House Committee sends India a message: Let Compassion International end your children’s “spiritual poverty”

Compassion International’s President and CEO, Santiago “Jimmy” Mellado shared in an Op Ed on The Hill, a heart-wrenching story about a sixteen year old Indian girl named Rinki.  As an American of Indian descent who frequently visits India, I have sadly met many such Rinkis — children and families who are suffering under the crushing weight of poverty, hunger, and illiteracy.  I’ve also seen, first hand, and supported, many humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that work in India to alleviate suffering through transformative assistance and empowerment programs.  

Mr. Mellado’s article was a continuation of a theme-of-the-week of sorts. The House Foreign Affairs Committee held a full committee hearing on December 6 entitled, American Compassion in India: Government Obstacles, during which several members of Congress admonished the Government of India for placing restrictions on Compassion International’s ability to carry out its work there.

Mr. Mellado presents Compassion International as primarily a humanitarian organization which just happens to be founded on “Christian values.” However, its stated mission attests to it being a response to the Great Commission and existing “as an advocate for children, to release them from their spiritual, economic, social and physical poverty and enable them to become responsible and fulfilled Christian adults.”  As a Hindu American, a lawyer, and a civil and human rights advocate, and proponent of religious pluralism, I have several concerns both about Compassion International’s methods and our government’s endorsement of them.

First, there is no doubt that there is economic poverty in India. But I am at a loss as to what Compassion International means by “spiritual poverty” in a deeply religious and tremendously diverse and pluralistic India — an India which has not just inspired and spoken profoundly to the millions born into the Indic traditions, but scores of seekers and prolific thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Aldous Huxley, to name only a few. What I do know is that there are millions of Christians who wouldn’t find Compassion International’s message or methods very Christ-like.  

Second, I am stunned that the House Foreign Affairs Committee would expend resources and diplomatic capital to hold a hearing that unequivocally endorsed Compassion International, an American church operating in India. The thought of the American government body privileging a particular faith, even as it impinges on the faiths of the majority of a strategic partner country of a billion, is inconceivable, but it did happen.  

Third, why should the US government interfere in the sovereignty of a strategic, democratic ally on behalf of a single nongovernmental entity? According to Indian media reports in 2015, investigators found that Compassion International, through its Indian affiliate Caruna Bal Vikas, was distributing funds to NGOs not registered under the Foreign Contribution Act of 2010 (FCRA). This act governs the ability of Indian NGOs to accept foreign contributions and how they are distributed, requiring any NGOs receiving foreign funds to be registered. Caruna Bal Vikas was also found to be distributing funds to many religious NGOs — as opposed to social service NGOs — contradicting their own FCRA application. Mr. Mellado’s suggestion that Compassion International is being targeted because it is Christian betrays the fact that consistently the top FCRA approved donors and FCRA recipients of foreign funds are Christian — evangelical and Mormon — as are a good portion of the tens of thousands of FCRA registered NGOs.

Rinki’s parents, like scores of other poor Indian parents, enrolled her in one of Compassion International’s child development centers where she “enjoys nutritious meals, tutoring and counseling that counters poverty’s debilitating message that ‘you don’t matter.” Dr. Dan Brewster heads the academic programming administered in those centers. He also happens to be a renowned expert in missiology and proponent of the 4/14 Child Ministries and Mission Strategy. 4/14 targets children age 4 to 14 for evangelizing and conversion because of their impressionability and receptiveness, as well as the unique mission opportunities that arise as a result of the vulnerabilities caused by their poverty. Mellado claims that his organization is being singled out because they demonstrate Christian values — that they serve children and families in India of all religions. But donors are assured that the most important impact of their $38 sponsorship is that their “sponsored child will hear about Jesus Christ and be encouraged to develop a lifelong relationship with God.” Outcomes are monitored in part by the assistance recipients’ “…demonstrated commitment to the Lordship of Christ.”

By Compassion International’s own methods and measures, desperately needed humanitarian assistance is conditioned on religious conversion — something that both the Vatican and World Council of Churches have called un-Christian and unethical.  Where the American government has partnered with faith-based organizations to provide social services both here and abroad, its deemed such conditioning illegal. That the Government of India should want to curb the exploitation of its poor by foreigners or its own people then, is not only its right, but duty.

It is not my intention to single out Compassion International — its alleged violation of Indian law and our government’s unmerited defense has simply placed it in the spotlight. In reality, Compassion International is only one player in an industry of humanitarian aid created by American missionaries where the only accepted currency is poor souls. Its marketplace is the 10-40 Window — home to the majority of the world’s Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. Its marketing strategy is predatory and not at all concerned with the aid recipients’ religious freedom.

The fruit of conversion to a brand of exclusivist Christianity is a cycle of inner, familial, communal, and inter-religious strife, and even violence. I’ve heard firsthand accounts of converts who are often asked to repudiate their community and family, reject traditions and customs that have been passed down for generations, and instructed to avoid attending religious ceremonies and celebrations that are the very basis of daily life. In some instances, converts are paid visits from church volunteers to ensure that the convert, who may have received a seat for their child in a church-run school, or much needed medical treatment at a faith-based clinic for their sick spouse, isn’t reverting to the practice of their original faith.

Where in the corpus of human rights law and widely shared notions of dignity, mutual respect, and pluralism should a person ever have to choose between remaining faithful or being full?  The Foreign Affairs Committee made the wrong choice this week, but I hope that the Government of India does not relent in protecting its poor against predatory proselytization.

Suhag Shukla, Esq. is the Executive Director and Legal Counsel at the Hindu American Foundation.