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On a media mission from God

Starting with no funds and few programs, Shalom TV confounded its critics

On a media mission from God
Benny Punnathara wants to bring all Apostolic Churches under one roof
George Kommattathil, Kozhikode

January 12, 2011

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Shalom Television is the prime Catholic television channel in India. Based in Peruvannamuzhi, a remote village in Kerala, the Gospel channel has brought solace and joy to millions, says its chairperson, Benny Punnathara. Priests and bishops cautioned him when he started the TV channel six years ago without funds or a stock of programs. But today, the channel has viewers in India and the Persian Gulf countries and the Americas. Punnathara is also the chief editor of the Sunday Shalom, a weekly newspaper, and Shalom Times and Shalom Tidings, monthly magazines. He spoke to recently about his unique mission of using modern media to spread the Gospel. What inspired you to start the Shalom media? I am an orthodox Catholic. As a teenager, I aspired to the priesthood. My father’s untimely death turned me into a rebel against God. Warring Church factions further harmed my religious leanings. Eventually, I lost my Christian faith and I could find no meaning in life. I went to forest to meditate. Soon I realized that was not possible for me. Later I took up a clerk’s post in a bank. I got enough time for reading. I regularly visited temples. I went to Sabarimala [Kerala’s top Hindu temple] in 1978 in search of peace, but could not find it. I tried yoga, but nothing satisfied my thirst for truth. Emptiness in my life deepened. In 1981, I was transferred to the bank’s Thottilpalam branch in Kozhikode district. Here, I came in touch with a Charismatic group that met on Sundays for prayers. During those days many miracles happened during the prayer time. One day I witnessed the healing of a woman who was on the verge of death because of kidney failure. That incident changed my attitude toward God and the Church. I started my ministry and in 1995, I resigned from my job to become full time evangelist and took charge of the Shalom ministry. How did you start the media evangelization? I had no plan to. After I regained my faith, people wrote me about their problems which guided me to meditate and suggest solutions through prayer. Finally I wrote a couple of books based on those exchanges that became instant hits. One day, I had a vision. A plethora of magazines hang in front of me. Most were cinema magazines, well-designed and printed on glossy paper. But the Catholic magazines were printed on very cheap papers and were unattractive. I realized that Satan was making the most of modern printing technology. So I decided to bring out a totally different Catholic magazine. Soon we brought out Shalom Times, a monthly magazine with top quality printing and attractive design, in 1992. The response was inspiring. Most Church communicators told me not to waste paper and money. They discouraged me, but I decided to give the best to God and the circulation increased rapidly. However it was really challenging. It was not easy to publish a news magazine from a remote village that had no electricity, writers, printing presses or computers. We prepared the first Catholic magazine by the light of a kerosene lamp. People accepted it. Readers circulated it among others. We did everything with a prayer. We sang and prayed for our readers even while packing the copies. From the initial print run of 100, we passed 20,000 copies in a year. Why did you start a Gospel TV channel? Many priests and bishops discouraged me saying a Catholic TV channel is impossible in Kerala. My friends advised me not to be impractical. No channel would succeed without advertisements, they warned. Nor would anyone watch a 100 percent Gospel channel. It was the time when many channels were folding up, despite having advertising support. We also launched the channel from Peruvannamuzhi. Many told me we would not get professionals to work in that remote village. But I was convinced the channel would work if it was God’s plan. Ordinary people are our channel’s main support. Once I went to a parish to preach. An old woman gave me a folded 100-rupee note saying she had kept it for medicine but was donating it for God’s channel. That was a sign. People accepted our channel and demanded their cable operators to distribute it. Our channel runs on monthly contributions. We have around 50,000 members who pay at least 100 rupees (US$2.25) a month for the channel. We have not received any funds from anywhere to manage the channel. What is the viewership? I am certain our channels have more viewers than some commercial ones. People of all religions watch our program. The channel is now available in the United States and the Middle East. On the first Friday of the month people switch on the Shalom channel to join our night vigil. How do you manage without advertisements? It’s God’s providence. It is not a business. It is not for profit. God is our treasurer. He never allowed us to go bankrupt. When our funds dry up, we turn to God and ask pardon and clean ourselves through intense prayer and fasting. Scarcity of funds is a sign of aridity. Always, God intervenes in our financial crisis miraculously. We need nearly 1.2 million rupees (US$27,275) to pay salaries every month. God gives what is enough for our payroll every month. We never have a bank balance. Prayer is the strength of Shalom. It is our sole capital. We pray together from 9-10 in the morning. We set apart the best time of the day for prayer. What is the Church’s response? Initially, the laity accepted it. The clergy was anxious. Some priests told me not to spoil my good name by starting a channel without funds. Today everyone supports us. Shalom is an ecumenical initiative. How did you bring together all denominations? I just want to bring together all the Apostolic Churches under one roof. When we broadcast programs from different Churches, Christians come to know and love each other. Most people have had apprehensions about the Catholic Church. Even Hindus wrote to me, that the channel had solved their misunderstandings about the Catholic Church. It sanctifies every home. Even Muslims and Hindus contribute to the Shalom channel. Most your employees are youngsters. How did you manage to get the youth interested in this spiritual mission? Youth is inspiring. We can trust them. They are ready to take up more responsibility once they are focused. Often they dedicate themselves for a cause, they will work hard. During the beginning, we had no salary. They worked without any salary for many years. Youth is best for God’s work. What is your future plan? An FM radio station is our next project. Related report Malayalam Catholic paper to make US debut IB12812.1636
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