On a street named after Mahatma Gandhi, it is hot. The deteriorating asphalt radiates the heat of the sun, which shines down on a scene with a thousand moving parts. The traffic is a wonder, and menacing to an outsider: huge steel public buses, hulking Ambassador cabs, cars, cars, cars, and cars, but even more motorcycles, including an army of green and yellow motorcycle taxis; all racing, weaving, dodging, detouring their winding way around and past each other on this hot, narrow road.
Walking down the middle of the street, implacable and unperturbed, is a massive bull, sacred to the majority-Hindu population and, therefore, untouched and unrestrained as he plods along. Tonight he will find his master’s crib, but today he rules this road, and the traffic seamlessly and without complaint adjusts itself to his presence. A pack of wild dogs, panting and restless, scatter themselves through the throngs, dodging cars and kicks as they look for the next scrap to eat. The shops crowd along the road where all the action is, so that the narrow dirt shoulder also serves as the sidewalk and the shops’ entrance all in one.
The whole scene is filled with people: walking, sitting, talking, sweating, marketing, and sometimes stopping to savor a steaming cup of chai. Their clothes are colorful and bright, and stand out even in the dazzling, sun-drenched air. The aroma of curry wafts past, with goat meat and chicken and a rainbow of vegetables, and mangoes for dessert.
And the noise! If the traffic does not cause one to stagger backward, certainly the noise will: honking, barking, lowing, greeting, parting, warning, chattering; and underneath it all the wheels and wind of the traffic. Welcome to Kolkata, India.
Down a side street, a little apart from the bustle of the main road, there is a rented room, with over twenty pairs of sandals outside the door. Inside, barefoot and cross-legged on the floor, a small group of Indian Christians listen to their Savior’s voice as the gospel is proclaimed to them. To a Protestant Reformed visitor, the language would be unintelligible: Bengali. But if that visitor could understand what was being said, it would warm his heart, for it is the pure gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ. And if he would listen a little closer, he would realize that the pastor was reading from the Heidelberg Catechism as he preached. And if the visitor could have heard why the minister was preaching from the Heidelberg Catechism, he would have heard the people asking for it. A Reformed Catechism sermon in Kolkata! By popular demand! Welcome to the Covenant Evangelical Reformed Church (Fellowship) in Kolkata.
The story of the CERC Fellowship in Kolkata begins with their missionary-pastor, Rev. Emmanuel Singh. Emmanuel was raised in a Brethren Church with an Arminian background. His journey to the Reformed faith had many twists and turns, but there are two events that God especially used to bring him to understand Reformed doctrine.
The first event occurred in 2003, when Emmanuel was playing with the contemporary Christian band Caedmon’s Call. He had earned a diploma in music and had become an accomplished player of the tabla, traditional Indian hand drums. Touring the United States with the band, Emmanuel found himself in John Piper’s Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis before a concert. In the bookstore, Emmanuel picked up A.W. Pink’s The Sovereignty of God. His eyes were opened to the truth of God’s sovereignty in salvation, and he began to search for other similar resources. He learned from works by Piper and John MacArthur, but also realized that he did not agree with their Baptist theology. Emmanuel still had a long way to go, but the Lord was leading him to seminary, and he was becoming more Reformed.
The teaching that Emmanuel encountered in seminary was Arminian. Emmanuel stood against the teaching of his professors in several classes, but was allowed to graduate with a diploma. His background was music, and now he had a theology degree, so he joined various independent parachurch ministries that allowed him to combine his gifts. There seems to be little understanding in India of the importance of the local, instituted church. Parachurch ministries and independent ministries abound. Although by now Emmanuel was quite Reformed in his understanding of the doctrine of salvation, the only model of church work that he knew was these parachurch ministries, and so he gave himself to these.
However, this situation could not last, because Emmanuel’s Calvinistic convictions were coming into sharper and sharper conflict with the Arminian theology of the ministries he served. As Emmanuel’s views became more firmly rooted, some of his former acquaintances began spreading the rumor that Emmanuel belonged to a cult. They tried to dissuade people from listening to Emmanuel, until finally he was unable to continue in these ministries. Along the way, God had given Emmanuel a wife, Sonali, who shared his Reformed convictions. Together, they decided that they could not continue their participation in these Arminian ministries. The ties had been cut, and Emmanuel and Sonali were adrift.
This led to the second major event that God used to bring Emmanuel to the Reformed faith. At home, unable to find a faithful church to attend, Emmanuel googled “Reformed gospel.” One of the search results was the Reformed Witness Hour. Emmanuel listened to Rev. Carl Haak bring the gospel, and he was amazed to find someone teaching the Reformed faith for which he had so recently suffered. In 2011, after having listened to more sermons in the subsequent months, Emmanuel decided on a whim to contact Rev. Haak directly. He thought this was a long shot, because it is very difficult to reach the pastors of big American churches. There would certainly be layers of phone screeners to get through. Nevertheless, he found the number for Rev. Haak, dialed it, and was shocked when Rev. Haak himself answered! Rev. Haak invited Emmanuel to meet via Skype with himself and several other Protestant Reformed ministers: Rev. J. Kortering, Rev. B. Woudenberg, Rev. R. VanOverloop, and Rev. R. Kleyn. This led to a weekly conference call between Emmanuel and the group of Protestant Reformed ministers, in which they would spend an hour studying Reformed doctrine together. Through these studies, Emmanuel became grounded not only in Reformed soteriology, but in all Reformed doctrines.
