ALPHARETTA, Ga. – The Rev. Raj Nadella serves as assistant professor of New Testament Studies at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, while the Rev. G. Oliver Wagner serves as senior pastor at Alpharetta Presbyterian Church. Yet they had to travel thousands of miles together to become friends.
Wagner met Nadella through the Columbia Seminary’s “Learning for Life” program, and the Presbyterian Seminary which offers continuing education classes and travel experiences for the community.
“I signed up for a class and Raj was one of the co-professors for the class,” said Wagner. “So I met him that way. But it was when Raj was a co-leader on a trip to India that I also was on that we really got to know one another.”
It was a two-week trip through southern India with the primary purpose of exploring Christianity in India and its roots there.
“Christianity is largely a colonial legacy from Britain, but there are some Indian churches that trace their roots back to at least the 3rd century and some even claim the 1st century,” he said.
The Christian church is still a small religious minority in India but its roots are deep.
“India was always a place I had hoped to go. And for me, it was more educational for me to see India than just as a tourist,” Wagner said.
Wagner and Nadella found they had a natural affinity for one another as individuals and as theologians.
“For me I found Raj a very friendly, open spirit. He has worked hard and brings great insights into history and theology of the church,” Wagner said. “He has a great sense of humor and he is just a lot more approachable than you find with most seminary faculty members.”
But it was on the trip to India that Wagner and Nadella really got to know each other. Not only was Nadella one of the leaders of the trip, he was the de facto guide and interpreter.
“For many Christians, Christianity is a linear religion with roots directly from Jerusalem to Rome and all points west. But Raj is proof Christianity has Eastern roots as well,” Wagner said.
For Nadella, it was a long journey to meet Wagner as well. Nadella was born a Hindu and came to Christianity only after his mother converted. In India, although outlawed by the government, the caste system still exists. And Nadella found Christianity spiritually liberating.
Nadella says he found Christianity compelling because of its inclusiveness.
“I was especially drawn to the Gospel of Luke. Luke often contradicts what he says,” Nadella said.
Nadella was so intrigued by Luke he wrote his dissertation on Luke which became a book, “Dialogue Not Dogma: Many Voices in the Gospel of Luke.”
“What Luke does is promote discussions about multiple ideologies, views and politics. That was his world in the 1st century. So it is today,” Nadella said.
“Luke’s gospel offers people on the margins of society a place at the table as well,” he said. “Luke is a champion of the underdog. That is why he is appealing to me.”
That thought – and book – struck a chord with Wagner as well.
In their trip through India, Nadella introduced to a worship service at the Syrian Orthodox Church. Visiting such eastern churches and worshiping at them had a broadening effect on Wagner.
“So here is Christian tradition in the East that is more than a thousand years old. It’s an entirely different perspective. They just lump Catholics and Protestants together as westerners,” Wagner said.
Wagner recently had Nadella give a sermon at Alpharetta Presbyterian Church where he preached about Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan who stopped to give aid to a stranger and cared for him.
Jesus said “love thy neighbor as thyself,” and used the Samaritan as the exemplar when asked the question, “But who is my neighbor?”
It is anyone who is in need and whom we can help. Just as we do with those suffering from the hurricanes Harvey and Irma, no one stops to ask who needs help. We simply must render it.