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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Church of Their Own

Migrants from Kerala build church and community in Mumbai

On the heels of a busy December weekend that included the consecration of a cathedral and early Christmas celebrations, this Monday morning brings no rest to the weary Father Francis Eluvathingal. As chancellor of greater Mumbai’s Eparchy of Kalyan — to which some 100,000 Syro-Malabar Catholics belong — he keeps a tight schedule to say the least.

Rushing to a wedding ceremony outside the city, the priest jumps into the driver’s seat of his hatchback. He swiftly attaches his phone to the center console, fits the accompanying headset in his ears and backs the car out of the narrow driveway of the bishop’s rectory.

Powai, the suburban community on Mumbai’s northeast side where Father Eluvathingal lives, has developed rapidly in recent years, becoming one of the city’s most upscale residential and commercial hubs. Yet even in this relatively posh corner, the streets look and feel like any other in this city of 21 million souls — chaotic and filthy.

Sanitation workers sweep trash into large heaps, kicking up clouds of dust. Goats share the crowded sidewalk, which doubles as a gutter, with people from all walks of life, from panhandlers to well-dressed students of the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay nearby.

His cellphone vibrates, but he ignores it. Father Eluvathingal instead recites a Hail Mary and an Our Father and makes the Sign of the Cross as he nears the main thoroughfare.

“There are no traffic rules, as in Europe or the U.S. You won’t find a system here,” he laughs. “Driving’s very, you know, everyone’s got his own rules for driving.”

He arrives at the intersection, stops the car and points to the noisy, bumper-to-bumper traffic. Cars, trucks and rickshaws jam the road at all angles. Fearless pedestrians dart among the vehicles.

The priest inserts a cassette tape of devotional hymns into the car’s stereo and waits for an opening. He spots one, slams his foot on the accelerator and speeds into the melee. Once on the road, he races through the traffic, passing another driver one moment, only to slam on the brakes at a sudden standstill the next.

“I’m a fast driver,” says the priest. “There are many things to do and very little time to drive.”

The priest’s dynamism mirrors that of his flock, most of whom have ties to the southwest state of Kerala. They or their parents migrated north to Mumbai, where the majority now prospers.

Keralites first came to Mumbai shortly after India obtained independence from British rule in 1947. The post-colonial government allowed for unprecedented individual liberties, including the freedom of movement.

The state of Kerala embraced the new democracy with enthusiasm. In the 1950’s, its Marxist-led government initiated pioneering reforms in public education and health care, quickly making its population the best educated and healthiest in the Indian subcontinent.

Employment prospects in Kerala, however, remained scarce and many continued to migrate to Mumbai throughout the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s. These well-educated, English- and Hindi-speaking Keralites helped power the city’s burgeoning public and private sectors.

Many of the migrants were Christian. Known collectively as “Thomas Christians” after St. Thomas the Apostle — who, according to tradition, evangelized among Kerala’s coastal communities in the mid-first century — most Christian Keralites belong to one of several Eastern churches. By far the largest is the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, with some 3.6 million faithful worldwide.

“Keralites who migrated to Mumbai had very deep faith,” says Father Eluvathingal. “Once they came here and found jobs — on the railways, in government or in banking — and were happy in terms of their stomach, with bread on the table, they immediately began searching to satisfy their spiritual needs.”

Without a church of their own, the first Thomas Christian migrants joined one of the many local Latin Catholic parishes. Since the 16th century, when Portuguese missionaries settled in Mumbai and the neighboring state of Goa, the Latin Catholic Church has been the predominant church in the region.

“But the Syro-Malabar Catholics weren’t fully happy,” says Father Eluvathingal, “not because the Latin Church didn’t cater to their needs, but because the Thomas Christians wanted the spiritual identity they had experienced in Kerala, which was different from the Latin Church.”

By the early 1970’s, Syro-Malabar Catholic faithful had formed the Kerala Catholic Association (K.C.A.), which began to correspond regularly with the Eparchy of Trichur. The eparchy, in turn, sent a few chaplains to serve greater Mumbai’s growing Malayalam-speaking Syro-Malabar Catholic community. For years, three or four priests covered the entire state of Maharashtra, which is more than twice the size of Kerala and includes the vast metropolitan area of its capital, Mumbai.

Finally in 1988, Pope John Paul II established the Eparchy of Kalyan to serve Maharashtra’s Syro-Malabar Catholics. Over the past 20 years, the community has flourished. Today, the eparchy boasts 169 parishes, nearly 100 schools, 21 health care facilities and 3 seminaries.

