The missionary hopes to return to India next January to continue his work.
By LAURE CIOFFI
VINDICATOR NEW CASTLE BUREAU
NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- Joe Cooper has only his faith in God to explain how he survived an attack by Hindu extremists in India.
But he also contends a lapse in that faith brought on the brutal attack last month that left him with deep slash wounds and bruises all over his body.
"I was not fighting my spiritual battles that night. I had relaxed in my prayer life because this type of thing just didn't happen there. This was a safe place," said the 68-year-old Neshannock Township man.
Nearly 10 men attacked Cooper, 68, and a group of other church members as they walked along a paddy embankment to their car on the outskirts of Trivandrum, the capital city of southern Kerala state in India.
Cooper suffered a deep cut to his right hand from the index finger to the wrist. He also received slashing wounds on his right arm and the right side of his torso. He was knocked to the ground during the attack.
He is now undergoing rehabilitation in New Castle to help him regain feeling and movement in his right hand. Cooper had most of the stitches removed last week by a local doctor.
The missionary, who makes yearly visits to India, was ordered to leave the country after the attack and accused of illegally preaching Christianity.
It's still unclear what will happen to his attackers, members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist organization, who Cooper likens to the Klu Klux Klan or Adolf Hitler's Brown Shirts, meant to keep people in line through fear and intimidation.
"Part of the problem was I let my guard down. I should have been praying for guardian angels to surround the camp and programs. Prayer would have put the fear of God in them. The control was mine to use -- use the fear they have. The fear they are trying to put into other people," Cooper said.
Cooper was the only American walking along the paddy that night. He believes he was a target of the extremists, but he denies preaching illegally.
Cooper said his understanding of Indian law is that he must get a special permit to preach before large groups that might include non-Christians. That night he was speaking to only about 50 people who are already church members.
"It was really a revival, which is preaching to the church. It's really not for adding to the church but stirring it up," he said. It's intended to get the church members excited so they go out and preach Christianity to others in their community, he said.
Though this was his first trip to that church in Trivandrum, Cooper has made yearly journeys to India to work as a missionary since 1992. His wife, Ellie, accompanies him occasionally. She did not go on this latest trip.
Both say they would like to return to India next year for more mission work.
Cooper believes Indian police did him a favor by ordering him to leave shortly after the attack, leaving his visa intact so he can return.
However, he is still concerned that some extremists will try to have his visa pulled, and he is working with an Indian attorney.
Cooper said he had a calling from God about 11 years ago to serve as a missionary in India -- much like the calling he received 25 years ago to leave his construction company and serve God full time.
"We were church people and believed in the Bible, but we never had personalized it," Cooper said. "We hadn't yet realized that if all this was true, you better do something about it."
Cooper eventually sold his share of the Alliance City Construction Co. in Alliance, Ohio, and went to work for a ministry in New Wilmington, Pa., offering family and marriage encounters.
Ellie and Joe Cooper retired in 1992 and started traveling yearly to India for the first few months of each year. The rest of the year is spent fund raising for the Indian people.
Cooper said he intends to continue his fund raising this year in hopes of returning to the country next January. The money he raises helps pay for his trip and is used to buy items for the people served by his ministry.
And even if extremists who are working to keep him from returning are successful, Cooper said he will continue his efforts to help the Indian people.
"The Lord always has something to do. His vision is much larger than we will ever imagine or dream," he said.
Cooper contends Indian people can still visit him in this country and others wanting to help may be inspired to travel as missionaries to India if he is barred.
"I would hope 100 go in my place. I would hope it would encourage them," he said.