When we speak of missions, great names surge to the surface of our minds and carve a path of wonder and gratitude. Paul, Peter, and Thomas; Luther, Calvin, and Wesley; Carey, Hudson, and Schweitzer are just some of the well-known names. Among Adventists the names White, Andrews, and Spicer come to the forefront. Many others also come to mind, but one common characteristic identifies them: faithfulness to the Great Commission of the Lord Jesus to go into all the world, teach, baptize, and make disciples of all nations (see Matt. 28:19, 20).
My life as a pastor has been touched, shaped, and continually challenged by one such person of missions. He was a simple man, desiring to share the gospel in the villages of India, pioneer Christian education as a vehicle of transformation, train local people to share his vision and work, bring healing to torn hearts and broken bodies, and walk humbly in the footprints of his Master, Jesus Christ. He was Theodore Flaiz.
When the Flaiz family arrived in 1915 in Narsapur, a little town in the delta of the river Godavari in southern India, Pastor Flaiz was armed with a Bible and a gun: the former, the most essential tool for his spiritual nurture, growth, and mission; the latter, something he did not cherish but carried for self-protection from tigers and cheetahs that roamed the night at will. He and his wife lived in a small house with no electricity, no running water, and no modern facilities. Food was available but simple: rice, lentils, other local greens, and seasonal vegetables and fruits. The young couple had no friends when they moved to Narsapur, but soon acquired many, for they adopted the local culture and learned to speak Telugu, the local language. What concerned the Flaizes the most was the mandate from the India Union Mission, headquartered in Lucknow, a British garrison town in north India. The mandate was to witness to the Telugu-speaking people in and surrounding the Godavari Delta.
Education—opening the mind
Pastor Flaiz, tall and handsome, young and dashing, was quick to make friends and influence people. Before long, the town knew him well and accepted his wife and him as friends. As friendship gained is the first step to sharing one’s faith and message, soon the young couple were sharing the wonderful news of Jesus with their neighbors and new-found friends. Pastor Flaiz enjoyed sharing with them the wonderful promise of the second coming of Christ and the blessings of the Sabbath. One significant need immediately touched their hearts, and with what little they could afford, they constructed a thatched-roof school to teach the boys and girls of the village the rudiments of education. A village grows in proportion to the level of education it offers to its young people: this was an article of faith for Pastor Flaiz, and he knew that education not only opens the doors of intellectual and social development, but also the means to study the unsearchable riches of God’s Word. Soon the roots of a strong Adventist educational center took hold in Narsapur, which today has mushroomed into the first college in that part of India, appropriately named Flaiz Adventist College.
Between the thatched room beginning and the elegant marble-floored college stand 85 years of Adventist growth, whose seeds were sown by the humility and dedication of Pastor and Mrs. Flaiz. However, the school was only a stepping-stone. Within months, Pastor Flaiz started a worker training school and an institute for training literature evangelists, who were to sell religious books and magazines to the general population. A school for children, a seminary for future workers, and an institute for literature evangelism—with these three, the work among the Telugu-speaking people grew rapidly. But the work grew too fast, and the funds coming in were not sufficient to meet the needs. So Pastor Flaiz became his own fund-raiser. He often visited nearby towns and villages, establishing a network of well-wishers and supporters. On one such mission, he was going to Bezawada (today Vijayawada), a distant town. Riding with him was a student.
As the car passed through village after village, the student insisted that Pastor Flaiz change the route from Hanuman Junction (the main village) and go to a particular town (Nuzvid), which he knew well, where a rich zamindar—a “petty king” who ruled over several villages—lived. If the two men could meet, the student assured, something great might come about.
Healing ministry—caring for the sick
Pastor Flaiz and the maharaja of Threlapole met. After hearing the Adventist pioneer’s plans to uplift the lives of people in the region, the maharaja offered him five acres of land, three uncompleted buildings, 10,000 rupees in cash, and requested that Pastor Flaiz build a hospital. The maharaja’s only condition—naming the hospital after his friend, Giffard, a British officer. Thus was born the Giffard Memorial Hospital in Nuzvid, which grew to serve nearly 200 villages that had no health care facility.
