When the Rev. Prince Singh’s first posting after ordination was to a remote, rural village in southern India, he never dreamed it would lead to an international friendship with two parishes in New Jersey.
A native of India, Singh began work in Kothapollimitta, which houses the central church of the larger Kothapollimitta pastorate, in 1990. “It’s literally the last frontier of the Madras Diocese,” Singh said. “I was really the first priest that was appointed to go there. They had had deacons and lay readers before that.”
The pastorate included 17 parishes. Today, it encompasses more than 35, served by one priest, an associate and several deacons, Singh said. “When I was there, I was the only priest, but every parish had its lay Eucharistic minister and lay leader.”
In 1996, Singh became an associate priest at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Morristown, N.J. He began raising awareness about the plight of the Dalit Christians (formerly called “untouchables”) in India. Dalits, who number between 160 million and 250 million, constitute three to four percent of India’s population and 80 percent of India’s Christians.
A Lenten series focusing on the Dalits of Kothapollimitta led to formation of a companion relationship between St. Peter’s and the pastorate. The companionship grew to include St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Franklin Lakes, after Singh became rector there in 2000.
Diocese of Madras Bishop V. Devasahayam, the current pastorate priest, the Rev. Ernest Selvadurai, and his wife, Nilopher, and others have visited the New Jersey parishes. The U.S. churches, in turn, have sent delegations to India. Most recently, two St. Peter’s college students visited Kothapollimitta. Last spring, one of St. Alban’s young people spent two months working with Dalit children in Madras (now called Chennai).
The churches also helped found a school in Kothapollimitta. Children have exchanged greetings and drawings. And a new effort is underway to establish family-to-family links. “This is not about check-writing,” Singh said. “This is not just about building schools. This is really about koinonia, or building friendship.”
“Really, we want to keep the focus of the companionship on the relationship-building aspects ... and keep the spirituality focus as a common, binding factor,” he said. “I think in an increasingly global world ... We’re connected through economies and products and so on, but the human connections are really not there.”
The human connections that do exist feature inequalities of power, he noted. He sees the companionship as a model for bridging barriers of language and money. It’s a chance for Westerners to learn from those in a developing nation, who have great gifts of spirituality, he said.
“So here’s an opportunity where, literally, we are able to go to the ‘suffering church’ ... and learn from them and have them become the teachers, really, of what it means to practice a vibrant and sincere faith in Christ.”
St. Peter’s parishioners John and Jennifer Dyer experienced that when they visited India in 2001.
“One of the things that we did get from it was a realization that, when you have nothing, you become very spiritual,” John Dyer said. “They were much more spiritual than the people here in the United States, who have everything. When you’re without, the things around you become important: Nature becomes important, life become important, and God is paramount, and that’s all they have.”
They saw examples of extreme poverty and the abuse Dalits endure. Dyer vividly recalls meeting a family who lived in a makeshift lean-to on a sidewalk and how a hotel manager refused to let him give a 45-rupee tip, worth $1, to a restroom attendant.
“The Dalit people are essentially low-class workers to do the beck and call of the higher-caste [people],” he said. “They live under conditions where they have nothing. They live on dirt floors in huts that are made from straw roofs and mud walls.”
Yet, he said, “I sense this great spirituality and belief in the way they talked and the way they carried themselves and the pride they had in themselves.”
“Our trip to India was the hardest trip I’ve ever been on; it was so different, and the conditions were so hard. I still have difficulty putting into words, what do we get out of it.”
But, he added, “I wouldn’t have changed anything.”