India’s many colors

Book portrays MB church’s diversity through pictures

Feb 17, 2014 by and

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A new book on the Mennonite Brethren in India casts what the authors hope is a vibrant light on a population from which the Western church can learn much.

Women sit beneath a pandal during a service celebrating the completion of a church construction project in Bijavaram. — Photo by Rufus Gurugulla

Women sit beneath a pandal during a service celebrating the completion of a church construction project in Bijavaram. — Photo by Rufus Gurugulla

The Colors of the Mennonites in Andhra Pradesh features the subtitle Devuni Prema Idhigo — Behold the Love of God.

Twins David A. and Paul D. Wiebe, who were born in India, compiled the book. They believe God’s love has manifested itself in a vibrancy that is both deep and wide in the state of Andhra Pradesh — where many of the MB Church of India’s hundreds of congregations make it one of the largest MB bodies in the world.

“It’s a colorful world,” said Paul Wiebe, an anthropological sociologist by trade who took some of the book’s many colorful photographs. “India has been too often pictured in the sense of a burden, echoes of a long-gone past.

“It needs to be recognized in terms of vitality and our chance not only to lend a helping hand — which we will continue to do — but also to receive all kinds of insights and wisdom.”

The Colors of the Mennonites conveys both the bustle of urban life and daily chores in rural settings. It also stands in contrast as a companion to the brothers’ earlier book, In Another Day of the Lord: the Mission Days of the Mennonite Brethren Church of India in Pictures.

That book, produced in 2010, uses black-and-white photos to illustrate a time of black-and-white, us-and-them, mission philosophies that P.B. Arnold, president of the Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches in India, says in the book’s foreword began to conclude in the early 1970s.

“Mennonites can say to ourselves, ‘My God, what has happened? Isn’t it marvelous?’ ” Paul Wiebe said. “And at the same time we can say in this church of ours, ‘If we would actually look at what we can do, we can transform things.’ It is not plastering our answers on everyone else but opening our eyes and doing something about poverty, injustice, arrogance, stereotypical nonsense. Let us break out of some of the molds in which we trap ourselves.”

Close connections

Both men have maintained close relationships to the country of their birth.

“There were seven of us kids,” David Wiebe said. “Our grandparents were some of the very first missionaries in the late 1800s. Then my parents were there, and all of us kids were born there.”

The brothers went to high school in India before attending Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan.

Paul Wiebe was principal of the Kodaikanal International School in India for about 14 years. He retired a decade ago and lives in Iowa City. He recently wrapped up his role as mission liaison for the Mennonite Brethren at MB Centenary Bible College in Shamshabad.

David Wiebe is a retired orthopedic surgeon who has traveled on several occasions from Kearney, Neb., to work in health care in India.

The two teamed up with Rufus Gurugulla, a photographer in Shamshabad who is a leader among the local Mennonite Brethen. Many of the photos in the collection are his. Sections are divided by topic and preceded by paintings by David Wiebe.

In addition to rural and urban settings, academic institutions, celebrations and working life are some of the categories depicting life in the church.

While rural village life was the context of much of the early missionary activity, David Wiebe said it was important to include how the church exists today in the city.

“We needed to demonstrate the construction of these big buildings, the new churches that have been coming up,” he said. “We tried to cover the life of the community and its various forms, from the poor villagers to the affluent city dwellers.”

That spectrum is a running theme.

“The church in India is alive and well,” Paul Wiebe said. “It has people of tremendous diversity, tremendous depth, tremendous character. It is a church that is fully indigenous. At the same time, it is a church from which we can learn… .

“When we meet in Christ’s name, we become more than the people we are. I would like this book, somehow in its own modest way, to say to the person who looks at the pictures, ‘That is a person, those are the people, that is the church in which it is God’s great joy to participate.’ ”

Membership figures for India’s MB churches vary. In its 2012 directory, Mennonite World Conference reports 103,488 members in the Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches in India. In this book, MBCI reports more than 230,000 members. The discrepancy is due to several factors, including counting practices and government laws concerning religious classifications.

The Colors of the Mennonites is available from Kindred Productions, the publishing arm of the U.S. and Canadian Mennonite Brethren Church conferences.

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