Not long after he returned to Sydney in 2016 after 20 years of ministry in Perth, our now-Archbishop Kanishka Raffel was walking around the city – up and down George Street, and through Darling Harbour – and it hit him: “There were so many brown people. Sydney has changed”.

How right he is. No matter where you live in the Diocese, significant social and cultural change has occurred – and the Sydney of 20 years from now will be just as different again.   

Archbishop Raffel made these comments at the beginning of the Satya Conference – a day-long event at St Paul’s, Carlingford that took a deep dive into the culture and background of, and ministry and evangelism to, the many people from South Asia who have come to live among us.

Formerly known as the “Subbies” (Subcontinental) Conference, the name has been changed to Satya as this means “truth” in a number of languages used by South Asian people – a broad term that captures those from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, and often also includes Afghanistan and the Maldives.

Conference attendees were told that the predicted number of arrivals from India alone in the next few years is 250,000, and they will mainly be skilled workers or people coming to study. In the 2021 Census, for the first time, the number of permanent migrants from India outstripped those of China – and, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in the 12 months to June 30 last year, the top country of birth for migrant arrivals was India (59,700) with fellow South Asian nation Nepal coming in fourth (23,000).

“The conference started to make it obvious to people that even before the big tide of South Asians coming into the country – because of the free trade agreement [with India] and other things – we are already seeing that there are more South Asians in more suburbs in Sydney than was first thought,” says the Rev Ben George, an assistant minister in the parish of Auburn and Newington.

Pre-existing relationships are key 

“It is likely that neither Hindus nor Muslims would walk into a church on their own without a pre-existing relationship, or at least an invite. We need to really start thinking creatively about how to trust our theological convictions, and then think outside the box in terms of how to get alongside people and do discipleship well.”

Mr George is chairman of the Satya Committee at Evangelism and New Churches, a group of predominantly South Asian men and women who organised the conference and are committed to ministry to and with people from South Asian countries – and growing our churches and individuals in their capacity to do the same.

After praying, planning and deciding that more than 50 people at the conference would be a cause for thankfulness, the committee was delighted when final numbers were close to 240. Says Mr George: “We wanted to push for 100, but it’s through the great kindness of God that 200 wasn’t enough”.

There was also rejoicing at Archbishop Raffel’s conference announcement that their committee would become a special advisory group for him on ministry and mission to South Asian peoples.

“The Satya group is very excited that we have backing from the Archbishop to continue to push hard in this space, because we can’t afford to wait,” Mr George says. “It’s an urgent need and having something that is centralised in the Diocese is very helpful, because we are convinced that the engine room for mission, discipleship and evangelism is at a parish level.”

How do we reach out?

So, what should ministry to people from the Subcontinent and other parts of South Asia look like? Many of those coming to Australia now are educated professionals who already speak English – and the children of those who came a generation ago don’t need to integrate into Australian society; they need to know Jesus.

Jude Simion, another member of the Satya Committee and executive officer for the Emerge Program – which seeks to engage with Sydney’s migrant communities – says that in his experience, when churches talk about reaching out to immigrants they think about programs.

“[This] worked well for people who seek help with relief – they seek ESL programs,” he says. “So we built programs within the church. It helped us. But the new wave of immigrants we are looking at, they come into this country as students [or] as affluent, skilled workers. They are not going to look at a church to step in. So, you have to go out.”

He explains that by developing friendships with people who have come to Australia, we can help them to integrate into society.  

“That’s what they look for. They look for genuine support to integrate, and church volunteers and church members walking alongside them. Not the minister. They look at a minister as a person coming to convert me. They don’t look at a parishioner as somebody who is coming to convert me, but they see that relationship.”

An example of what this looks like in practice is helping newer arrivals understand how Australia works – helping with things such as resumés or the concept of selection criteria for a job (which is foreign to many South Asians). Mr Simion notes that to drive a car in Australia, or even to catch a possum, you need a licence – “and we come from a culture about no licence! So helping them to walk through those things you genuinely engage with them, and it really helps them to understand Australia and they trust you.”

One way to learn more at a parish level is to bring someone in to help guide the congregation through some of these cultural differences.

