The National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) and its service wing, the Christian Service Agency, is an umbrella organization that represents the Protestant and Orthodox Churches in India. It is an ecumenical council of the 30 mainline protestant and orthodox churches in India. It has within its membership 17 Regional Councils of Churches (RCCs), 17 All India Christian Organizations (AICOs), and & 7 Related Agencies (RAs). The Council has its headquarters in Nagpur and runs a liaison office in Delhi and it manages its intervention through 7 commissions and 3 Autonomous Bodies of the Council.
The Christian Service Agency is the service wing of the NCCI. The CSA undertakes programs of capacity building in the areas of ecology and the Church, peace-building, youth and ecumenical formation, gender, mainstreaming and advocacy, and on issues relating to the public witness of the church.
BACKGROUND OF ESHA PROGRAMME:
A church sermon by a former General Secretary of NCCI, challenging the Church to take up the fight against HIV, brought Kerk in Actie in touch with NCCI whose “Policy on HIV and AIDS: A Guide to the Church in India” was passed in their General Assembly in Shillong in 2008. Thus began the partnership with Kerk in Actie and ICCO Cooperation since 2008, with the starting of the ESHA Program , which used to be called the Ecumenical Solidarity for HIV and AIDS during the first four phases, as it focused on HIV and AIDS, and thereafter when the focus changed to Human Sexuality and Gender Diversities in Phase V, the Program retained the acronym ESHA till date. In order to provide continuity in the minds of the various stakeholders, the project steering committee has recommended that NCCI’s collaboration with ICCO Cooperation and Kerk in Actie should continue with the same acronym “ESHA”, but to no longer use the full name [i.e. Ecumenical Solidarity on HIV and AIDS] since the focus has shifted.
From a simple HIV and AIDS Policy accepted by the Member Churches of NCCI in Shillong in 2008, ESHA has taken the salient features of this historic document, applied them to 4 focus areas, and mainstreamed them over the last 6 years. The PAC and KAP tools measured the changes, and ESHA used this information and background to create 2 National-level Policies and the other, a Work Place Policy (WPP) for NCCI’s Christian Organisations. It brought out a ‘Reader on HIV’ for the students and staff of 50 Theological Colleges all over India associated with the Senate of Serampore. It has successfully worked to bring about awareness and remove stigma from youth through its interfaith programs, both at regional and national levels. It has created 2 films, highlighting some of the success stories, and has made a documentary that will take ESHA’s messages and foci to a much wider audience. It has brought out a Detailed Implementation Plan for schools to help them re- assess their inclusiveness and also finalized a SIT – a Social Inclusion Tool – that can be used by Churches and their Educational Institutions to assess themselves. It has conducted 3 Dialogues between Church Leaders and KAPs, which paved the way for the present Phase 5 to work among them.
During the first four phases, ESHA has had four important foci: removal of stigma and discrimination, care and support, human sexuality and gender justice. The work done by ESHA between 2008 and August 2015 resulted in some degree of institutionalization through the churches in the first two of ESHA four foci viz., stigma & discrimination, and care & support. However, not enough was done in the latter two, viz., gender justice, and [especially in] the field of human sexuality.
Hence, ESHA in phase IV (2013-2015) held several workshops entitled, “Church Leaders and Key Affected People”. From these workshops it became evident that the churches needed to be asked how, and in which manner, they could proceed to engage with sensitive communities like the PLWA’s, LGBT, CSW, IVDU etc., especially since many churches refused to accept even their presence. It became clear that the silence around sensitive issues like sexual diversity were closely related to religious/ cultural norms and values, and that the influence wielded by religious leaders would be of great significance, and hence the need for sensitization of church leaders on these issues becomes even more significant.
The reality of Diverse Sexuality, Gender Identity and the average Faith Leaders reluctance to engage in their issues and the consequent lacuna in the ministry of churches in responsibly addressing the needs of PDSOs, has been a singularly explicit reason for the marginalization of Key Affected People [KAP’s]. It is no different with Churches, Church Institutions and Christian Leaders. It is a fact that ESHA has been evolving, just as the Churches involvement in sexuality issues has been evolving and enlarging – however measured their pace. It is fitting therefore, that ESHA now engages in the field of diverse sexuality. We believe that just as NCCI gave leadership to the Indian Churches in the field of HIV and AIDS almost 12 years ago, it is time for NCCI to lead again, and encourage them to engage with and openly talk about issues of diverse human sexuality, thereby removing the present silence and stigma.
