Before I begin, let me take care of a few disclaimers. I have known several people in my life who have acted as missionaries to foreign countries. To a person they have been noble, courageous and very dedicated. It must be said that to embark on a career that puts individuals and families in remote corners of the world battling heat, mosquitoes and loneliness takes a level of commitment very few come close to embracing. I also know that there are people who will read this who may be very grateful for having had association with missionaries. Far be it from me to negate your experiences. This is not meant to address all the evangelical activities that ever happened. Many would agree that getting societies to cut back on cannibalism and covering up their naughty bits are worthwhile projects. I only speak of my own experiences in the northeast of India, where 6 years ago I toured 30 cities (towns, villages, etc.) and lectured on the subject of dubious conversion tactics.
I was invited by a Hindu based organization (Vivekananda Kendra) that is dedicated to the preservation of indigenous religion and culture in India. During this time I spoke to thousands of residents in 4 Indian states about the nobility of their traditions and made every attempt to intellectually and spiritually arm them against the work of evangelical Christian missionaries.
Westerners have always taken it for granted that missionary work was an honorable occupation. This notion is born out of a sense of social imperialism. The Euro-American culture has for centuries attempted to make the rest of the world a mirror image of itself. This has often led to the dismantling of functioning societies and broken peoples.
As many in the missionary trade know, Hindu India has been a very tough nut to crack. Because of its deep philosophical roots, strong families and time honored traditions, evangelical efforts have been met with great resistance. But the Church has found a weak spot in the northeast states of India, which are comprised of many tribal religions. Historically they have lacked some of the social systems that continue to protect much of the rest of India. Their sense of innocence and hospitality has made them easy fare.
During my time in these states I spoke to several people who bemoaned the presence of missionaries. They told me 1st hand accounts of how pastors would lure their friends and family into the church with medical assistance, education and sometime cold cash. Once members, they were informed that unless they were doing evangelical work they could no longer associate with the heathen relatives and companions of their past. All of the sacred dances, songs, rituals and festivals were forbidden as well. This has caused deep rifts in these communities.
In my talks I encouraged them that their traditions were noble and are part of the reason that their societies operate in such cohesive manners. While individuals who have a true conversion of the heart to any religion should be given the respect they deserve, “rice bowl Christians” are losing much more than they gain.
I also told them about the Christian face of America. They were stunned to learn that we have moderate and progressive factions here that have come to believe that God loves people of all religions and doesn’t need them to change the paths of their ancestors.
To those people who hold such views I ask you to become more vocal about your convictions. Consider sending your overseas charitable dollars to organizations that do good for the sake of doing good with no religious agenda. To my dear friends in the evangelical camp, I know that you disagree with me wholeheartedly on subject of evangelization and conversion, but I would still ask you to monitor the missions you support. If you are encouraging pastors and their agents to bribe people into the fold with material support, are these people truly saved?
FRED STELLA began his spiritual search within the Hindu Dharma at the age of 15. He was initiated into his specific tradition over 20 years ago. His training includes time spent in temples and ashrams both here and in India. His articles have appeared in Freeman, India Link and Hinduism Today magazines, and the Grand Rapids Press. For over a decade Fred has held leadership positions in the local chapter of Self Realization Fellowship (Yogoda Satsanga Society in India) , a worldwide society deeply rooted in the Hindu/Yoga system of teaching. He is an ordained Pracharak (which translates to "Outreach Minister") for the West Michigan Hindu Temple. Under the direction of Vivekananda Kendra in 2005 Mr. Stella completed a 30 city lecture tour in India, joining the effort to promote indigenous culture and religion in areas facing the encroachment of Western influence. Here in the United States, he has given lectures, facilitated workshops and retreats at schools, churches and in the private sector. Fred is on the adjunct faculty of Muskegon Community College, where he is an instructor of Hatha Yoga. He is also president of Interfaith Dialogue Association, and hosts its weekly radio program on Religion and Spirituality, Common Threads on local NPR affiliate, WGVU-FM. Mr. Stella was educated at the University of Detroit, where he majored in Media Studies. Besides IDA, Fred sits on the advisory boards of Grand Dialogue (promoting conversations between Science and Religion), The Kaufman Interfaith Institute and the West Michigan chapter of the ACLU, where he often consults on freedom of religion issues.