Unexpected reunion at Briarlake Church leads to ministry opportunities


DECATUR, Ga. — Standing 6 feet 5 inches tall, Mark Riggins stands out in a crowd and the choir loft of Briarlake Church, in Decatur. So, it may not be out of the ordinary when someone walks up and says, “We’ve met before.”

What was unusual was that someone was Nihar Kolakalurinhar, a graduate student who had recently arrived in America from Hyderabad, India. Before attending Briarlake that Sunday morning, Nihar had not made the connection with the mission teams from America, who he had worked with in India, being from Atlanta. It was quite a surprise when he walked into Briarlake and saw a familiar face, especially when he was more than seven thousand miles from home.

It proved to be more than a chance meeting; it soon became obvious it was a divine appointment. Out of the reunion, God opened the door to begin a ministry to the 100 graduate students from Hyderabad currently studying Business Analytics at the nearby Mercer University Atlanta campus. The city of Hyderabad, with a population of nearly seven million, is rapidly becoming the tech center of India. For that reason, many students are coming to America for graduate work, preparing to return home to work in the growing tech industry.

Briarlake began sending mission teams to Hyderabad in 2015. The connection with the city was through Joseph and Mono Gangavarapu, members of Briarlake. Mono, a teacher, arrived in 2012, followed by the rest of the family in 2013. Joseph was pivotal in making the arrangements between Briarlake and churches in Hyderabad and accompanying the mission teams to India.

The Briarlake teams began working with the youth from the Gangavarapu’s home church, the Lalaguda Baptist Church and other churches in the area to conduct one day Vacation Bible Schools in outlying communities. On the five mission trips made to date, the gospel has been shared with over 9,000 children and adults in their language with the use of a color-coded beaded cross, modeled after the wordless book.

On the mission trip in 2020 Nihar, who was 23 at the time, was a part of the youth team from the New Life Baptist Church in Hyderabad. After finishing his undergraduate degree, Nihar and his father thought studying in America would be a great opportunity for him. On the other hand, Nihar said, “his mother was not happy and did not want him to leave her.” Finally, he said, “one day her heart changed, and she said go . . . I’m not sending you; God is sending you.”

Nihar continued, “So when I got here and met these people (Briarlake), I began thinking, ‘What are the odds?’ Out of five schools in America, I don’t know why I chose this one. I told my friends, isn’t this a miracle? And when I spoke to my mother, she said, “See didn’t I tell you this before.”

Out of the reunion that Sunday at Briarlake, a new ministry for students from Hyderabad began. A Sunday School class, which is taught by Mark, was organized. Briarlake provides transportation from the students’ apartments to the church. Church members have helped provide some basic furnishings for their apartments, as evidenced by several unclaimed vintage lamps in one corner of the Sunday School Classroom.

None of the students knew each other before coming to Atlanta. Several are now playing in the church praise band and orchestra. One has recently been baptized, most but not all have come from a Christian background.

The members of the Sunday School class are adjusting to life in America. They expressed appreciation for the warm welcome they have received in America and especially from the church. Making eye contact and greeting someone in India, they explained, is rare, or even someone holding the door for you. 

Nihar and several others in the class who wanted to study the Bible and theology in more depth meet weekly with Briarlake’s pastor, Dr. Steve Tillis, for a Bible Study at the apartment clubhouse. They hope to use their deeper understanding of the Bible to help churches in India when they return home.

Riggins, who recently sold his insurance business, is semi-retired. He shared that the expansion of the ministry to students from Hyderabad is being explored. Specifically, he  is looking at developing a zoom Sunday School Class for students studying on other college campuses in the United States. Currently there is a steady stream of students coming and going from Hyderabad to Atlanta and other cities across the United States to do graduate work. Opportunities are there in part because Briarlake members were willing to go and because God sent Nahir to Atlanta.

The world is a big place and as for the meeting at Briarlake, “What are the odds?” The odds are pretty good when God is in it.