Page 20: Mission Veng and Christian worship.
In the period 1909-1912 chiefs and people became more adjusted to British rule. The power of the chiefs was buttressed by government authority. The settled conditions allowed more villages to be established. They shrank in size from 2,000-3,000 homes to around 80. This meant that the sons of the ruling clan, the Sailo chiefs, could each form their own village. In the absence of enemies the intricate stockades protecting the village, and the huge ‘zawlbûks’ were no longer necessary. Smaller villages meant that villager’s ‘jhum’ land was more accessible. Long and tedious journeys between villages were reduced and inter-village paths became easier to maintain.
Aizawl grew steadily and was divided into separate units or ‘Vengs’. A mile south of the Government offices the Mission Veng grew up. The land was leased to the Mission by the Government and soon forty workers houses were built on it. Jones ‘Zosaphluia’ tried, with some success, to make it into a model village, taking into account the common dangers of Mizo villages, the lack of hygiene, unsystematic care of domestic animals, and fire.
Houses made entirely of bamboo, wood and sungrass were totally combustible, and the dry season, when villagers burnt their hillside jhums, was particularly dangerous. Most villages were built on hill tops and therefore water was very scarce. Jones ‘Zosaphluia’ set special regulations. 1) All houses must be at least ten feet from each other. 2) Animals must be kept in a separate building (normally cows and pigs were kept under the house at night, and hens and doves were brought inside). 3) Roof beams must be at least six feet above the floor. 4) Each house must have a separate latrine. 5) Drinking water must be boiled. 6) The inhabitants must regularly go to a place of worship.
The men in the Mission Veng were expected to help the missionaries when going on tour, and in return were free from impressed Government labour. Children were encouraged to attend school regularly. The houses were naturally occupied by Christian families and led to an increase in the congregation of the Aizawl church on Sunday.
Although Mission Veng fell short of some of these aims they set a pattern for improvements in other parts of the Mizo Hills.
Building a Church at Mission Veng.
By 1910 some villages had built themselves a church but in Aizawl the same building housed both church and school. It soon became apparent a separate church building was needed, but it took three years for the dream to be realized.
Mrs. Jones heard of a money raising scheme used by Khasi Christians called the ‘Handful-of-Rice Collection’. Mizos generally eat two or three meals of rice a day. In a Christian household when the mother measures the rice into the cooking pot she takes a large handful and puts it in a separate bin. The rice thus collected averages about 2 kilos a month and is presented to the church to be sold. This convenient and realistic mode of collection has become very popular among Mizo Christians.
Work started in 1911 and according to Mrs. Fraser ‘The Christians are very eager to have it but are very poor. The schoolboys take their picks and work on the site during the school breaks’. Construction continued through 1912 and the church was eventually completed in 1913. It was a good workman-like building, very dear to the Mizo Christian heart, and many tears were shed in the early 1960s when it had to be replaced by a much larger building, which in turn soon demanded an extension.
The importance of the village schoolteacher.
It was around this time that the village school teacher emerged as a key figure in the village. His school was there with the consent of the villagers and the chief. He was recognized by the Government and supported by the Mission. He lived for many years on a meagre salary but he raised the moral tone of the village, guided people away from superstition, and provided for many an access to the wider world. Parents may not have been to school themselves but were desperately keen to have knowledge of all sorts, particularly the Scriptures and current events.
The village teacher was expected to do what no one else could. In a letter dated 18th May 1911 Jones ‘Zosaphluia’ includes notes made by a village teacher named Kunga describing his own work day-by-day. ‘A teacher has to do a lot of unpaid work, and because of the famine, the salary is very inadequate’. Some of the odd jobs he had to do were dig a grave; make a hoe; help the Chief to make a chest; comfort mourners by telling them funny stories; act as village secretary; fetch rice from a distant village; maintain the school garden and keep its fences in proper order; and persuaded boys to repair the school buildings. When villagers were too busy to repair the school roof he took the children to his home to teach them there.
Among Mizos, in the early days, even among Mizo Christians, the marriage contract was a fragile one, and 17% of Christian marriages broke down during 1912. The Indian Christian Marriage Act governed Christians in most parts of India, but it did not apply to Mizoram, where the law was tribal and traditional.
The Mizo church needed to make Christian adaptations to this tradition, and they were guided by what they knew and heard of Christian social conduct elsewhere, especially in the mother-church in Wales. Old Testament heroes of the faith were seldom monogamists and this added to the confusion for newcomers to the Christian faith.
