Mormonism: a fledgling faith in India
What India’s 11,000 Mormons lack in numbers they make up in passion, and are convinced that their faith is growing
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Praveen Beesa was born into a staunchly Christian family in Hyderabad. So religion, as a Protestant Christian, was a way of life. However, as a teenager, he began to have misgivings about the family’s faith. His first thoughts were if God and Jesus Christ were one, why did Christ call upon God when he was on Earth; and because Jesus came to preach the truth, he obviously couldn’t have been praying to someone up there, if God and he weren’t two different entities.
The family elders were unable to address the exasperating queries bordering on heresy around the Holy Trinity. “My parents told me that he (God) was Holy Father in heaven. He came to the earth as Jesus Christ, and he died and became the Holy Ghost. This didn’t make sense,” recalled Beesa.
Little did Beesa know that these were the very foundations of Mormonism—a religious movement with 15 million followers globally.
The crisis of faith continued to simmer inside Beesa. So it was not surprising that a curious yet reluctant 17-year-old Beesa joined his cousin, a practising Mormon, one afternoon in 1989, to attend the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints—colloquially known as the Church of Mormons. It was a turning point for Beesa: he embraced Mormonism.
Though a sizeable movement in the world, in India it is still fledgling, with only 11,000 believers like Beesa. Even though only 0.0009% of the Indian population, the Mormons in India do not feel any lesser than the followers of other faiths. What they lack in numbers they make up in passion, and are convinced that their faith is growing.
With a well-built body, 5 ft 8 inches height, and a dark complexion, 40-year-old Beesa’s eyes turn misty as soon as he begins speaking about his journey into Mormonism.
The family church was just a few blocks away from his house, unlike the church of Mormons, which was 12-15km away—regardless, every Sunday he would hitch a ride for part of the way and walk for the rest. “(Before I went to the church) I hadn’t ever felt like that before. I came to know many things about God, about myself after being introduced to Mormonism,” says Beesa.
In the family church, the children, because it was a large congregation, ended up at the back—closer to the main entrance—and could therefore barely hear the Sunday sermon. This contrasted with his present experience. “Here (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) it was a one to one communication. If someone looks into your eyes and explains, you focus on them completely.”
All this, Beesa says, made sense to him. It was personal and nothing was forced on him by anyone.
Like Beesa, all the Mormons see themselves as Christians, because at the basic level whoever follows Jesus Christ is supposed to be a Christian. But there are differences in the theology of the two faiths. For starters, Christians believe in the historic doctrine of the Trinity: one God in Father, Son and Holy Spirit—three persons but one god. Mormons, even though they use the same terminology, believe that God the Father and the son Jesus Christ are separate spiritual beings with resurrected bodies of flesh and bone; the third member of the Saints’ godhead, the Holy Ghost, is a spirit.
However, Fr Joseph Chinnayyan, deputy secretary general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), says the only one who understands the Trinity is the Trinity himself; and if someone understands the Trinity completely, he will become God. But according to the Catholic belief, he says, “The second person of the Trinity became a man (Jesus Christ) and has two different natures—human and divine. The human form of the second person is Christ. When he is in the Trinity, he is never Jesus Christ.”
The Mormons believe their church has an authority or what they call priesthood to act on behalf of Jesus Christ. “This authority (that Christ gave his apostles to act in his name) was lost from the Earth because of apostasy and it was restored to the earth through Joseph Smith,” says Mormon William Black.
William Black (67) and Rebecca Black (58), from Texas, are on a two-year “mission”—not to proselytize, but what the Blacks describe as “help with the humanitarian needs of the poor and disadvantaged and assist members of the Mormon Church with leadership support”.
In the last 12 years, the Blacks claim that the church has contributed nearly $35 million for humanitarian activities in India.
Spreading the faith
The first Mormon missionaries arrived in India to proselytize in 1850, just two decades after the movement’s foundation. The religion, which is constantly mocked at and grapples with disillusionment even among its own members, has 40 churches in India, spread over 15 cities across Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Goa, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Haryana.
“The core values of the Mormon faith are in many ways consistent with the deep cultural heritage of the Indian people. The values agree or magnify their (Indians’) own beliefs. Our focus on enriching the family, our emphasis on clean and wholesome living, and our programmes for the youth have found a home in the hearts of many Indian people,” says Rebecca Black (who refers to herself as Sister Black).
