Adventist Review features editor Sandra Blackmer is currently in India with North America Division's Hope for Humanity director Maitland DiPinto, Southern Asia Division (SUD) leaders in Women's Ministries, and others to participate in graduation ceremonies for women in southern provinces who have completed church-sponsored literacy courses. Blackmer wrote a cover story [Changing Lives One Word at a Time] about the literacy initiative in the January 15, 2009, issue of the Review. Also included was an appeal to readers to help purchase Bibles and carrying cases to present to women who completed the yearlong course. The fund-raising goal was $20,000--enough to purchase Bibles and cases for the approximately 4,000 women who would graduate from the 200 literacy classes throughout southern India the following year--but the generosity of Review subscribers greatly surpassed all expectations. Within just a few months of printing the article, readers had sacrificially donated more than $80,000 to the program. At $5.00 for a Bible and its case, it was enough to provide this gift to graduates for several years. Blackmer now has the privilege of presenting some of these Bibles to literacy course graduates.--The editors.
It was Sabbath morning, and my fellow traveling companions and I were worshiping in a small, recently established Adventist church in Vengal, about a two-hour drive from Chennai. The Sabbath school lesson was being read to the congregation by six young women. This was not remarkable in itself, except that only months before none of these women was able to read at all.
The Vengal church is in existence only because of the literacy project. Because so many of the students and their family members had come to know Jesus and were baptized, funds were donated to build a structure for them to worship in. The morning we were there people filled not only every seat but all the floor space in the aisle as well as between the front row of plastic chairs and the raised platform for the podium and presenters. While sitting on that platform waiting for my time to share with the congregation how richly God had blessed the Adventist Review fund-raising initiative that pays for the graduates' Bibles, I noticed several of the neighbors taking a peek into the church to find out what was going on. Their curiosity, though, wasn't enough to bring them through the door. I also noticed an occasional cow walking by, followed by a few chickens. A large block sow rooted in the ground just across the dirt road, and a rooster raised its voice seemingly in an attempt to join in with the worshipers' singing. It was certainly a different church experience for this Adventist from Maryland.
I later asked Hepzi how so many women here came to accept Christ. "Was it through studying the Bible in class?" I asked. She explained that even though Bible-based materials are used to teach the students, project leaders don't encourage overt evangelism. With women of various faiths attending the classes, caution and tact must be employed, she said, so as not to give offense or discourage them from attending.
"The believers would meet together on Friday evenings and Sabbath afternoons for Bible study, and the other women would follow to find out what they were doing," Hepzi explains. "They didn't want to be left out, so they began studying the Bible, too, along with the believers. They began learning about Jesus and how much He loves them. We then held evangelistic meetings. Many were baptized, and now we have this new Adventist congregation and church building."
Could it really be so simple? I wondered. Could the foundation of a new church plant be built on writing slates and a few pieces of chalk? According to Hepzi, the answer is yes. It begins, she says, with meeting a need.
"Reports say that 60 percent of the people in India are literate," Hepzi says, "but in some villages the literacy rate is as low as 20 percent. In one village we could not find even one person who was literate--not even one."
With 200 literacy centers currently operating in southern India, 20 in Kolkata, and 35 more in Nepal, Hepzi is praying that these statistics will soon be a thing of the past.