response: March/April 2020 Issue

Living the Legacy in India

Isabella Thoburn’s pioneer missionary spirit persists amid cultural and political change.

Living the Legacy in India
Students in a class at Isabella Thoburn College, founded in 1870 by Isabella Thoburn, a missionary of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society

Educating girls was not a very popular idea in India in 1870, so when Isabella Thoburn opened a simple classroom for six girls in a mud-walled room off the market in Lucknow, India, she posted a guard at the door with a big club. Local Hindu priests had opposed the establishment of a school for girls, but Thoburn was accustomed to persevering against strong odds. A graduate of Wheeling Female Seminary and the Cincinnati Academy of Design, she had wanted to come to India as a missionary for several years, invited there by her brother James, who’d gone as a Methodist missionary in 1859.

Yet the Methodist Episcopal Church vehemently opposed sending single women as missionaries. It took the formation of a separate women’s mission society, a predecessor to today’s United Methodist Women, in order to send Thoburn, accompanied by physician Clara Swain, to serve God amid the poor of India. The two single women sailed from Boston in November 1869 and arrived in Bombay in January. Thoburn immediately made her way to Lucknow and began visiting the zenanas, the women-only sections of Hindu and Muslim households that male missionaries had been unable to reach. (Swain traveled on to Bairelly, where she soon opened the first hospital in India exclusively for women—whom male physicians usually refused to treat.)

What Thoburn heard in the secluded women’s quarters was an unrequited desire for knowledge, so by April she opened her school in the market. Local resistance notwithstanding, within weeks more girls were begging to attend. Thoburn quickly expanded the classes, and the following year the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society bought her a seven-acre estate, once the palace of a nobleman, where she opened a boarding school and eventually a high school. In 1886 she launched the Lucknow Woman’s College on the same site and began traveling across India to urge the creation of more church schools for girls.

Receive to give

One hundred fifty-one years later, Isabella Thoburn’s legacy is thriving. Soon after her death in 1901, the school she started was renamed Isabella Thoburn College. In 1923, the expanding school moved to an even larger estate. Today it remains a premiere school for young women in India and boasts an alumni list that includes world-renowned writers, activists, academics, politicians, actresses and scientists.

“Isabella Thoburn would be happy to see how her mission is being carried out today,” said Vinita Prakash, the school’s principal. “Although she began her first classes with just a handful of students, she had the vision to start a school where today over 3,000 young women are studying. She had a vision of Indian women taking leadership in their country, and today that’s being fulfilled. Wherever you go in India today, you’ll find graduates of this college assuming positions of leadership.”

Thoburn’s understanding of education went far beyond simply acquiring knowledge. It had to be put to use for the good of the community, something her heirs understand.

“Isabella Thoburn’s motto was ‘We receive to give,’ and that’s the motto of the school today,” said Sudeeti Chaturvedi, a 2019 graduate of the college who’s now doing postgraduate work in journalism and interning at the Hindustan Times. “We inculcate that spirit in every student, and in everything we do. We become better human beings, less self-centered. We give just as much importance to developing ethical values and creating a spiritual base as we do to academic excellence. No other university in India does that.”

Developing a sense of social responsibility is a key part of the curriculum. Field trips to poor rural villages and urban slums are frequent. While the students use the visits to educate community members about nutrition and health, the real agenda is helping girls from middle-class backgrounds get acquainted with another side of India.

“There are two distinct Indias, one urban and one rural. Our students don’t know much about rural India, so we take them there and help them interact with people,” said Prakash. “Isabella Thoburn always insisted that we receive in order to give. So whatever we have received in terms of education, values and knowledge, we need to give back to society. When the women leave here and get involved in their careers, there will always be that element of social responsibility inside them.”

Although the college is distinctly Christian, it is located in India, where Christians are a small minority. The student population reflects the country’s demographics and includes Christians, Muslims and Hindus. Diversity is prized. Students celebrate together one another’s religious holidays like Christmas, Diwali and Eid.

“If you are born in a Muslim family, you will only know Muslim values. It’s natural. I was born in a Hindu family and knew only Hindu values. As children, we only know what we learn from our families. But college is a place where people come to learn about everything, so it’s the duty of the college to give each child knowledge of all religions, societies and traditions. And that’s what we’re doing here,” said Valdana Jerin, a professor of history at the school.

In a 2005 interview with response, Elizabeth Charles, today the president of the school, said that Isabella Thoburn College, while a Christian institution, was in the business of “breeding secular Indians.” In a country troubled in recent years by the growth of religious nationalism, intentionally creating such an atmosphere of tolerance is healthy.