The heart of the problem was that marriage in Mizoram was an arrangement between two families and the payment of a Bride Price. It was finalised by a ceremony that had no religious significance. The Bride Price was paid by the man and sealed the contract. If the marriage did not work out the Bride Price was forfeited and returned to the bride’s family. This made the bride’s position more secure.
But should Christian families pay a Bride Price? Some brave souls decided that payment was wrong, but this was rare. It was felt that the bridegroom’s family acquired a new and a potentially very useful member and the fact that they were Christian made no difference. It was customary for a new husband and wife to wait at least a year before they had their own home. The couple was usually quite young, in their late teens — a very vulnerable time for the young bride. The first child was often still-born and only short lived. The woman would be expected to return to work within a day or two, often carrying heavy loads. The groom’s family was often thoughtless of her welfare and even callous. Hence marriages frequently did not work out. The differences would usually be between the new bride and the groom’s family, not between husband and wife. The Bride Price, from the bride’s point of a view, was a form of insurance.
The debate still goes on today, but the teaching on Christian marriage and its meaning also goes on. Marriage on the basis of mutual attraction and common interest is slowly replacing the arranged marriages of the past. The family has now become smaller and more stable. Mizoram [in 1991] is still outside the governance of the Indian Christian Marriage Act.
Some unique characteristics of Mizo worship.
Jones ‘Zosaphluia’ writes: ‘A Mizo doesn’t mind going out in the middle of a service. He may even go out as soon as the minister has given his text’. Mizos had always done this and it was not intended in the least as a discourtesy. To balance this it should be mentioned that a Mizo’s concentration does not easily lapse (as it does in the West) at a slight mishap or interruption of the service. They sustain an unruffled silence when the only Petromax lighting in the entire chapel flickers and fades, has to be taken down from the central hook, refilled with kerosene, re-pumped and replaced. After a hard day in the field, under the hot sun, it was surprising how many stayed awake and alert. But if a person dozed he was regarded sympathetically rather than critically.
In a village the doors of a place of worship are never closed. When a service is in progress anyone who wishes can hear anything, at any time, can attend a service, share in it, listen casually to it, or even smoke outside, without drawing the least attention to himself.
Wherever a church grew up there was an abundance of preachers. In Aizawl itself no one, not even a missionary or leading pastor, preached more than once or twice a month.
Most of the evangelism which was undertaken was casual and unplanned and seemed to suit the nature of the people. Teachers at the end of term went off on their own accord to preach the Good News to others.
Communal prayer was popular. In this everybody prays, makes his own confession and petition aloud, whilst scores of others praying swells around him. Often it is a moving experience to share in such a communal prayer, which may continue for ten minutes.
Outside church services Family Prayers were strongly advocated by Upa Thanga and he pleaded that every home in the ‘Veng’ should hold such prayer regularly. Sometimes a tiny booth was built for that purpose but mostly the practice was to go to the edge of the village where vocal prayer would not disturb others.
A simple message.
Often the Gospel proved most attractive to lads in their early teens. Later, when they began to look for wives, they did not find it easy. After a while, however, it seems even non-Christian women saw the benefit of marrying a man who would be good and considerate towards them. But ‘mixed’ marriages created difficulties and were not favoured. As the Christian community grew men were soon able to find Christian wives, and the presence of Christian families increasingly proved a stabilising power in every church.
Was it the simplicity and directness of the message that enabled the Gospel to break through? We have some accounts of how it was presented by the early Christians and we can also refer to some early Christian hymns, especially the first, for the basic message. This hymn is jointly attributed to Lorrain ‘Pu Buanga’ and Savidge ‘Sap Upa’ and nothing could have been more simple:
‘Jesus was in heaven... he came down to earth, became a human being so as to save us. We see this in the Bible... he visited every village, took pity on all sorts of people... healed them. He taught splendid truths. The works of God (Jehova) that Jesus tells us were liked by some, hated by others... these killed him. He died instead of me, rose again, is now in heaven and longs to save me.’ (No.1 in the first edition of the ‘Hla Bu’, 1903, printed in Allahabad.)
This in various forms and adaptations, with varying illustrations, was the basic message that was delivered. One can almost hear the preacher on the village-mound in the open air meeting mentally ticking off the various points as he presented them to the hearers. As he shouted them out the preacher would be aware not only of the nearby crowd, but of the curious listeners leaning out of their side-windows or sitting comfortably and smoking peaceably on their little house-platforms. The words of the evangelist were simple graphic and memorable. Their very newness would cause them to be mulled over and gravely discussed.