It’s 2017 in a remote area of Nepal. Dust swirls around JP Sundararajan as he stands on a street corner, trying to call his brother James back in their native Bangalore, India, but his phone won’t connect. Ironically, a bus advertising free Wi-Fi rushes past.
JP tries again to reach his brother—this time successfully.
“Hey, why didn’t you call earlier?” James asks. He’s working in the offices of World Cassette Outreach of India, or WCOI, a mission organization founded decades ago by their father, PA Sundararajan. Regardless of where they are, the brothers talk daily.
“Sorry, service has been spotty,” JP says. “Listen, I have an idea. What has explosive growth in India?”
“Access to phones, of course.” It’s something they constantly discuss: how advancements in technology can aid the spread of the gospel. It’s what PA focused on for nearly 50 years, hence “Cassette” in the organization’s name.
“All these people, they already have a device in their hands,” JP says. “What can we do with that?”
James had the answer: an app for cell phones. He had worked for Google for several years before sensing a call to full-time ministry, and he understood the rapid growth in technology across India. Farmers in the middle of nowhere have phones now. And even in areas with limited cellular coverage, Wi-Fi is increasingly common.
For four decades, WCOI has existed to get the Bible into as many audio translations as possible across India. The world’s second-most populous country is home to 22 official languages, yet there are hundreds upon hundreds—some say thousands—of distinct dialects.
The brothers discuss how new believers anywhere could connect with Christians who can answer questions about the faith. For several years they’ve used the In Touch Messenger effectively in the field, watching groups of people who’d never heard about Jesus dedicate their life to Him. The audio Bible loaded with additional discipleship content is a 24-hour missionary proclaiming the Word of God, they say. Everything about WCOI has been designed with an eye toward the future, and the brothers decide then and there: Yes, they will develop an app.
A cloth sack draped over his shoulder, PA takes the small hands of JP and James in his own. He leads his young sons down the lane outside their apartment and toward the nearby bakery.
“Ah, whose day is it this time?” the baker asks from behind the counter. JP smiles and raises his arm, while PA places cash on the counter. The baker fills the sack. Outside, they walk down an alley until they come across a man leaning against a wall, begging.
With James’s help, PA holds the bag open while JP takes out a loaf. “God bless you, sir,” the little boy says to the man, handing him bread.
All morning they walk through the streets of Bangalore. When the sack empties, PA looks down and pats his firstborn on the shoulder. “Happy birthday, Son.”
Next time it will be James’s turn, and as the boys grow older, they will continue to alternate. PA wants to give his sons the greatest gift he can bestow on them: an attitude of generosity. Disowned by his family and friends when he was a teenager, PA had no such example in his early life.
Isn’t there something in that book about obeying your parents?” PA’s father is still angry but has mellowed into a simmer. Furious that his son has become a Christian, he figures there is still one way to bring him back: an arranged marriage.
“Yes, there is, Father,” PA says.
“You’ve come to your senses. We have picked a brilliant young woman from a prominent family.”
It is the first time they have agreed on anything since PA’s conversion. The father feared his eldest son had ignorantly tossed away a bright future in a high-caste family in exchange for a false religion. But by obeying his parent’s insistence on an arranged marriage, perhaps PA isn’t so far gone after all. Maybe he can be reasoned away from Christianity.
PA meets Priya, his new bride, on their wedding day. An intelligent woman who thinks Christians believe a bunch of nonsense, she understands that part of her job now is to dissuade PA from faith in Jesus.
Priya quickly questions what her parents signed her up for. She was used to their wealth, lacking nothing she desired. But here she is, attached to a poor Christian missionary, and her standard of living has dropped. She watches as PA makes an honest yet meager living from Bible translation, working on a Tamil version of the New Testament. Noticing the abysmal handwriting of PA and the other translators, she inquires about being employed to letter properly—if PA can’t provide the same level of earthly comforts she’s used to, she will find a way to do it herself.
In her third pass through the book of John, Priya feels something changing inside of her. It’s as if there’s something more to this mythological Jesus. All of a sudden He seems … real.
It’s early October and the brothers are aboard an overnight train to the far northeastern region of Assam, a place unfamiliar to most Indians. Isolated from the main peninsula and yet connected by a small strip of land that wraps around Bangladesh, Assam is among a handful of territories that belong to India but differ from the country as a whole due to cultural influence from its Asian neighbors. This trip, they’re headed to the Mising, a people group newly reached with the gospel.
