Tears of Thankfulness and Joy
The journey of Lutheranism to India came full circle during a January trip to St. Charles, Mo.
On Jan. 23, 2017, four south Asian men stood weeping in the sanctuary of Immanuel Lutheran Church, St. Charles, Mo.
On the surface, Immanuel looks like many other congregations of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). The Gothic sanctuary focuses congregants on the Word of God and the Sacraments. The website shows a Lutheran congregation hard at work as the Holy Spirit calls, gathers and enlightens His chosen saints.
To understand why the men were weeping, however, you will need to find the large bronze plaque on the church wall.
Sent on a Mission
The inscription reads, in part, “In this church, on October 14th, 1894, Rev. Theodore Naether and Rev. Franz Mohn were delegated to be the first missionaries of the Luth. Missouri Synod to the Tamils in India.”
The four south Asian men are the first members of the India Evangelical Lutheran Church (IELC) to stand in that sanctuary. They are the spiritual descendants of Naether and Mohn.
The Rev. Suvisesha Muthu, pastor in the IELC and church council member, described the joy they felt: “When we entered into the Immanuel Lutheran Church, our eyes shed the tears of joy just like the child who saw his mother after many years.” He praised God because “if the LCMS and the Immanuel Lutheran Church did not send these missionaries to India, we would not have known Jesus Christ and the Lutheran faith.”
A year after his commissioning, Naether traveled to India and began working in the Krishnagiri region (Krishnagiri means “the mountain of Krishna,” a Hindu deity). It is said that when they first visited the mountain, Naether and Mohn prayed together from Is. 52:7: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news.”
The work overwhelmed them at times. Naether occasionally wrote letters expressing frustration at how few people converted. He tirelessly worked in India for almost 10 years, until he died of the plague in 1904. The work continued with his brother-in-law, Georg Naumann, and it continues even today.
Blessed by Sacrifice
“Some of those first missionaries experienced great discouragement at times and, giving their lives as they succumbed to sickness, did not live to see much fruit from their labors,” noted Darin Storkson, assistant executive director of Church Relations for the LCMS.
During the visit, the Rev. R. Vijayakumar, general treasurer of the IELC, also noted “the long struggle of the LCMS missionaries who came to India to spread [the] Gospel.”
But despite the trial and sacrifice that accompanied the work, God blessed it. “More than a century later, however, the church that they planted amidst so much discouragement and difficulty now numbers more than 125,000 members, four of whom shed tears when they were able to stand in the very spot where those first missionaries were commissioned,” Storkson said.
“The journey of the Good News to India became a full circle by bringing the Indians to the place where it started,” said Ravi Jesupatham, LCMS country coordinator for India. “We thanked our Lord for giving us this wonderful opportunity. We all became emotional and speechless when we stood at the altar where Rev. Theodore Naether and Rev. Franz Mohn knelt to be commissioned as the first missionaries to India.”
Storkson, who arranged the visit to Immanuel, also shared the profound joy experienced by the Indians in visiting this congregation.
“It is only because of you,” they said, addressing Larry Marty, a descendant of those first missionaries and a member of Immanuel, “that we now stand here as human beings.”
Still Under the Cross
The plaque on the wall and the presence of these four men is a reminder of how Christ’s work through the Church often hides underneath the cross. When Naether and Mohn were commissioned, they did not know if God would grant success. And yet, despite great struggle and trial, God blessed their work with hundreds of thousands of believers in Christ.
The work of Christ through the IELC continues today.
“Immanuel is an impressive church with a very impressive school,” said the Rev. Roger James, LCMS area director for South Asia. “Seeing God’s faithfulness [to Immanuel] and recalling the sacrifice of the first LCMS missionaries [encouraged] these men to return to the IELC [and] struggle against evil forces that have taken the church hostage, the church for which Naether labored and for which the Lord Jesus Christ suffered and died.”