At the same time that all of this was going on, Emmanuel was sharing his faith with others in Kolkata. This is one of the gifts that God has given our brother. He is able to communicate gospel truths to many people that he meets, using illustrations drawn from daily life in India that make the truth readily understandable to them. A small group of people began gathering in Emmanuel’s home on Sundays to study the Scriptures. As the months and years passed, this study group became more and more structured along the lines of a worship service, with Emmanuel teaching the gospel. After (and sometimes during!) the sermon, there would be a time of questions and answers, and through this, the little group began to become convinced of the Reformed faith as well.
After two years of meeting with Emmanuel via Skype, the Protestant Reformed pastors became convinced that it was time for a local consistory to take over the work. What had begun as personal contact with one man was developing into a fledgling mission field. Because India is nearer to Singapore than to the United States, Rev. Kortering reached out to Covenant Evangelical Reformed Church in Singapore to see if they would be willing to oversee this work.
Thus it was that in 2013, CERC Singapore officially began investigating the possibility of overseeing Emmanuel and of doing mission work in Kolkata. Many questions had to be answered, but the main question was whether we could work with Emmanuel, since no one in Singapore really had access to Kolkata. None of the men in Singapore speak Bengali, the language of Kolkata, so we needed a local man to bring the gospel in that city. Furthermore, the Fellowship in Kolkata was the fruit of Emmanuel’s labor, and we could not very well oversee it without him. Also, although Singapore is closer to Kolkata than the U.S. is, it is still a 4 to 5 hour flight away. Therefore, if we could not work with Emmanuel, there would be no way for us to continue the work in Kolkata. During more than three years of our labor with Emmanuel, God continually opened the way for CERC Singapore and Emmanuel to work together. Right from the beginning, there was a good relationship between Emmanuel and our men. More importantly, that relationship was founded upon a mutual love of the Reformed faith. Through weekly Skype meetings, delegations to Kolkata from Singapore, and invitations for Emmanuel and Sonali to come to Singapore, it became clear that Emmanuel was eager for CERC Singapore’s oversight, and one with CERC’s confession. God had opened a door of utterance for CERC Singapore to speak the mystery of Christ in Kolkata.
There is one decision in particular that has colored all of CERC’s work in Kolkata. Early on, we faced the difficult question: How do we do mission work in Kolkata without a missionary? We had a contact in Kolkata in Emmanuel; our contact had even been an ordained minister of an independent council; but our contact was not our minister. This was such a critical problem, because CERC had become convinced through the years that foreign mission work requires gospel preaching. As important as Bible studies and classes are, and as helpful as CERC Singapore’s advice might be, mission work in India required gospel preaching. And gospel preaching requires a preacher.
So, could Emmanuel be our preacher? Could we as a foreign church call a man from the mission field itself to be the missionary on that mission field? As we asked these questions, we kept coming back to the conviction that mission work requires gospel preaching. If we were really going to do mission work in Kolkata, we needed to call Emmanuel to be our missionary. But how to do this? Emmanuel’s training had been in another seminary; his ordination had been in another church; he was no longer affiliated with that former church. How could we even begin to call him as CERC Singapore’s missionary to CERC Fellowship Kolkata? We turned to the Reformed Church Order and found our answer. Article 9 lays out the procedure for a church to follow in order to call a minister from another denomination as its own pastor. We sketched out the plan, adopted it as a consistory, and presented it to the congregation. We had approved the concept of following Article 9 in order to call Emmanuel as our missionary.
By God’s grace, we had come to the right decision, we believed. However, we had also just committed to an enormous amount of work. Article 9 requires a classical examination before the minister can be called, and the exam includes a few extra subjects in addition to all of the normal subjects in a classical exam. We now had the great privilege of preparing Emmanuel for this exam. A delegation to Kolkata grilled Emmanuel for several hours a day over the space of three days in all of the necessary subjects. Through this exercise, we found where Emmanuel’s knowledge and belief was mature and where he still needed instruction. For the next year and a half, Emmanuel had two Skype meetings a week for instruction in preparation for his examination.
Finally, on October 29, 2016, Emmanuel submitted to an examination by the Session of CERC Singapore, with two delegates from the PRCA helping with the questioning: Rev. Daniel Kleyn and Rev. W. Bruinsma. Emmanuel acquitted himself well and was declared eligible for a call by CERC to be a missionary to Kolkata. This was a joyful day for CERC Singapore, as God had opened door after door for us to do mission work in Kolkata. Subsequently, Emmanuel was called by CERC Singapore, and God led him to accept the call. He was installed as minister of the gospel in CERC Singapore as missionary to Kolkata on January 8, 2017. Emmanuel is now Rev. Emmanuel Singh.
The next question that will color the rest of our work in Kolkata is: When is the fellowship ready to be organized as a church? We do not know the answer to this question yet, but God is already opening doors here too. The congregation has already heard an entire round of sermons on the Heidelberg Catechism. At their request, they are receiving instruction in the Belgic Confession. Rev. Singh faithfully expounds God’s Word to them each Lord’s Day, leads them in weekly Bible studies, visits the distressed, and carries on the work of a missionary of the gospel.
Pray for the saints in Kolkata, and pray for CERC Singapore, that we may be wise, and that we may trust in God to build His church in Kolkata.
Amid the noise and push of life in Kolkata there is now another sound that is mightier than them all: the gospel of Jesus Christ calling sinners to salvation in Him.
—Rev. Andy Lanning