Naresh Babu Gullapalli is preparing to graduate from UTS' Master of Divinity program in May this year
NEW YORK - There are as many “conversion” and “come to Jesus” stories as there are stars in the night sky. From a distance they can look very much the same, but on closer inspection each one has its own peculiarities and incongruities that separate it from the others.
The story of Naresh Babu Gullapalli is one of these kinds of stories – oddly similar to so many others, yet so unique and different that it can’t really be called a story of faith, but, in fact, just the opposite, a story of non-faith, non-belief. A story of someone not running to Jesus, but running away from him.
Born into poverty in southern India to a young mother of 15, who herself had just gone through two life-changing experiences of her own just a year before at the age of 14: (1) she became a Christian in an almost exclusive Hindu-dominated society; and, (2) she became a wife through an arranged marriage.
Growing up in this Christo-Hindu environment gave Naresh the chance to reject not one, but two religions, and God as well. After all, if God was responsible for the world and its many problems, and also responsible for Hinduism, which as Naresh described it, “every week some god would rise up,” he concluded it better to simplify his life and be an atheist as opposed to an overwhelmed and confused believer.
However, with a burning desire to help his parents and his two younger sisters rise out of their poverty, Naresh turned his attention to the one thing he had some control over: his education. Through hard work and determination Naresh graduated in 2010 from a state university with a degree in civil engineering.
Then he set his sights on his next goal: the United States.
When Paul Rajan (UTS’10), former Director of Interfaith Development for UTS, came to Naresh’s village and asked him if he would like to study at a seminary in New York City Naresh saw this as his “dream come true.” Convincing his recruiter that he was a devout Christian, Naresh applied for and received a visa to come to the U.S. to study.
"I forgot that I was in a seminary college and that I had to write my papers. I was in a New Testament class and I had to read the gospels to do my papers. That was a life-changing moment for me."Naresh B. Gullapalli
While Naresh saw this as his chance to fulfill the dream of helping his family, his mother saw it from a different perspective. For her, it was an answer to her prayers and the belief that God had a plan for her son that he could not see.
“My mom always kept me in her prayers,” recalled Naresh. “She said I should trust in God and He would open doors for me. I said, ‘no, no, no, I trust me.’ This was always the battle between me and my mom.”
Arriving in New York in September, 2011, Naresh began his studies. Knowing he was alone in a new place, his mother again encouraged him to attend church, which Naresh resisted.
The one thing Naresh never really thought about, however, was that at UTS he would be taking courses focusing on Christian beliefs and practices, the study of the Bible and, most importantly, the New Testament and the life of Jesus.
“I forgot that I was in a seminary college,” said Naresh, “and that I had to write my papers. I was in a New Testament class and I had to read the gospels to do my papers. That was a life-changing moment for me. I had seen this Bible in my home, that my parents carried to the church, even sitting in the library here, but I never got a chance to read it.
“But when I started to read the gospels I realized that these words were not ordinary words, but that these words started to come alive. Then a change started to happen, not everywhere, but here in my heart. The words were penetrating so hard I couldn’t resist them. I came to know that that was the Holy Spirit and it took me deeper.
“I remember, as much as I wanted to resist those words they went deeper into my heart.”
Finally, unable to hold back any longer, Naresh broke down in tears and asked Jesus to come into his heart, which changed the direction of his life.
For anyone who has been “born again,” or experienced an overwhelming life altering event, it is nearly impossible to describe; for those who have experienced it, none is necessary.
"I called my mom and told her that I had found the truth and the truth had set me free."
Although he admitted to feeling “shame” for having doubted his mother and her faith for so many years, Naresh knew he had to tell her his story.
“I called my mom and told her that I had found the truth and the truth had set me free,” said Naresh. “My mother started to cry, then I started to cry, and we cried together on the phone - without speaking - for more than half an hour.”
Brimming with joy, Naresh’s mother then told him she had always carried within her one wish for her son: not to be rich, not to be famous, but that one day he would “follow him (Jesus) and serve others.”
Preparing to graduate from the Master of Divinity program in May this year, Naresh believes God has a plan and purpose for him here in America.
“God has sent people from the United States to other countries to make a tremendous change in their hearts and in their life,” said Naresh. “I’m thinking, right now, that God is bringing people from other countries to the United States to make some changes here. I believe that people here, especially young people, have lost something that God wants to bring back again.”
As Naresh knows from his own personal experience, however, God is limited in His ability to influence people; getting people to change is even more difficult.
“Every young person, I believe, has a dream that society has to change,” said Naresh. “But, who is going to bring that change? You have to start that change, you have to start that change in your heart. One of the main things I’ve learned in my life through God is when you put your selfishness aside and focus on others your purpose begins.”
Naresh also knows the journey is a long and arduous one fraught with doubts and disappointments, but, just like in his own life, the reward is worth the struggle.
“I came as a hypocrite, now I go as a godly man.”