India's Northeast, known as the "seven sisters" (for seven states), spans a rugged triangular region of lower Himalayan terrain that borders Tibet, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Bhutan. The varied landscape fosters a rich topography from emerald tea gardens in the scorching Bramahputra River valley to pastoral highlands that ascend to frigid peaks. It is one of the few remaining mega-biodiversity zones due to the extremes in elevations and precipitation. Here one quarter of the world's tea is produced. The area comprises 8 percent of the land in India and 4 percent (35 million) of India's population, yet it is home to over 220 ethnic communities, each distinct in culture and language. Few places in the world can boast such a kaleidoscope of peoples and cultures.
Nearly 350 years separated the passage of Portuguese Jesuits Fr. Stephen Cacella and Br. John Cabral through the area that is now Kohima en route to Tibet in 1626 and the contemporary arrival of Jesuits in 1970. In the past 33 years Kohima has moved quickly from a "mission" of the Jesuits' Karnataka Province to a "region" due to its impressive growth in local vocations. Kohima is well on its way to becoming the nineteenth of India's Jesuit provinces.
Originally invited to Kohima to establish a preparatory school, Jesuits from the Karnataka Province soon discovered that effective ministry in this area would require a certain apostolic "agility" due to geographical isolation: in some mountainous regions in Kohima fewer than 10 percent of the villages had medical facilities, and only a slightly higher percentage were accessible by road. Stark facts such as these encouraged improvisation; instead of requiring rural people to travel to them, Jesuits in Kohima decided to head toward the people — into their villages, fields, and lives. With the start of each new assignment, Jesuits stay with host families to become conversant in local language and lore, helping them to incorporate local symbols and customs in liturgy and education.
Fr. Gregory Coelho, SJ, the region's superior, says that Kohima Jesuits live on less than $2 a day. The motivating spirit for this simplicity is not competitive asceticism but apostolic effectiveness. "If we lived with a higher standard than our people, we would be unapproachable by them."
Some Kohima Jesuits have been involved in sustainable agricultural initiatives as the region moves from slash-and-burn cultivation to the production of more permanent crops such as coffee and fruit, efforts chronicled by Fr. Walter Fernandez, SJ, director of a social research center, who edited a book entitled Climate Change and Tribal Sustainable Living. Such projects exemplify Jesuit commitment to social action and social research — disciplines that complement and inform one another.
In another example of action and research, Fr. Oscar Pereira, SJ, directs social workers who work with the laborers at tea gardens, while Fr. Ravi Sagar, SJ, an attorney, does research on the topic; he wrote Plantation Labourers: Know Your Rights, a popular education manual for tea garden workers. These low-paid day laborers are largely indigenous Adivasis who were brought by the British from Central India to work the gardens in the mid nineteenth century. They remain internally displaced people; lacking local citizenship, they are a vulnerable and politically voiceless group.
And it is not just in the fields that Jesuits in Kohima find work to be done. There is virtually no large-scale industry in the region, but in the last three years Fr. Pereira has established about 40 self-help groups, providing microloans for women to establish small enterprises such as sewing businesses or market stalls, keeping them from having to borrow from lenders who charge exorbitant interest rates.
Education is a palpable need in the Northeast, but distances and difficult terrain keep many children from being able to attend day schools. In response, Jesuits have developed hostels for children on the school compounds at Nazareth, Pfulsero, and St. Paul in Nagaland, managed by Jesuit scholastics. Children arrive Sunday evening with a bundle of wood and a small bag of rice and cook for themselves. All of their parents pay something for the education the students receive, even in the form of manual labor or food. The children in turn help educate and catechize their parents.
Emanating from Jakahma in the Southern Angami Hills, the Jesuits have an extensive network of mission stations dotting the historic Burma Road. These are bases for liturgy and faith formation as well as education and health care. Archivist Fr. Stany Coelho, SJ, recalls, "From an apostolic point of view each village school has become a strong Catholic center wielding an influence that has visibly affected the lives of most of the children and a great many of the grownups in the villages . . . It is no haphazard multiplication of schools but a planned program of development and rural education."
