THE NEWS FROM INDIA RECENTLY HAS BEEN ABOUT death: bombings in Bombay, mob stampedes at a holy river. But a different story is on display in Manapakkam, India, where Susan and I visited recently a Bible club jamboree held in a small cinderblock building with a stucco finish and a sign in front: Praise Evangelical Church.
On the church's concrete floor, under ceiling fans, 300 children sat in rows facing a little stage. Then they took turns reciting Bible memory verses, offering welcome dances and skits about the Good Samaritan and other Bible stories, and singing as loudly as they could into a novelty item, a microphone.
Some of these kids, ages 3 through 12, work alongside parents in brick factory mud pits; they are Dalits, "untouchables," doing the jobs that higher castes disdain and getting mostly scorn for their labors. But not on Bible Club night, as the children from six neighborhood clubs crowded into the one-room church building that was built three years ago for $5,000. They wanted to be touched by American visitors who treated them as human beings and shook frequently their outstretched hands.
After the program the children lined up in tidy rows. Then, young men laid a banana leaf and a cup of water in front of each child. As the children waited patiently, the young men served up generous portions of rice, with bits of meat. There was no pushing or shoving, but astoundingly good order that much better-fed American children would have trouble matching.
The next night came more of the same at Peniel Prayer House in another village, Mettukuppam, where few men live beyond 50 years old and most houses have illicit stills, where they brew illegal alcohol to raise money and drown sorrows. Two hundred children sat patiently on the cement floor of a 25-by-50-foot structure and then laughed uproariously as kids in skits staggered around like drunks; they've obviously observed a lot of that. Another skit was a tribute to volunteers who offered the gospel under hard conditions: Paul, Stephen, David Livingstone, Graham Staines.
Again, the orderliness was impressive. No one ate until all were served the very rare treat of a hard-boiled egg, along with rice with vegetables and a bit of meat, also unusual. They used their right hands only to roll pieces of food into balls that they popped into their mouths. Their good cheer in slums far poorer than any in the United States reflected a willingness not to dwell on the bad but to enjoy the good.
These kids helped me to understood what the biblical admonition to be as little children means: It's not to ignore knowledge and learning, but to ignore conditions that could bring despair, and to instead realize the blessing of the daily bread that God provides.
The following night brought a visit to a Bible club in Kettackanappie, a village near the city of Bangalore. The first two programs are several years old and have church buildings for their gatherings, but this three-month-old program has only a 12-by-12-foot rented cowshed into which 35 children crammed. Parents pushed against the door so they could hear their kids singing a rollicking worship song that delightfully went on and on: "Lord, I come unto Your feet and hold onto Your feet. I am Your daughter and I worship You."
The children also recited Genesis 1:1, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth," a key line in any culture-and especially in a Hindu one that claims there was no beginning.
Other impressive programs under the direction of Sam and Prema Sundar Raj include one at a preschool in Bangalore for 125 3- and 4-year-olds. Crowded into a 30-by-25-foot church-donated space, the children sang "Praise ye the Lord" and then prayed, "God help us to be good children. Give us knowledge and wisdom."
These children live in a slum where 300 families have access to only one toilet. But Christianity offers hopes and capitalism can create good jobs: Texas Instruments, Oracle, and many other computer companies are fostering in Bangalore an Indian version of Silicon Valley. Children who gain knowledge will be able to break out of poverty. Those who maintain the wisdom of a little child will, with God's grace, know what to do with their new-found wealth.