Taking the Gospel to the Maritime Frontier

April 03, 2013

This church in the Andaman Islands was rebuilt with help from Christian Aid Mission.

Even indigenous missionaries sometimes feel like they are traveling to the ends of the earth.

From his home in southern India, Dayalan must make a 750-mile journey across the Bay of Bengal to minister to the reclusive tribal peoples who inhabit the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. A century ago that would have meant a lengthy and sometimes dangerous excursion by ship. Today he can take a direct flight from Chennai and arrive in a matter of hours.

That´s the easy part.

After his plane lands in Port Blair, Dayalan meets up with a local believer. It is a bittersweet welcome for Dayalan, who has big shoes to fill as the leader of the mission outreach his father started over 30 years ago.

The men hop into a “heli” for the next leg of their adventure. The view from above of sandy streets filled with auto-rickshaws and taxis soon gives way to the open sea.

They fly south for a few hours until another series of islands, these lacking evergreen forests, come within their line of sight. The pilot points to one and nods his head. “This is the place,” he announces in Hindi.

Security guards stand watch at the heliport. Because access to the Nicobar Islands is restricted, Dayalan and his friends must present papers to verify they are entering the island legally.

A brother in Christ greets them, and together the small band of believers begins a relatively short jaunt through the grasslands to a quaint village. Less than an hour later they come upon a clearing where there are vegetable gardens and a cluster of straw huts.

The small settlement is the Christian brother´s home. With the chief´s approval, he has brought Dayalan and the missionary team to the village. They will share the gospel message as they visit families in their huts. The Christian brother prays the hearts of his people will be moved to follow Christ, too.

To the ends of the earth

When colonial missionaries were traveling to India and China in the 1800s, there was limited interest in establishing a base amid the scattering of 572 islands that make up the Andamans and Nicobars. The area was so removed from civilization, in fact, that it was considered the ideal location for a penal colony. By 1881 over 11,000 convicts populated the islands´ colonial prisons.

The Danes, Portuguese, and other Europeans introduced Christianity to the islands with little success. This changed with the arrival of a South Indian missionary in the early 1900s. His work was continued by John Richardson (also known as Ha-Chev-Ka), a native of Nicobar who translated the New Testament into the local language.

Following independence from Great Britain in 1947, India assumed control of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Although this “Union Territory” is part of India politically, the islands are actually located closer to Indonesia and Thailand.

In 1979 Dayalan´s father started a missionary organization, when he felt called by God to share the good news among unreached people groups in his native India, particularly the hidden island tribes. The next year he and a team of six gospel workers set out to evangelize the islands. They set up headquarters and a church in the Andaman capital city of Port Blair.

Not for the faint-hearted

Church completely destroyed by the tsunami

With the death of his father in 2012, Dayalan has continued the work of the ministry and received ongoing assistance from Christian Aid Mission. In addition to island outreach, a Bible school was founded on the Indian mainland in Chennai in 1980 to train believers to be effective missionaries. A boarding school and children´s home were also opened in Chennai. After the 2004 tsunami, which devastated the Nicobar Islands, many orphans were rescued by Dayalan´s ministry and placed under the loving care of the children´s home.

Missionaries who work in the remote islands live as the natives do. That means they do not have electricity, telephones, or running water. They must contend with unwelcome traveling companions such as centipedes and leeches and, yes, ravenous mosquitoes. And they must beware of crocodiles.

While motorcycles and cars are used in the cities, travel to the jungle areas is challenging to say the least. The best options are helicopter, boat, and on foot.

Tribal children

Because of their primeval culture, the tribal people attract interest among the growing influx of tourists. Concerns over exploitation and outside influences led the Indian government to restrict access so that less than a dozen of the 38 inhabited islands are open to foreigners.

This policy has posed challenges for Dayalan and other missionaries who desire to go deeper into the rainforest to share the gospel with yet to be reached settlements.

However, in a recent newsletter Dayalan reported the Indian government had granted the ministry access to the Nicobars. Two of the organization´s missionaries have received passes that are good through the end of 2013. Praise God for this huge answer to prayer!

“We are not letting go of this opportunity any more. The Islands belong to our Lord!” he said.

Preparing for spiritual harvest

Tribal woman with child

Like mainland India, there are a variety of religious beliefs represented in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. About 22 percent of the population is Christian, but the majority of the inhabitants are Hindu or Muslim.

In the tribal areas, animist beliefs and practices remain a way of life. They believe the souls of the dead leave their bodies immediately to become ghosts. Shamans are summoned to deal with evil spirits who they believe bring misfortune to the islands.

Missionaries face numerous obstacles as they try to communicate the gospel. Most of the tribal peoples are illiterate and thus do not have their own Bibles or Christian literature. There is no electricity for outreach through radio and television. Building relationships with the islanders is the key, and that takes time.

Despite these challenges, some tribal members have responded to the gospel. A few have desired to become missionaries within their own people groups and have received training at the Bible school on the mainland. Two of the Bible students graduated in December and have returned to the Andamans to do ministry.

Christian Aid Mission has worked with this Indian missionary agency since 1982 and played a primary role in helping them meet both physical and spiritual needs following the 2004 tsunami. Funds were sent to the ministry to supply emergency relief to flood victims living in refugee camps, to replace destroyed fishing boats, and to later help rebuild churches and homes.

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