Pontotoc, July 27, 2019: It’s a long way from northeast India to Immanuel Baptist Church in Northeast Mississippi – about 8,000 miles to be exact.
It’s a journey the Reverends A.K. and Asangla Lama of Transforming Leaders in Asia (TLA) have been making for the past few years as part of their annual visit to the States.
A.K. Lama, who recently conducted his third annual revival at Immanuel in Pontotoc, explained the circumstances that first brought the couple to north Mississippi.
“My parents were Buddhist missionaries,” the 59-year-old Ajoy Kumar (A.K.) Lama said. “I went to veterinary school in India, and I got involved with InterVarsity campus ministry. In 1983, the word of God convicted me, and I converted from Buddhism to Christianity. I like to say Jesus made me his follower.”
Lama said after finishing veterinary school, his life began to move in an unexpected direction.
“I served the government for five-and-a-half years after college,” he said. “I went to work after that for InterVarsity, where I met my wife Asangla, who is a medical doctor. We married in 1988.”
Lama said he and his wife had been serving through InterVarsity for 12 years in India when they sensed God calling them toward a new venture.
“We realized during that time that lots of pastors in India needed help,” he said. “They were lonely and discouraged by personal struggles and demoralized by low salary and church politics. We felt strongly that God was leading us to minister to pastors.”
Lama said while he and his wife were well-educated in their respective fields, they felt a need for formal training in ministry.
“My wife and I were clinically trained,” he said. “But if we were going to minister to pastors we needed to be theologically trained. God opened the door for us, and we came to Beeson Divinity School on the campus of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, with full scholarships.”
Lama said it was during his time at Beeson that he and his wife befriended Northeast Mississippi native and fellow Beeson Divinity student Billy Conner of Pontotoc.
“I was privileged to serve as missions minister at First Baptist Church of Birmingham while I was working on my degree at Beeson,” Lama said. “Billy Conner went to Beeson and sang in the choir at First Baptist, and we became good friends. He was a talented musician as well, and taught our daughter to play the flute.”
After the Lamas finished their training at Beeson in 2002, they returned to India to form TLA, with support from First Baptist in Birmingham. Billy Conner’s parents, Will and Sheron Conner of Immanuel Baptist in Pontotoc, were faithful supporters of the ministry since its inception. The Conners now serve on that institution’s board.
When the Lamas come to the States to visit their three grown children (two live and work in Chicago; the other in Austin, Texas), they usually make a stop in Pontotoc to visit the Conners. The Rev. Asangla Lama said she and her husband always enjoy their visits to the Deep South.
“We love the food and sense of community,” she said. “Everybody here likes to come to church to visit and eat. In India, that’s not as common. People there see the church as a sacred place where you come to worship and pray, but then you go home to eat.”
A.K. Lama explained that the region of India he and his wife call home is a stronghold for Baptists, and a strategic locale for their work.
“We’re from extreme northeast India, north of Assam and just south of China,” he said. “There are about 7,000 Baptist churches in northeast India alone. In God’s providence, he put us in a strategic place to train ministers all over Asia. That’s our vision.”
Lama said the Indian church, once persecuted for its faith, is now in some places a comfortable institution in need of awakening.
“I see the Indian church, like the American church, to be in need of revival,” he said. “I was privileged to serve as the general secretary of over 7,000 Baptist churches in northeast India. I could see the church had become a complacent institution. More and more churches were not mission-minded.”
Lama said he and his wife share a vision to build a training center in their home region for indigenous ministers of the ever-growing number of “house churches” springing up in India.
“If the churches are to be strong, their leaders must be strong,” he said. “The emerging leaders of the house churches need training that is often impossible for them to get. TLA fills that gap.”