Falling in Love with New Delhi: Marlo Phillips
Starting a non-profit and planting a church in India
Dr. Marlo Phillip is the Lead Pastor of WelcomeHome Church and the Founder of TejasAsia, both based in New Delhi, India. He is a dynamic leader who is passionate about people and community development. He is married to Sheril, who is the Director of Operations of TejasAsia.
How did the Lord call you to plant a church in New Delhi? Was this your home city?
No – New Delhi is in the northern part of India, but I grew up in the south, in a small town in the state of Kerala.
I was born into a born-again Christian family. I was water baptized at 16 years old, I belonged to youth groups, attended youth camps – I was happy and life was amazing.
Throughout high school and college, I knew God had a calling on my life, and I thought that I would become a doctor. That is because my dad was a doctor, and in India, children tend to follow in their parents’ footsteps. So I ended up obtaining a science degree.
I assumed I would become a missionary doctor, as our church had lots of international missionaries come in; I was used to seeing people share the love of Jesus and thought I could do that as a missionary doctor. From a young age, I had this heart for missions and wanted to go to Africa.
God had His own plans. I finished my Bachelor’s Degree in Science, and asked God, “What is next for me?” I had this desire to go to Bible college, and the Lord opened the door for me and a close friend to go to Alphacrucis College in Sydney, Australia.
We finished a 3-year Bachelor’s Degree in Theology. It was expensive, but somebody sponsored us for the first six months. After that, we had to find jobs to support ourselves. After the Bachelor’s, I got into the Master’s program and finished that in 18 months. After that I prayed, “God, now what?”
I always wanted to go back to India. But my friends and family, and a lot of people who really loved me, would say, “Marlo, don’t go back to India. You’re in a good place – Sydney is one of the best places in the world.”
But in my heart, as much as I loved Australia and considered it my second home, my connection was so strong to India. I spent the last few months before my visa was expiring asking, “God, what do you want me to do?” I would be in my room, on my knees, asking about my next step. At that time, a couple of churches in Sydney had offered me pastoral positions, to be a youth pastor or a missions pastor, and for a short period of time I was tempted to accept them.
But God gave me a real peace in my heart to take a bold step – I came home to India in 2005. This is where I also met and married my wife!
So did you set out to plant a church right away?
Actually, no, I started helping out a church in New Delhi, which was pastored by my wife’s father. For me, Mumbai was on my heart. I didn’t like New Delhi at all; I felt that it was a dry place, hard ground, it just wasn’t my kind of city.
I really believed God was sending me to Mumbai. My brother was a pastor in Mumbai, and I asked him to send me all kinds of information and booklets about the city. For a few months, I was going through all those books about Mumbai, and really thought that God was sending me there.
But I still made a commitment to serve in New Delhi for two years.
I hated it. I kept asking, “God, why am I here?” It was not easy at all. The whole situation was the complete opposite of what I wanted to do. The church was different and had a few traditional components, whereas, coming from Australia, I was used to a more contemporary atmosphere. But I knew God put me in the church for a reason. I am thankful for the opportunity I got, to serve the vision of the Church at that time.
How did you end up planting a church and ministry in New Delhi then?
I ended up serving in that original church for more than 8 years, before I got the senior pastor’s blessing to go and plant a new church, also in New Delhi. It took a while for us to actually be released. God was teaching me to ‘trust the process’ during this season.
“I was disturbed, and asked God, ‘What do you want me to do?'”
Even my wife Sheril did not understand my desire to plant a new church at first. I’m a firm believer that whatever has God called us to do, He will definitely confirm that with my wife. It was not as easy as I thought. I kept sharing my heart and vision.
After having travelled to the US and undergone a one-year church leadership training, she began to see what God had put in my spirit. It was about 8 years after serving in that church, that we finally took the next step. I was serving with all my heart until the day we left to plant the church. God prepared my wife for around 8 years so that she would also be prepared.
So how did God change your heart towards New Delhi?
Again, I started off not liking the city so much. I felt it was hard, dry, and not my type in some sense. I felt like this old city had no life. Then God changed the language of my heart about 5 years later; I started to fall in love with the city not because of the circumstances but because of the people.
We started to invite some youth to our house for coffee nights. This experience really connected us to the city. In 2010, New Delhi hosted the Commonwealth Games, and the city was developing. Malls were popping up and I saw young people hanging out there. We would go and sit in the mall, in Starbucks and coffee shops, and would see hundreds of young people walking past.
God started to give us a burden for the people. We started to sense it. It took me many years to accept that this is really the city that God has called me to, but now I tell people I’m from Delhi! I love New Delhi!
I would drive around and pray, “Oh my God, there are so many needs in the city.” I didn’t have the courage to do anything about it yet. I would drive around to pick people up from the airport. I would always see these under-privileged children in the streets.
