The breakthrough, claims Sagar Singh Bhukya, came through his grandmother, the first Banjara Christian in his family. It was his grandmother who led his father, Lazarus Lalsingh Bhukya, to the Gospel and to realize the value of education, a revolution in belief and perspective that eventually brought Sagar across the globe to George W. Truett Theological Seminary and brought the Gospel to hundreds of thousands of people in India.
Sagar and his family are members of the Banjara tribe, one of India’s largest and poorest communities with an extremely low literacy rate. Sagar’s father Lazarus was the first of the family to receive an education.
“Grandma sent him to school by accident. He was playing with the other children and not obeying the way he was supposed to, so she said, ‘Let me put you with this man who is coming to our village and have him babysit you so that I can go back and forth and do my work,’” Sagar said. “So that was the beginning.”
The man who became Lazarus’ teacher was a missionary in their village. Eventually, Lazarus himself became a church planter and, understanding the value of education through his own experience, greatly desired to provide that same opportunity for his four children. Through sponsorships from Compassion International, this dream became a reality for Sagar and his siblings.
Because he was the firstborn, Sagar’s family dedicated him for the ministry at the age of two. However, when he completed his childhood education, it was another field of study that turned his head.
“When I graduated, my father asked me if it was time for me to go to seminary. I said, ‘No, I’m not interested. That’s for more mature people, not people like me,’” Sagar said. “Then he asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I want to go for my business studies.”
Sagar began approaching schools in Hyderabad in south India, specifically a Christian school familiar to his father. While the school was willing to admit him, the $3,000 price tag was too far out of reach. He began to pray.
“There was something deep inside me that was saying, ‘This is my desire, and if this is what the Lord wants me to do, then he’s going to provide a place to study.”
Time passed, and eventually, Sagar took an exam with the Indian government. After scoring well on the exam, he was invited to an interview and asked where he would like to attend college in Hyderabad. Through government scholarships designed to encourage higher education in the Banjara community, Sagar was able to attend the school of his choice for 150 rupees, about three American dollars, for the entire program, in addition to a regular stipend.
“I knew they could have chosen someone else to get into the program, but I got the opportunity,” Sagar said, “I said, ‘God, it’s you. You’re the one who did it. I asked you for $3,000. I asked you for some sort of discount. And you gave me a very good discount.’”
As he pursued his MBA, Sagar also began traveling to Banjara villages with his father and his ministry, the Badavo Banjara Phozear Trust (BBPT), or the Banjara Leadership Development Trust. Seeing the people of his tribe being led to Christ and observing how it changed their lives, Sagar’s heart began to stir with his own call to ministry. After completing his business degree, he decided to travel for two more years with the BBPT and go through discipleship school. It was time, Sagar believed, for him to attend seminary.
“We dedicated him for the ministry, but he also dedicated himself after his business studies,” said Sagar’s father Lazarus. “He did not come [to Truett] because I sent him. He came completely dependent on the Lord.”
During his time in Hyderabad, Sagar had developed a relationship with James and Robbi Francovich (DMin ‘06), who were working as missionaries for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in India. The Francoviches had worked with BBPT, and Sagar had also served as the couple’s translator on several occasions. One evening, while enjoying a cup of tea at the Frankcovich home, Sagar shared with his friends about his seminary aspirations and his search for a place to attend in northern India. Robbi asked him to send her his certificates.
After Sagar sent over his paperwork, Robbi let him know that she was going to see about the possibility of his attending Truett Seminary, where she had received her doctorate. Soon, Sagar applied and was admitted with a full-tuition scholarship. Robbi also worked with a Baptist church in San Antonio who generously committed to pay for Sagar’s housing and monthly food expenses.
“There was one point when I thought, ‘I don’t want to travel all the way to America. I want to stay here with my family,’ and my family was not ready to send me out for such a long period. But I did end up coming,” he said. “I didn’t know where Texas was. I didn’t know where Waco was. I had never traveled outside of the country. Without knowing anything, I got on the plane and ended up in Dallas where two of Robbi’s friends came and picked me up.”
The culture shock Sagar experienced during his first semester was intense. Not only was the food different and the experience of going to the grocery store and paying with a debit card a novelty, but the English he thought he had grasped so well suddenly seemed insufficient in the midst of a lecture riddled with complex theological terms.
“I called my father and said, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ And he said, ‘We will pray for you,’” Sagar said. “Then I went to Dr. Joel Weaver, and I said, ‘This is very tough for me.’ And he told me something that was very encouraging. He said, ‘You know what, I’m glad you’ve come to me to tell me the subjects are tough for you, but you should know that there are many other students in the class, and it is also tough for them. You are not alone.’”
Hearing that he was not alone changed Sagar’s perspective. He decided to put as much as he could into the program and all of his efforts into studying. He found the professors to be gracious and helpful. And in 2009, he graduated with his Master of Divinity degree.
