In the state of Telangana, small churches can be found spread throughout 150 villages. These groups of believers are being led, taught, and baptized by 25 Banjara pastors, who travel amongst the villages. As fellow poor farmers, they are limited by how much they can do. Journeying to these villages is difficult and time consuming as well, as many of them have no means of transportation besides walking the many miles between churches. Most of these pastors have had very little training or previous study in the Bible, and some have no Bibles at all.
Jeremiah oversees these 25 pastors in an effort to spread the Gospel throughout his region and beyond. He views pastoral training and ministering to the poor and orphans in these villages as an integral part of the church’s role. Alongside him is his brother Sunil, who navigates the building of the orphanage and pastoral training center as well as the running of the school on site.
The Banjara who speak Lambadi and live scattered throughout the countryside of India number more than six million. Most are concentrated in southeast India, though these “gypsies of India” can be found anywhere in the nation. Beyond this, smaller groups of Banjara can be found beyond the borders of India as Muslims in Nepal, Pakistan, and elsewhere.
The Banjara people are historically gypsies who traveled and traded, specializing in salt and cattle and grains. For centuries now, most are settled in tribes and semi-nomadic tribes along the outskirts of Indian cities. Living in the country, they farm and survive by what they make for themselves. These people are among the lowest of the low, more unwanted than most outcasts of Indian cities. They are regarded as outsiders of the caste system because of their heritage as gypsies traveling from other people groups around the world, and they are given little consideration due to their poverty-stricken way of life.
The Banjara are classified as unreached. This means that a very small percentage of their people have heard the Gospel, and the vast majority has no way to hear the Gospel.
As Hindus, the Banjara believe in hundreds of gods. Each individual god has its own powers, strengths, weaknesses, and means of blessing or hurting men. The Hindu’s daily life revolves around the worship of these gods. Altars, idols, statues, and sacrifices made in homage to the gods can be found at every turn in their homes, villages, and cities.
The Banjara mix the beliefs of Hinduism with animistic practices, creating a unique religion of their own. Witch doctors, charms to ward off evil spirits, taboos, and other signs of animistic roots can be found embedded in their culture.
While the New Testament has been translated into their language, copies have been very slowly distributed. This is partly because so few missionaries are at work among the Banjara. Also, because of the high illiteracy rate, books are naturally even harder to circulate.
Living off the land and raising cattle, the Banjara also are skilled craftsmen. The brightly colored, detailed designed clothing embellished with bright beads, coins, and discs that many of the Banjara women wear is made by their own hands. Many of them can fashion tools that their society needs, anything from needles to broomsticks. The Banjara delight in music, dancing, and stories, and their love for art can be seen in their paintings, tattoos, and embroidery. They are known throughout India for their work sewing mirrors, animal bones, silver, gold, plastic, beads, disks, coins, and more onto their merchandise and clothing.
The vast majority of the Banjara remain uneducated. About 12% of men and 3.6% of women are literate. Because they are so poor, this trend of illiteracy is going to be hard to break, as children often are not sent to schools, which cost money.
In tight-knit tribes, the Banjara stick close together. With extended families often living together, arranged marriages, and strictly obeyed tribal leaders, individual Banjara tribes are content to remain amongst themselves, venturing beyond their own people only for the sake of small trade or selling of merchandise to complement their small income as farmers.