Today, the hospital in Nuzvid and its nursing graduates around the world stand as testimonies to what the Spirit can do through faithful people. The Flaizes loved the people in the villages, learned the local language, talked to the people, and preached to them in a way that only true missionaries of Christ can.
Mission to Madhavaram— generational impact
Thousands of people flocked to listen to Flaiz and receive his blessings. Their safety was his concern, and here’s where his gun often came to the rescue of helpless villagers. On one such occasion, the elders of Gudem Madhavaram village, 52 kilometers from Nuzvid, came to see Pastor Flaiz. The village had recently become a persistent target for dangerous animals—tigers, cheetahs, and other predators—that would attack the villages, kill the cattle, and often pose a threat to the lives of people. Flaiz went to the village, spending nights in vigils. Even as he waited, he would tell the villagers stories about Jesus and the salvation He offers. During the days, he would gather the villagers under the trees and give them Bible studies. A few days of camping, alert vigils, and his readiness to help would eventually take care of the danger from the predators.
Flaiz fully identified himself with those whom he came to share the message. He visited the villagers in their homes, sat on their floors, ate their common meals, and always prayed with them. Among those who heard and accepted the good news were my grandparents. His influence reached out and touched four generations. As Paul Hiebert said, true missionaries came into a cross-cultural setting “often knowing that they faced death in a few short years, and those who survived gave their whole lives to the task.” There were many who were completely dedicated to the call of God and lived their whole lives in extending the kingdom of God.*
Pastor Flaiz was not only a bearer of the good news, but also a harbinger of social reformation. My grandparents often told me how divided and oppressive the social structure of their village was. Caste, poverty, social positions, and religious distinction often brought rancor and recrimination among the people that populated the villages. Even small villages were socially split; a dividing wall contoured the hamlets, defined people as high and low and in-between, with respect and dignity reserved only for one’s own kind, looking down upon others as outsiders, untouchable, low, or mean. The low were to bow and serve the high, and the high had reserved human dignity only for themselves. To such a divided society, Flaiz brought the good news of Christ’s kingdom that recognized no wall of partition. The message that all are equal under God’s creation and all are precious and dear under God’s redemptive plan introduced a new element of social ethos and spiritual dignity into the minds of people like my grandparents. The walls of separation did not altogether collapse, but a wide and welcoming door was thrown open through which many entered the kingdom of God.
Wholeness of ministry
Flaiz believed in the wholeness of humans. He taught not only the spiritual dynamic of salvation and the social restoration of human dignity, but he also never failed to link the gospel with the need for healthful living. Attention to the body was as important as the appeal to the soul, and this doctor-minister (he was once the secretary of the medical department for the Seventh-day Adventist Church) always insisted on letting his hearers know that Jesus is the Lord of the soul, mind, and body. While he began his work by starting a school at Narsapur, he expanded his work by establishing a hospital in Nuzvid and clinics in other places. The concept of holistic ministry was a major part of his mission. As the health component played a crucial part in the early work of Pastor Flaiz, before long, he had established strong centers of Adventism, that cared for the whole person in several villages.
Pastor Flaiz also made sure to train laypersons to take up leadership responsibilities. Just as Paul needed Timothy, Titus, and Sylvanus, Flaiz trained these individuals to be spiritual leaders of their faith communities. When a thatched-roof mud-wall church was inaugurated in Madhavaram in 1950, Jacob Pedapudi was moved by the Holy Spirit to offer a prayer of power and hope. “May there be some pearls from this church for the growth and continuation of God’s ministry.”
I often wonder why God sent Pastor Flaiz to my village when there were hundreds of other villages to choose from. Over the years, the church at Madhavaram has grown and matured. Today, the whole village observes the Sabbath with an evangelistic thrust that has established 35 other churches. This church has been responsible for producing 30 pastors, 25 teachers and educational leaders, and 20 workers in government leadership positions. Currently, 75 students from here are studying in Adventist schools and colleges.
True mission is a march of the gospel to wherever God calls—to the mountains and the vales, to the cities and the villages, to the rich and to the poor—to the ends of the earth. True mission is the work of the Spirit through human beings to sow the gospel seed, restore the image of God through holistic ministry, and prepare a kingdom here in preparation for the kingdom to come. Dr. and Mrs. Flaiz were indeed true missionaries.
Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1985), 9.