When COVID-19 began spreading around the globe and governments and health officials started encouraging “social distancing”, many Dalit people in India began to worry.

Bishop V. Samuel Kennady of the Arcot Lutheran Church (ALC) in Tamil Nadu, India, and one of LPGM’s long-term partners, recently wrote:

The phrase “social distancing” in the context of COVID-19 is logical, but in our context of Caste practices, this phrase implies a different meaning. We’re anxious that there might be a danger of approving this social exclusion in the post-coronavirus world.

The stigma and the psycho-social implications of being an outcast adds trauma to the present scenario.

Our anxiety is that a country like ours will not only have the challenge of fighting against the COVID-19 pandemic, but also economic and social pandemics simultaneously. 

(Lightly edited to improve readability for American English readers)

Who are Dalit People?

Dalit is a Sanskrit word meaning “crushed underfoot” or “oppressed”. It’s a term used by people in India whose families do not fit into the India caste system. Formerly referred to as “untouchables”, Dalit people have been marginalized, both socially and literally. They have been pushed to the margins of their villages for centuries because they were considered unclean and were unable to be touched by high caste people.

Since Indian Independence, protection for Dalit people has been written in India’s Constitution and “untouchability” is outlawed, but social norms and customs still present huge challenges.

Even today in many villages Dalit people are not allowed to enter police stations across India, and in some rural government schools Dalit students are forced to sit separately from other students. [source]

The church stands as witness

From the time of its founding, the Arcot Lutheran Church has been a church of, by and for Dalit people.

The ALC continues to be a voice for Dalit struggles and bears witness to the truth that all people — whether Dalit or high caste — are created and loved by God. The ALC lives and preaches a ministry of reconciliation, where relationships are fundamentally transformed and made new, and where people who were previously excluded are now included.

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;

2 Corinthians 5:17-18

LPGM is proud to partner with the ALC, especially as we navigate these new realities and the complex histories it unveils. We’re committed to continued support during COVID-19, listening to the needs of Dalit people in India, responding in faith, and bearing witness to their needs and priorities.

Who will you include?

As the reality of COVID-19 continues to impact lives around the world, we support preventing the spread of this disease. But we also recognize that words and actions hold deep, meaningful, historical power.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

John 15:12 (NRSV)

As we begin gathering together again, whenever and however we can, ask yourself: how can I be part of a ministry of reconciliation? Who has been excluded in my own community? With whom can I reconcile? Who can I invite into a new relationship?

Author Dan Ruth

Dan Ruth is the executive director of LPGM and an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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