My valiant attempt to reach Hindus during Diwali
With a Bible story and some patience
A woman wearing a silk sari reaches out a hand with a pamphlet and tries to give it to my friend, Michelle. “What is it about – astrology?” she asks. “No thanks, I won’t take it. I’m a follower of Jesus.”
Michelle and I were with a group of Jesus followers who had dispersed through a street fair in Wentworthville, in western Sydney, on Saturday, celebrating the Festival of Diwali.
For this most significant Hindu festival many people in Sydney and Melbourne attend street fairs at which they eat delicious food, watch dancing, musical performances and organised fireworks displays, all while wearing their finest clothes. In and around their homes, Hindus across Australia also celebrate Diwali – or Deepavali, which means “row of lamps” – by stringing up rows of sparkling lights.
This five-day Hindu festival presents a wonderful opportunity to share Jesus because it celebrates the triumph of good over evil in the epic story of the victory of the exiled king Ram over the demon king Ravan. Our aim was to find a way to engage people with stories from the Bible that show how king Jesus came into this dark world as the light.
Just as we are rebuffing the woman pushing astrology, a Fijian Indian man overhears and approaches us, saying “Jesus?”. He’s by himself and he’s looking for a chat. Pala, as we discover he’s called, is full of stories and we go on to have a friendly and open exchange of Hindu and Bible stories.
One of the many stories associated with the lighting of lamps tells how the people of Ayodhya lit the Indian city with rows of lamps to welcome king Ram back to his kingdom after saving his wife Sita from the demon king. Pala tells us it was a moonless night – which is why Diwali is always celebrated when there is no moon – so lights were needed to guide King Ram home.
Pala is fascinated as Michelle tells the story of Lord Jesus raising Jairus’s daughter from the dead, and he responds with a story about the elephant god Ganesha, who was beheaded by Shiva and brought back from the dead when he replaced Ganesha’s original head with that of an elephant.
“Do you think that story is really true?” I ask.
When I was at uni, I realised that there were lots of Indians on campus but very few of them were being reached by the gospel. — Clive Buultjens
Pala doesn’t know but says the story has been told for centuries. He adds that Lord Jesus came along later than the Hindu gods. This gives Michelle an opportunity to tell Pala the story of Genesis 3 – the Fall of Adam and Eve – where God curses the snake, humankind and the tree. And how God said: “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil,” showing that Jesus was with God from the beginning.
Pala accepts a pamphlet showing how Lord Jesus is the key to fulfilling the key spiritual longing and beliefs of Hindus such as payment for debts and doing one’s duty. Michelle then asks Pala if we can pray for him and he gladly agrees to prayer for healing after a recent stroke. So Michelle prays for Pala’s healing in the name of Lord Jesus and we parts as friends.
Our conversation with Pala was the highlight of our evening. We had engaged several people in conversation in the supermarket – asking what treats to take to a Diwali lunch on Sunday – and with a woman watching a dance performance, but it had been difficult to move on to telling a Bible story. I did get the chance to tell the story of Jesus feeding the 5000 to some temple women on a stall for Jet Foundation, but they were more interested in promoting their guru and their education system, although it was still helpful to learn about their world view.
“At that point I knew God was encouraging me and was right there sending me on a mission.” – Cynthia
Team member Cynthia also found it awkward sharing Bible stories until late in the evening when she had a beautiful encounter with a family of four who came to share her table in the midst of the street festivities.
“The whole conversation that proceeded was a complete turn of roles from all our previous crude attempts at engaging people. This family came to me at my table, initiated the talk, interviewed me, showed enthusiasm at my replies, offered information about themselves. And then, they invited me to their house for their lunch festivity the following day! I almost couldn’t resist, but I had a few errands to do and appointment with friends and the afternoon church missions activity, all squeezed in the afternoon after church service. And so I regretfully declined.
“To my amazement, the grandmother insisted I can come another day, gave me her number, and wrote down their house address. At that point I knew God was encouraging me and was right there sending me on a mission. I was beaming with heartfelt joy.”
This exploration of Hindu outreach at the fair was led by Clive Buultjens, a Sri Lankan-born minister at Merrylands Anglican, who developed a heart for reaching Hindus with the gospel as a student at the University of NSW.
