PARRAPAT, India (Mennonite Mission Network) — Indian Mennonites from the Bharatiyah General Conference Mennonite Church celebrated 50 years of Bible festivals Feb. 6-10 by proclaiming Christ’s victory to their neighbors and worshipping thousands-strong.
On Feb. 8, for the first time ever, participants at the Golden Jubilee mela (festival) in India’s Chhattisgarh region celebrated their faith by marching about two miles from nearby Basna to Parrapat, which has hosted the gathering since 1959. Two days later, nearly 3,000 people attended the culminating worship service.
With chanting, singing, dancing and fireworks, marchers left the Mennonite Church in Basna following a prayer service. A group of police officers provided security for the marchers. Only 2.3 percent of Indians are Christian and in Chhattisgarh, as in many regions of India, public preaching is banned, and some persecution of Christians exists.
Still, the ban did little to inhibit marchers, who spent more than two hours joyously, and slowly, covering the road.
“In the name of Jesus,” a leader would cry in Hindi.
“Jai,” came the response – “Victory.”
Mahendre Kulbeep, an agent of BGCMC, said, “The public should know there are Christians here. … This is a peace rally. By this rally, we are leaving a message for the name and hand of Jesus.”
The Rev. Ismael Kumar, pastor of the Church of the Savior in Orisa and mela chairman, said melas are common in his region of India.
“Hindi people manage several melas. There are so many businesses, so many things happening, but this mela is separate,” Kumar said. “This mela is worshipping. This is completely Mennonite.”
Barkat Chandu, who said his grandmother was the first Mennonite convert in India, said the mela, the march and other forms of witness are important in an age when outright public evangelism is difficult.
“There is lots of agitation against preaching, evangelism. You can do it, but many government regulations have to be gone through,” Chandu said. “We can preach what we want about God, about Jesus Christ. We can teach from the Old Testament, the New Testament … but we’re not able to talk about conversion.”
Officials at the mela did offer an altar call, though the ceremonies were more about worship than about conversion. An all-night rainstorm flooded tents and the seating area the morning of Feb. 9, sending most of the participants off-site to dry out, but nearly 3,000 people returned to the mela the next morning for the final worship service. Jitendra (Jay) Henry, administrator of Bethany Bible College through Mid-India Christian Mission, offered the primary messages as worshippers squeezed onto chairs or sat on beds of straw under red, white, green and blue shelters.
Speakers used at least five languages to offer messages of challenge and praise, culminating in a celebration of the Lord’s Table. Pastors in robes and parishioners in street clothes passed out juice and wafers, supplementing them with chapattis for those at the rear of the crowd.
According to Ibrahim Nand, a Jagdeeshpur Mennonite who has attended each of the Parrapat melas, the spiritual committee of BGCMC worked with mission workers Jacob Giesbrecht and Edward Burkhalter from Commission on Overseas Missions, a predecessor agency of Mennonite Mission Network, to start a mela in nearby Naranpal in 1958. Nand, whose small book chronicling the 50 years of celebrations was distributed during Sunday’s services, said the festival moved to Parrapat the following year.
Bharatiyah General Conference Mennonite Church formed in 1922, 23 years after General Conference Mennonites from the United States and Russia arrived in central India as mission workers. Since mission workers left more than two decades ago, the church has grown to 27 congregations with more than 7,000 members.
The melas have long included many competitions – for best songs (traditional and contemporary), praise dances, debates and Bible memorization. This year, young competitors memorized the book of 1 Peter.
Nand said in an electronic age, the mela retains its importance.
“Here we are living as a family,” Nand said, gesturing toward more than 30 canvas tents and seven large shelters that housed particpants on the 19-acre field for the five-day festival. “This is not just fellowship with God, but fellowship with people also.”
Worshippers also welcomed a visit from Ajit Jogi, a Christian member of Parliament and former chief minister, with ceremonial garlands, fireworks and other means of celebration. Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite Church Canada Witness also sent representatives to the five-day festival.
The Parrapat mela is not the only celebration in the region. An ecumenical festival started by Mennonites celebrated its 100th festival earlier in February and another BGCMC gathering took place in Champa, farther north, later in the month.