One time I was driving to the airport, at a busy intersection at around 8.30 in the morning, and this little girl came up to our car. She put her hands through the window to beg. I saw this beautiful little girl trying to sell me roses and God spoke to me. Here I was on this busy road, it was a dangerous situation for the little girl, and it was then that God seared this picture into my heart. I kept that in my mind, I was disturbed, and asked God, “What do you want me to do? There are too many problems, I can’t do anything to fix them. There are just too many issues.”
Then my wife and I shared the burden with a couple of friends, and they declared, “We want to support you and stand with you.”
My wife and I came and shared this with the young people who came to our apartment every Thursday for Bible study and worship night. Whenever I asked the young people what we should do to help our city, they always had suggestions.
I finally said, “Guys, enough talking, let’s go and do something.” So with two other young men, we cooked 5 kilos of rice and 2 kilos of daal (lentils), and we had this vision of helping 25 children. We went out to the same place and the same road where I met the little girl. We had brought a football so that kids would come play with us. We gathered a group of kids, about 15 to 20. In half an hour, we had 70, and midway through more than a hundred kids turned up. This was only the first day.
It was heartbreaking. We met single mothers, about 15 to 20 years old, out there on the street. I mourned, “My goodness, what is going on here?”
“We just want to be a healthy church, a life-giving church, that’s always been our desire.”
We had a good 2-hour time with the kids and the mothers, serving them the rice and daal. God showed me how hungry the kids were. We would gather the tin plates after they ate, and not a single grain of rice would be left on those plates.
We committed to serve and visit them once a week; we were faithful with that, and that was how our nonprofit TejasAsia was born. It has now become a full-time mission with over 40 staff.
Can you tell us more about TejasAsia? What kind of impact are you making in New Delhi?
TejasAsia is the nonprofit we started several years ago. We run mobile school buses (Hope Buses), and each will serve 2 locations and minister to 50 to 60 kids at a time. They receive free education and free food, and each program lasts about 2 and a half hours. We’ve got about 4 buses now. Every bus has 5 staff members, including the driver.
We’ve also got a community school. All in all we are working in about 9 locations, helping about 1000 children. In 2020, we were able to establish a new industrial-type kitchen (Hope Kitchen), so now we can cook about 1500-2000 meals every day for our food programs. We have been able to invest into 2100 children so far. God is expanding the work. We’ve run sewing schools for women, teaching more than 150 women how to ply a trade. We run mobile medical clinics (Mercy Medical Mission) and have been able to serve over 72000 people so far.
We are planning to start a leadership and skills training program for young women in our city. Delhi has a lot of violence against women – some of them come to the city and end up trapped in drugs or other things, and many are victims of rape. Delhi is the rape capital of India. We’ve been praying, and the numbers of these violent crimes are going down.
God put this desire in our heart to do something for the women, a training program, more leadership, Bible training, and teaching them a skill. We are currently looking at supporting 10 young women, and will start the program very soon.
We don’t have an agenda when we go to people or communities – our mission is go and love them well and serve them, and the Holy Spirit works in their hearts.
So, how did WelcomeHome Church eventually come about? Were there any obstacles that had to be overcome?
God used someone who was already supporting TejasAsia project in New Delhi, Rod Plummer (Senior Leader) from Lifehouse. I’d known him for a long time, and he would always challenge me to plant a life-giving community in the national capital. He was always encouraging me.
In October 2016, two months before we launched the church, I had booked a hall with a minimal reservation fee, without having any money to pay for the booking. Pastor Plummer called me and connected me with Michael W. Smith. “I don’t know what God is going to do, just share what is in your heart,” he told me.
The day of the meeting came, and I was all nervous, but I had a great conversation with Michael. To make a long story short, within the next three to four weeks, his ministry agreed to resource the church plant. I was a complete stranger to them! It was unbelievable for me and my wife.
I’m just thanking God how He put all the dots together. I learned some big lessons. I’ve taken steps of faith before, but this was something so fresh, so new in my life, that required so much commitment. It was almost like saying yes in a marriage.
I’m thankful for ARC – all the equipping, support, and the wonderful friendships from many churches around the world who stood with us. Now they can all come and see the fruits of their investment. Teams come over every so often, and it is something that glorifies God’s name in the city.
We just want to be a healthy church, a life-giving church, that’s always been our desire.
What would you say to people who are thinking of pioneering a work, like you did with your non-profit and the church?
I’m a pioneer. I know the calling on my life is to start things & bless more people. I can’t sit and just maintain things. And I love this adventurous faith-filled life! My brain is buzzing with so many ideas all the time. I am dreamer because I know, no dream is too big for our God.
I love taking the risk and trusting God, something that people in my church have seen. Nowadays they say of me and Sheril, “These guys are risk-takers.”
So I would encourage everyone reading this – let’s take risks and trust God.
For more of our profiles of pioneering ARC Churches, check out these articles: