Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar was born in Mulki, India where his dad was a pastor and his mom taught school at an orphanage. As part of his training for ministry, Bishop Devadhar mentored under a pastor who took him to local coffee estates where they would visit with the workers and evangelize. Today, the bishop of the Boston Episcopal Area and New England Annual Conference enjoys pilgrimages to Taizé in France as part of his spiritual journey. Meet Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar.
Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar
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This episode posted on July 15, 2019.
We’re meeting another United Methodist bishop on this episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast that helps us keep our souls as health as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar currently serves the Boston Episcopal area, that includes Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, and half of Connecticut.
In our conversation, he shared with me what it was like growing up in India as a Christian family, how he mentored under a pastor who visited coffee estates to evangelize, and how today he enjoys pilgrimages to Taizé in France as part of his spiritual journey.
Meet Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar.
Joe: Bishop Devadhar, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Bishop Devadhar: Thank you. It is quite a joy to be in conversation with you.
Joe: I’m really glad to have you here with us here today as well. I want to begin by talking about that you were born in India. Can you tell me about that? What was it like growing up there?
Bishop Devadhar: I was born in a village called Mulki, India. Now it has become more than a village. And I was born to a Christian family. My father was a minister, and my mother was a school teacher who was assigned by the church to look after the orphaned girls.
I was raised in a mission compound. What I mean by that is that in the when the Christian missionaries came to India in some parts of the world they placed all the converts to Christianity in a compound called a “mission compound.” It had no access to people of other faiths, so I was raised in a very secluded Christian community. However, when I was growing up and particularly when I started attending high school, I realized how badly the whole mission compound mentality was looked by the neighbors of other faiths.
So it was a challenge for me to be a minority Christian student in a majority school which had people of other faiths. Now having said that it was while I was in the 7th grade I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Then like any youth I had my failures along the way in my Christian walk. So I rededicated my life to Christ again in 1971. Around this time I also got the call to ministry. So I decided to go into ministry.
Joe: So, when you were growing up in the mission compound I imagine church was a regular part of your life every week, every day. What are some of your memories of those early times in the church, maybe from your mom and dad or from growing up in faith in the mission compound?
Bishop Devadhar: For example, let me tell my schedule on a Sunday.
Sunday morning before we got our breakfast we had to either memorize a biblical passage or a psalm or a hymn. Only after that we got our breakfast. Then we go to church. After church we were asked to attend Sunday school, and we did that faithfully. Then after lunch we came back to church for all the youth and young adults, actually all the youth who had not been confirmed and children, for a catechism class in the afternoon all led by the pastors.
So that was from 3 to 4. Then we could only play for a while with our friends. Then in the evening we had to study our lessons for the school. On Sundays we were not supposed to do any homework, until all the church activities were done.
So that was typical Sunday life in our lives growing up.
Also, during the summer months, anyone in fourth grade and above, until the university, they had to go to summer scriptural lessons class. We were given scriptural lessons by a pastor or a teacher in the church during the summer months. Then we had to appear for a scriptural exam conducted by the entire district of the church. This was a really complicated exam. Then they would publish the results of the exam and then they would say who got ranked in the district levels. So it was very fascinating, also helpful in my Christian formation.
Joe: I’m sure. That’s great foundation that you received at any early age.
Bishop Devadhar: Yeah, that is for sure.
Joe: Did you say your dad was the pastor?
Bishop Devadhar: My dad was a pastor, and he was pastor of a church. Then later, the church asked him to look after a girls’ boarding home or a girls’ orphanage, where my mother worked also. He was also in charge of the farm an agriculture farm for the church. He was very much involved in the community also. Even though he was living within the mission compound, one amazing thing was because of his work with the laborers from other faiths and other things, he was also respected in the community.
Joe: I read that…. I think it was in your bio. …that it says that your name Devadhar, means “follower of God.” Was that something that you were aware of as a child? Or did you learn that later on?
Bishop Devadhar: No. See, unlike here Christian baptism is a little different from where I come from.
The parents did not give you a name at your birth. It was only publicized only the day of your baptism. And the baptism generally took place 40 days after the birth of the child. So, and this is done publicly in the church. The parents carefully passed a slip to the pastor “this is the name of child.” Then the pastor pronounced publicly – as the pastor baptized the child – the name of the child.
