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B.R. Isaiah
Written July 14, 2001


During World War II, my father Vernon Thomas was stationed in India.  (For a more complete account of those years, click here.)

He didn't see any fighting.  On the contrary, his sojourn in India resulted not in war but in peace: the construction of a village church there a decade later.

Here's the story, told mostly through letters.

One day in 1944 in northeastern India, Vernon was in a letter-writing mood.  He wrote to his wife Ann:

I thought about the interest which your mother had in the religion of the Indian people, so I thought I would write another letter chiefly concerned with the people, their religion, customs, and so on.

He and Ann and their families were Christians — by denomination, Methodists — and they had rarely met anyone with a religion more exotic than Catholicism.

But in India, Christians were a small minority.  Many of them were British, who ran India as a colony.

Vernon proceeded to quote from a War Department pamphlet entitled A Pocket Guide to India.  In part:

Sixty-five percent of the Indian people observe the Hindu faith.  Slightly more than 25 percent are Moslems, followers of the prophet Mohammed.  The other 40 million Indians belong to a bewildering variety of religions and cults.

Some distance up the Ganges River from Calcutta is the holy city of Benares, where thousands of pilgrims go each year to bathe in the sacred waters.  Further up is Agra, famous for the Taj Majal.  This exquisite structure, made of white marble, is one of the architectural wonders of the world.

He added "I haven't seen this but would like to, as I have heard much about it."  He would get his brief chance after the war was over, when the plane carrying him on the first leg home flew over Agra.

But first he spent more than a month in an army camp outside Calcutta, the city where Mother Theresa had begun her work 15 years before.  Here he learned firsthand about some of the local beliefs.  On Monday, February 21, 1944, Vernon wrote:

I went to church services last night.  The chaplain was one who has been in this area for quite some time, and the services turned out to be an open forum.  Naturally, all the questions were regarding the religions of this country.

There is some religion in which they believe their sins can be washed away by goats' blood.  In their temple they have a chopping block where the goats' heads are chopped off, and they wash their sins away by smearing the blood on their hands and face.

Special permission has to be gotten in order to visit their temples.  At one time or another, a group of British and American soldiers decided to take a temple apart, and therefore all temples are "off limits."

I learned that all cows were considered holy, and that one reason for their worship of the cow was because of its usefulness.

A Pocket Guide to India explained:

To the Hindu, the cow and the bull are sacred.  While you may see Hindus pushing cattle out of the way or driving them from open market stalls, no Hindu would dream of killing a cow.  In some parts of India the penalty for killing a cow, even by accident, may be as much as seven years in jail.

There are nearly 200 million cows in India — one for every two persons — so you will see plenty of them wandering unmolested along the main streets of towns.  Compared to the cattle you see in America, India's cows are a sorry lot, mainly because there are too many of them; there is not enough fodder to go around.

The following Friday, Vernon finally got to leave the camp and go into Calcutta for several hours.  He wrote:

We went on a tour sponsored by the Red Cross that cost 60¢ by bus.  From the park, we came back into town and to one of the Hindu temples, where we had a guide who couldn't speak very good English, but he tried.  We saw their goddess which they worship.  This particular temple was built with different colors of square tile and was very dirty.

Adjacent to the temple was a building that was used by the people who came there to worship as living quarters.  It had a plain hard floor for them to sleep on.

We also saw a tree which is related to the cactus; on it, women who are desirous of having a son tie a small rock brought from the river.  Then after the son is born, they pluck hair from its head and place it at the base of the tree.

We went from there to the burning "Ghats," where they burn the bodies of the Hindu believers on a wood fire.  The wood used is the mango wood, as it is supposed to possess everlasting heat.  We saw several bodies lying around in different stages of being burned.  One person being burned was an old man, and all we could see was his head.

The ceremony is performed by the oldest son or the oldest male member of the deceased person's family.  They parade around the body three times and then place it on the fire and pile more wood on top.  The ashes are then gathered up and taken to the river and thrown in.

After leaving the burning Ghats, we went to a Sikh temple (which is a different religious group), where we had to remove our shoes before entering.  The floor of this temple was high class marble and was well polished.

The building was much newer and cleaner and very pretty, and it resembled a church.  However, there are no seats at all.  Evidently they worship on their knees and come at their leisure time, as there was one man who came into the church and knelt at the altar for a few seconds.

The only musical instrument was a large drum, which was beat upon to denote the approach of the Holy Book.  In other words, they beat upon the drum whenever their "priest" brought the "Bible" in.

