The instant he steps off the plane, his senses are assaulted. Fumes from manure-fuel fill the air with a thick odor and the cacophony of too many people in too small a space leaves his ears ringing. His eyes squint in the brightness of the hot sun, trying to adjust to the brightly colored clothing that is unlike the attire of any other location in the world.
It is an addictive chaos, he says. He loves the adrenaline rush of speeding through traffic on a ramshackle rickshaw, perilously close to colliding with random cows and other reckless drivers among the dust and rocks of the often crumbling roads. Wailing music from sitars and ritual drumming creates an entrancing, yet strangely confusing soundtrack to his surroundings. He is engulfed in a culture that is steeped in tradition and so engaging that he cannot take his eyes off it, though it is moving so quickly he cannot rest his eyes on anything in particular.
This is India, and Cliff Young, of Caedmon’s Call, is keenly aware that he has stepped out of reality and into another world — one cloaked in the brilliance of sensory overload, but accessorized with darkness. Here, acting with caution is imperative; danger and persecution lurk in that darkness. Young, along with his bandmates, has come to see the darkness for himself and find out what he can do to help. After all, India’s greatest secret is also its greatest tragedy: more than 250 million people marked “worthless” and treated as such.
Share the well
In one city in India, Young says, there is a public well where the residents go to draw drinking water. But only some are allowed to do so. The rest must wait by the well and hope that someone will take pity on them and draw water to pour into their buckets. No one does. In fact, many of those not allowed to collect water are brutally beaten for even being so close to the well. If, somehow, they do get water, they must drink from clay cups so the vessels may be smashed immediately after. That way, there is no possibility that anyone else may drink after them and become tainted.
In another village, a frail 80-year-old woman is beaten so badly, her bones are exposed. She has done nothing, except perhaps walk too close to someone on the road. And a man whose job it is to carve Hindu idols is assassinated on the spot upon trying to enter the very temple in which his handiwork is being worshipped.
Every day, children are denied the privilege of attending school. They are either too poor to attend or are too intensely persecuted while there. Or they are forced to take entrance exams in English, though they are taught in their native language. Failure is inevitable.
Sadly, this is not 200 years ago; this is now. These people are not infected with some deadly disease; they are “Dalits.” Also known as “the untouchables,” they are considered in India to be worth less than a stray dog in the street. According to Nanci Ricks, director of the Dalit Freedom Network (known as DFN), a Christian organization dedicated to meeting the medical, educational, economical, human rights and spiritual needs of the Dalits, it is conservatively estimated that every 10 minutes, another atrocity is committed against a Dalit. This is socially acceptable in much of India.
What is a “Dalit?”
Made possible by the nature of Hinduism, a caste system (strict social hierarchy, or status) is at least partially to blame.
Hindu beliefs dictate that when those who live “good” lives die, they are reincarnated to better lives, or higher castes. Those who lead “bad” lives are reincarnated into lower castes. Therefore, many of the people of India believe that if they are born into a rich, educated family, they must have been good in a previous life, and if they are born into a poor family (as the Dalits are), they deserve the punishment. For this reason, many higher caste Hindu Indians feel entitled to and justified in intensifying the “punishment.”
Approximately 25 percent of the entire population of India is comprised of Dalits, who are at such an extreme level of poverty and status that they are considered outside the caste system entirely. Hindu scriptures describe them as people who would have been better off never born.
“Let me tell you what the ramifications of [this situation] are,” Ricks warns. “The Dalits are tired of being treated this way and many are leaving Hinduism because of it. At one ‘leaving Hinduism’ ceremony, they invited a Buddhist and a Christian to come help so that anyone who wanted to leave Hinduism could become Buddhist or Christian. But after the conversion ceremony, there was a man who raised his hand and said he wanted to become Islamic and change his name to ‘Saddam Hussein.’ When they asked him why, he said that Saddam Hussein was fighting against an oppressive power and it was the same for him. After that, a number of people raised their hands to say they wanted to become Islamic. They want out of Hinduism and some of them think that Islam will allow them the revenge they are seeking. It’s scary. Christians need to be jumping on board immediately to give them the true answer.”
Caedmon’s gets involved
When Young and his bandmates learned of this extreme human rights violation and the implications thereof, they were stunned. How could something of this caliber have escaped the notice, not only of United States government, but of Christians worldwide?
“Brahmins (members of India’s highest caste) make up one of the largest foreign lobbyist groups in Washington, D.C.,” Young explains. “Hundreds of millions of dollars are behind them. So most everything everyone hears is from caste-minded Brahmins.”
Dalits have nothing, and therefore no influence. So although Ricks and the grassroots efforts of the DFN have begun to meet the needs of the Dalits, there is still an overwhelming need for help.
“We have one-and-a-half paid staff members,” Ricks says. “But that’s a month-by-month thing. I wake up at 3 a.m. and hope we can pay everyone next month.”
Besides depending on a dozen or so volunteers, Ricks’ staff includes Ben Marsh, a 22-year-old who is fresh out of college. This fall, Marsh will head to Washington, D.C. to lobby on the behalf of the Dalits. And then there is Caedmon’s Call. Ricks calls the group’s involvement “truly a work of God.”
“I just know that what we’re doing in raising awareness about the caste system, raising money, speaking, singing and writing songs and lobbying in D.C are the right things to do,” Young says. “I have never felt as on track with what I’m supposed to be doing as a believer than when I was in India. It is on the brink of a huge revival.”
After researching DFN and visiting India, Young and his bandmates made a commitment to help end the discrimination and human rights violation. So they developed a plan: tell people about the Dalits, ask them to tell people about the Dalits and raise money to sponsor children and build schools so Dalit children can get an education that will allow them to break the cycles of poverty and hopelessness. The band’s method? Music, of course.
Bridging a gap with music
Music has always seemed to embody culture in a way no other medium can. Who, after all, can listen to rap without thinking of urban streets? Or a sitar without thinking of India? Which is exactly why Caedmon’s chose to record their newest project in makeshift studios constructed in India, as well as Brazil and Ecuador. In perhaps the most unique album of the year, Caedmon’s Call has put a message of hope to the tune of unity.
The group will soon be touring with eight world musicians from the three countries in an effort not only to promote their new album, Share the Well, but also to further the causes of the DFN and Compassion International, the organization with which the band traveled to Brazil and Ecuador. Every city they visit, the seven members of Caedmon’s Call will tell fans the story of the well in the village in India, and those who wait expectantly there for that which will bring them hope. They will tell audiences that one-and-a-half paid staff members and a 22-year-old lobbyist can’t do it on their own. Optimistic that people will be inspired to get involved, Young believes that giving the Dalits the chance to know God’s love will change the world.
“This is something that is the greatest analogy to the gospel I have ever seen,” Young says. “There are 1.2 billion people in India and the majority of them are lower caste. When they hear that they’re not worthless and there is a God who loves them and has a plan for them and died for them, they come by the thousands to come to Christ and be baptized. If there is a great revival that takes place in India, it could be a humongous stepladder for the entire world. It’s the story of ‘untouchables’ — people who are worthless without Christ. We need to realize we are all ‘untouchable’ without Christ.”
Copyright © 2004 Christian Music Planet, used with permission.
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