A Tribute to Dr. Theodore Williams by Dr. Howard Brent
1982 — I had been evangelizing and planting churches among some remote tribal people in Northern Ghana. A message came from our SIM office in Accra, Ghana. I was to go to Malawi and participate in the meeting of the Association of Evangelicals in Africa and Madagascar. I was not the SIM field leader – but I was very interested in church-mission relationships. I gladly accepted the invitation.
In Lilongwe, Malawi I found myself bunking in a huge hall where cots had been set up for over 450 delegates. I loved being among my African brothers and was very anxious to watch their interaction with each other. Over on one bed was a cluster of Africans talking to an Indian man I had never seen before. He was quiet, had deep piercing brown eyes and African leaders were listening intently as he spoke gently to them. I listened in. He was giving them advice on how to get along with their Western mission leaders and also how to start their own mission societies. I was impressed.
I soon learned that Dr. Theodore Williams was from Bangalore India. In 1965 he and a few of his colleagues revived the missionary arm of the Evangelical Fellowship of India and gave birth to one of the first truly indigenous mission – India Evangelical Mission (IEM). Dr. Theo became well known as the Founder and first General Secretary of this Indian mission.
About the same time, Theo was involved in starting another major Indian mission called the Friends Missionary Prayer Band. Today, these two Indian mission societies are by far the largest and well known mission in India. Together they have 1500 cross cultural Indian missionaries and another 450 local evangelists. Who could have predicted that within a decade, all foreign missionaries would be put out of India and the indigenous mission would take over the propagation of the Gospel?
The genius of Dr. Theo and his colleagues like Dr. John Richards and Dr. Theodor Srinivasagam was that they wanted their mission to be authentically India. As Indian nationals, they had experienced colonial era of the British rule. As church and mission leaders, they had seen the best and worst of Western foreign missions in India. They could have simply worked within the existing systems, but they believed that Indians could do it! In fact, Theo and his colleagues determined that they would do it without the Western financial backing. Their mantra became “Indian missionaries supported with Indian rupees.” Throughout the whole history of India Evangelical Mission, they resolutely refused support from outside sources for their missionaries. They did allow outside assistance for non support items. But these men pioneered the way – showing that when the churches of the Majority World support their own missionary – there is a mutual sense of ownership and responsibility. It is this ethic of looking to the Lord to supply through local resources that has made both IEM and FMPB powerful indigenous organizations. They modeled the best in emerging mission.
I remember pouring out my heart to Theo there in Malawi. I was not happy with the huge rift I saw between Western Missions and Emerging Missions. Could they not be brought together? No. he said, The pain is too deep. Maybe after we have won our way as legitimate players at the table of missions, we can talk about partnerships. But for him, there was no doubt that emerging missions could do it if they marshaled their own resources and trusted God.
1993– Now 11 year later, I found myself as a mission executive of SIM – at a meeting of all major mission denominations working out of North America (IFMA-EFMA). Hundreds of us had gathered together and our convocation was to be addressed by none other than the Founder of IEM – Dr. Theodore Williams. I was so excited. As the newly appointed President of the World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF) I was wondering how he would address this very important topic of Western and Majority World missions. The preliminaries of the meeting started – but no Dr. Theo. The time for the speaker came – and still no Dr. Theo. There were awkward moments — still no Dr. Theo. I don’t remember what else happened at that meeting – except that Dr. Theo never showed up. We were never told there why he had not come. Most of us probably assumed that he had missed a plane connection etc.
It was several weeks later. I remember the moment distinctly. I opened my e-mail and there was a letter telling what had happened to Dr. Theo. My hero had been having an immoral relationship with one of his staff. He had been found out, and the whole sorry mess was now public information.
I was shocked beyond belief — sick in my stomach. Devastated. Shattered. How? How could such a brilliant man of God – with such high standing? Here had been invited to speak to all the mission executives of North America – and he was sleeping with one of his staff members? After shock, I felt pain. How could he let down a whole mission community? How many other people’s lives would be devastated by his indiscretion? How would this affect the whole indigenous mission’s movement around the world? After shock and pain, I felt fear. If such a person as Dr. Theodore Williams could be tempted and succumb to moral failure – what about the rest of us? What about me? I got down on my knees in my office – in tears asking the Lord to help us all.
Well, Theo was severely disciplined. He was immediately dismissed from his mission and put under discipline by the whole Christian community. He was not to have any Christian ministry of any kind. Another dear friend, Dr. Theodore Srinivasagam had been a missionary with OMF in Thailand for many years. He was already serving in the leadership of IEM and now continued to run the mission. Under his capable leadership the mission grew and prospered to become what it is today.
