Officially launched and recognized by the Indian government for its ministry and fundraising efforts in 1971, the story of the India Rural Evangelical Fellowship begins much earlier, with the birth of Subba Rao in 1920. Named for the Hindu snake god, Subba Rao was born in rural Andhra Pradesh, India. His family later arranged for him to marry Lydia, the daughter of a local Lutheran family, which meant that Subba was required to convert to Christianity and change his name, which became Prasada Rao or “God’s gift.”
While Prasada memorized the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles Creed and the Ten Commandments, he didn’t fully take their message to heart until a Baptist missionary visited an evangelical meeting in 1944. Lydia’s father, John, was struck by the missionary’s message of Christ and sought the “tears of repentance” he witnessed in so many others at the meeting.
As John followed the missionary’s advice and began to pray in earnest, he felt the Spirit of God as he prayed for a better life for his son-in-law Prasada, who was not following in God’s image. His prayers were answered immediately.
That night, the Lord spoke these words to Prasada: If you were to die tonight, where would you go? As he fought with his demons, the scales fell from his eyes and he gave himself to Christ, repenting with tears of contribution. Lydia, too, thereafter dedicated her life to the Lord and His teachings.
Prasada began preaching in earnest, converting more than 40 villagers to Christianity in his first month as a new man.
And IREF was born. Prasada, Lydia and John worked together to form the organization that was officially registered in 1971, and has since helped more than 10,000 children receive an education and converted more than 10,000 people to the love of Christ.
In 1986, a support branch for the work was started in the United States to encourage prayer and financial support for the work in India, which was initially headed by one of Prasada Rao’s sons, Emmanuel Rebba and his wife Dee. In 1996, a UK support branch, IREF (UK) was established as well.
Today, IREF sponsors more than 250 evangelists, operates nine children’s development centers housing more than 2,000 children, and runs educational facilities from primary school through post-graduate work. IREF is also involved in humanitarian relief work.
The story of IREF is a modern-day illustration of the parable of the mustard seed (Matthew 13.31-32). From the conversion of one man, there are now more than 10,000 believers in more than 400 towns and villages up to 200 miles from Repalle, where that conversion took place. The story of IREF, like the book of Acts, is an ongoing story. IREF’s vision and burning ambition, like Paul’s, remains to “preach the Gospel where Christ is not known” (Rom 15.20).
Emmanuel Rebba (right) carries on the vision of his father Prasada Rao Rebba (left).