Churches in India will have a more inclusive ministry to all marginalized people and groups, particularly to Key Affected People (KAPs), including Persons with Different Sexual Orientations (PDSOs)
As people committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, we affirm that the gospel is for all of God’s creation. No one is excluded from God’s grace; God wants all creation to be transformed into expressions of the reign and values of God. However human beings influenced by patriarchy, caste, heterosexual culture, and a religious understanding of clean and unclean and of what is acceptable and inacceptable, set up standards, rules and regulations on the basis of which some people are judged to be outside the grace and the commonwealth of God. Hence in addressing the concerns of Key Affected People –including PDSOs – there is the urgent necessity for the church to revisit its theology of human beings, the understanding of the place of all creation including PDSOs in God’s sight, human sexuality and gender justice. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal.3:28). In the light of such revisited and rearticulated biblical hermeneutics and theological affirmations, churches need to re-examine their ministries among and with marginalized people, particularly PDSOs. Churches will have to open their doors, enlarge their tents in ministry, and be engaged in newer forms of ministry.
Based on our experiences and learning from the ESHA program, and acknowledging that addressing the subject of sexuality within the church will be challenging, the project will select churches and institutions that express interest and have made some progress in this area, the intention being to develop them as centres of change that will stimulate others to relook at their theology/ thinking/ practise.
While having a geographic concentration of the work would be advantageous for working closely with the selected churches/institutions, this may not be practical as the willingness of the churches /institutions is the primary criteria, and they may be in different locations. Also, some amount of geographic dispersion would be helpful in disseminating to the diverse church body in the country. Where possible, the selected theological colleges will have close links with / be affiliated to the selected churches, which will allow some convergence of efforts.
INTERVENTIONS WITH THEOLOGICAL COLLEGES:
The Senate of Serampore has recently introduced (in 2014) a paper on human sexuality as an option in the B. D. programme, and a few theological colleges are offering it. Strengthening these colleges in this area will be beneficial in several ways:
Start-up workshops: When sessions on this issue are conducted for the students in general, the resultant increased awareness and understanding will be equip students to later lead congregations and the dialogue in the Church they are affiliated to and reduce some of the latent homophobia that exists. Some of them will be interested to take up the paper on human sexuality, which will anchor this issue more strongly in the academic life of the college. The proposed “start-up” workshop jointly by resource persons and ESHA staff in each college will prepare the ground in colleges where such sessions have not already started, and strengthen the internal efforts in others. It will also secure the formal buy-in to this project by the college authorities and by the faculty designated to offer the course. The preparation of the reader for students of theological colleges will provide a firm and agreed-upon theological basis for the project and will inform and strengthen other parts of this project.
Stimulating postgraduate study and research at the M. Th. Level on these issues will develop material and equip M. Th. graduates to influence how this issue is articulated and addressed in the churches they are affiliated to. It will also strengthen the academic content of the programme within the colleges. The proposed competitive Research Assistance grant, supported by a research seminar that brings together the awardees and faculty from the colleges, will strengthen and help crystallise the aspect they are exploring and will build in them a commitment to make a difference for such communities in their future ministries. It will also help the faculty encourage M. Th. students (from any stream – ethics, ministry, communications, counselling, etc.) to take up the issue for their dissertation paper
The theological colleges and faculty are affiliated as colleges and as individuals to churches and are often invited there as resource persons. The research seminar will provide these ‘key’ faculty the opportunity to form an informal ‘core group’ to strategize on how they can influence and be agents of change for their churches, their colleagues and students, and other theological colleges
INTERVENTIONS WITH MEMBER-CHURCHES:
The pastors and lay leaders [pastors/men/women/youth] of selected member Churches are empowered to understand the challenges and issues faced by Key Affected People, and work out various theological and Christian responses.
The ministerial dimension of this phase is the more sensitive part, and will require careful discussion and advocacy with church leaders (Bishops, Moderators, General Secretaries, etc.), heads of Christian organisations and institutions, to convince them of the importance, relevance and timeliness of bringing greater acceptability to sexually diverse communities. Leaders of other faiths and faith based organisations may also be included in these discussions. It should also go hand-in-hand with the broader discussion on promoting, protection, enabling and empowering women and girls against abuse and exploitation based on gender, highlighting their sexual health and reproductive rights.
The focus in this project period will be to work with selected and willing member-churches to:
• adopt (with modifications) guidelines for an inclusive congregation
• prepare sermon outlines and a layman’s handbook on human sexuality, that together with training workshops and the theological
reader (listed above) will equip pastors to preach and dialogue with their congregations
• The preparation process for writing the sermon notes will itself create a core group of pastors and leaders who will be mentored to
overcome the practical barriers they face
• work with the leaders and with 2-3 congregations in each selected member-church to become more inclusive, using the various
resources already developed including the SIT tool and other relevant means