Leading from the margins: A talk by Bishop Pushpa Lalitha, the first woman bishop in Asia.
This is the formal transcript of a talk given by Bishop Pushpa at Greenbelt Festival 30.8.15.
On behalf of the Church of South India and the Diocese of Nandyal, and on my own behalf, I greet you all in the most precious name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I want to praise Almighty God for His call to be His servant. I want to say I am very happy to be invited to this wonderful event: Greenbelt Festival.
Life is a precious gift of God. This life is threatened by evils such as terrorism, racism, caste-ism, fundamentalism, classism, gender, and so forth and so on. But when the life is threatened God is quick to respond.
Jesus came to make us strong and give hope to the hopeless. He came especially to give:
- Hope to the poor and the lowly;
- Hope to the weak and the oppressed;
- Hope to the untouchables.
This radical mission and ministry of Jesus demands us to be the Church of the marginalized. Jesus reached out to the Samaritan woman, the Leper, the Syrophenician woman, the woman at the house of Simon, the Pharisees, the Shepherds, to everyone. Jesus brought them to the centre of society to be His witnesses.
In John 4:39-42, we read about a Samaritan woman:
- Who has been rejected and marginalized by her own community
- Who is considered impure and sinful
- Who is discriminated against because of caste, class, gender and tradition
As a consequence, she is isolated. She is not permitted to participate in public life. Even so, Jesus waited and encountered her and asked her for a drink of water.
He showed an interest in her personal life by asking her to call her husband. He showed an interest in her spiritual life by showing her the way to worship in spirit and truth.
Finally, he revealed Himself as the Living water, the Messiah, the Christ.
Though her life was full of challenges, the love of Christ changed her life. She became a shining lamp that gave light to her village. She became the first Evangelist. And she was a woman!
I want to tell you a story.
One day the Master wanted a drink and he was searching for a vessel among the many vessels in his house.
First, he found a vessel of gold and the gold vessel cried out: ‘Take me, sir, I am shiny, expensive and beautiful!’
But the master moved on without saying a word.
Next, he found a vessel of silver. And the silver vessel said: ‘Look at me, sir, I am narrow and tall and my lines are graceful. I am a vessel you can be proud of.’
But, again, the master moved on without saying a word.
Next, the master saw a vessel of brass. The brass vessel cried out: ‘Sir, I am polished like a glass. If you place me on your table, everybody will want to look at me!’
But, again, the master moved on.
Next, the master came to a vessel of wood. The wooden bowl told the master: ‘Sir, you may use me for fruit, but not for bread!’
But the Master did not listen. Instead, he looked at the vessel of clay. The clay vessel was empty, broken and lying on its side. The vessel did not speak up for itself because it had no hope. But the master chose this vessel.
The master said: ‘This is the vessel I was hoping to find. I do not want the wealthy vessel, or the proud vessel, or the vessel that makes a loud noise, or the vessel that makes lots of rules.’
So the Master gently lifted the vessel of clay and he mended it, he cleaned it and he made good use of it from that day on.
This is how Jesus was with the Samaritan woman. Because Jesus chose her and he chooses ordinary people, like me and you, who are vessels of clay. People who are fragile, wounded and broken.
I now want to tell you the story of how I became the first woman Bishop in the Church of South India. Actually, the first woman bishop in Asia.
I come from a small village. My family were farmers. I never expected to join the church. But I attended a school that was founded by the mission agency USPG and I was inspired by the women missionaries who worked in the school and boarding hostels, in the orphanages, and in our village. These women are forgotten by many, but I will always remember them. Women like:
- Sister Curby
- Deaconess Lamb
- Miss Betty Robinson
- And Miss Hawkins who encouraged me to study theology.
It was not easy to be ordained as a woman in India. But my bishop (LV Azariah) was very forward-thinking, and in 1983 he took the initiative and he ordained three women. And I was one of them.
I worked in many towns and villages. I also worked as the Treasurer for my diocese. And God gave me opportunities to undertake training in mission studies in England and in Jamaica. So when there was a vacancy for the role of bishop in my diocese, I found that I was well qualified.
Eleven candidates were put forward. There was me and there were ten men!!
In the first round, I got highest number of votes.
But in the next round, the men organised themselves – so the voting went against me, and I finished in fifth place.
[I have been told this is like the Labour Party leadership election happening in your country!! But you will know more about that than me!]
When I lost the vote, many people called me and consoled me.
A woman in my congregation, 72 years old, told me she had received a bible verse in a vision from the Lord. It was Jeremiah 29 verse 11: ‘For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you hope and a future.’
The next things I heard was that, because of irregularities in the voting procedure, the election needed to take place again.
Also at this time, the Lord spoke to me through His Word, in 2 Chronicles: ‘This is what the Lord says to you, do not be afraid or discouraged because of the vast army, for the battle is not yours but God’s.’
And so, the council voted again and it happened that I was elected. I became the first woman Bishop in Church of South India.
This is the Lord’s doing and it is a miracle. It is a miracle because I am from the margins. I come from an agricultural family in a remote rural village. I am from the untouchable caste.
I am a woman. And yet the Lord has brought me from the margins to the centre. By ‘the centre’, I mean the place where we meet the rich and the powerful.
In Psalm 113 we read:
‘He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
He seats them with princes,
with the princes of his people.’
I am very happy that this promise has been fulfilled in my life.
Being a leader from the margins is challenging, but it is not an impossible task. God is concerned about the weak – and I know what it means to be weak. God is concerned about the oppressed – and I know what it means to be oppressed. God stands by the weak and oppressed.
He empowers us to speak about our experience on the margins. He gives us a voice so we can speak about our experience to the rich and the powerful and to those who are in government.
And, because of this, the people in the centre – the rich and the powerful and, indeed, the whole of society – must take notice of us. They can be enriched by us.
So let us continue to pray for God’s intervention in our lives. Let us wait on Christ who can transform us so that we become a channel of hope for the people on the margins. And may the Lord of the Margins equip us and use us as His channel of hope and peace.