Yet it’s more than tolerance.

“Our graduates leave here with confidence, knowing many things, but also respecting and supporting Indian cultures and foreign cultures. We need to not just enjoy the diversity we have; we need to celebrate it,” said Jerin. Although wonderfully diverse, at the same time the school is explicitly Christian.

“We are not ashamed to be called a Christian institution. We are converting young minds to be accountable and responsible, all within a Christian atmosphere,” said Charles. “And I believe that every child who comes here should come to know before they leave that there is a person named Jesus Christ, and that they know what he teaches and what his mission was.”

Although Isabella Thoburn College, which offers 25 undergraduate courses and nine master’s programs, is now an associate college of the government- run University of Lucknow, Prakash says there is no confusion about the school’s identity.

“Anyone who comes here is very clear about that. We have chapel every day, and while students are not compelled to attend, they are welcome. And many non-Christians do attend and are warmly welcomed,” she said.

“When parents come to put their children here, they are clear that they’re coming here because of the Christian values we impart.”

Preparing women to thrive

As anti-Christian prejudice has become newly fashionable under the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, institutions like Isabella Thoburn College have a right to be concerned. Yet Prakash isn’t worried, because it’s in the interest of even the most ardent Hindu nationalists that quality schools be protected.

“The policymakers in the government all studied in convent or missionary schools, and their children are studying in missionary schools, so they know the values we impart aren’t available elsewhere,” she said. That’s not to say that discrimination against religious minorities and women doesn’t exist in India. It does, but Charles says it can present in a variety of nuanced forms. The school strives to prepare young women to confront it regardless of what form it takes.

“There is discrimination of some form everywhere. Perhaps not in the exams for open positions, but when they get to the interviews they’ll face someone who likely prefers someone from their own caste and creed. And once they get into the corporate world, they’ll face even stronger opposition. There will always be stones in their path, so they’ve got to be strong in order to prevail,” said Charles, while acknowledging that Christians can also practice unfair discrimination. “How many women are on church boards? How vocal are they? How many of them speak their minds? We can’t just blame the men.”

Women in Indian culture face some uniquely particular dangers, such as violence related to dowry—a payment from the bride’s family to the groom’s family. When deemed insufficient, it can provoke abuse and even murder of the bride. In 2017, according to government figures, more than 20 women a day were murdered over dowry in India. Education is one factor in changing that equation.

“Education is part of emancipation. If women are educated, they can be in a position of saying no to dowry, because their education has allowed them to be financially independent,” said Prakash. “Dowry exists because girls are not educated and not financially independent, so there’s pressure on the parents to marry them off. But our graduates are educated and have a career, so there’s not as much pressure to marry. As empowered women, they can bargain, refuse to be married to just anyone, and at the end of the day can make their own intelligent choices.”

Many of the college’s graduates go into teaching fields, and the institution has been pushing to diversify career choices in order to help women enter fields that haven’t traditionally welcomed women. The school recently opened a new professional studies center, with an initial focus on training managers for the country’s hospitality industry.

Charles says it’s a necessary addition if the school is going to remain relevant in a changing India.

“When we started the new professional studies center, initially it was hard to recruit students. At times I would get depressed about it, but then I’d think about Isabella Thoburn,” Charles said.

“She must have had a very difficult time bringing girls to her little school, given that many families didn’t want their girls to go out and study. We’re always going back to where she began, working for the same cause.”

An endangered species

Although female deacons had played a key role in the early church, over the centuries the position had disappeared. Then a 19th-century revival brought deaconesses back, first in Germany in the 1830s and then in England in the 1860s. By the 1880s, the Methodist Episcopal Church joined the movement, establishing the office of deaconess in 1888.

Thoburn was one of the first women to be commissioned, and during a furlough back in the United States she worked for a year with Lucy Rider Meyer to set up the Chicago Training School for Home and Foreign Missions. Then in Cincinnati Thoburn helped establish the Deaconess Home and Training School. When she finally returned to India, she helped begin a program for training Indian women as deaconesses. In the following decades, Indian deaconesses provided the backbone of an effort that saw the church open scores of schools and student hostels in towns and villages around the country while also providing critical health care at church-sponsored medical facilities. Over recent decades, however, the role of deaconesses has declined, and many in the Indian church worry that deaconesses are an endangered species on the subcontinent.

If there’s a model for what deaconesses used to be, it’s surely Kasthuri Devaraj. She turned 84 this year, making a mockery of mandatory retirement rules.

