Local Church Reaches Out to “Untouchables”

A unique tie exists between Advent Lutheran Church in Boca Raton and a community of Dalit women and children in India. It all started in 2012 when a self-described soccer Mom with four kids joined a group of women on a Freedom Climb to raise awareness and funds to combat human trafficking around the world.

“At first I thought, slavery —Abe Lincoln wiped that out, and now it’s gone,” said Debbie Dingle, who is preparing for her fourth Freedom Climb in February. But then she became acquainted with the Dalit people of India and many other cases of slavery around the world. It is a cause that she and her church have embraced together.



Numbering 250-300 million, the Dalits (pronounced dah-LEETS) are considered by many the most persecuted people group in the world. Dalit means “untouchable” and the Dalit people are seen as outside the Indian caste system, lower than the lowest caste. They must drink out of clay cups, which must then be crushed, to keep others from even the possibility of touching something a Dalit has used. Most Dalit women are illiterate, and Dalit children are denied learning English, the language of commerce and the elite castes. Often Dalit children, seen as worthless, are sold into sex slavery. In fact, half the world’s victims of human trafficking reside in India.


A trip to India

Advent Lutheran Church has joined an effort by Operation Mobilization (OM) to help combat these injustices. In September of last year, Debbie and her husband, Scott, travelled with Pastor Andy Hagen and his wife, Susan, to visit Operation Mobilization projects in India where their schools use English-based curriculum to teach these otherwise oppressed children human dignity, equality and self-worth.

The group went to many locations all around India including visiting schools and slums in Mumbai and Hyderabad and women’s development projects in Bangalore – all focused on outreach to the Dalit women and children as well as transformation of communities.

Pastor Hagen explained, “We don’t have any corollary to what it’s like there. Here human trafficking is illegal and although it still practiced in some places, it is considered wrong and public opinion is against it. But the culture in India is different; there it is sort of acceptable and traditional. It is hard to imagine that families would dedicate their young girls to a temple to be given to prostitution. . . Although the constitution has outlawed it, the practice still continues in primarily rural areas where women and children are so vulnerable.”

And according to Hagen, “this issue has captured a lot of hearts.”

Hagen’s wife, Susan, agreed, “We’ve always been a mission focused church and have sponsored a school in Haiti as a church for over 20 years, but we felt like getting involved with this OM project was a natural progression because it’s not dissimilar to what we’re doing in Haiti: rescue and rehabilitation, prevention and development. When you provide children with support and education, you left them up from the level of vulnerability and there is just such integrity to the work they are doing there.”


Something for the girls

According to Dingle, “Our church completely embraced this.”

For example, Susan shared how a teacher from Advent Lutheran’s early childhood school approached her and said, “We want to do something for the girls in India.”

OM teaches women skills such as sewing, computers, tapestry work, beading and beautician training, which gives them hope for a better future. And through OM’s Economic Development Micro-Finance program, women can take a loan to buy a sewing machine then pay it off by sewing uniforms for the OM schools. In this way the women are becoming self sustaining.

So initially Advent Lutheran committed to raising funds to pay the women to sew 20 new school uniforms for the girls and ended up raising funds for 100 uniforms or more. “These girls represent generations who will come after and be born into freedom,” said Hagen.

But they didn’t stop there. “We decided we wanted to help OM start a second shelter,” she said.  “Setting a goal to raise the start up cost including the first three years of operation, Advent Lutheran Church set out to raise $175,000 and they are well on their way.


Climbing for a cause

It really is a church-wide movement. Having visited the shelters they are funding, Debbie Dingle said, “I can’t express the joy of meeting these children.”

She is one of nine women from Advent Lutheran Church who participated in a Seven Summits Freedom Climb in Colorado this summer in which they climbed seven peaks with an elevation over 14,000 feet in four days.

Climbers from Advent Lutheran included Emily Parker, Dany Schaper, LeeAnn Dauito, Susan Hagen, Peggie Parker, Georgianna Dambra, Adriana Santovenia, Traci Scheppske and Debbie Dingle.

She and her husband, Scott, are also involved in the Corporate Freedom Climb 2015 sponsored by The Wasie Foundation, which will take them to Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest peak.

His company, SRD Building Corporation, is one of several sponsors of the climb which is planned for February 26 – March 8, raising funds for women and children who are oppressed, enslaved, exploited and trafficked around the world.

Lori Degler, regional director of OM, said the organization works with more than 27,000 Dalit children in over 100 schools across India and has over 3000 churches currently established. Once a year, OM also invites senior pastors and mission pastors to participate in pastor training in northern India.

However, OM has projects in many other countries including Ghana, Cambodia, Nepal,.Kosovo, and Greece, to name a few. “There are many opportunities for churches and individual to get involved in the work of Operation Mobilization and The Freedom Climb,” said Degler.

People can help by giving, going and praying. They can support and encourage church planting and training. Support Dalit Education Centers, get involved in the building of a new hospital and training facility, or support development and business training projects.

For more information, visit www.omusa.org or contact [email protected].

For more articles by Shelly Pond, please visit goodnewsfl.org/author/shelly/

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