by Chris Zweck
Deep in southern India, a warm February morning dawns over Trivandrum, the capital city of Kerala. The city streets are abuzz, as millions of women take part in the city’s biggest Hindu celebration: Attukal Pongala.
Women have come together from all over the country to praise the goddess Attukal Devi. They have sat for days in sweltering heat, paying tribute to their families and the goddess by lighting small fires on stone shrines. The sky is thick with smoke; the sound of trumpets and drums rings through the air as people thank the Hindu deity. However, not far from the celebrations, in the outer regions of this city, God’s word, planted more than 50 years ago, is still growing in miraculous ways.
In the locality of Kuzhivillai, the Bethel Lutheran Church stands as a proud testimony to what God accomplishes through his followers. Led by Rev C Sundara raj, the congregation, of more than 400 people, sings praises and gives thanks to God.
Just east of Kuzhivillai, in the area of Ponvila, another Lutheran church, St Peter’s, is also thriving. With more than 300 families, this church is slightly larger than Bethel. Both churches successfully run community programs, including Sunday school, youth prayer associations and women’s leagues. These churches share a special bond: both were built during the 1970s, under the guidance of Australian missionary Rev Paul Schirmer.
Pastor Schirmer was driven by his dedication to serve God. He was sent to India in the mid-1960s, serving there until his death in 1975. After almost 40 years, both churches fondly remember his work. A senior member of the Bethel congregation says that without Pastor Schirmer their church would never have been built. ‘Our church was founded in the year 1958. For nearly 25 years we did not construct the church’, he said.
‘After the entry of Pastor Schirmer in the year 1975, we constructed the church by his financial help. Many people in the area were invited to the opening, during which he also baptised ten children. Without him we would not see the church.’ Pastor Schirmer’s wife Irma, who accompanied him throughout his time in India, recalls how God constantly used her husband’s organisational gifts. ‘We spent our first five years living in Meenangadi among local hill people’, she said.
‘The communities were very poor, with many people living in substandard housing and unable to send their children to school.
Paul organised the building of a hostel for boys, where they could be housed and fed while attending school.’ While living in the Wynad district, Pastor Schirmer accompanied local missionaries into surrounding Hindu communities, to preach God’s word and evangelise among the people. ‘The pastors told Bible stories with the aid of a flannelgraph, and film strips were shown at night with Paul’s assistance’, Irma said.