Devaraj has been a deaconess since 1980. At the age of 13, she dedicated herself to the Lord, and decided in high school not to marry. She thought about becoming a nun, but she was encouraged by Methodist missionaries to complete her higher education and begin the process of becoming a deaconess. Shortly before commissioning, she was asked to take charge of the Opportunity  School, a center in Chennai for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“When I entered the school my first day, I found they couldn’t communicate and couldn’t walk properly. I wondered how I could teach these children,” Devaraj recalled. She felt inadequate and asked God to send her somewhere else. “Then I heard a small voice telling me that if I loved the Lord, I should take care of these sheep going to be slaughtered. So I committed my life to this, and since then God is using me and we’ve done many things together. The children are all happy, the situation has changed drastically, and it’s all the Lord’s doing.”

Amali Vincent is a younger deaconess who serves as headmistress of the school. She says the school’s approach to working with disabilities has been a key to its success.

“In the olden days, people thought this was a curse from god. They saw this as a disease, not a disability. So they sought doctors and took many medicines, but to no avail. We know now that no medicine can cure this, only training. So we have teachers who’ve done higher studies in special education and know how to understand the children, work with them and train them. If the child can’t attain a goal we’ve set with their parents, then teachers change their techniques, not the child,” said Vincent, who has worked at the school for 20 years.

In addition to the Opportunity School, which currently has 140 students, Devaraj and Vincent manage a home for 23 adult women with disabilities. Both institutions receive funding from United Methodist Women, which Devaraj says has repeatedly rescued the school from funding crises over the years.

The most recent crisis faced by the Opportunity School is caused by the climate crisis, which along with poor urban planning in Chennai has raised the flood level of yearly typhoons. After being unable to use their ground floor for several weeks at a time during typhoon season, Devaraj toured the United States until she had raised sufficient funds to lift their main building above the new flood level.

When Devaraj became a deaconess, the expectation was that women in that office would remain unmarried. When Vincent joined Devaraj, who prefers the single life, at the Opportunity School, the older woman gave her younger colleague advice: “I told her not to get married. And so immediately she got married,” Devaraj said, laughing. “But she is dedicated to her job, and God is using her.”

Following God’s call

Omega Chandrashaker is a deaconess in Vikarabad, where she’s an educator at a church-run school and superintendent of the hostel that provides food and lodging for students who come to the town from remote villages. Many deaconesses across India work as hostel superintendents.

“There are many orphans or semiorphans in the villages, whose parents have left them to look for work in other states. The parents will just go, and no one is left to care for the children. So we take care of them starting from an early age,” she said. She laments that she’s part of a dying breed.

“I enjoy being a deaconess. I have lots of space to serve other people, especially women and children. But they aren’t sending anyone for training these days. No one is interested because you can make more money in professional fields. Everyone wants to become a doctor or an engineer. They want more money, and more regard, higher treatment than you’ll get as a deaconess. Yet I’m content with my decision. God chose me to be a deaconess. And God continues to support me,” she said. Such divine support is important, because many deaconesses haven’t been paid for months. Several told response they hadn’t been paid in years.

“The deaconess movement in India is dying. It’s on the verge of death. They aren’t recruiting new deaconesses because they can’t even pay the current ones,” said Sabitha Swaraj, a deaconess and the higher ups are thinking of closing the deaconess ministry. They think that it’s a waste of money. That leaves deaconesses really discouraged.” Nostalgia, understandably, is strong for Indian deaconesses.

“Our ministries were strong, and there was no dearth of resources for them. The conferences looked to deaconesses for service,” Swaraj said. “The institutions of the church served the people. Deaconesses were recruited and sent for training, and, depending on their certification, they returned to work as teachers or doctors or nurses. We also had women evangelists. We had hostels, and we went around the rural areas and collected the children and brought them to our boarding schools, often saving them from situations of child labor, poverty and ignorance.

“When we started work in Vikarabad, in those days there were no roads but lots of snakes and wild animals there. But people needed ministry, and our schools were the only ones there. Today the government has started schools in those rural areas. The government has funds to pay for teachers and superintendents and food. The government is doing what we used to do.

“The pioneer missionaries used to sacrifice all of their own funds so we didn’t have to collect money from the students in our schools and hostels. We wanted to give free education to the poor, and to provide food for students and staff. We constructed beautiful buildings, but now they are dilapidated, and we don’t have the money to update them. Nonetheless, some parents still believe that their children will grow in Christian nurture and become better human beings if their kids are sent to our schools. So we’re hanging on in a few places.”

