Front page: Three CGS members take speaking tour of India region to visit Sabbath Christians

By Bill Stough

LONEDELL, Mo.--"I knew the meaning of culture shock when I stepped off that plane in India," said Keith Kleeschulte of St. Peters, Mo. "Children with missing limbs ran up begging from us. The smell and the filth of Bombay; cab drivers, looking stern, demanding you go in their cab. You feel like a prey. I doubted whether I should be there."

Mr. Kleeschulte, on his first trip to India, felt frightened for a few minutes.

"But I'd asked God to give me a chance to serve Him better, so I prayed for strength and knew God was there. I said, 'It's just You and me, Lord,' and I had to grow up in a hurry."

An answered prayer

Shortly after the 1999 Feast of Tabernacles, Mr. Kleeschulte said he began thinking about ways to better serve God.

"I had this kind of intense inner longing to do something more but didn't know what," he told a writer for The Journal.

Mr. Kleeschulte is an unordained man who works a blue-collar job for Ford Motor Co. in St. Louis, Mo. He made an announcement to his congregation, the Church of God Sabbatarian (CGS) in St. Louis, that he would like people to pray that God give him an opportunity that would fit his abilities.

Both Mr. Kleeschulte and another member of his congregation, Ron Saladin, receive The Herald of Truth, a newsletter published by the Seventh Day Church of God (SDCG) in Caldwell, Idaho (not affiliated with the Denver-based Church of God [Seventh Day]).

Mr. Saladin noticed an article by the editor, Paul Woods, stating that he and two others would soon take a trip to India to visit their church's congregations there. They had visited them 12 years ago.

Mr. Saladin called Mr. Woods to ask him if he would check to see if a minister whom the CGS (associated with the Churches of God Outreach Ministries) was supporting with donations was legitimate or a fraud. (Mr. Saladin learned during the trip to India that this minister was apparently merely out to get American money and was not actually supporting a Christian congregation.)

Meantime, someone who had planned to accompany Mr. Woods on the trip canceled out. Since Mr. Woods had Mr. Kleeschulte's phone number, he called him to ask if either he or Mr. Saladin would like to accompany him on a "mission" trip.

The representative from the CGS could then check out the legitimacy of the minister in question and help preach to the SDCG churches as well.

Since Mr. Kleeschulte had a five-week leave of absence available from Ford, he jumped at the chance. Within weeks he was on his way, financed by people in his congregation as well as a church in Omaha, Neb.

Mr. Woods explained to The Journal that he does not recognize denominational boundaries.

"It meant nothing to me that Mr. Kleeschulte is not a member of the same denomination as me," he said. "He is a Christian and a son of God."

So it was that Paul Woods of Caldwell, Idaho; Criss Whidden of Forks, Wash.; and Keith Kleeschulte set off to India last December. It was a month-long trip that Mr. Kleeschulte said changed his life forever.

The Bombay experience

"Bombay was a city full of idols," Mr. Kleeschulte recalled. "The taxi driver who was taking us to our hotel had one on his dashboard. We passed a seven-story Hindu temple that made me feel sick on the inside. When the cab stopped, holy men in white gowns would come up to us and offer rock salt to make us closer to God."

Destruction and poverty were everywhere, he said.

"People close to death from starvation were walking the streets. When you're there it's all very different from seeing it on TV. North of the areas where we were are very dangerous for Christians. Two missionaries had been burned to death just one month before we arrived."

Only about 2 percent of the population of India is Christian, he said, and he thinks the people's religion contributes to their poverty.

"Hinduism is killing them. The people are protein-starved, yet cows walk everywhere but can't be killed or eaten. They can't kill rats either. Since reincarnation says these animals could be a former relative of yours, no one may kill them. Rats eat their grain and spread diseases."

Conditions in the south of India are better.

"The further south you go, the more the population is Christian. People in India are very religious, but Satan got to their ancestors and led them to this rather than to the true God."

Mr. Kleeschulte didn't enjoy the smells, the sight of the "walking dead," the people living in extreme poverty.

"Bombay is a horrible place. If you'd grab these people's clothing it would come right off because it is so decayed from age and moisture."

Indians often stand in the sewage that runs at the base of some of the food stalls in the markets while buying their food.

"Homes for the poor in Bombay are made of cardboard and corrugated metal, and everything is rotted from moisture and pollution. In one city the driver pointed out where ox carts go through the streets, pick up the dead and drive them to the top of a ravine. They throw the bodies off and let the birds eat them. That's gross, but that's just the way it is. We knew of no Sabbath Christians in Bombay, so we spent little time there."

Hindu temples are locked up at night, he said, because idols are frequently stolen.

"Apparently these gods can't take care of themselves."

