Before bidding farewell to a group of Brigham Young University students, Mother Teresa asked her visitors from distant Provo, Utah, a final question:
“Would you like to sing to Jesus?”
It was the winter of 1986 in Calcutta, India, — and Taunalyn Rutherford and her fellow BYU Young Ambassadors had spent several hours, unexpectedly, with the venerated Catholic nun visiting orphanages and end-of-life care facilities.
Now, in an exchange of services of sorts, Mother Teresa was asking the students to sing for the Lord.
“We went up to her sanctuary and sang 'I Am A Child of God,' said Rutherford. It seemed an obvious choice for that moment, that setting and that unique audience.
Witnessing a Nobel Peace Prize recipient minister to some of India’s most helpless people proved career defining for the BYU dance major.
“The experience we had spending a day with Mother Teresa was completely pivotal in my decision to study world religions,” she said.
Fast-forward 33 years. Rutherford is now a BYU Religious Education professor and much of her academic research has focused on the history of the Church in India.
But whenever she sings “I Am a Child of God," whether in a Primary class or at home with her own children, her thoughts inevitably return to that convent in Calcutta.
“It is a song that extends across cultural boundaries,” the return missionary who served in Sweden told the Church News. “One of the most powerful moments in the conversion process is discovering that one is a child of God, and that God the Father is there and that He cares.”
And she remains inspired by the benevolent actions of Mother Teresa and her fellow nuns. “God is working in the lives of so many people, and not just those of our religion. We can learn so much from others. Particularly those who are living a Christ-centered life.”
The Church in India
Rutherford’s ongoing research in India has also been academically informative and spiritually uplifting.
The Church is recording its maiden moments in the world’s second most populous nation.
Just five years before BYU’s Young Ambassadors sang for Mother Teresa, the Indian government allowed a missionary couple to establish a branch.
When a mission was created in 1993 in Bengaluru (under the presiding direction of India native Gucharan Singh Gill), there were just over 1,100 Latter-day Saints worshipping in 13 branches, according to Newsroom.
Today there are approximately 13,500 members and four stakes in India. It’s a vast understatement to say the Church remains a tiny presence in a country of over 1.3 billion people.
“But there has been wonderful growth,” said Rutherford.
A spiritual game changer
2018 will forever be called a blessed year for Latter-day Saints in India.
Last April, President Russell M. Nelson announced the Church’s plans to build its first temple in India in the southern city of Bengaluru.
Weeks later the Church president visited Bengaluru and promised that the future temple would be a spiritual game changer.
“The influence of the temple will be felt not only by the people here in this particular part of India, but it will bless the people of the entire nation and neighboring nations,” he said.
While the Church is undeniably young in India, it is defined by stability, added Rutherford.
“They are strong members — India has one of the highest activity rates in Asia.”
It is tempting to study Latter-day Saint missionary success stories in areas of the world (think Latin America) and focus on macro-trends and continental explanations. But ultimately, each conversion happens one person at a time. Each baptism is a singular event.
And so it is, and will continue to be, in India, said Rutherford. The growth “has been very organic — one person is baptized, who then shares the gospel with their friends and family members.”
Of course there are challenges in a nation where only a tiny percentage of people follow a Christian faith.
Persecution is a reality for many Latter-day Saints, said Rutherford. Meanwhile, Indian cultural traditions such as arranged marriages and caste class structure could be impediments for those striving to live the gospel in full.
Rutherford fights emotion as she considers the devotional depth found in the Latter-day Saint Indians she has interviewed in her research.
Many live the gospel at great personal sacrifice because of their love for their children and their progeny, she said. That’s why the future temple in India will “have a huge impact” on the Church in India.
Temple and family history work will connect Indian families across generations. The members know this — and they rejoice in simply knowing a temple will soon operate in their native land.
“When the (Indian) members go the temple, the result is stronger families,” said Rutherford. “They prosper, and that prosperity will increase exponentially when the temple is built and as people prepare for the temple.”