Father Eluvathingal pulls up to Jyotis Care Center in Navi Mumbai — the world’s largest planned city, with 2.6 million people — 15 miles east of Mumbai. The priest will perform the marriage of Joseph Paul, a social worker, and his bride, Shelly. The facility is an unlikely wedding venue: an inpatient home for persons living with H.I.V./AIDS run by the Syro-Malabar Catholic Sisters of the Destitute.

“Mumbai has a culture of extravagance and spending money for parties and celebrations,” says Father Eluvathingal. “Its about transaction, commerce, making money and getting ahead. And a wedding is a great way to demonstrate success. But this wedding offers a different model without all the pomp and show. I’m here to represent the eparchy and bishop, to bless the marriage and to say to the community: ‘Here is a different way of thinking. You can also have a simple marriage and share your joy with poor people, and that way give an example to others and connect with them.’ ”

Among the guests is Joseph John, the bride’s godfather and a catechist in the church. During the ceremony, he gazes proudly at the couple.

At the reception, held in the cafeteria with the home’s 35 residents, he speaks candidly about Mumbai’s Thomas Christians.

“When our parents came here, they came from a different culture and from a different way of practicing their faith,” says Mr. John, whose grandfather, a civil engineer, left Kerala in 1960 to take a job with the government. “They came here and they were lost in this giant sea. The Latin Church was the only church here. The faith was the same, but culturally they were different, their liturgy was different.

“Slowly, our community wanted some of the services to be done in Malayalam, our native language. So all the lay people came together and said: ‘Maybe we have do something about that?’ Then everything started,” he continues.

“The establishment of the eparchy was basically the result of the work of the laity — the K.C.A. It had to go through the ecclesiastical authorities for permission. All that was definitely necessary. But it was the people who wanted it. They pushed it through. They needed it.

“All that time, we sensed the Latin Church, maybe because of a lack of information, felt that we were not fully Catholic, that they doubted us. And because they are large, there was always the sort of thinking: ‘You are a minority linguistic group and we’re the majority.’ There was no oppression as such, but that feeling was always there. We needed our own eparchy and worked very hard to get it.”

One Thursday night each month, families of the Amala Matha Syro-Malabar Catholic parish in Mulund, an affluent neighborhood on the city’s northeast side, take turns hosting prayer meetings. The families gather to read and discuss Scripture, recite prayers and sing.

This Thursday, 46-year-old Jerry Chalissery, his wife, Kavita, and two boys, Noel and Keane, host the December meeting in their apartment in Mulund. Members of some 20 families squeeze into the modest home.

Chacko Joseph, a high court litigator, begins with an announcement. He holds up the 2009 parish directory and asks for updates.

As do most parish directories, the 142-page book lists all parishioners by family, including addresses, phone numbers and the individuals’ dates of birth and marriage. It even includes photos and individuals’ blood types. But most telling about the parish’s sense of identity and community, the directory records each family’s eparchy and parish of origin in Kerala.

The mention of “homeland” stirs a dizzying array of emotions among the three generations of Syro-Malabar Catholics in attendance tonight.

Elders of the first generation, who moved to the Mumbai area 40 or 50 years ago, remember Kerala with a deep sense of nostalgia. All present have retired from successful careers as accountants, engineers or lawyers.

They say they miss Kerala and its slower pace of life and more traditional values. But the lives they built for themselves, and for their children and grandchildren, keep them in Mumbai.

“Our parents in Kerala have died off and our children are settled here in Mumbai,” says retired Simon Kattukaran, as he passes a plate of sweets around the room. “We don’t want to be alone in Kerala. We’d rather stay with our children here than go to Kerala. Once you live in Mumbai a long time, it’s tough to adapt to life outside the city. Some still have a strong attachment and go back because they own land and feel that is their place. It happens. But no one in our family prayer group feels that way.”

Other retirees nod in agreement.

“Wherever our children go, we go,” continues Mr. Kattukaran. “We’ll travel with them like baggage. It’s as simple as that.”

Members of the second generation, such as Jerry and Kavita Chalissery, do not feel ties to Kerala as intensely.

“We were born and raised here in Mumbai. We can’t read Malayalam and we barely speak it,” laments Mrs. Chalissery. “The bond is there. If someone in the family is having a sickness, we come together. But it’s harder for us.”

In the minds of youngsters from the third generation, such as the Chalissery boys, Kerala represents little more than summer vacation.

“We encourage our kids to speak Malayalam, but they don’t learn it in schools. So, they’re not very good about it,” says Mrs. Chalissery. “We go to Kerala every year for three weeks. It’s a change, but life in the city is better for them.”