Mr. Kleeschulte, Mr. Woods and Mr. Whidden took a 12-hour train ride from Bombay to Palakol and witnessed government officials with machine guns walking the aisles.

Orphans for Christ

"I thought again, What are we doing here? The next week the same train was booby-trapped, but a plot to kill the officials on that train was thwarted. We have no grasp of how different life is for us in the West."

Sagar Prakasam, 32, runs an orphanage for 72 children in Palakol. The children come from various locations in India and are referred to Mr. Prakasam by people in the towns and cities where Sabbath-observing Christians have congregations.

Mr. Prakasam oversees 12 of the congregations, and Isaac Terah of Prathipadu oversees 30 more. The orphans are not all children of Christians, but all are taught to live Christian lives, including observance of the Sabbath.

"Orphans get up at 6:30 a.m. and go to the church next door and praise God in song and learn from the Bible," Mr. Kleeschulte said. "They do the same at night. These kids really love God. They put us to shame. These kids have so little, but everything they have they offer to you. They radiate joy.

"Sagar's father used to run the orphanage but died when Sagar was 22. Sagar took over. He is 32 now. He runs the orphanage and supervises 12 churches. His left arm is limp, but nothing stops him."

A school on the property, the Hebron School, is run by Sagar Prakasam. The entire operation of the school, orphanage and church at Palakol is financed on $550 a month. The government requires that the orphanage have a school that must educate children from the community. School officials admitted 180 Hindu children and considered their admission an evangelistic opportunity.

Over the door of the school is a sign: "Jesus Is Lord." All the children take a Bible class. The school receives no government money and charges no tuition. Almost all the funds used to support it are donated by Christians from the United States.

"Some people think that when you mix with the world the world will rub off on you," said Mr. Kleeschulte, "but the 72 Christian orphans are the ones infecting the 180 Hindu children with Christian beliefs and values. The Christians are winning."

A pastor in one of the villages had been an orphan at Palakol. He moved after his graduation four years ago to a village and started a congregation that now has about 40 people who have converted from Hinduism. Many Christian orphans move to villages and influence Hindu people.

"Teaching Christianity to children from birth is very important," said Mr. Kleeschulte.

The orphanage once had a printing operation, but Mr. Prakasam couldn't afford to keep the press and run the orphanage. So he sold the press. Shortly thereafter the building in which it had been located collapsed. The press had been used to print literature for the Sabbath-keepers that they also distributed to their Hindu neighbors.

"We have mounted an effort to buy a new press for them," said Mr. Woods. "That old press was badly out of date anyway. We can't print literature in the U.S. to send to them because they don't use the same alphabet. We have to buy a press in India. The press not only provides religious materials for them; it is also used to teach the printing trade to orphans. We presently have $1,000 built up but need $15,000 for the press and building. We trust God to bring it about."

In front of the orphanage is a polluted lake. A Hindu temple is on the other side about 200 feet away.

"We spent our first Sabbath at Sagar's church while prayers from that Hindu temple were blaring over the temple's loudspeaker," remembered Mr. Kleeschulte. "All of us prayed silently for peace, and suddenly the Hindu prayers stopped. I don't know what happened to their sound system, but I say if it ain't fixed leave it broken."

Visiting congregations

The three Americans left Palakol to visit at least 40 Sabbath-keeping congregations with about 3,000 people in regular attendance. All of the churches they visited in that part of India are affiliated with the Seventh Day Church of God.

The Americans would travel from town to town by taxi. Mr. Prakasam had arranged the visits in advance. They visited more than one congregation each day of every day of the week during their time there in December. Since most Indian men work in agriculture, they were usually able to get off work to hear the visiting speakers.

During services in the Indian congregations men sit on one side and women on the other. They do not have chairs but sit on the floor with burlap bags as padding. Most congregations have at least a part-time pastor. They have many young people and many children. It is the custom for someone in the audience to read aloud the scriptures that are referred to by the preacher.

"In Hyderbad there were three congregations," said Mr. Woods. "This is a community of about 10 million people. One of these churches meets in the open on top of a five-story building. They need their own church building."

The approximately 40 congregations the men visited mostly had their own buildings.

"Some had open walls with thatched roofs," said Mr. Kleeschulte. "It costs about $400 to $800 to build a decent church building in India. This includes electric service and a PA [public-address] system. The smallest church had 15 people."

After services the brethren would provide the men with bananas and coconut juice.

"These churches are everywhere," said Mr. Kleeschulte. "They are out in the remotest of villages, with poor roads leading to them. Some of the ministers in those congregations are graduates of Sagar's orphanage. Other orphans have graduated, moved, married, produced Christian children and influenced the Hindus around them. That is known as producing fruit."

The Americans remarked on the courage of the Indian Christians.