Missionary zeal

Churches that operate schools in the countryside are in a quandary. In the past five years, the government has constructed schools and hostels in many rural villages, providing education, textbooks and food. Children no longer need to go to nearby towns to study, where Methodist hostels and schools once welcomed them. Churches can still operate such facilities, but they have to be on a par with the ones operated by the government, and churches can’t charge fees to students’ families. At the same time, the government has severely restricted the ability of churches to receive donations from outside the country.

“We’re being suffocated,” said Hyderabad Bishop M.A. Daniel of the Methodist Church in India. “They are treating us as a foreign religion that has come here to dilute Hindu values and culture. Yet we are only 2 percent of the population. Hindus are 80 percent. Why should they be scared of us?”

Hindu nationalists in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, in power since 2014, have passed vaguely worded laws that criminalize conversion, making life difficult for churches and other organizations affiliated with minority religions.

“[Prime Minister] Modi is quite against Christianity,” said Bishop E.D. Yesurathnam of the Chennai Episcopal Area.

“They have their eye on all the institutions of mission. Because good leaders  in the country came from mission schools. They got a good education and became good people. Some people aren’t happy about the mission schools which produced those good leaders,” he said. “So in order to attack the mission schools, they opened free schools and free hostels, but the discipline and education they provided couldn’t compete with our schools, from which almost all the good leaders have come. … We are facing these attacks at the same time we struggle to sustain ourselves, because they stopped the foreign funds we used to get. That has created chaos for us.” Because the church had come to largely depend on school fees to cover deaconess salaries, the loss or reduction of that income means deaconesses go unpaid.

“The missionary zeal is still there, but the resources aren’t. And there’s little encouragement,” said Swaraj. “Yet we’re not just sitting around waiting for money. We deaconesses will do the work whether there’s a salary or not. We remain faithful to the church and our mission. But that’s very difficult at times. There’s a lot of sexism and patriarchal perspective within the church.”

Renuka Victor, a deaconess evangelist in Vikarabad, went for several years without a salary; she kept working with financial support from her family. She says her bishop recently arranged for her to start receiving a salary.

“Because of the financial crunch, we can’t do our duty adequately. We don’t get needed support from our higher ups. Our pastors and conference leaders don’t encourage us. The bishops try, but it’s not enough,” she said. “It’s sad, but I enjoyed good days. I became a principal at age 28. I was in the limelight. I enjoyed the work and the challenges. Now we get harassment from our people, our own reverends use unparliamentary language toward us. They don’t respect us like they used to.”

The word “respect” gets heard often in discussions with Methodist women in India, not just deaconesses. Ask Parimala Dayani, a pastor in Hyderabad who served a church with her husband, who’s also a pastor.

“They didn’t want me. They didn’t want to take communion from a woman, because they feel that a woman is something lower than a man,” she said. “Most of the men would accept communion from me, but they went out and started grumbling, and complaining to the bishop that their church was apparently of low status because the bishop had assigned them a woman.” She says her superintendent was no help, and she was removed and asked to keep silent in the church. Her superintendent assigned her as an evangelist in nearby villages but told her she would need to raise her own salary.

What would Isabella Thoburn think?

Emma Cantor, a regional missionary for United Methodist Women, has accompanied the women of the Methodist Church in India for years, offering encouragement and leading workshops aimed at empowering the women.

“Deaconesses are a neglected tradition in the Indian church. In many ways the church was founded by deaconesses, yet its leaders say they can’t find the money to pay their salaries today. That’s due in part to their work— they’re the ones who work with children— not being seen as important,” Cantor said. “I can’t help but wonder what Isabella Thoburn would think of that. She saw nothing as more important than values formation among children and youth.” As the ecclesial landscape and the country’s politics shift around them, some deaconesses have started working in different settings.

Malathi Jamesraj coordinates a program that teaches sewing and tailoring to poor women in Chennai.

“Many men are drunkards and don’t give money to their families. It’s hard for the woman to run the family with no source of income. So if a woman can make dresses for her neighbors, she can support her family and make decisions about her own life. And she gets new respect. If the men need money, they have to come to the women to ask for it,” she said.

Uma Natarajan is the Methodist pastor in a poor neighborhood of Chennai where Jamesraj has coordinated tailoring classes that meet in her church. She appreciates Jamesraj’s work.  “I wish more could come out of their own places and serve like Malathi does in our community,” she said.

“That’s the church meeting the people where they are."

Paul Jeffrey is a photojournalist who lives in Oregon and senior correspondent for response.

Posted or updated: 3/5/2020 12:00:00 AM