The wise prevail through great power, and those who have knowledge muster their strength. Proverbs 24:5
Knowledge is power. Knowledge gives us the ability to understand our world, to control our circumstances, and to thrive. Knowledge is also a gift from God – just think of the many scientific advances that have blessed our lives, the COVID-19 vaccines being just the latest illustration of the ways in which knowledge can prolong, enrich and improve our existence here on Earth.
Yet, like most gifts, knowledge can be abused as well as used. If knowledge is limited to just a select few individuals then its power is similarly concentrated, enabling a fortunate few to dominate their fellow men and women, keeping them down and in ignorance.
Making knowledge available to everyone is therefore a powerful force for good, enabling people everywhere to learn, to grow and to broaden the horizons of their lives. It also points to God, the author and source of all wisdom and learning. For these reasons education has been a core part of the work of Interserve ever since our work began. Providing education to women in India would enable them to flourish and grow, and would provide a profound social uplift to India as a whole.
To this end, in 1822 a Miss Cooke was sent out to India by the Church Mission Society, whose annual report from that year stated, ‘Miss Cooke will, as she finds opportunity, afford instruction at home to the Female Children of the higher classes of natives, and a separate school will be attempted for poor female children with a view to their becoming hereafter teachers in the families of their wealthy countrywomen.’ Thirty years later, as a direct result of Miss Cooke’s work, the Calcutta Normal School was opened on March 1st 1852 – the origin of the organisation now known as Interserve.
These days, we take it for granted that everyone should have the opportunity to receive an education, so the immense courage and foresight of the women who pioneered this work risks being lost. In labouring to provide an education to people of every class and background, and especially to women, these pioneers were far ahead of their time. Think of Pandita Ramabai, the first woman to be honoured by the University of Calcutta as a scholar of Sanskrit, and the remarkable Sorabji family which included Alice Sorabji, the first woman to graduate as a Bachelor of Science in India, and Cornelia Sorabji who was the first female graduate from Bombay University and the first woman to study law at Oxford University. Think of Miss Cooke herself, whose initial attempts to educate girls were blocked by local authorities who simply refused to countenance the idea of women receiving an education.
Just as Tyndale and Luther attracted persecution for working to make knowledge of the Scriptures available to all, so too did these women as they launched themselves against the entrenched interests of patriarchy and retrogressive cultural expectations. It was hard, the funds and personnel were never enough, and the task seemed impossible. Yet, as always, these objections are irrelevant when the power of God is added to the equation.
Look again at the world of Interserve, 170 years since that small beginning in what is now Kolkata, and see how our organisational commitment to the cause of education has borne fruit. Think of Kinnaird College, Lahore, founded by Interserve personnel, which has educated many of the female politicians, human rights activitists and scientists of Pakistan. Look at the theological education by extension (TEE) programmes which make Scriptural teaching available to Christians all over Asia, even in the most unlikely and challenging of contexts.
Look at our involvement in seminaries, community education initiatives, language schools for refugees, primary schools which provide education to children who have fled civil war. All of these initiatives are united by a vision: that every person on Earth is created in God’s image, is therefore of equal and precious value, and that they should all have the opportunity to have their horizons enlarged and their lives enriched by access to education. After all, it was Jesus who said, ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ – and what sort of abundance could it possibly be without the gift of knowledge?
One particular memory comes to mind. I was walking down a side street in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, some years ago when I saw the garbage collector leading his donkey cart along the road. He was an Afghan, the child of refugees who fled to Pakistan during the Soviet invasion, and it was his job to clear out the gutters and to dispose of the rubbish that was tossed out of the houses each day. His son, a boy of perhaps nine or ten, worked alongside him. As I watched them sort through the piles of stinking rubbish that they had fished out of the gutters I knew, with a sinking heart, that in all likelihood the boy would be doing this work for the rest of his life. Without the prospects provided by education what else could he hope for?
Creating the possibility for him, and millions like him, to receive an education would be difficult and would be opposed by many who would find it more convenient to have an uneducated class of poorly-paid people to do their dirty work. Yet if we believe that Jesus promised abundance of life to everyone, including Afghan refugee children with pinched faces and weary eyes, we have to take on the challenge. For as long as people on the margins are denied the right to education, Interserve will always be committed to bringing it to them, for the glory of God.