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Invest in youth ministry in S Africa, suggests Fr Thomas

* Timely strategic action needed to nurture youth, children in S Africa
* Calls upon church leadership to invest in youth, parish ministry and mission ventures
* Follow US example of considering ordination after training for aged people
* Select 3 best youth deacons/seminarians/clergy) for cities of Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town
* Calls to stop ‘milkman relationship’ by clergy/bishops
* Dream of LL Osthathios for mission work in S Africa must become reality’
* Africa brings before us a case of ‘the lost sheep,’ the context as true as ‘the lost son’

PIETERMARITZBURG, South Africa: The report on youth ministries for outside Kerala prepared by a sub committee consisting of Metropolitans which submitted its report to the Holy Episcopal Synod of the Indian Orthodox Church has received few interesting feedbacks so far.

One of them is Fr Thomas Ninan, Diocese of Delhi, who paints a very dismal picture for the future of our church considering the enormous challenges it faces. Engaged with more people-to-people contacts in after he moved here, Fr Ninan says the scene is more of less the same in other countries like Botswana, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and others.

Fr Ninan presently pursues Master of Theology at the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics, University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. He has also been representing Indian Orthodox Church at Christian Medical Association of India (CMAI) as the Programme Co-ordinator for the desks of Substance Abuse and HIV and Aids Policy since 2003.

Being based in S Africa since February 2010, Fr Ninan openly admits that the Indian Orthodox in S Africa is in shambles. The faithful live with no hope about their future in our church, particularly with regard to their children as most them believe they have already lost them and the church is no longer relevant to them. Most of these children and youth have grown up in the South African context, where some of them get to participate in a Holy Eucharist once or twice a year!

It is here that Fr Ninan calls for a proper ministry to address the various needs of our people in S Africa. He says that the future of our Church requires serious consideration towards investing in the youth and the children. Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town are three key places where the youth are placed for their job and studies. He suggests that while the seniors are around, and if our Church does not consider taking timely strategic action in terms of nurturing the youth and children, it will become all the more difficult in the coming years.

He points out that leaders of spiritual organisations like MGOCSM and the Sunday School need to seriously consider investing in South Africa, in terms of sending well qualified and dedicated manpower and established active offices here. Youngsters (deacons and clergy) who are willing to study further and think in terms of long term ministry in South Africa/Africa will help the cause of the future of our Church.

He explains that those with an ability to speak in English, driving skills and a good knowledge of our faith are basic requirements, added to which, a passion for the youth and Orthodoxy will help. They can be placed in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town, specifically engaging with our youth and children while also studying there. Besides investing in the youth, we also need to consider alternative modes of ministry here, this Fr Ninan, says can be of our own people who have spent longer time to consider taking up ordination, after a short training. We have had examples from the US, where married people after their retirement or in their early 50’s have come forward for a full time ministry, underwent training in our seminaries for a period of 1 or 2 years and were ordained as clergy. In the context of the future of our Church in Africa, I believe that is the best option that our Church leadership needs to consider, particularly in the context of the availability of clergy who are only available for a small period and then go back to India, rather than continue in some other place in Africa.

It was the dream of Sabha Ratnam LL Geevarghese Mar Osthathios to start mission work in Africa. Fr Ninan says for any mission to begin it must first have an internal mission first within our congregations in SA and then an external mission of which our people will be part of. Mission in Africa brings before us immense challenges. Can we provide hope for our people here by nurturing their children, as prophet Isaiah promises, he asks?
In a context where the dominant have their way in our Church, in terms of investing in places where they can win publicity, votes, favours, fame, the minority status of Africa glares at us where there will be no earthly fame, no gain, but only sharing of His glory as His labourer. In a context where the dominant have control of the Church funds to be invested in causes which have only produced hatred, failures and ongoing legal cases, Africa brings before us a case of “the lost sheep,” the context of a promise as true as “the lost son,” where in many ways, we ourselves are responsible due to our inaction and misplaced priorities, for them to be lost, he laments.

Explaining the background of our presence, Fr Ninan says that visits by clergy of our Church began since the late 1990s, particularly during the Passion Week and slowly congregations were formed in different parts of South Africa by early 2000. Today, we have 15 congregations in different parts of S Africa, with a population of about 120 families. About 70 per cent of the populations are old-time residents in SA, whose children have grown up and are either working or studying in Universities.

He is concerned that in another 5 to 10 years, many of these families will return to their homeland in Kerala to start a new phase of their lives, leaving behind their children, as they can never think of coming and staying in Kerala or anywhere in India like their parents. A full time resident priest in South Africa came during late 2000 who would drive down each Sunday to these congregations for the Holy Eucharist. And since then each congregation will be lucky to have at least 3 Holy Eucharist in a year. It was only during last year that a property in the form of a parsonage was bought in Pretoria, which happens to be the only one belonging to the Church. As of now, we have had 2 resident priests in a period of 6 years, who have come and gone back to India.
With an approximation of about 100 youth in different parts of SA, and an equal or even more children of our people in SA, who would be settling here in SA and not coming back to India like their parents, the Church faces challenging situation for its future in South Africa, as the parents of these children have little hope of their children finding a reason to stay. South Africa falls under the newly formed diocese since 4 years, called Africa & Europe under the leadership of HG Dr Mathews Mar Themothios.

Fr Ninan points out that the present system of a single priest for the whole of South Africa which is one third of India, will hardly be helpful for the future of the church.

He has therefore suggested to HG Dr Abraham Mar Seraphim, Metropolitan, Bengaluru Diocese, to consider investing in youth ministry in S Africa, as it is not easy to motivate our people, particularly when all that has happened for so many years regarding the ‘Milkman’s relationship with the church.” The milkman in the form of a clergy/bishop visits S Africa for their own motives and intentions, milking them with no returns to give them any hope towards their future. Fr Ninan is confident, that if the church leadership invests here in a serious way, Orthodox people will come together and support the venture. He has requested Dr Mar Seraphim to seriously consider selecting at least three of the best youth (deacons/seminarians/young clergy) to be placed Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town, where they can pursue further studies in the Universities and at the same time engage with the youth and children for an effective ministry that would be relevant.

Such youth leaders should be able to think in long terms to work in Africa, where they can also invest their parish ministry or mission ventures. The present system of coming over for three years is hardly suitable in these conditions. Only if they come and learn from the universities here can they be absorbed in working in some capacity in S Africa, Fr Ninan reasons.

“Africa brings before us a case of the ‘lost sheep,’ the context of a promise as true as ‘the lost son,’ where in many ways we ourselves are responsible due to our inaction and misplaced priorities, for them to be lost. The tearful hearts from Africa look up in hope… to the Lord of hope to bring His labourers to work in His vineyard and sow a seed of hope for a rich harvest tomorrow,” laments Fr Thomas Ninan.