Two weeks later, on Saturday, March 11, he wrote:

Yesterday was a holiday in India.  That didn't seem to be unusual, as all countries have their holidays, but the way they celebrated did seem to me very unusual.

I saw quite a lot of the people who looked like they had spilled paint all over their clothes and also all over themselves.  The colors were very bright:  red, blue, yellow, purple and so forth.

Upon reading an advertisement in the paper I learned why.  "There is a Hindu custom of sprinkling of liquid colors and colored powder on any passer-by.  Men and women, irrespective of class and social differences, meet in groups and all walk together along the streets.  They sing songs and make merry in general.  It is the worship of Eros" — whoever that is — "and is a seasonal celebration celebrating the coming of spring, observed on the full moon day of March."

This Hindu festival of colors is known as Holi. In Calcutta, where my father was, it’s called Dol Purnima.

One can search online for more information, such as these pictures from 2009.

In due course the war ended; Vernon came home; I was born; and we moved to Richwood, Ohio, where we joined the First Methodist Church.  Meanwhile back in Asia, colonial rule ended.  British India became the two newly independent nations of India and Pakistan.

We had been in Richwood less than a year when a missionary came to town.  On Wednesday night, July 22, 1953, Rev. John T. Seamands spoke on the missionary work that was being done in India by himself, his brother and their father.

Of course, there was a request for funds to carry on the mission.  A collection raised about a hundred dollars towards a jeep which Rev. Seamands was planning to take back to India when he returned.  But there was more.

Vernon felt a special connection to India, having witnessed the poverty of many of its people.  He and Ann wrote a check for $500 to build a village chapel there.  The Richwood pastor, Rev. Leonard W. Mann, forwarded the check to the Board of Missions two days later.  The chapel was to be built in one of the 82 villages in Gokak District, South India Conference (those being Methodist administrative divisions).

Later that year, Ann was selected to present a program on India to her WSCS missions group at the church.  She dug out Vernon's 1944 letters and some souvenirs.

She also wrote to the superintendent of the South India Conference, B. Rathnam Isaiah, for more up-to-date information.  Rev. Isaiah, shown here with his Jeep, responded with a long letter.  Here are excerpts from that letter of December 12, 1953, from Dhupdhal (pronounced Dufall), Belgaum, India.  

We are extremely glad to learn that you are to give a programme on India in your Missionary Group.  Since we are living in South India, most of my writing will be based on this section of the country, except what I have read about North India.

India is the country which has the greatest number of religions, and the people also are the most religious minded.  Christianity took deep roots in the country, especially after British became the rulers, and began to grow.  Missionaries from all parts of the world began to pour in and evangelize the people.

In our country, though there are many religions, there are four groups of people:  Brahmins, Vishyas, Kshathria and Shudras.  The last group, though in no way less than the others, were made to serve the other three groups.  Brahmins were the persons to learn; Vishyas, to have trade; Kshathria, to fight.  We have Christians from all the above four groups, but a greater number from the Shudras.

Since the people are already religious-minded, it is easy for them to have their faith on Lord Jesus Christ.  Our people are greatly superstitious.  They consider everything as god:  an ox, a cow, monkey, cobra, sun, moon, etc.  But that kind of understanding is wiped out when they take Jesus Christ as their personal Savior.  In other words, there is a real change in the lives of men and women who have become Christians — not only in their outlook, but in their whole being.  I shall tell a small example.

There is a village called Kishua.  In this village there were low-caste people who had become Christians.  Before they were baptized, these low-caste people were up to any kind of mischief.  One landlord took John, an 18-year-old boy, as his servant to watch his field during harvest time in April.  One evening the landlord went to his field.  There he saw John watching his field very faithfully.  Then he called John and said "look here, you go to the neighbor's field and pluck some mangoes."  In reply John said, "Sir, they do not belong to us, and I cannot steal."  Then the landlord flogged him.  The boy ran away from him.  The landlord thought he had run away to the village to tell about what happened.  But when he went around the field, the boy was under a tree and was telling everything to somebody.  But there was no one there.  He was pouring his heart to God and was praying to change the heart of his master.  When he heard this, the landlord was ashamed.  Then he took the boy by his hand and visited the evangelist in his village, and today almost the whole village have become Christians.

Christianity was the source of inspiration for starting education, especially for women.  Even today, there are people who do not believe in female education.  There are thousands and thousands who do not want their girls and women to be other than maidservants at home.

