The Rt Revd Eggoni Pushpa Lalitha was the first woman bishop to be consecrated in our partner Diocese of Nandyal in South India. She tells Jo Duckles her story.
Bishop Pushpa fitted me in to a hectic schedule during her first ever visit to the Oxford Diocese. Her visit included a role on the question and answer panel that took place after Sharing the Journey, a service held to celebrate 20 years of women’s ministry in the Oxford Diocese. Her trip also came just weeks before the historic, if unnecessarily long-awaited, decision by General Synod to allow women into the episcopate of the Church of England.
She told her story of growing up in an agricultural, multi-faith village where about 10 families lived. Female missionaries, ‘Bible women’ had come to the area and worked hard to spread the Gospel to Dalit communities. (Dalit’s ‘untouchables’ make up around 24 per cent of the population of India and have traditionally encountered discrimination.)
Where Bishop Pushpa grew up, the Dalit caste system, while being illegal, sees many people still held at the bottom rung of society, struggling to get a decent education and thus find good jobs. “The missionaries came to give them a good education, establishing a school in 1911,” she said. “They respected everyone regardless of caste or creed. I myself was educated by them from childhood. I grew up in Christian schools and studied at Catholic colleges and wanted to be like them, to give a new life to the people who are oppressed and those who are very needy.”
It was after college that Bishop Pushpa felt the Lord’s call to become a priest. She says “It was like a divine act I received by his grace in the Church of South India.As I was growing up I was seeing a lot of wonders in my life. After my degree I really wanted to be a lecturer, helping others by lecturing, but I heard the voice of the Lord.” Bishop Pushpa’s parents had sold land to enable their children to have an education, and they did not expect her to go into the priesthood. “They expected me to go into a high position but never thought I would work like this. They cried when I decided to join the priesthood,” she says. However, she did receive affirmation from them.
“Four years before my father died he said: ‘the Lord is with you, I regard you as a gift from the Lord.’ He told me never to look back but always to move forward.” She says she did a lot of work with women, becoming the administrative head of the Church of South India Women’s Fellowship. “Women are made in the image of God and are equal to men with parts to play to build the Kingdom of God. We are the people who will be the witnesses to the Lord,” says Bishop Pushpa, who was ordained in 1983 and says she did not encounter problems from the congregation in her parish.
“If people have jealousy in their minds, in front of them I never get angry, I just speak with them graciously,” she says. Soon after ordination Bishop Pushpa came to Selly Oak College in Birmingham, England, and from there spent time in Jamaica. “I have done my work and step by step God has taken me up,” says Bishop Pushpa, who was at the 300th anniversary of USPG (now US) in 2001 in Southwark.
Of her calling to the episcopate she says: “I am very grateful to the officers of the Synod who trusted me and to all of the council members in the Diocese of Nandyal who elected me.” She was one of 10 pastors considered for the appointment. All of the others were men. “Whatever is impossible for human beings, is possible for God. Whatever is unfavourable in the sight of human beings is favourable to God,” she says.
Her consecration was a celebration involving around 6,000 people marking a new era in history for the Church of South India. “It meant women were equal to men,” said Bishop Pushpa who, while single, says she does not feel alone. Her brother, an advocate, has a wife and three children and her sister, who is a teacher married to a banker, also has three children.
“The Lord has given me a family throughout the world. All of the time you have people around you and the prayers of the people of God are very great,” she says. Bishop Pushpa notes the differences between the Indian Church and the English Church, where the Queen is the head and Christianity has links to the state. Christianity is part of the foundation of the UK,” says Bishop Pushpa, who grew up in area surrounded by strong Hindu and Muslim influences. India is officially a secular state but has many religions, including Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism, among others. The country is full of colourful and spectacular temples representing those religion.
People of all faiths are welcome in India’s churches. “The Hindus and Muslims come to the church if they are sick and they ask for prayer. This is good because Christ is for all, he has given life to all human beings. We can’t live apart from God and his righteousness. The Dalits, the oppressed people are the people of God,” says Bishop Pushpa. “I was a simple rural girl and the Lord has done a great thing.”
In India 95 per cent of Christians come from Dalit backgrounds but one challenge for the Church is that, while they are baptised with their Christian names, they retain their Hindu names, thus retaining their caste. “They are keeping their names for the sake of benefits. In the Nandyal Diocese it’s a struggle. Sill in the struggles we can build the Kingdom of God with a great hope. The support is empowering us and enriching us. That’s why I don’t argue with people. If I don’t like something I will tell a person in private, but I won’t humiliate them.
“You just have to present yourself clearly with a great courage and a great hope. Communication skills must be very positive. The Lord has done a great thing for me. The diocese wanted me and trusted me.
“I was a simple rural girl and the Lord has done a great thing. My witness certainly strengthens other people to be with the Lord to strengthen their faith and to understand the glory of God. Sometimes the unfavourable becomes favourable and unreached people become easy to reach,” added Bishop Pushpa, who ends by quoting Matthew 19:26: “…Everything is possible to God.”