Nathaniel Roberts’ To Be Cared for: The Power of Conversion and Foreigness of Belonging in an Indian Slum takes a unique look at the way in which the Christian religion takes on meaning for the lives of Indians living in a slum in Chennai. The process by which Roberts presents this world is interesting because he starts with the people themselves first, and not really with the religion or how it impacts their lives. Instead, Roberts takes a different approach—or, in better words—the opposite approach. He shows how their lives impact their religion. This paper will discuss Roberts’ To Be Cared For and describe what it means to be a foreigner among a group of Indians, who are outsiders themselves—separate as a caste from the rest of the Indian people—the cast-offs, who are nonetheless welcomed by Christ. This book is about what that experience is like and what it means to the people involved in that world.
The first three chapters of the book describe the world of the outsiders—the slum Indians in Chennai. It examines their everyday lives as well as the foreigner narrator’s entry into that world. It looks at the needs of the people and what their living conditions are like: living in a slum is not easy and simple things that most people take for granted—like safe drinking water—is very much not guaranteed for these people in this place. As people in the slum, they are viewed differently by other Indians: they are separate from them—not equal. They are the poor—and for this reason, the Christian religion becomes especially meaningful for them (though this is not really discussed until later in the book). In the beginning, Roberts is mainly concerned with presenting their world and how the lived experience manifests itself from day to day.
Even though they are outsiders, the Indians of the slums continuously assert their humanity—the fact that they are human beings, like others everywhere. They are united in their poverty with the other people of the slums, in spite of the fact that they share really nothing in common beyond their poverty. They have no traditions, no customs, no beliefs that set them apart and create a bond of ideas. They are united merely by the fact that they live in the slums together—that they are rejected by the other side of the country, that they are there in their squalor, existing.
Yet it is this poverty that allows them to see beyond caste and class—to see themselves as humans (without labels), and to engage in compassion and care for one another. As Roberts notes, “to be human in the world of the slum was to be instinctively concerned about those who were in need, whoever they might be, and to feel called upon to care actively for them.”footnoteRef:1 Their lack of worldly goods and materials, of material possessions and wealth, enabled them to see themselves for what they all were—humans in need—and this created in them a sense of self-worth: a sense of humility and humanity, in that they viewed themselves as being capable of providing care to one another and of deserving of care from one another. To them, caste was outside their experience. The concept of caste was a way to reject or get around humanity. In India, caste was used to keep people at bay—whereas in the slums, all were welcomed. This particular characteristic indeed made them more welcoming of the Christian religion because they shared in the sense of Christ—a sense of belonging to one another because of a common humanity. Had they been part of the upper castes, they might have instead resembled the Pharisees, those who rejected the Logos. In the slums, they embraced It, recognizing that It embraced them too. And because they were viewed as foreigners in their own land, they embraced foreigners who came to them. They all belonged together because they were all foreigners in a strange land. And the Christian religion added to this understanding in that it viewed their true home as being with their Father in Heaven, so that in view of their faith, they were indeed foreigners in a strange land because this world was not their world: their world was in Heaven—and that was where they sought to be. Their circumstance as Indians in the slums undoubtedly helped them to appreciate this perspective all the more. 1: Nathaniel Roberts, To Be Cared For: The Powever of Conversion and Foreigness of Belonging in an Indian Slum (CA: University of California Press, 2016), 6.
This is not to say the slums were not in need of spiritual reform. Not at all—as Roberts shows, there was a dark side to their belief in care—a dark evil that showed how much the Indians still needed to convert to the message of Christ. The church in the slums aimed at helping to bring this conversion about, but there were many underlying tensions among the people and conversion was sometimes slow and painful. What is more interesting is that India itself, in Tamil Nadu, where Roberts spent his time to study conversion, was actually opposed to conversion: in fact, it had been banned. Thus, the very climate and environment in which the stories are situated is one of tension: conversion might be tolerated or it might be fought against. The outside, Western religion of Christianity was viewed as being opposed to the Indian nation and its culture. The country’s leaders wanted that culture to be Hindu—not Christian, so conversion was definitely frowned upon. For this reason, conversion could lead to violence, and the Christian message of peace could, when embraced, cause all manner of unrest.
What Roberts shows is that this tension is…