Fr. Hector D'Souza, SJ, observes that some indigenous people do not even feel they belong to the primarily Hindu nation: "It is only the Church that has come to their rescue. Their religion was animistic, and with the changing times they feel that their religion does not answer their questions. Learning the dialect of the people and supporting their cultural heritage has been our forte."
The swirl of modernization is manifest in the larger towns, where mothers in colorful saris tend children who prefer Western styles, while padlocks, virtually unknown twenty years ago, secure the doors of internet shops. This dynamic accentuates urgency in the Jesuits' mission. They respond generously to bishops' invitations to establish pastoral centers in villages not yet exposed to Christianity, but they do not stay indefinitely. When a Jesuit project "stabilizes," administration passes on to diocesan personnel or other religious orders while Jesuits forge into new areas. In 1985, for instance, they established St. Joseph's College in Jakhama, now in the hands of the local bishop (though a Jesuit remains on faculty and young Jesuits in formation attend the school).
Fr. James Grummer, SJ, provincial of the Wisconsin Province, recently led a delegation to Kohima to initiate a twinning agreement between Jesuits there and the Wisconsin Jesuits. The idea of twinning provinces comes right out of the Jesuits' 34th general congregation; it is replacing the traditional concept of Jesuits giving help to mission regions on a one-way street with one of mutually enriching exchanges.
Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, SJ, the Jesuits' superior general, proposed this twinning idea a few years earlier to previous Wisconsin provincial Fr. Ed Mathie, SJ, and the previous Kohima superior Fr. Hector D'Souza, SJ, at a meeting in Loyola, Spain, because both Jesuit areas maintain extensive ministries with indigenous cultures. Wisconsin Jesuits have been ministering to the Lakota, Shoshoni, and Arapaho in South Dakota and Wyoming, while the early Kohima Jesuit missioners were likewise used to crossing many cultural boundaries. Fr. Kolvenbach encouraged them to share their distinctive gifts and insights in support of one another.
"Seeing the joyful freedom and hope of our brother Jesuits," writes Fr. Grummer, "the number and quality of new vocations, the exuberant growth of the Church, and the enthusiasm of the local people has helped me realize we have much more to gain through international partnering than initially imagined. I also think of our American circumstances differently than ever before. More than ever the Jesuit assertion that 'an experience of a culture other than our own will help us grow into a vision more open to what is universal and more objective about our own culture' has become operative for me."
In drafting the twinning document with the Kohima Jesuits, Fr. Peter Klink, SJ, president of Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, S.D., emphasized the need to transcend the traditional "men and money" concept that characterized earlier mission ventures and to accentuate mutual sharing and enrichment for both parties.
Now the challenge of this twinning agreement between U.S. and Indian Jesuits is to move from abstract good will to action. Four young Wisconsin Jesuits will spend this summer at ministries in Kohima (current visa restrictions make longer assignments impossible), and within the next year there are plans to have a Jesuit from Kohima at work at missions on the Pine Ridge or Rosebud reservations, bringing to bear Kohima Jesuits' own experience in ministering to and developing leadership among indigenous people. Further, Fr. Grummer has encouraged the province to imagine new Kohima-Wisconsin apostolic ties and partnerships between schools, retreat ministries, parishes, and Jesuit communities.
The journey to Kohima took place during Holy Week. At the Easter vigils the Wisconsin Jesuits were invited to baptize children and adults alongside Kohima Jesuits; in turn, they were evangelized through new friendships in the Lord with the Jesuits there and the people with whom they live and labor. Through this and other twinning agreements, hearts and worlds will become closer and the Paschal understanding will grow more universal.
Photographer Don Doll, SJ, teaches photography and video documentary at Creighton University, where he has worked since 1969. His photos have appeared frequently in Company and many other publications, including National Geographic.
Author John Sealey, a graduate of Creighton University, taught at St. John's College in Belize, Gonzaga High in Washington, and Regis High in Denver and was program director for Jesuit Volunteers International before starting as assistant for social and international ministries for the Wisconsin Province.