In 1920, a baby boy was born into a family in rural Andhra Pradesh, who worshipped the Hindu snake god. They named him Subba Rao, ‘Subbarao’ being the Telegu name for the snake god.
When the time came for Subba Rao to marry, his parents arranged for him to be married to Lydia, a girl from a nominal Lutheran family. That meant Subba Rao had to become a Christian. So, a local Lutheran missionary came to Subba Rao’s village and told him to memorise the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Ten Commandments, and then present himself for membership of the Lutheran church.
Within a short period of time, Subba Rao had learned the words of these items off by heart, because in Lydia he saw a girl he truly loved. On becoming a member of the Lutheran church, he exchanged his Hindu god name, Subba Rao, for a more appropriate one, Prasada Rao, meaning “God’s gift”.
However, Prasada Rao’s life was soon to be changed dramatically. A Baptist layman from Madras was invited by an American missionary working in Repalle (a large town in Andhra Pradesh near where Prasada and Lydia were living) to preach at some evangelistic meetings. Lydia’s father, John Bolleddu, a nominal Lutheran, attended the last meeting of the campaign on 13 February 1944.
After the meeting was over, John asked the visiting preacher how he could get the ‘tears of repentance’ he was witnessing in so many others. John was told to go away and pray so that the Lord could speak to him. So he went home, intent on praying for ‘tears of repentance’. As John knelt down and began to pray, the Spirit of God touched him. John started to repent of his wretchedness as the Lord convicted him about the true state of his life. He was burdened to pray for his son-in-law, Prasada, who was living a bad life (gambling, cock fighting, and wife beating were amongst his more serious offences; home life for Lydia and her two young children, Hyer Paul and Victor Paul, was far from happy).
John’s prayers were heard and answered. On 5 April 1944, the Lord spoke to Prasada, “If you were to die tonight, where would you go?” He had no peace of mind throughout that night. He was struggling and crying as the Lord showed him his sinful life. He too was brought to the point of repentance with tears of contrition. Early the following morning, Prasada was filled with great joy and power, and with a new spirit of prayer. Shortly after Prasada Rao’s conversion, Lydia too realised her nominal Christianity was inadequate, and she also gave her life to the Lord.
Prasada Rao now started to preach in a new way, not simply telling the Bible stories he had learned from Lydia since getting married to her, but preaching in the power of the Spirit from his heart and personal experience of the Lord. During the first month after his conversion, Prasada Rao saw 40 people come to know the Lord. And so it was that the seeds of IREF were born. John and Prasada began an independent movement which was formally established and registered with the government in 1971 to enable funds to be raised overseas for the work.
In 1986, a support branch for the work was started in the USA to encourage prayer and financial support for the work in India. It was initially headed up by one of Prasada Rao’s sons, Emmanuel Rebba. In 1996, a UK support branch, IREF(UK) was established.
Today, IREF sponsors over 250 evangelists, operates several children’s homes housing over 2,000 children, and runs education facilities from elementary schools to several colleges providing post-graduate as well as undergraduate courses. IREF is also involved in humanitarian relief work.
The story of IREF is a modern-day illustration of the parable of the mustard seed (see Matthew 13.31-32). From the conversion of one man just over 60 years ago, there are now over 10,000 believers in more than 300 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 on-going story. IREF’s vision and burning ambition, like Paul’s, remains to ‘preach the Gospel where Christ is not known’ (Rom 15.20).