Touch of Freedom

by Shannon Linton

In India, more than 250 million people carry the label “untouchable.” Known as the Dalits, they form the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system, which, although officially abolished, continues to dictate social interaction throughout much of the country today. Discriminated against and utterly dehumanized, the Dalits also comprise the largest number of human trafficking victims of any people group in a single nation.

Matthew Cork ’91, M.A. ’07, and Brent Martz ’91 have a vision to transform the lives of the Dalit people—and India’s attitudes toward them. Cork, lead pastor at Friends Church in Yorba Linda, and Martz, pastor of creative ministries, see freedom for the Dalit people stemming in part from access to education. To that end, their church has pledged to fund the construction of 200 schools for Dalit children in partnership with Operation Mobilisation, an organization that propels the global Church to share the Gospel and meet needs around the world.

“We originally committed to funding 20 schools in 2005, but I didn’t realize how big of an impact we were making until we traveled to India in 2007,” Cork said. While there, he and Martz visited the Dalit schools and some of the slums the Dalits call home, including a pipe village, where hundreds of people live in discarded cement sewer pipes. “Children came up to me from the village and spoke English,” Cork explained. “I was told that they learned English at the Dalit schools, and that because of their education, they wouldn’t have to live in these pipes anymore.” In that moment, Martz said a hush fell over the group. “We all realized we had become part of something much bigger than we could accomplish on our own.”

Cork, Martz, and others on the trip brought their vision for Dalit freedom home to the Friends Church, where they spent the next two years streamlining ministries and church efforts in order to make a bigger impact. Called Global Freedom—empowering tomorrow’s generation today—the vision for empowered Dalits has become the church’s mission. “We are going to be the catalyst church in the West to free the Dalits in our generation,” Cork said. “The 200 schools we’ve pledged amount to $20 million. To make that happen, we’ve had to change our way of doing things. We’re now a church outside of itself and effecting change in the world.”

Martz explained that each completed Dalit school sparks enormous change in its community. “Construction of the schools creates jobs for the local people who build them, and usually inspires the start of a church in the community,” he said. “And the Dalit women gain newfound empowerment as they learn skills to help their families.” Martz knew he needed to bring the Dalit story back to his church to allow people to witness these changes for themselves. So, he returned to India in 2008 to film the documentary Deletes. “Through the film, people experienced the reality of the Dalit life,” he said. After the success of this first film, Martz and Deletes director Jon Van Dyke agreed that showing the Dalit plight through a story format would carry even more power than the documentary. Nearly two years after that conversation, with a script finalized and cast and crew ready, they applied for a filming permit in India. What should have taken three weeks to receive took nine months, but they persevered.

After three weeks of filming in India, final shooting wrapped in Orange County, followed by a year of editing. The result—Not Today—portrays a powerful story of Caden, a college student who goes to Hyderabad, India, to party with friends. A chance encounter with a Dalit man leads them both deep into India’s sex trade to rescue the man’s daughter. Martz, who produced the film, explained his passion for capturing stories. “I think the best way to communicate with our culture is through media,” he said. “We are a visual society, so if you can connect with people in a way that they can see, hear, and feel the story, you are able to impact them so much more.”

Not Today will hit theaters in October 2012, with proceeds funding Dalit schools and ministry efforts in India. “Every time I go to India, I can see the culture progressing—there’s less Dalit persecution,” said Martz. “But we can’t stop now. We have to keep this in front of our church and in front of the world. We can’t give up on this vision for freedom.”

Shannon Linton ’07 is a freelance writer and editor living in Covina, California.

Originally published in the Summer '12 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.