St Mark’s is a partner church to the Chennai Unitarian Christian Church in South India (the city of Chennai was called Madras until recently). The Chennai Church is a remarkable and isolated Unitarian congregation, which celebrated its bicentenary in December 1996. Both its origins and its thriving present activities are of great interest.
Its founder was William Roberts (1770-1838), a native Tamil born on the Malabar coast, who was orphaned at an early age, kidnapped, and sold as a slave to an English captain. On being set free he took the name of William Roberts, and discovered Unitarianism in 1793 by reading the writings of Lindsey and Priestley. Quite independently of any European agency he formed a congregation of native Unitarian Christians, with himself as their minister. He opened correspondence with the Unitarian Book Society in 1816, published a Tamil liturgy based on Lindsey's Prayer Book, maintained regular services and enrolled more than one hundred members. On his death he was succeeded as minister in turn by Mr Moses Benjamin, Rev Nathaniel Samuel and Rev Michael Gabriel. The current minister, Rev Harrison Kingsley, is the son of Rev Michael Gabriel.
Activities of the Chennai Church
The church community serves local people in central Chennai, many of whom live at subsistence level and are in need of various forms of social assistance.
In addition to the regular Sunday morning services, the church also acts as a school. It trains local girls in sewing and tailoring, providing them with the skills to make their own clothes. The church also provides space for both a Sunday school and evening school classes. The school, which has ten trained teachers, provides much needed tuition to city children.
Our Partnership with the Chennai Church
The Unitarian community in South India has been partnered with Edinburgh and Glasgow Unitarians for a number of years now. They depend on the support we can give through the ‘Chennai Fund’ for their unique and wonderful social outreach projects, which benefit the underprivileged people and children of the church, and the children of the Unitarian school in the Dalit village of Ammanambakkam.
During the last ten years Edinburgh and Glasgow Unitarians have maintained a strong commitment to Unitarians in Chennai. Edinburgh Unitarians have visited Chennai and Ammanambakkam on a number of occasions in recent years.
This may be the most isolated Unitarian Church in the world, but with the assistance of an active partnership it is able to offer a great deal of help to its local congregation, and to the village children of Ammanambakkam. Once a year we forward money from the Chennai Fund to cover specific projects identified by the Chennai congregation.
In recent years the projects have included the following:
- additional space to start a daily afternoon/evening school for the local children
- providing sewing machines for teaching tailoring skills to the young women of the church
- providing teachers for the evening and tailoring classes
- providing essential clothes and bedding material for those church members in greatest need
- providing scholarships for some children to attend schools and colleges
The village 'Night' School at Ammanabakkum Village
Educating Dalit Children in the Unitarian village school in South India
This thriving village school run by the Unitarian Church of Chennai, is also supported by Edinburgh and Glasgow Unitarians through the ‘Chennai Fund.’ The village which has two thousand inhabitants, lies some thirty miles west of Chennai and is quite remote, because of poor roads which can be impassable during the monsoon season. Some of the village children need additional opportunities to learn to read or write, and these are provided by the ‘night’ school, which is run in the late afternoon and early evening. It currently has sixty children aged from seven to fifteen, who attend daily and are taught in two classes. It also provides classes for adults such as sewing classes for young women of the village.
In recent years our funding has paid for:
- two new schoolrooms
- a perimeter wall for the school compound
- two toilets and running water
- providing two teachers for evening classes
- providing books, note books and uniforms for the school children
Our commitment to the Chennai Church is ongoing because the needs of the local people which the Church serves are so great. When £300 pays for a new classroom, we know that our contributions counts.
Administration of the Chennai Fund is entirely voluntary, so every penny reaches those who need it. The Fund was granted charitable status by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator in September 2008 (charity registered in Scotland, No: SC039903) and donations by UK taxpayers can therefore attract gift aid. A Chennai gift aid form for UK taxpayers can be downloaded by clicking here.
India’s recent economic growth has been dazzling, but sadly its inequalities are becoming even more polarised. The rate of malnutrition in children under five is a shamefully high 45%. Of the one billion population, four hundred and thirty three million people live below the poverty line. This constitutes 36% of the world’s poor. A future of greater wealth seems assured for some, but for so many today’s reality is that India remains a terrifying place to be poor.
The Chennai Church Development Project
For the Restoration and Development of the Church Building in Chennai.
The original church building, constructed in 1813 was still being used by the congregation this century. The building had deteriorated seriously through age and extremes of weather, a process which was hastened by the worst monsoon rains in living memory in December 2005.
An appeal was launched in February 2006 to raise funds urgently needed to rebuild the church. (The prospectus issued at that time is available. Contributions to the funding of the new building came from Chennai’s partner churches in Glasgow and Edinburgh, from congregations and friends across the United Kingdom, from Unitarian Universalists in the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe, and from fellow Unitarian friends in Meghalaya. In the UK 29 Unitarian churches and 4 district associations responded to the appeal launched in 2006, and a large number of Unitarian individuals and friends contributed, either directly or through their churches.
The new building of the Chennai Unitarian Christian Church was opened on 25 January 2009 amid scenes of joyful celebration. Warm messages of greeting and fellowship were received by the church from its Unitarian friends across the globe. The ceremony was attended by Rev Carleywell Lyngdoh, Executive Secretary of the Indian Council of Unitarian Churches, representatives from Unitarian churches in Meghalaya, Hyderabad, Assam, and Erode, and Jon Bagust and Mike West from the Edinburgh Unitarian church.
The appeal funds sent to the Chennai congregation for the new building (a total of £27,100) were put to exceptionally good use, and the result is a beautiful modern church and first floor hall with many fine features.
This new building will enable our friends in south India to continue the valuable service they are giving to inner city Chennai, and also to the nearby village of Ammanambakkam. Their social outreach programme benefits the local underprivileged people and the children who attend the Unitarian schools at the church in Chennai, and the Dalit (untouchable caste) village of Ammanambakkam.
A smaller second phase of the building project is planned to provide second floor accommodation for the church’s outreach work in due course. This isolated Unitarian community depends on our support. As we have no paid staff and no expenses, every pound you contribute will be used directly on this project.
Please support this further appeal as generously as you are able. As a Unitarian hymn says,
‘Our world is one world, its ways of wealth affect us all’.
In the words of the Tamil poet Tiru Valluvar,
There is nothing more glorious than to persist in the advance of the community.
and these words accurately sum up the aims of the Chennai church. Be assured, your donation today will be most warmly welcomed, and received with deep and sincere gratitude.
Those willing to support the work of our Unitarian friends in Chennai are invited to send a contribution to Mike West, Fund Treasurer, St Mark’s Unitarian Church, 7 Castle Terrace, Edinburgh EH1 2DP Scotland UK, making your cheques payable to the‘Chennai Unitarian Christian Church Fund’.
A Chennai gift aid form for UK taxpayers can be downloaded by clicking here.