“When I was at uni, I realised that there were lots of Indians on campus but very few of them were being reached by the gospel. They seemed to hang out in their own communities and circles, so it was hard for them to have contact with Christians. So it’s a huge mission field,” he explains.
To prepare for Diwali, Clive had edited, printed and distributed a Hindu World Prayer Guide to help Christians learn about and pray for the Hindu world during 15 days of prayer, from October 20 to November 3.
I was clutching this prayer guide when I arrived at Wentworthville and showed it to Clive. “Have you seen this?” I said excitedly.
“Er, yes, I produced it,” he responded, to my chagrin.
Speaking to Eternity today, Clive reflected on this outreach to the Hindu community which, as a first attempt, was a very positive experience.
“The best interaction was with a man from one of the temples. He was a Gujarati man and he really enjoyed listening to a couple of stories.” — Clive Buultjens
“I think Hindus are very easy to tell stories to. I guess it would have been easier if we had a stall there and could offer food or chai to welcome people in, but as a first attempt it was really good and we had quite a few good experiences telling stories,” he said.
“Because Hindus love stories and their religion is full of stories, it’s easy to exchange stories, but not so easy to go on to show that Jesus is unique – and it takes a while for them to realise that Jesus is unique and the Lord, not just one of the gods.”
Clive believes it’s really important to listen first of all to Hindus’ own world views and what Diwali means for them before trying to tell a Bible story that engages with that.
“I think it just takes patience. I don’t think it was awkward. It could have been awkward if I tried to rush things and share a story without first listening and understanding what their own spiritual yearnings are,” he said.
“The best interaction was with a man from one of the temples. He was a Gujarati man and he really enjoyed listening to a couple of stories – the Prodigal Son and the feeding of the 5000. He really resonated with that, that God longs to give to us and welcome us back, so that was really encouraging.”
Michelle also believes that, on the whole, the festival was a good place to share stories, but agrees that it would be better next time to have a stall offering snacks and a chance to story-tell.
“It’s a different dynamic because they’re choosing to come into your space and accept your hospitality, or they can choose not to,” she said.
“Muslim culture has a strong cultural value of hospitality – if a stranger comes to your door, it’s shameful not to show hospitality. And the same dynamic is with Hindu families. You are honoured if someone comes to your door.”
Michelle has a message for the ordinary believers among us rather than just the evangelists.
“There’s a big Muslim focus in Christian outreach. There’s nothing for the Hindu, and actually the Indians are the biggest new migrant group. So we really need to step up, I think,” she says.
“Sometimes storytelling is seen as just a cross-cultural thing, but if we equipped people in churches to practise the oral method of passing on the Bible, then they would become more confident with their family members or the Hindu that they get their coffee from. We need to equip the normal person to learn a tool that’s useful.
“It’s not as if you have to be a dramatic person. You don’t have to understand the whole Hindu world view, but you can listen to that person, what their needs are.
“Imagine if the Christians in our churches were willing to know a Hindu friend well enough to offer to pray for them to Jesus.”
How to pray for your Hindu friends and neighbours
- Pray that they would meet followers of Lord Jesus who really live for him and are good witnesses. Pray that they might have visions, dreams or answered prayers that lead them to know Jesus and hear some of his stories.
- Pray that they will read the Bible for themselves because while experience is a good first point of contact, it’s the word of God that shows the uniqueness of Jesus.
- Pray that Hindus would realise that we cannot attain peace with God through our own effort; we can only accept God’s gift of eternal life.
- Pray that followers of Jesus who love the Bible will learn to share it with Hindu people.
- Pray that through these stories, many will become wise for salvation through faith in the Lord Jesus.
Pitfalls to avoid
“Don’t try to argue with Hindus that Jesus is the only way. Hindus know very quickly if you’re trying to convert them or just trying to win an argument,” says Clive.
“The biggest pitfall is to rush into trying to convince them of Jesus and not listening, not being patient. You need to really love them and take your time to witness to them over time.
“Be respectful of their faith and religion, and listen well and try to find points of contact where you can share how Jesus connects with their own spiritual yearnings. And just keep praying for them – that’s the biggest thing. It’s a spiritual battle … 70 per cent of Hindus come to faith in Jesus through answered prayers.”