However, I want to say here, it’s a very fascinating process how we name the child. Sometimes your parishioners would come to you and say this is the name of the child. Or, do you have any traditions, pastor?
I have a very interesting story from my dad when he was a pastor. He told me that he was all set for the baptism, then asked the couple to give him the name of the child, and the father whispered to my dad, “You name the child. You name the child.” Then my father had to come up with a name on the spot.
Having said that I was told that my name was picked up in consultation with my maternal grandfather. My first name is Sudarshana, meaning… Su meaning good. Darshana meaning vision. And Deva meaning God, dhar meaning one who wears God. That’s the literal translation.
Joe: You mentioned that your first giving your life to Christ happened as a 7th grader, but then there was a renewal later on that was tied to your call to ministry. Can you tell me about that?
Bishop Devadhar: Yes. Interestingly both times it was the same speaker from Australia who was leading a retreat or a spiritual weekend in a neighboring town in the same district where I was raised up. When I committed myself first when I was in the 7th grade, then, through my high school years, and through my college years I must say that I was not a perfect Christian. That is what I meant.
Then in ’71, I rededicated myself to Christ. But by this time I also had a call to ministry. And I had already applied for the seminary. So when I went to the seminary in 1971 I went there as a reborn Christian.
Joe: And where did you attend seminary?
Bishop Devadhar: I went to seminary in the city of Bangalore, India, at United Theological College and it is an ecumenical seminary.
Joe: Oh, cool. What brought you to the United States?
Bishop Devadhar: Actually my love for the United States, started during the Kennedy years. While John F. Kennedy was the President of the United States, a lot of food programs were done in India through an organization called C.A.R.E. and other organizations. That really created a love in me for the United States, and it was my hope and dream, one day I must go to school in the United States.
Joe: Oh, wow. Okay. And so did you eventually come to the United States for school?
Bishop Devadhar: Yes. I started going to school at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in the United States. I got a scholarship from them.
Joe: So when you were serving as a pastor, what was the part of pastoral ministry that got you most energized?
Bishop Devadhar: Well, I must say this, while I was at school at the United Theological College they had a program of practical work where we could choose where we wanted to go for our internship practical work. I chose to go and be with a well-known pastor by name Reverend S A Collins. He was in charge of the church and also he was in charge of the district evangelistic work, in the district of Coorg, India. Coorg is located in the Karnataka state of India.
It was fascinating to be under his guidance for a few weeks. He asked me, “Now Suda, get ready. I’m going on house visitation. When he said that I really had to be ready, because it was not just one house visitation. He would do six to eight in a row.
Bishop Devadhar: Then, I watched him, every house. How he approached the people there, how he talked to them. It was a really fascinating experience for me.
Then he would tell me, “Now, be ready by 6 o’clock in the morning. We have to catch the first bus of the day to go to a coffee estate.” And this coffee estate may be 10 miles away or 30 miles away. But his whole point was to meet with the Christians and people of other faiths who are estate workers, before they started work in the estate.
So if it was a Christian home he will visit them and say, “How are things?” And he would speak to them in the language of the daily estate workers. Then, if it was not a Christian home, he would just introduce himself, “I am so-and-so. I am the pastor of the church and how is life with you?” Then he would build relationships. Then he would go to that same place maybe after 6 weeks and then talk about his faith. And then, this is what deeply touched me, whatever those estate workers – these were poor people – offered him – he did not care whether it was a clean glass of water, it is clean silverware, or clean paper on which food is placed for you – he would eat it with excitement and with gratefulness.
Later, he told me on when we left that house, “Suda, why I am doing is so they know I am at their level and I identify myself with this family.” That was a very rewarding experience for me. So I learned a lot from this great pastor.
Then he would say to me, “Now you have to preach this Sunday.” Then he would ask me on Saturday, “Suda, what are you preaching tomorrow? Tell me the highlights of your sermon.” In other words, he was indirectly asking me, “Are you prepared with your sermon?”
Joe: What a great way to get practical, hands-on experience from a wonderful pastor.