The western Sydney parish of Toongabbie partners with the Rev Clive Buultjens, a former Sydney rector from a Sri Lankan background who now works for Evangelism and New Churches to help people in the Diocese reach out to those from South Asia. This includes mentoring for South Asian evangelists in the congregation, working with rector the Rev Mike Hastie in regular outreach training and helping members of the church grow in their understanding of what it means to reach out to people from that region.

And they need to know. Mr Hastie says Hinduism is the highest-represented faith in his suburb, and 94 per cent of the children in one of the local public schools have a language background other than English. 

He attended the conference and says the key things he took away from it were the need to listen, and the value of relationships. 

“We ought not to make assumptions about what people’s experiences are like, and hearing from different people at the conference certainly gave credence to that – no two second-generation stories are the same,” he says. “It just went back to the simple fact that loving our neighbours must include listening.

“We really need to be aware of what it might be like for someone living between two worlds. There were several stories in the workshop I attended that opened up what it means to live in the freedom of this country but also try and honour the values of their family and cultural tradition. In the mix of all that is how both they and their family understand what, for example, Hinduism means for them... 

“Often people from a South Asian background are more value- and belief-driven than adhering to ‘doctrine’, and I was prompted to think about how I can share how Jesus is real to me and we can open up a conversation of shared experiences rather than walk through [a tract-style] faith proposition.”

The convert

Assumpta Venkatachalam moved from Venezuela to Australia with South Indian parents when she was seven. As a member of the Brahmin – or highest – Hindu caste, her family was very proud of their heritage and suspicious of Christianity because of its history in India.

When Ms Venkatachalam’s father died suddenly when she was 16, it caused her to question everything. Did life have any meaning? She made a promise to herself to seek the truth and find it, no matter where it led her. And it led her to Jesus.

It took time and a range of different avenues: Scripture classes (which everyone attended at that time) taught by a straight-speaking Christian woman; a series of dreams that revealed heaven and hell to her, with her father in hell; and a good friend who gave her a Bible one day and encouraged her to read the Gospel of Luke.

“I absolutely fell madly in love with Jesus,” she told people at the conference. “All these things kind of came together and I just remember talking to God and saying, ‘Please God, is there any way that I can follow Jesus without being a Christian?’... Because I knew the cost. I knew the cost as a Hindu. And I didn't want to pay the cost, so I pushed it away.

“But at some point you’re going to have to figure out which path you want to go down. And I couldn’t go back on my promise. And so, 20 years ago, I realised that I had been searching for the truth and that truth could only be found in Christ.”

While Ms Venkatachalam rejoiced in her new faith, it caused a devastating fracture with her family that continues to this day because she had spurned the “great spiritual privilege” of being a Brahmin. 

“I turned my back on my culture, my family, everything,” she says. “Then, when I started going to church after I became a Christian, I got this massive culture shock. I’m pretty Westernised but I was shocked at how individualistic Western churches are. I came in as a single woman and found that it was mostly nuclear families who... that was the definition of family at church. 

“I became really angry at God. I said, ‘I made this promise to you. I did you a favour, God, because I followed you, right? And this is what you give me?’. So, I quit. I quit and I ran away for about 10 years.” 

Expecting God to crush her because of her actions, Ms Venkatachalam was astounded to discover that, when she hit rock bottom, God rescued her from “a situation that I could not rescue myself from. And how else could you respond to that except with absolute gratitude and praise? I was never the same again.”

She encouraged those at the conference to point people to “Jesus the person” to help them understand the Christian faith, adding that it was important to be patient when ministering to South Asian friends, because “it often costs a lot [for them] to become a Christian”. 

“People will suffer as a result of following Jesus,” she said. “And I think we need to be prepared for that and stand by them as they suffer. Because Jesus is worth it.”


Pray for...

  • More laypeople to be willing to invest the time needed to develop solid friendships of support and discipleship with South Asian people; 
  • Initiatives that have come out of the Satya Conference, including an all-South Asian cast for the Mark Drama, engaging with people from a Hindu background at festivals such as Diwali, further partnership with churches and the possibility of long-term traineeships for cross-cultural evangelism;
  • The work of the Satya committee to encourage the raising up of new South Asian leaders in our parishes; 
  • Our churches to be places where different cultures are connected;
  • God to bring many more South Asian people into his kingdom.