Interserve was founded in 1852 by aristocratic women in London. The first name was the Zenana Bible & Medical Mission as women were deeply concerned by the social conditions of the poorest women living in the “zenanas” (i.e. closed compounds) with no access to literacy, or medical care in what was at that time known as the “Indo-Pakistan sub-continent”.
Skilled Christian women, motivated by the example of Jesus Christ went to slum areas to serve the needs of the poorest and most marginalized. They used their practical and professional skills in the belief that they were offering themselves as the hands and feet of Jesus Christ.
For 100 years the workers were all women, some of whom were the first female trained doctors in Britain and received a royal commendation from Queen Victoria.
Their work had its roots in the teaching of Jesus:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18-19)
‘As the father has sent me, so send I you.’ (Jn.20:21)
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mat.28:19-20)
The aim was to bless people in every way possible – spirit, mind, body and community, which is referred to today as ‘wholistic’ or ‘integrated’ ministry. The impacts are signs of the ‘kingdom of God’ within the local cultural context as appropriate, including:
i) the alleviation of abject poverty
ii) the creation of access to health & hygiene
iii) the development of literacy & education
iv) the provision of vocational training & employment
v) the championing of social justice
vi) the invitation to follow Jesus Christ
vii) the growth of worshipping communities
As a result, lives and communities are able to be transformed by encountering the visible and tangible outworking of the teaching and spirit of Jesus Christ. From the beginning the Interserve community has served everyone regardless of whether their cultural background is Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Muslim or Christian.
1 March, 1852
Calcutta Normal School opens, and with it begins Interserve’s ministry. They started by teaching local women to read, by caring for their needs, and by speaking to them about Jesus.
Before 1870, there were no women doctors in India and male doctors did not see female patients.
The London Committee launched female medical missions with the aim of evangelism through social change.
Life in India
Indian women often married at a young age and if they were widowed were either expected to commit sati by jumping onto their husband’s funeral pyre, or to spend the rest of their lives locked up at home in the Zenana, or women’s quarters.
1880: ZENANA & MEDICAL MISSION
The original name of the community was Zenana Bible & Medical Mission (ZBMM) in 1880, reflecting the breadth and geography of the work.
A Movement Begins
As the work developed, ZBMM shifted the emphasis from the sending countries to areas of service and the organisation became more strategic in its planning.
50 British women had qualified in medicine with 6 serving in India. Some of the first female doctors in Britain were with Interserve.
Men were accepted as workers for the first time
1957: Bible & medical missionary fellowship
In 1957 the name was changed to Bible & Medical Missionary Fellowship (BMMF). The work continued to spread to neighbouring countries, such as Pakistan (following the Partition of British India) and Nepal, which was completely closed to Christianity until the 1950s (the Nepali Church now consists of over 400,000 people). 1985
The continued growth meant that in 1978 the word “international” was added making the full title BMMF International. The BMMF International Office moved from India to Cyprus, which facilitated development of work in the Middle East.
The work gradually spread to neighbouring countries, such as Pakistan (following the Partition of British India) and Nepal, which was completely closed to Christianity until the 1950s (the Nepali Church now consists of over 400,000 people)
The BMMF International Office moves to Cyprus. This led to rapid development in the Middle East.
After expanding into more countries the name changed to Interserve to reflect a growing emphasis on functioning as a go-between for ‘sending’ and ‘receiving’ churches by placing people to engage in diaconal (i.e. serving) ministry to the whole person.
On 11 September 2001 Islamists attacked America and destroyed the Twin Towers in New York. This caused fear and suspicion towards people from South Asia & the Arab world.
Interserve responded to the new context by following the peoples of Asia & the Arab world in diaspora as economic migrants or refugees. We also refocused our wholistic approach to engage with modern problems such as the migrant crisis; human-trafficking; extreme poverty’; training and the production of resources for indigenous Christians to engage in cross-culturally discipling (spiritual nurture) in Great Britain & Ireland as well as overseas.