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From India to Detroit Lakes

This past Thursday, a delegation of four representatives from the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church (AELC) of India was in Detroit Lakes to pay a visit to the campus of Minnesota State Community & Technical College (MSCTC).

As part of their tour of the community, the group also visited with local Lutheran pastors, visited the Grace Lutheran Church Vacation Bible School, and attended a meeting of the Noon Rotary Club.

The foursome was accompanied by Rolf Wangberg, bishop of the Northwest Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and his wife Pat. The AELC, which is one of 10 members of the United Evangelical Lutheran Churches in India, is a companion synod to the Northwest Minnesota Synod.

According to Wangberg, the India delegation first arrived in Fargo more than a week ago, and spent its first few days touring the Fargo-Moorhead area, meeting with area Lutheran congregations and visiting local cultural attractions.

This past week, the group has visited Bemidji, Twin Valley, Hendrum, and met with various area dignitaries including Erma Vizenor, chairwoman of the White Earth Band of Chippewa, and Winona LaDuke, ex-vice presidential candidate and founder of the White Earth Land Recovery Project.

"We wanted to give them a good view of our entire Synod, both rural and city," Wangberg said.

Their tour of MSCTC focused on its nursing program, Wangberg noted, because they have a nursing school in Guntur, the home community of the AELC.

"Part of our interest in being here was to see what the nursing school was like here," said Christopher Vardhanbu, presiding bishop of the AELC -- also known as Bishop Christopher. He was accompanied on the trip by his wife Mani, a former schoolteacher who now works with the Women's Wing of the AELC.

"Our school is quite different," Bishop Christopher said. "We have no facilities, no equipment, a lack of qualified professors, a very simple infrastructure."

By contrast, he said, the DL school is "very well equipped," in both facilities and personnel.

"We are jealous," said Suneel Bhanu, a teacher at the Gurukul Lutheran Theological College in Chennai, India, who was the third member of the delegation. The fourth member of the group was Subhashini Bondu, director of the AELC Women's Wing.

Bondu had a prior acquaintance with Minnesota, having attended Luther Seminary in St. Paul as part of her studies, which also included stints at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, and Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, N.J.

As part of his visit to DL, Bhanu gave a presentation on Dalit theology, otherwise known as the caste system.

Based in the Hindu religion, the caste system is a traditional system of social stratification. The four upper classifications, or varnas, are "ritually pure," or "righteous people."

The fifth group, formerly referred to as "untouchables," and now known as "dalits," is considered impure, and therefore not part of the caste system.

This social system, based in religion, determines everything from where a person lives, to what they do for a living, and even where they worship.

"The caste system assigns what we ought to do as professionals," Bhanu said.

Certain professions, such as cleaning streets and sewers, skinning and tanning of dead animals, and so forth, were considered "impure," and were therefore assigned to the dalits.

The problem, Bhanu said, is that these "dirty jobs" did not provide economic stability for the 200 million people classified as dalits.

When the gospel of Christianity came to India, Bhanu said, "it brought a change among us."

"The gospel tells us we are all an integral part of divinity, because God has created us in his own image," Bhanu said. "Therefore, we are all equal. There is no (social) hierarchy. This is good news for us."

"Christianity brought a transformation to our society," Bishop Christopher added. "It brought liberation -- freedom through faith."

"It's a total gospel, for the total human being -- spiritual as well as physical," Bhanu added.

The nursing school established by the AELC in Guntur provides education in the nursing profession to dalits, "who would otherwise not have an opportunity to get a job that allows them to feed their family or have access to health care," Wangberg said.

"We take education so for granted in this country," he added.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454