They left no stone unturned, from the tip of the Siddhivinayak Temple to trash piles of the Dharavi slum. Yet despite their best efforts, their first months were disappointing.
“We got nowhere,” Foster said, “We’re looking for biblically sound churches that are actively sharing the Gospel, but whenever we asked where we could find any Christian churches, people just kept pointing us toward the big Catholic cathedral in the middle of town.”
When their work began, they were told the city had no church presence whatsoever. After weeks and weeks of frustration, they were beginning to believe it.
Desperate, Foster finally turned to another missionary in the area. “He suggested going to the bookstore that his company had in the city, so I said ok and we went.” This new connection sent them in a new direction.
“They had already been here for 40-50 years, working on this exact same project. They already had 162 pages of churches mapped all over the area!” Foster said.
Like many workers before them, these men were thrilled to find Christ in the very place they’d planned to bring Him. “Our thinking radically changed from, ‘Man, everybody we talk to has never heard of Jesus before,’ to ‘There’s a solid presence here,’ ” Foster said.
A solid presence indeed, one that is living and active and determined to radically alter their city. Buechner and his team mate were thrilled to see how believers in Mumbai are working among the poor and downtrodden, charging headfirst at the decaying caste system, which has kept millions in abject poverty for centuries.
“[Indian believers] are going into slums and teaching Bible studies to everyone, regardless of caste,” Foster said. “The lowest class here, the Dalit, are eager to get out of the oppression that they’re in, and the Christans here are eager to help them.”
The Hindu caste system strictly divides all people into inescapable social classes. The Dalits (the “untouchables”) have historically occupied the lowest rungs of Indian society, enduring centuries of abuse, abasement and exploitation.
Although the caste system has been officially outlawed for years, the lowest castes continue to struggle socially and economically.
“The church here is sharing the Gospel with the Dalit, treating them like humans,” Foster said, “and it’s been such a blessing to see the successes they are having with their work.”
As Buechner and Foster move about the city, visiting different ministries and continuing their search for churches, they go by train. And as they go, they make disciples.
“People on the trains see we’re foreigners and ask us what we’re doing in India,” Foster said.
“We tell them, ‘Oh, we’re just going to visit these people that are helping educate the Dalits.’ People here see that as honorable and loving, and it just leads to, ‘They’re helping the Dalits because they believe in Jesus. Have you heard of Jesus?’ ” Foster said.
The seven islands of Mumbai are laced together with one of the busiest train networks in the world, shuffling more than six million people around the city every day.
“Every age group rides the train,” Buechner said, “The oldest people of the city to the youngest. You see the beggars and the well-off, the Dalit and the high-class people.”
In a land where Sikhs and high-caste Hindus regularly rub elbows with Muslims and Buddhists, religion surfaces constantly.
Unlike many Westerners, who leave their spirituality safe at home, South Asians tend to wear their faith openly, often visibly, in the form of Muslim taqiyah caps, Sikh turbans and the bright red kumkum powder Hindus place on their foreheads. Most are willing to discuss their beliefs with others, and Foster and Buechner have made use of this openness.
Constantly on the lookout for spiritual connections, these young men use every resource at their disposal to share the Gospel in the approximately two minutes they have between stops.
“Once, we were going to the mall for groceries, and we met this guy who was totally humanitarian,” Foster said, “very focused on good works. It sounded like he had a Christian background of some kind, but at the same time, was very much a universalist. So we shared with him what we believe about Christ, and he loved it.”
Impressed by Buechner and Foster’ evident concern for people like the Dalits, the young man exchanged phone numbers with them and continued to meet up with them to talk about matters of faith.
“We wound up talking for hours, about the Gospel, about the Bible, about Christ. He was just soaking it in. He even wanted to study the Bible with us!” Foster said.
Not everyone Buechner and Foster meet is as excited as their young “humanitarian” friend, though. “Some people find it really exciting, some people shrug and say, “Eh, it’s whatever,’ ” Foster said.
“They say it takes an average of 40 encounters with the Gospel for someone to accept it. Maybe we’re the last person or the first person to share with them, but I don’t mind being anywhere in that scale,” Buechner said .
Dylan Foster and Caleb Buechner are students serving short-term with the IMB. To learn more about serving as a student in South Asia, visit our Students page at southasianpeoples.imb.org/students.
To learn more serving worldwide through the IMB, visit imbstudents.org.
Sophie Spencer is a recent graduate of Dallas Baptist University, serving among South Asian peoples.