Christianity has brought faith in medicines and in God, though even today, there are thousands who fall ill and die without taking any kind of medicine, especially in the villages.  Formerly they attributed everything, good or bad, to certain goddesses; so when a person fell ill, they would do all things to please that goddess which they thought was responsible for that sickness.  If required, they were willing to sacrifice their young ones.  Praise the Lord, mission hospitals have eradicated that mentality and have created new hope in Christ Jesus.

Our people are poor; they have no vision for education, and they are contented with their own simple lives.  We have started hostels and village schools where we admit these poor Christians for a nominal fee of one rupee (25¢) per month.  Some of our village boys and girls have finished university exams.  A few of them have even visited your wonderful and kindhearted country as Crusade Scholars.  But when compared to the total number of Christians we have in our country, the educated folks are only a drop in the bucket.

Your gift of $500, which amounts to 2000 rupees, has not reached my hands as yet.  I have seen the elders and even selected a place to build.  Probably we will be able to begin the work in January 1954.

This is the village south of Bombay where the chapel would be built.  Various problems delayed the work for a year, but then Rev. Isiaiah wrote:

We broke the ground on January 20, 1955, for the new church building at Kalar-Koppa village.  We hope to complete the building before the monsoons begin in June 1955.  The poor Christians in that village are very happy and thankful for this generous gift.  One boy, John Kalarkoppa, completed his Mulki examination and has gone to Raichur to take training in our two-year Pastor-Teacher Training Institute.

And then later that year, the pictures came of the completed building, with some of the locals and Rev. Isaiah standing in front of it.

He wrote:

By this time, you must have received from Dr. J.T. Seamands the pictures of the completed church building at Kalar-Koppa village.  Very soon we are going to have it dedicated, perhaps before Christmas.

I have been elected as a delegate from our conference to attend the General Conference of our church at Minneapolis, which begins on April 28.  I am wondering if it would be possible to visit you folks who have made it possible for us to have a church in one of our villages.  I never thought that I would ever get a chance to visit your country, which is doing so much not only for our Indian church but also for the country as a whole.

And Rev. Isaiah did come to America in April 1956.  Dressed up as he rarely did at home, even wearing a turban, he visited us in Richwood.

B. R. Isaiah in Richwood, Ohio 

Above:  Rev. Isaiah with my parents in front of the church parsonage, with Esther Mann looking on.  Below:  a group in the church basement, including Margaret and Paul Curl.  Another picture from this event is here.


What was the visit like?  This is his thank-you letter, written from Cincinnati on April 24.

Will you be surprised if I say that I do not like to write you?  Yes, I do not like to write you but want to be back in Richwood, your home.  Really, you have made me homesick.

How shall I thank you for all your love, kindness and help?  I can never forget you.  You made me feel as if I was with one of my own.  You went out of the way to launder my clothes, took me to Marion, and even drove me to Cincinnati.

How did you know that I needed a suit?  Had you dreamt anything?  I appreciate it very much.  This is the way the Lord supplies his children.

     "Do you know, my fellow Christians,
     All the time and every place
     Men are looking for the image
     Of the Master in your face?

     And the image you are reflecting
     Is distorted or is fair
     Just according to the measure
     Of the time you spend in prayer."

Back in India, he sent an update on December 2, 1956.

The church that you very kindly made it possible to build has brought great changes in that congregation.  It is an outstanding building in the village — stone walls and red tiled roof.  Looks grand.


The letters continued.  Mrs. K.R. Isaiah sent my mother a sady, along with instructions on how to wear it (wrap in around the waist with gatherings, then throw the end over the left shoulder).  In October 1958, Rev. Isaiah sent a small praying carpet.

Generally it is spread on the floor and Mohammedans kneel on it.  Facing the west, they offer their prayers to God.  A few of our Christians also use it when praying.  However, we wanted you to have something purely Indian, some humble token of love from our country.

Somehow, I am really a changed man after I returned from the States.  I have learned a lot of things from my association with American men and women.

He wrote of his family.

The boy who was anxious to go to Medical College could not do it, so he has joined a Pharmacy College.  It is a three-year course.  Another boy is in the Service College and the last boy, Benjamin, is in Business College.

One girl, Vimala, has graduated from the School of Nursing.  We thought that when she was employed she would supplement our family income, but we hear that she wants to get married.  She is interested in one young man.  Of course, we want our girls to get married and be happy.  In our country also, independent choosing of life partners is coming slowly.  Educated Christians choose their own partners.

The next summer he sent a wedding invitation when Vimala married Francis Subhadrappa in the Methodist Church in Yadgiri.  Of course, we could not attend, but my parents sent a gift.



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