— by Rev. Roy S. Askins
— photography by Johanna Heidorn
NOTE: For more of Johanna's photos, please visit her photo gallery. (password: Asia)
“Our wings were broken, and now they are getting healed,” said Rev. Dr. Sam Thompson, director for the Ockhi cyclone disaster recovery project at Concordia Theological Seminary, Nagercoil, India (CTSN).
On November 30, 2017, a cyclone (hurricane) named Ockhi (Oh-key) swept through the southern tip of India and wreaked havoc throughout the region where CTSN is located. A December 18 article reported that the storm wracked up a death toll of 218 lives, and 600 people remained missing. The storm caused in excess of $5 billion USD of damage.
One of the students described the campus as a war zone: “When Ockhi hit the seminary campus, it looked like a war zone. Electric supply gone, mobile towers down, the men’s hostel where I stayed became no longer safe.”
After Ockhi hit the campus, the faculty of CTSN reached out to The Lutheran Church ― Missouri Synod (LCMS) Disaster Response team for help. The LCMS quickly sent aid.
“As the only confessional Lutheran seminary in India, Concordia Theological Seminary in Nagercoil plays a vital role in the life and ministry of the LCMS’s partner church in India, the India Evangelical Lutheran Church (IELC), as well as in the broader Christian community in India,” said Mr. Darin Storkson, assistant executive director of church relations for the LCMS.
“Concordia Seminary is situated on thirteen acres of land,” said Rev. Dr. Christu Das, principal of CTSN. “Concordia Seminary is known as a jungle in the city.”
When the faculty, students, and staff surveyed the damage after Ockhi passed through, the storm knocked down over forty trees on the campus. “Most of the trees fell down on electrical wires,” Christu Das reported. “Almost all the buildings were affected due to the storm.”
“The big trees fell down near the [men’s] hostel rooms, on the chapel, and also on the professors’ houses,” said Franklin, a second-year student at CTSN. The storm completely destroyed the road: tree covered it, street lights were knocked down, and heavy rains had washed it out.
Despite the devastation to the campus, “by the grace of God, no one was injured,” Christu Das said. However, due to the immediate danger of downed electrical lines and subsequent lack of water, the seminary closed the campus for two weeks. With Christmas break occurring later in December, this gave the faculty and staff nearly an entire month to begin repairing the campus.
“We hopefully approached The Lutheran Church―Missouri Synod through the India Evangelical Lutheran Church officers, and [the LCMS Disaster Response team] came forward to help us in this urgent need,” said Christu Das.
Old Buildings; New Hopes
The LCMS Disaster Response team quickly responded with an initial grant for CTSN to begin the restoration process. “Sin is real; this disaster happened. But God is not in hiding,” said Thompson. “It was the hand of God to us when the LCMS reached out a hand of mercy to us.”
Rev. Dr. Ross Johnson, director of LCMS Disaster Response emphatically stated his commitment to assist CTSN: “Residential seminary education is the best way to prepare young men to go into the ministry and be church planters in India, a Hindu nation that persecutes the Christian minority,” he said. “The seminary and seminarians need our support as they prepare men to proclaim Christ in a nation that is hostile to the message of Christian hope.”
As they began restoring the campus, new problems arose. “Our buildings are very old structures,” said Christu Das.
Some of the buildings on the CTSN campus were built nearly one hundred years ago. The walls are made of unbaked clay bricks. To demonstrate their fragility, Rev. C. Justin Raj, a professor and bursar of the campus, took one of the bricks from the damaged part of the missionary bungalow and crumbled it with his bare hands.
Three of the buildings were irreparably damaged by the storm. One staff house looked like a set piece from an old war movie. Light filtered through the rafters and roof tiles onto the floor where more tiles lay arranged like a heap of fallen dominos. Wooden ceiling boards crisscrossed the floor. Because of its age, architects told CTSN that the building will not stand another storm, even if they repair the roof.
With the initial grant, however, CTSN began repairs. “By this grant, we were able to do the major repairs. We were able to clear the roads. Within two weeks, we rectified the electrical problems and also fixed the water facilities to the campus,” Christu Das reported.
