If Pope Francis wants a Church of the poor, he’ll find it in India

Mumbai, India — From the beginning, Pope Francis has said he dreams of a “poor Church for the poor,” a community where downtrodden people who otherwise stand at the peripheries of the world are, for once, where the action is.

If that’s what this pope wants, he’ll probably never do any better than India.

Despite having two cities in the top five of the most populous urban areas in the world, to understand Christianity in India one has get out of the urban sprawl and go to the margins of society. One such place is Manor, a township composed of a series of rural villages about 60 miles outside Mumbai, India’s financial capital.

To reach these isolated settlements, one has to venture through half-finished roads and be willing to walk through mud, a byproduct of the rice plantations that dominate the local economy. In Kev village, which is little more than a settlement of 15 to 20 houses, the Protestant “Jesus for All Nations” church is led by young pastor Sainath Rawte.

The village is made up of subsistence-level farmers, where the monthly income for a family of four or five is around $45. Rawte’s church has about 40 faithful, and assembles for worship in a structure that doubles as a family home. Chickens roam free, children sleep on mats on the floor, and elderly village women troubled by the cold take naps in the dirt under a baking sun.

However deprived it may be, Rawte’s situation is far more representative of the vast majority of Christians in India than the impressive structures one can find in a handful of urban enclaves such as the Bandra neighborhood in Mumbai, where affluent Catholics form virtually a self-enclosed religious colony.

(To this day, there are housing developments in Bandra where a baptismal certificate is required to buy a home.)

Overall, Christians represent somewhere between 2.3 to 3 percent of India’s population. That sounds low until you consider there are 1.25 billion Indians, which means the country has around 25 to 30 million Christians – a higher total, for instance, than the entire Christian population of Canada.

Most estimates hold that around 70 to 75 percent of those Christians come from India’s lowest classes: the “Dalits,” formerly known as the “untouchables” or “outcasts,” and the “tribals,” who belong to indigenous groups that represent India’s original inhabitants and are still roughly 1/10th of the country.

The same statistics apply to the Catholic Church in India, which is overwhelmingly Dalit and tribal at the grassroots, though not at the top.

Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, a tribal himself, estimates there are perhaps 30 tribal bishops in the country and nine Dalits, out of a total of 235 bishops. That would mean that while 70-75 percent of all Catholics are lower-caste, only 17 percent of the Church’s leadership is from the bottom rungs of the ladder.

The Rev. Augustine Kanjamala, author of “The Future of the Christian Mission in India” (Pickwick, 2014), says the Catholic Church’s missionary efforts in India generally have failed to reach the upper classes.

Speaking to Crux Monday, Kanjamala said he believes the Christian message has been more appealing to Dalits and tribals because it preached the principle of equality and human dignity.

“[Christians] opposed the so-called oppression of the peoples, so people from the lower castes see it as a way to overcome the historic oppression they’re under,” he said.

Kanjamala said that in some ways, Christianity has paid off for those lower classes.

Recent statistics, he said, show that literacy rates in the Indian state of Odisha are far higher for Christian Dalits than non-Christian members of the group. He also said that generally speaking, Christians among India’s underclasses fare better in terms of unemployment rates and life opportunities.

On the other hand, he acknowledged that becoming Christian can also expose Dalits and tribals to additional discrimination, this time based on religion in addition to caste.

The Rev. Ajaya Kumar Singh, a Catholic priest who heads the Odisha Forum for Social Action, agrees.

“Because Christians are from the lowest caste, they’re untouchable, and because they’re Christians they’re seen as anti-national … they’re treated worse than dogs.”

Catholics are believed to be 1.6 percent of India’s population, close to 20 million people. Many of those Catholics are hoping Pope Francis will make a stop here the next time he visits Asia, since the pontiff has already been to South Korea, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines.

It’s not hard to believe Francis would feel right at home in the most crowded nation of the Global South, where his own flock doesn’t ponder the challenges of poverty; it lives them.