“Our faith is strong, maybe even tighter here than in Kerala,” asserts Mr. Kattukaran. “Family roots run very deep here. Our families teach the values. Our kids may dress differently than the kids in Kerala, but the values are still the same. Values are eroding in Mumbai more quickly than in Kerala. Mumbai is faster. It’s a big city. So, we have to stick close together.”

Sunday morning, 28 members of the Powai’s Syro-Malabar Catholic youth group, which represents five local parishes, meets at the bishop’s rectory. A bus idles in the driveway. Led by Father Shibu Pulickal, the group prepares to visit the rural village of Ambishivwadi, about 72 miles away. The eparchy has adopted the village and regularly provides its impoverished residents material and financial assistance as well as spiritual guidance.

On the priest’s direction, the teenagers — dressed in trendy T-shirts, stylish jeans and designer sunglasses — climb into the bus.

“In this village, they don’t have many luxuries. We bring them gifts like jackfruit plants so they can reap a harvest and some new clothes to make them happy,” says 19-year-old Libi Paul, the secretary of the youth group. “And we get a reality check. You go there and see how people struggle. Compared to them, we can see how blessed we are.”

The energy on the bus, however, feels more fun filled than meditative. The youth suddenly break into song, belting out a jingle from a popular laundry detergent commercial. They update their Facebook status on their smartphones and snap photographs of one another, mischievously raising their index and middle fingers from behind and above their friends’ heads to give them “bunny ears.” One boy toys with his smartphone, which beeps, while Father Pulickal leads the group in prayer. Another teen playfully slaps his wrist.

“We’ve been brought up here,” says Libi Paul. “I really don’t go to Kerala. I’ve been there twice. I’ve gone there only because my relatives live there. When I have, they always stayed in their homes. The youth didn’t bother to go out and do anything. ‘I have to do work in my home. I have to study.’ There were many excuses.

“There’s a difference in thinking. We’re more open-minded than our counterparts in Kerala. There, after dark, girls can’t step out. They have housewives. Here, almost everyone has a working mom.”

Having grown up in Trichur and spent most of his life as a priest in Mumbai, Father Eluvathingal understands well the cultural divide between Thomas Christians in Kerala and those in Mumbai.

“Generally, a youth who lives in Mumbai needs to be a tolerant, open-hearted and peace- loving person. But he also should have the courage to fight, in the sense that every day you have to face different situations,” he explains. “It’s not like that in Kerala’s villages, where everything there goes according plan. Here, at any moment, you have to face new realities.”

These differences, says the priest, also affect how the larger Thomas Christian communities in Kerala and Mumbai practice their faith.

“In Kerala, the church is very strong. It has a political voice and strong influence on society,” Father Eluvathingal continues. “But Christian life in Mumbai is different because we’re very much a minority. We’re not even one percent of the population. The voice of our leaders is not heard or respected. At the same time, we have a very strong sense of Christian identity here because there’s a greater sense of unity and belonging. Our faith has a religious role, but also a social role.”

Late Sunday evening on the second floor of Infant Jesus Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in Vikhroli, a neighborhood in central Mumbai, catechist Joseph John teaches a class of ten teenagers. Fans blow cool air onto the group, who sit barefoot around Mr. John.

He poses some mind-bending questions. “When will the world end?” he asks. “And who will be saved?” Perplexed, the students leaf through their Bibles.

After class, Mr. John heads home. His wife, Rose, has dinner waiting for him. While his three children prepare for bed, John sits next to his wife and 70-year-old father and offers some reflections on spiritual life in Mumbai.

“Because the Eparchy of Kalyan was formed exclusively for the Syro-Malabar faithful, a lot of re-evangelization has taken place, meaning people who were on the fringes now started coming forward,” he explains.

“Otherwise, what happens? In the Latin Church, they were unknown. The Latin parish in Vikhroli has 10,000 people and seven Masses every Sunday. Nobody was bothered if they were there or not. But now our parish is very small: a hundred families. We have one liturgy. So if somebody doesn’t come for it, we ask: ‘Where has he gone?’ There’s much more community now that we have the eparchy.”

Mrs. John waits patiently for her husband to finish his thought before speaking. Humble and articulate, she is the perfect blend of the gentility characteristic of rural Kerala and Mumbai’s cosmopolitanism.

“With time, our roots in Kerala have diminished,” she says. “But we still follow all the traditions we learned from our parents. Like when mom passed away, we called everybody over on the 40th day. We follow all the rituals we learned to the core. All the celebrations we do in Kerala are also celebrated here in Mumbai. Basically, we just want to keep our culture alive. We don’t want our kids to lose out on that front — in the home or in the church.’

Award–winning journalist Peter Lemieux reports from Africa and India for ONE.

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