“I never thought that God would give me such a great opportunity to come to such a prestigious university and such a prestigious seminary. With my own ability, I would have never done this,” Sagar said. “In every move, God’s hand was there.”
When Sagar left for America, friends told his family that he would not be coming back. Either the luxurious and comfortable lifestyle of the United States would suck him in, or he would meet and marry an American girl.
“All of my friends, colleagues, pastors—including bishops—they would say, ‘You forget Sagar. Don’t dream that he will come back,’” Lazarus said. “But me and my wife, whenever we would speak to him, we never got that sense, and we were 100 percent confident that he was coming back and would take over this ministry.”
Sagar himself never wavered in his commitment to return to India. His Truett professors encouraged this determination and helped him to focus his seminary studies on their application to Indian culture.
“In all of my missions classes, Dr. Stroope would ask me, ‘What do you think, Sagar? How does this work in India? What is the Indian process?’ There were so many things they had me think about,” he said. “That’s one of the beautiful things I learned at Truett—there’s no one way to think. You can think in different ways and come to a conclusion of how best it suits the context of your work. That has really helped me.”
Though he always knew he would return to India, one small doubt did worry at his mind.
“From the beginning of my Truett journey, I always wanted to go back. My professors, everyone who knew me, knew I was going back. But I think at the end, just as I finished my course, there was a little small spark in me—not like I don’t want to go back—but the spark was like, how will I be received by the people there? Is everyone going to look at me and think I’m superman now and that I’m going to walk perfectly? I was afraid how people were going to receive me when I fall down in the ministry and when the challenges come.”
This worry did not stop Sagar from returning to his home country. Though it took a few years for him to get settled again—time spent readjusting and building relationships with the BBPT staff—he did not return to the United States again until 2012 and now only visits once per year for ministry partnership programs—and to visit his professors at Truett, of course.
“The Lord led Sagar back to the hard place, a very, very hard place,” his father said. “A highly educated person, theologically, and with a Western experience, going back to the people and to work and bring them to the knowledge of their salvation is a big challenge. But Sagar made it.”
The Badavo Banjara Phozear Trust has grown exponentially since it was founded by Lazarus in 1996 and since Sagar returned to India from Truett in 2009. The organization’s main focus is evangelism and church planting, both by and for the Banjara people.
“Prior to our ministry, even though a lot of work was done with the Banjaras, the people weren’t really receptive to listening to the Word or hearing the Gospel,” Sagar said. “But after they saw someone from the Banjara community, from the same tribe, who speaks the same language, knows the culture—when they started seeing that someone among them was sharing the Word, I think people started to become receptive and things started moving.”
When Lazarus was a small child, Banjara Christians numbered barely 1,000. Today, that number exceeds 250,000. The BBPT has 48 churches—each with over 120 people in the congregation and an ordained pastor—and a few hundred small groups.
“For the Banjara church of India, my father has been consecrated as a bishop for this work that began 45 years ago,” Sagar said. “It’s spreading like a movement. It’s not just an organization.”
“It is by God’s grace, that we could ever reach this number of people. And there is a huge work yet to be done,” Lazarus added.
In addition to the church planting arm of the ministry, BBPT also engages in several social initiatives. The organization owns 24 acres of land in Hyderabad where they have a training facility and run much of their programming. Their schools are currently educating more than 750 children, and their church-based medical camps are providing the remote villages of the Banjara tribe with information on health and wellness.
Each year, BBPT holds large conferences called Jatharas, which means festival. At the conference, nearly 15,000 Banjara believers come together to share their testimonies.
“When a few people from a certain village accept Christ, they’re afraid they might be the only ones. But seeing such a huge number of people and knowing they’re not alone and we’re all together, that gives them a new level of confidence,” Sagar said.
In addition to serving as an encouragement for Banjara believers, the conference also offers the opportunity to network with other Christian families.
“When a family comes to the Lord, it’s hard to find their life partners in the Christian family,” Sagar explained. “In India, marriage is two families coming together, not two individuals. So the families talk to each other and find their spouses at this conference.”
As the BBPT movement continues to grow, Sagar and his father work to form partnerships locally in India and abroad to support the ministry. They have planted 3,000 teak plants on their acreage in Hyderabad, which will eventually produce a substantial income to help the ministry become self-sustainable. They have made significant strides in bringing the Gospel to the Banjara, but there is still much work to be done.
For Sagar, his trust in the Lord continues. The God who led him to Truett Seminary where he was equipped to lead and grow his father’s ministry continues to direct his life and guide his path.
“A Banjara coming to Baylor was possible by the Lord’s strength,” Lazarus said of his son. “As a father, as a senior pastor, and the founder of this ministry, I am very happy about this seminary and to all of the people who have extended a helping hand. From the beginning, there were many, many people who helped him to grow and finish the task and send him back. Now, he’s in the battlefield. It’s not easy to bring a person from one faith to another faith, unless the Spirit of the Lord works, and it is happening. They always say, the power of the Holy Spirit is strongly working among Banjaras.”