Saturday, January 5, 2013

Billy Graham in Nagaland

The amount of signs with psalms, crosses, and churches in Nagaland rivals the U.S. Bible belt. In fact, it's not possible to understand how Nagaland has developed without understanding the role of Christianity. 
Here's my basic attempt to make sense of it. (Check out my friend Heather Layton's blog for a much better description of Nagaland and the role of religion here.)

Today, Nagaland is the largest Baptist state in the world; as much as 70% of the population is Baptist and over 90% is Christian. Religion is everywhere. Sunday, the city nearly shuts down as families pack into churches. Christian colleges and schools abound, and alcohol of all kinds are officially banned. Despite the alcohol ban, most Nagas find ways to access liquor through the black market. Yet politicians have avoided challenging the alcohol ban--largely because of the power of the church.

Why is Jesus so important in Nagaland? Although the Naga people originally held strong animus spiritual beliefs, Christianity reached them in the1850s when U.S. Baptists sent missionaries to these isolated hills. Nagaland’s neighboring areas of Assam had been converted into Hinduism and Burma into Buddhism, but only the Christian missionaries were up to the challenge of venturing into the remote hills of the warring Naga headhunters. 

Imagine the journey these fervent missionaries made to reach the Naga villages?! Again, Nagaland is landlocked without any navigable rivers, and the landscape is mountainous. 

Regardless, in 1839, Reverend Miles Bronson from the U.S. Baptist Church attempted to convert the Nagas who were most accessible and closest to Assam (where Baptists were already established.) He eventually failed due to illness (and probably because the Nagas rejected him). But he is still honored here in Nagaland.

Rev. Miles Bronson attempted to convert
the Nagas in 1839.

The first real and lasting contact between missionaries and Nagas was around 1869 when Rev. Dr. E.W. Clark from Boston connected with the powerful Ao tribe. In 1876 Clark established the first Christian town among the Ao tribe in a place called Molungyimsen in north-western Nagaland. By 1911, this settlement had produced the Ao-English dictionary--bringing written language to the Naga tribe for the first time. Soon after, Ao pastors began to convert other Naga tribes. From 1920 through the 1970s, Baptist evangelicals spread their word throughout Nagaland. They brought Jesus, schools and hospitals.  

Today, many Nagas credit the church for helping to unite the different tribes and for bringing classic education, English and the written language. Even among some of the artists that Mike and I have met (more on this later), Christianity is influential. It also seems that the abundance of musicians within Nagaland may have something to do with their upbringing in the Baptist Christian church.

There is no doubt that Baptists won the Naga hearts. Still today, Nagaland is the largest Baptist state in the world. In April, 2012 Billy Graham’s daughter came to speak as the Nagaland Baptist Church Council celebrated 75 years. Hailing over 600,000 members, the Baptist church claims the vast majority of Nagas.

I pulled the following statistics from the American Baptist International Ministries Website. In 2011, the Christian Baptist Convention of Northeastern India (which also includes Nagaland’s bordering states of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal) had 7,804 churches and 1,045,804 baptized members! 

What I find curious is that despite the significant role of the Christian church in everyday life here, the church seems to stay out of politics. Though the Nagas have been fighting for independence from India for decades, the Church (the heart of the Naga people) is asent from the fight. Similarly, despite an abundance of traditional Christian values in Nagaland, corruption among the political class who controls much of the state's pursestrings still abounds. 

Obviously my cursory look at Christianity in Nagaland offers few answers--but it will be fascinating to see how the church's influence changes as Nagaland continues to develop. Will it maintain its power over subsequent generations of Nagas? Will it become more political or remain quiet as the government of India and Naga liberation movements fight for a peaceful resolution?

1 comment:

  1. I so dearly want kick these missionary scums,these morons hav virtually killed all traditions of every tribal area of this earth.