Their friend Samuel, a local missionary, takes JP and James by motorcycle to Ravena Mukh. This is a remote village on the Brahmaputra River, which originates in the Himalaya mountains and runs west, then south to the Bay of Bengal.
Samuel says the Mising have been extremely receptive to the gospel. The first person to come to faith in the community was the local witch doctor. Beginning with 10 Messengers from WCOI, the gospel has spread and many have committed their life to Jesus. Recently more of the audio Bibles have been sent in, a critical factor for the Mising, as they are a listening culture. This is why PA has spent so much of his ministry focused on audio recordings of the Bible—whether cassette tapes, CDs, or digital content provided by the In Touch Messenger Lab.
When they arrive, JP and James marvel at the height of the homes and buildings—everything is on stilts. To the Mising, water directs all aspects of life. They farm along the banks for half of the year, until the river floods. Then they retrieve the boats that have been stored on their roofs, and the village paths become navigable waterways. In their homes, everyday items hang from the walls and ceiling, and people sleep in hammocks above the bamboo-slatted floor.
Villagers invite the brothers in for a special meal, thankful for the opportunity to hear about Jesus in a language they know—the regionally dominant Assamese dialect. Mising, a language for which WCOI doesn’t yet have a translation, is spoken less and less and in time could disappear altogether. Following lunch, JP addresses the crowd gathered at a church under construction: “The God of all things, the God who created everything, speaks the Mising language. You’re getting the Messenger in Assamese, but just know that your heart language is important to God. You are important to God.” After the service, James sits in the corner, showing newcomers how to operate the device.
“Know that your heart language is important to God. You are important to God.”
The brothers relish these times of side-by-side ministry. Things have changed in recent years, as JP has made a permanent home in the United States with his family. The brothers continue to text or talk every day; until they both married and had children, they were the first to tell each other anything of significance. The advances in technology that have changed evangelism also keep the Sundararajan family connected half a world away.
James leans over and asks his dad if they are at the right place, and PA confirms. He pays the autorickshaw driver, and they continue the rest of the way on foot. Father and son are visiting a church on the outskirts of Bangalore for one of WCOI’s regular Messenger distribution events. Here PA will teach local leaders about the importance of reading Scripture daily. Many of them have heard about these solar-powered audio Bibles, and they’re honored and excited to finally receive one.
Halfway up the hill, James turns back to his father. Full of energy, PA often bests his sons in endurance situations. “You OK?” James asks.
The older man pauses a second, uncustomarily winded. PA then nods and motions for his son to keep going.
James continues on, thinking, Dad’s OK, just a little tired—it’s been a stressful time. The family has been focused on the news that Priya is seriously ill, recently diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a condition in which the bone marrow stops creating new red blood cells. Doctors told her she would need blood transfusions for the rest of her life.
Back at home that night, while the family relaxes in the living room, PA goes into cardiac arrest. James rushes him to the hospital, where doctors say they have to perform emergency bypass surgery. After several hours of worry about what will happen, the family is relieved to hear PA will survive.
Following surgery, James sits by the hospital bed, squeezing his dad’s hand. PA looks up into his son’s eyes and speaks: “I think it’s time you take over.” PA had given decades of his life to this ministry, and with the addition of the Messenger, his wildest dreams had come true: Thousands upon thousands of Indians were hearing the gospel in their heart languages. And both his sons had chosen a life of ministry above other opportunities. What else could he ask for?
“I want my remaining time to be by your side. It’s your turn now.”
It’s been two years of hard work, and development of the app has taken a lot of time and resources, but they’re so close to being done. The brothers are working with a firm based in the U.S. and plan to host it from there, though the cost will be higher. They’ve signed agreements with several ministries and hope to include materials from the In Touch Messenger Lab as well. And they’ve come up with a name—Hum, which means “us” in Hindi.
While James runs the day-to-day operations of WCOI, PA helps out mostly by way of giving counsel. And he’s found another job in “retirement”—as pastor of a church in a Bangalore slum. He has instilled a love of God’s Word among the people there, who regularly memorize passages and recite them during services. Priya, to the amazement of her doctors, has been healed of her condition and doesn’t need any additional blood transfusions. She helps PA serve the local community. And JP is now the head of global missions for a large denomination in the U.S., though he still advocates on behalf of WCOI.
Ultimately, the family’s focus is still on language translation. As JP says, it’s the heartbeat of the ministry. As long as there are unreached people groups in India, there’s plenty of work for the Sundararajans. And who knows? PA’s grandkids have already taken an interest in family affairs.
Photography by Atul Loke