Six months after Beesa was introduced to the religion, the church invited him to get baptized. “My parents were surprised. They were like ‘why do you need to get baptized again? You were baptized as a child’,” says Beesa. “The missionaries told me the real meaning of baptism…that it is done for the forgiveness of sins and what and how would a child have sinned.”
The concept of baptism, Catholics believe, is for remission of the stains of the original sin that a human brings along when he enters this world and also of any other sins one might have committed. Mormons, the Catholics argue, focus on just the second part.
Most of the work in spreading the faith is done by young volunteer missionaries. In the church, large numbers of young men at age 18 and young women at age 19, choose to serve a mission for two years (for men) or 18 months (for women). They learn the local dialect of the people among whom they will serve.
“And during that mission, they spend virtually every waking moment working to find people who might be interested in their message, providing various kinds of humanitarian service, and building up local congregations,” says David F. Holland, an associate professor at Harvard Divinity School who is a practising Mormon.
“Because the local congregations are led by unpaid lay pastors, most members volunteer a great deal of time and energy to their faith community; this gives people a sense of value and usefulness. In local congregations, the church is not run by its paid and formally trained ministers. It is run by its members, who therefore feel a great sense of investment in the community,” says Holland.
Beesa was 18 when the church asked him if he wanted to go on a mission. He borrowed white shirts and black pants from his older cousins and ties from his friends and packed them into a red suitcase. The two-year mission started in Chennai, then moved to Bangalore, Coimbatore, and ended in New Delhi. During the mission, these missionaries, dressed in white shirts and black pants, are supposed to knock on the doors of strangers, walk up to anyone on the street, and introduce themselves and the faith. “It (the mission) is very difficult. People slam the door on you, abuse you,” says Beesa.
According to 53-year-old Suvarna Kumar Katuka, branch president of the New Delhi mission, the faith has been slow to spread in India because of a language barrier. “All the church literature was made available in English. We were asked to teach people who knew English. We concentrated on the areas where we had the churches and on those who knew English,” he says.
After completing their mission, Mormons return to their normal lives. Beesa had to get back to his education. He joined a college and then moved to Delhi a few years later, picking up a job in a bank soon after, and continues to be an active member of the church.
Beesa says people keep telling him he is a typical Mormon. However, there is nothing about him that conveys such an impression at first glance. He wears a certain kind of undergarment, a two-piece item of clothing hugging the body from mid-arm to knee that all Mormons have to wear. Beesa says it is not a “secret but a sacred symbol” of his faith.
Like others of his faith, he doesn’t consume alcohol, smoke, or drink tea or coffee, which, in the parlance of Mormons, is advised by the “Word of Wisdom”. All these are forbidden for Mormons, and if you don’t follow this, then you have sinned. His free time is spent with his wife and two children, which does not leave him any time to socially engage with his friends.
“We don’t have individual plans. We make plans as a family, which is what the church teaches us to do,” says Beesa.
Beesa’s house is overtly Christian. On the right side slightly above the main entrance is a portrait of Christ. Inside the apartment, there are pictures everywhere, but no sign of a cross—which substantiates what William Black said: “Cross is the symbol of the death of Christ and we believe that he is living.”
Each Sunday, Beesa and his family attend prayers for three hours. The communion worship is relatively informal and the most important part is the sacrament meeting. During the service, the members receive a sacramental communion of bread and water, during which an introductory prayer called the sacrament prayer is recited and everyone remembers the life of Christ and his sacrifices.
The temples of Mormons, like their headquarters in Utah state of the US, are majestic and beautifully designed according to the country they are built in. Their churches, however, are just like any typical residential or official building. There is nothing fancy or typically church-like about them. There are no pictures, crosses or candles. There are no ceremonies or priests. Anyone from any faith can go to their churches, but only a Mormon can enter the temple.
Beesa gets emotional as he starts talking about how Jesus Christ, his religion and prayers helped him in difficult times. He tried converting his family, his cousins and his two brothers, but was unsuccessful. Beesa says their hearts and minds are closed. He refers to the scriptures and says that “mine elect hear my voice”. Like many other Mormons, he thinks he is the elected one.
While the Mormons in India believe they will continue to grow and draw more followers to their faith, the more dominant sects are not perturbed.
CBCI spokesperson Fr Chinnayyan says, “We are not disturbed or concerned about the movement (Mormonism). This might be a course of events—natural or man-made—but it will never destroy the (mainstream) church. We have seen in the last 2,000 years these sects come up; they die just like they come up. We don’t want to spend our time and energy in confronting them or contradicting them. We pray for them so that ultimately they may regain the original faith.”