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Aug 27, 2018 | Carol E. Barnwell

Polio, a Boy named “Boy” and Communists: An Evangelist’s Bumpy Road Back to Jesus

At six years old, Roy Varghese’s spare home on a British tea plantation in South India was his whole world, literally. Polio1left him unable to walk, and his mother—with only a primary education herself—became his teacher. One of the Diocese of Texas’ newest church planters has spent a lifetime listening, his empathy rooted in a friend’s disability and later in the inequity of society around him.

When time came to sit for his exams to move to middle school, Varghese’s father carried Roy, the youngest of his five children, 12 kilometers to the school to take the tests.

“My mother was a devout Roman Catholic,2and vowed I would become a priest if only God would heal me,” Varghese said. He passed the exams and, with the help of a massage therapist, gained enough strength in his legs to attend school with his three brothers the following year.

During these challenging years—and over his parents’ objections—Varghese became friends with a young beggar who was also crippled. “I never knew his name, he was just called ‘Boy.’ We had a shared experience, a commonality,” Varghese remembered. “We would sit for hours and build houses with rocks and [shape] cars and busses from broken tiles.”

After high school, Varghese, then 17, spent a year in seminary but he couldn’t understand the French and Italian Franciscans who taught classes and he fell behind. He hated getting up early for chapel at 6 a.m. “I enjoyed sleep most at this time,” he said.

The public failure at seminary caused a deep rift in the family. “My parents were ashamed,” Varghese said. “Boy,” who had secured an oxcart and a job by the time Varghese left seminary, was the one who took Varghese in after he left home.

The irony of their friendship and changing circumstances was not lost on Varghese who became involved in the Communist Party,3active in Kerala at the time. The party’s politics served to further highlight inequities of Indian society. Varghese joined the party, wrote poetry and did street plays until local Christian leaders tried to stop an adaptation of a Nikos Kazantzakis play called The Sixth Wound of Christ. It depicted the pain Christ would experience because of corruption and controversies caused by the institutional church.

“Churches were in the headlines in those days because of Christians from lower castes were not allowed to worship with the forward caste,” Varghese said, reflecting the nature of his controversial friendship with “Boy.”

“We wanted to expose the hypocrisy—there was no Good News for the poor. Our group stood with those who were economically weak and tried to be their voice through the play,” Varghese said.

Despite Church leaders’ attempts, the play had received much media attention and was due to be presented. But, before it began, demonstrators and police clashed. In the melee, Varghese, who had been standing on stage, was attacked and fell.  While he avoided serious injury or arrest he realized he had no safe place to go.  “I walked aimlessly for hours. I was afraid to go home or to the party headquarters,” he said.

Varghese had previously befriended an Anglican priest with whom he discussed God and Communism. The Rev. Jose Philip provided a welcoming atmosphere free of pressure so it was to Philip’s parsonage that Varghese finally headed in the early morning hours following the riot.

“He told me Christ was trying to help me see that Communism was misguiding people and I asked him to pray for me,” Varghese remembered. “Even now all his words were so real and so sincere.”

Convinced that he needed a change of scenery, the priest helped Varghese secure a job as warden in a local orphanage run by the Church of South India (the successor to the Church of England) with the bishop’s admonition not to teach the children any communist ideology.

Here, in the midst of a poor and vulnerable group of young boys, Varghese began his journey back to the Church. When one of his charges asked him to pray for his sick mother, Varghese asked the child to pray first. “It was my first instant prayer and I learned how from that boy,” he said. After two years, Bishop K. J. Samuel asked Varghese to become a missionary. He was to go to a small town, “sing some songs, read the Bible and pray with a few people.” The bishop assured him he would know what to do as things “unfolded.”

But, no one came to his first service. He was unprepared and improperly dressed, so he spent the next few months walking throughout the community “meeting people where they were.” He changed how he dressed and he began to listen intently. One day he stopped by the local police station and invited the police chief to church.  Chief Inspector Simon George not only eventually brought his family; he also brought a keyboard, prayer books and many other government employees followed.

“By the end of the year, it was an established church,” Varghese said.

The impromptu invitation propelled Varghese’s journey to the priesthood, once only his mother’s dream. With the bishop’s permission—and because the diocese had little money—it was George’s family who sponsored Varghese’s seminary studies in Pune, near Bombay for four years. Reconciliation with his family culminated at his ordination in 1995 where he served communion to his mother and father.

Varghese was on the bishop’s staff for two years and then served for five years as a prison chaplain. He has many stories about the people and conditions that exist where facilities meant for 800 house 8,000. He remembers one particular man facing capital punishment.

A few hours before his execution, the Muslim prisoner asked to have Communion. “He said, ‘I was a bad person and this will help me be better in the next life,’” Varghese said, adding, “I believe I had led him to some knowledge of salvation.”

Varghese served parishes in Bombay until 2006 when he was assigned to lead St. Thomas, a CSI congregation in Houston for a three-year term. He was able to extend the assignment because he and his wife Princess, a family counselor, felt their autistic son, Sammy, had better therapy options in the U.S. Their oldest son, Joshua is in high school.

By 2013, Varghese left St. Thomas to lead Holy Emmanuel, an Indian congregation that had been independent from the Church of South India for 20 years. When he began discussions to join the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, the congregation chose to remain independent.

Varghase will establish a new church in Southwest Houston that will worship in Malayalam, an Indian dialect. Thirty people attended the first gathering on Sunday, August 6, 2017 at All Saints, Stafford, where the new church plant will worship as they continue to grow.

“The gift of being a part of the Anglican Communion is that we are connected to broad and diverse network of Christian leaders across the globe,” said Jason Evans, diocesan missioner for missional communities. “As Greater Houston becomes home for an increasing number of people whose birthplace is another country, it is important that the Diocese partner with leaders who know and understand these cultures and can provide leadership as well as gospel announcement that is culturally aware,” he added.

For Varghese, the needs of the Indian Christian population are clear. First generation immigrants know the value of being part of an organized parish and having the structure of a diocese within which to participate. The challenge is that newer generations inherently don’t hold the same value. As his sons get older, he can empathize with other parents who want their children to be part of a broader worshipping community.

“We want fellowship with others,” he said, “We may not look the same but we are part of the same Anglican Communion.”

Varghese still thinks his most valuable skill is listening—seeking a path from lessons taught by others. “That child at the orphanage taught me to pray. Jose Philip helped open my eyes. Simon George taught me liturgy. Today, my greatest teacher is Joshua,” he said, smiling.

“I tell the congregation, ‘I am not a problem solver, I’m a person with problems. I am with you. Our voices become one and that is what we lift to the Lord.”

 

1Until 1997, India accounted for half of the polio cases in the world. The World Health Organization declared India polio free in 2014.
2Thirty percent of Kerala’s 25 million people were Christian.
31986 news story about the Sixth Wound of Christ

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