Bishop Devadhar: That really helped me. And also, I must say another thing here publicly, another pastor who was really helpful to me in my Christian ministry was my father. You know, when I came home from seminary, sometimes the pastors would ask me to preach. Then my father would say to me on Saturday, “Son, come, sit with me. Read me your script.” [Laughs]
He would listen to it very carefully. “What about changing this line?” in a very polite way. He was my mentor also.
Joe: Now you’ve been a bishop for quite a few years, what’s the best part about being a bishop?
Bishop Devadhar: For me, I’m just speaking for Suda… For me, the best part of the bishop for me is to be with my clergy and laity, and to talk with them and to be in conversation with them and to hear them, hear their pain, hear their needs and to hear their hopes, hear their dreams and to be in dialogue so that we could all become better Christian disciples. That is the most important part which I cherish.
Joe: I also know that being a bishop is an incredibly time-consuming job, but when you get a few minutes to yourself, what do you do to relax? What do you do just for the fun of it?
Bishop Devadhar: You know, different people have different kinds of fun. For me real fun is reading a devotional, or going to the Internet and listening some of the sermons of my colleagues and other pastors. I also listen to devotional music. When I walk the treadmill I always try to listen to the music and devotional music, and sometimes the sermons of others. And also sometimes I must say that I put the television on and watch the news.
I am not an outdoor person. I must admit that. For me where I get my energy is being with people, enjoying the foods I enjoy and be with my family. And that gives me inspiration.
Joe: Excellent. The final question that I ask every guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape is how do you keep your spirit in shape?
Bishop Devadhar: For me spiritual pilgrimages are very important. I try my level best to be at Taizé every summer with a group of youth and young adults and colleagues. Now, I must say that since I was elected to the episcopacy I might have missed 2 or 3 Taizé pilgrimages. Otherwise I go to Taizé every year for a week for live self-reflection and spiritual renewal. It has really given me a great boost in my spiritual journey.
Joe: Oh, I imagine. What’s it like there? What are some of the experiences that you’ve had there? Can you describe that for us?
Bishop Devadhar: Yes. Those who do not know about Taizé, it was started by Brother Roger and nearly 4,000 to 6,000 youth, sometimes 3000, go there every summer. Throughout the year, pilgrimages come from other parts of the world. Now on a typical day in Taizé you spend lots of time in self-reflection and attending the chapel services or worship services, then being in Bible study.
Also, because all things are done at Taizé on a voluntary basis, we also get involved in cleaning bathrooms or serving in the lunch line, or washing the dishes. When you do all of that, the conversation that takes place, and the songs we sing, it all adds up to your spirituality.
But the most important thing that I personally enjoy at Taizé is speaking to the youth and young adults of different parts of the world, and to hear their comments about the church, and hear their reflections about the church, and to go into dialog.
Also, I must say, the other inspiration I get in my life is when I’m with my grandchildren. The way they ask me some questions. The way they play with me. And also to hear them, what they learned in the Bible time or Sunday school or school. It’s really fascinating. They give me an inspiration.
Joe: Yeah. How many grandchildren do you have?
Bishop Devadhar: I have three.
Joe: Are they fairly close by?
Bishop Devadhar: No.
Joe: That’s unfortunate.
Bishop Devadhar: It’s a little bit long ways to get there by car.
Joe: Okay. Well, I am so grateful for you taking the time to talk to me today. It was really wonderful getting to know you and meet you across the miles on the telephone.
Bishop Devadhar: Thank you, Joe. And I truly, truly appreciate this.
That was Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar of the Boston Episcopal area. To learn more about him, the New England Annual Conference, or Taizé, go to UMC.org/podcasts, and look for this episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape called “Meet Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar.”
On that episode page, you will also find links to more conversations with bishops, other episodes of Get Your Spirit in Shape, and other United Methodist podcasts like the Compass Podcast from Rethink Church, which offers insights on finding God in our day-to-day living.
A link to my email address is also there so you can share your thoughts about Get Your Spirit in Shape with me, and pass along suggestions you have for future guests and topics.
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As always, thank you so much for listening. I’ll be back soon with another conversation to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.