Over the next few years, I kept my ear to the ground to find out what had happened to my friend Dr. Theo. I learned that he had gone back to his home area. With orders not to have public ministry, what would he do? Would he take himself out of discipline – rebel – go his own way? No! He accepted it all and took the lowly path of a humility. One would hear of him passing out tracts on the streets of Madras (now Chennai), sharing privately with individuals, praying for those in need. Bearing his cross. When I was in India several years later, I went to see Theo and met his wife Esther. They were living at the outskirts of Bangalore at the time. He told me of his humble ministry and that he had tried to do what he could for the Lord – even though he knew he deserved the punishment he had been handed.
It was several years later – maybe around 1995 that I met up with one of Theo’s friends, Dr. John Richards. I asked him directly about Theo and how he was getting one etc. Dr. John shared that Theo was profoundly repentant but deeply wounded. In his hour of great discouragement and need, the world Christian community had abandoned him, shunned him, and turned their back on him. He was willing to bear his punishment for what he had done – but the pain of being cut off from Christian fellowship was almost more than he could bear. I recall urging Dr. John Richards to have some kind of restoration meeting for Dr. Theo. He had suffered enough. He had shown in every way that he had submitted to the disciple of the Christian community as well as that of the Lord. Richards promised he would do his best – and I learned later that there was some kind of public acknowledgement that Dr. Theo had put this matter behind him.
In 1997-1998, Jo-Ann and I took 10 Ethiopian to India as missionaries. We did not see Dr. Theo at that time, but we did get to know Dr. Srinivasagam of IEM very well. The next year, he invited me to speak at the IEM triennial mission’s conference. I was told that all 1300 of their missionaries would gather from all over India and I was to be one of the featured speakers. I was delighted.
As I was about to set off for India, I got a second letter from Srinivasagam. This one was marked confidential. It concerned the matter of the other scheduled speaker for the conference. Was I aware of the problem or the former Director of IEM? Would I be offended to share the pulpit with Dr. Theodore Williams? He had never spoken to his former mission now for more than 15 years. Would I be offended? No way! I would be delighted!
1999 – I got to the city of Vizak India and was taken to a hotel. Theo was already there. He greeted me warmly. I could already feel the electricity in the air. Something big was about to happen. Here was the great 3 fallen soldier coming back to meet his army. How would they react to him? What would he say to them? Our car driver was soon there and we were off to the meeting.
The reaction started immediately. In the hotel lobby people immediately left everything and immediately came to him. Annachi. This was an affectionate name meaning Elder Brother. We were in the car and as we drove into the conference grounds, every eye was on our car. Everyone knew what was going on? Annachi was in the car. As the door opened and we walked toward the open stage (evening meetings were held outside), missionaries and friends that had known Theo years ago rushed to him. Some fell on their knees in front of him. He spoke to them gently and greeted them with great affection.
Frankly, I don’t remember much of what I spoke about at that conference—something about Ephesians. This convention came shortly after an Australian missionary (Graham Stains) and his two sons had been burned alive by radical Hindus. I remember the man who had gone in and taken out the charred bones telling of the incident.
But the thing I will never forget were the messages of Dr. Theo. What would he talk about? Would he make a public confession to clear the air? No – nothing was ever said about the past. But when Dr. Theo began to speak, a holy hush settled over the crowd. After warm Indian greetings he began his series of messages on the topics of God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness, God’s patience. One knew that he was speaking out of the deep valley through which he passed. But the glorious thing is that here was a broken vessel which had been restored again talking about what it felt like to be in the hands of the Master and have his broken life put back together. I will never forget those messages.
2009 – I’ve heard of Dr. Theo on and off since then. Always in the ministry. Always faithful. Always serving the Lord. In semi-retirement he served as a pastor of a Methodist Church. He continued to preach and mentor mission leaders. And then yesterday I got a note from my friend Dr. Theo Srinivasagam. He knew that I had followed the whole story carefully and so wrote:
Rev Dr Theodore Williams passed away last night. The funeral will be held… [On Dec 28th night, he had a cardiac arrest and was put on a ventilator. His blood pressure was too low for further dialysis. Then at 7.50pm last night, [Dec. 30, 2009] he passed away. Theo’s wife, Esther, had preceded him passing away on May 28th 2009. But then came this incredible word! Before he passed, Dr. Theo had given instructions that on his tombstone, there should be only one word, — “FORGIVEN.” This word only has meaning for those who knew this story. Was it his way of assuring us that He knew God had fully forgiven Him? Was it his way of telling us that his soul is at rest? And if God has so graciously forgiven him, then should we not forgive those who have wronged or hurt us? Should we not forgive Theo? Should we not forgive ourselves?