"These fellow Christians are very bold," said Mr. Kleeschulte. "All of their church buildings have PA systems, with horn speakers mounted on their roofs. By this means they broadcast every service to the community. This they do in a country hostile to Christianity with Hindu temples and idols everywhere."

Churches of God in the West lose many of their children when they reach adulthood, said Mr. Kleeschulte, but not so with the brethren in India.

"The three of us were constantly telling people to stop looking to us as being near godlike. I would constantly say in sermon time that I'm a sinner just like every human and that they should look to God alone."

Yet the Indians are "enthralled" with Americans, he said.

"They see America's greatness and know it must have come from God. But we are only flesh, not God. A visit by three Americans to their churches gets about the same response as someone in the U.S. who likes sports would feel if he were invited to someone's home which had as guests that day Mark McGwire, Kurt Warner and Michael Jordan. So we constantly had to point them away from us and toward God."

Speakers on the roofs

People often stood outside the buildings when the men spoke.

"We would say a few sentences, and the translator would speak. The people outside could hear because of the PA speakers on the church roofs."

The Americans learned from Indian elders that the most effective sermons make use of one scripture, a Bible example and a story about America.

"Using many scriptures causes you to lose the audience, and many of them are illiterate," said Mr. Kleeschulte.

"As we went south in India, the standard of living rose, and I saw few idols. I can't prove that's the reason, but it struck me. At Cochin it was like Miami. That was the end of our India trip and I couldn't find any idols there."

The churches in India, said the men, seem to be on the grow, although they have neither huge organizations nor high-tech broadcasting and publishing abilities. Mr. Woods said the whole Indian operation is financed by about 48 Americans who regularly contribute to it.

The total income to the central office of the Seventh Day Church of God in Caldwell has never reached $50,000 per year, yet the money that does come in finances all their foreign churches and worldwide efforts in many nations.

Some U.S. pastors receive a salary from local congregations.

"There's no way you can figure this out on paper," said Mr. Woods. "God doesn't just need money to get things done. He provides and has ways of making things happen that are amazing."

He said that he and his wife, Linda, live in a used house trailer they paid for years ago. The Woodses have a garden and consider themselves "very blessed by God."

Do the Indian Christians encounter persecution because of Sabbath-keeping?

"Not much," said Mr. Kleeschulte. "During harvest season they face employment troubles like we do everywhere. But they are hard-working people. They are absolutely not lazy.

"A greater problem to them than Sabbath observing is the huge unemployment problem for the country. It is God who helps them survive. In spite of work-schedule difficulties, most that we met were zealous Sabbath-keepers."

Sabbatarians dominate small towns

Do Sunday observers create problems for the Sabbath-keepers in India?

"Not really. Sabbath Christians tend to be the dominant Christian church in the smaller towns. There is no equivalent situation to that in the West. There is not as much religious rivalry with Sunday-observing churches as the West has either. The Catholic Church seems to be the most dominant of Sunday churches, and that tends to be in the larger population areas."

The Sabbath-keepers are doing a good job as Christians, said Mr. Kleeschulte.

"We went to churches in villages with attendance of 15 in one to 250 in some. They sure seem given to God, and I talked to many. I'm not saying all are true Christians any more than it would be so in a given congregation in the West. Our mission was to encourage them, worship with them and let them know that there are people in America standing with them as fellow Christians."

The Indians, said Mr. Kleeschulte, boldly proclaim their belief in God and Jesus.

"They are not ashamed of Jesus, and their numbers keep growing because of that. Also, these congregations also continue on because they diligently teach their children. Their numerical growth has been there and is still going on. So how could God not be real to them and standing with them?"

Most of the congregations have full-time pastors, each of whom may pastor churches in several towns. They travel by foot, bicycle or taxi.

"One church member took a [piano] keyboard on a motorcycle 20 miles each Sabbath from one congregation to the next because the next congregation didn't have one. Even that has something to say about their Christianity."

Sabbath-keeping Christians throughout India are heavily involved with schools, Mr. Kleeschulte said. Many of them have established schools that teach anywhere from 30 to 100 children each.

Preaching the Word

"In one town some Sabbath-keeping parents ran a school of 100 that was also a boarding school for the kids. Both parents often go to work when they can find it. Sometimes they must be gone for a week or two. Since commuting is not possible in remote areas, they are forced to stay where the work is. This opens a need that Sabbath-keeping Christians can fill."

At one school the teachers had written scriptures on some of the outside walls.

Most of the children are Hindi, but the Christians have a profound effect on them, said Mr. Kleeschulte.

"Once you have seen what we saw in India, you will never be the same again. These people are open and bold for Christ, and there is so much we can learn from them. They put us to shame."

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