They cleaned up the trees to allow transportation throughout the campus. Some of the roofs were repaired, debris was cleared, and walls were fixed, Thompson reported in an article on the CTSN website.
Repairing the chapel proved more difficult than the seminary expected. “When we started to fix the old tile roof, we found that almost all the wood rafters were broken,” Christu Das said. But the problems did not stop. The repairs revealed additional problems with the electrical wiring. “Power leakages were common; our students often got shocked,” he said. So, they were forced to install a new wiring system.
And yet, Christu Das still sees the hand of God in this disaster: “In a way, Ockhi is helping us to rebuild our chapel first.”
The Ockhi cyclone provided some opportunities for CTSN. The chapel and archives at the seminary needed repair; as a result of damage to the library and archive building, LCMS Disaster Response approved a grant to repair the library and archives.
The seminary also provides food for students living on campus. Three times a day, eighty students, staff, and faculty gather in the cafeteria to eat and fellowship together.
The kitchen also needed repair after Ockhi. The haze of an open fire and the walls blackened by years of smoke made it difficult to see the faithful cook crouched over his fire. LCMS Disaster Response approved a grant to clean, paint, and provide a sanitary place for food to be prepared and students to eat.
Over the years, CTSN has turned away students from the seminary due to lack of student housing. “Some of the students, even though they are married, don’t bring their families to the campus due to the lack of availability of housing,” Christu Das explained.
Before the Ockhi disaster, the seminary housing was over capacity; now after Ockhi, over thirty seminary students do not have adequate housing. To provide for them, some faculty members have moved off campus; Thompson daily commutes over five hours to teach at the seminary since the students need faculty housing.
The faculty at CTSN are working with LCMS Disaster Response to create a plan to replace the irreparably damaged buildings with a new men’s hostel that will increase the seminary’s capacity and provide for future development of the campus.
A Stronger Community
The commitment to faithful use of resources shown by the faculty and students of the seminary has shown forth clearly. “We have enjoyed marvelous cooperation from the seminary over the last year or so,” said Rev. Roger James, South Asia area director for the LCMS. “Principal Christu Das and his administration have been particularly conscientious about keeping us up to date on their plans and now regarding the money used for repairing the seminary.”
Not only did the community faithfully use the resources entrusted to them, but they grew together as well. “We all have memories of our seminary professors,” James told the faculty. “Now your students will have a blessed memory etched into their hearts, as they recall how you were eager and willing to get down in the dust and dirt to work with your own hands to get the seminary in order again.”
Christu Das and the rest of the seminary faculty expressed their thanks for the support of their brothers and sisters in the United States for helping them rebuild after the disaster. LCMS Disaster Response remains committed to helping CTSN rebuild and prepare pastors for India: “The rebuilding project that LCMS Disaster Response is doing with the seminary will ensure that Concordia Theological Seminary in Nagercoil will be able to continue to do this faithful and God honoring work for generations to come,” said Johnson.
Through it all, the confidence and trust in God expressed by the faculty shines as a beacon of light to anyone suffering disaster: “The Ockhi disaster was a great blow to the life of our campus; during this disaster, our faculty, staff, and students stood firm together to face this crisis,” Christu Das said. “So, we are grateful to God for such an incident; the disaster helped us to bind together in a common cause.”
The work is not yet completed. The LCMS will continue to work with an encourage CTSN as they recover. The seminary remains vital to the work of the LCMS’s partner church in India. James said, “I've said it and others have said it―IELC pastors and laymen have said it―the seminary is the heart of the IELC. If the church cannot get well-trained and capable pastors, then the church cannot survive.”
I, Rev. Roy S. Askins, serve as Director of Communications for Asia region of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. You can support my work at lcms.org/askins.
Johanna Heidorn serves as Communications Specialist and Photographer for the Asia region of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Please visit her gallery to see more of our work in the Asia region (password: Asia). You can support her at lcms.org/heidorn.