ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Finding Unity in Diversity

Located near the southern tip of India, Pinkulam village stands as a model of harmony.

Pinkulam is a small village straddling the border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu, less than 50 miles from the tip of southern India. I arrived at 7:30 on a Sunday morning just in time for Divine Liturgy at St. Mary’ Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. I passed hundreds of people walking along the road – women in bright saris and men in trousers and shirts. The pastor, Father Michael, stood in front of the church to greet parishioners as they arrived.

Church attendance seems almost universal among India’s Christians. By the time the liturgy began, the church was overflowing with worshippers. Benches were lined up outside to accommodate the crowds; many people sat on the steps or leaned into the five entrances. Those who secured a place inside left their sandals at the entrance and sat, tightly squeezed, on the floor of the church – girls and women on the right, men and boys on the left.

Father Michael began the liturgy with a homily inspired by a passage in the Gospel of St. John. His message drew on the theme of “unity in diversity,” an imperative theme in this multicultural nation.

Near the altar, accompanied by a man playing a squeeze-box harmonium, a small choir of six women sang a haunting chant that blended the ancient Syriac liturgy with elements of Hindu devotional prayer.

The liturgy concluded with parish announcements, which included information about an upcoming village Marian feast. The feast would include a four-day Bible convention for the local people. There would also be a First Communion celebration for 34 village children, as well as a cultural program of dance and song. Pinkulam had been voted the best village in the Eparchy of Marthandom for cultural activities and study programs.

Following the liturgy, about 400 young people stayed for Sunday school. They were divided into groups of about a dozen according to each child’s grade. The “Standard One” children sat in a circle under a coconut tree outside the church. Shija, their teacher, taught the children to respect their parents in the same way that Jesus respected his parents. Sunday school in the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church provides moral education as well as academic credits.

According to Father Michael, 85 percent of the population of Pinkulam speaks Malayalam, the language of Kerala, while 15 percent use Tamil. The church, located just inside the state of Tamil Nadu, lies in the Syro-Malankara Catholic Eparchy of Marthandom. As most people speak Malayalam, they prefer belonging to the Archeparchy of Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala, which is 15 miles away. Across the road that marks the boundary between the two states a new church is in the planning stages. The present church will be used by the Tamil-speaking minority.

Father Michael showed me the plot for the church, recently purchased by the Metropolitan Archbishop of Trivandrum, Cyril Mar Baselios. Four pegs marked the corners of the projected foundation. Naturally, the project needs financing.

As the morning heat started to rise, Father Michael and I wandered around the village.

We passed jackfruit trees and cows grazing in the shade of coconut groves. Wisps of smoke rose from kitchens as rice and lentils were prepared for the midday meal. Children laughed and skipped, played marbles in the dirt and chased each other. A rickety bus thundered by on the twisty tarmac road. An old man carrying coconuts pedaled along on a bicycle. Simple shops sold basic provisions: stainless steel pots, soap and traditional lungees for men to wrap around their waists.

Shortage of water is a huge problem for Pinkulam. At around 400 feet, the water table is unusually deep and is getting deeper. With help from CNEWA, wells and latrines were built for the villagers.

“The government is barely functioning and not interested in supporting these people,” Father Michael explained. “We would do so much more for them, if only we had the money!”

Elizabeth Selvi and her four children live among the coconut groves near the church in a small stone house.

Two goats are tied up outside the house and several chickens run free in the yard. A veranda is decorated with images of Jesus and various saints. The scene is almost idyllic, although this sense of calm hides the family’s true poverty. Because globalization has caused commodity values to tumble, the local economy is in ruins. Coconuts, the mainstay of the economy, fetch less than half of what they did a year ago. With few local employment prospects, Elizabeth’s husband is forced to travel 100 miles to work as a mason’s helper. He returns home for a few days each month.

The new well near the Selvi’s home has a bore hole with a depth of 360 feet; water is raised to a black polyethylene tank atop the pump house by an electric pump. Taps fill buckets from neighboring houses. The Selvis share a well with three other families. A plaque near the well thanks the parish and CNEWA for the apparatus.

“I am very happy with the new well, and the water is sweet. Before, we had to carry water three times a day from a well about a mile away,” Elizabeth explained.

Sixty-five-year-old Cheluma is the matriarch of an extended family living at the other end of the village. Gold earrings dangle from her stretched earlobes, the traditional style of Christian women in India. Her face is a shiny black and she has a twinkle in her eye. Cheluma’s daughters and seven grandchildren surround her on the family compound; a ten-year-old boy shimmies up a coconut tree so its tender milk can be offered to us – we are surprise guests. This family and others nearby share a deep, hand-dug well provided by the parish, from which water is drawn using the traditional rope-and-bucket method. Daughter Rita Josephine works as a catechist in the church and sells vegetables in the market. Her husband is in the army, stationed thousands of miles away in the northeastern territories.

Biju Gomar is a man trying hard to beat the problem of making a living. In the recycling business, he moves from door to door and collects plastic from the garbage. With the help of his four children he sorts the materials in his backyard, bundles them in sacks, then transports them by bicycle to a dealer. From this enterprise he scrapes together only change, but it’s better than nothing.

The parish has built 20 pleasant but simple concrete houses for some of the village needy. Rosey lives in one of these houses; she is 85 years old and lives with her daughter Elsie. Both have sad tales of abandonment by their adult children who live far away and are out of touch. Elsie sells fruit at the market to eke out a living.

Most of the houses in Pinkulam have pit latrines, which were installed by the parish with the help of CNEWA. A pit of about eight feet in depth is dug and sealed with a concrete slab; a porcelain squat toilet is placed in the center. Four cement walls, a wooden door and a tile roof finish the outhouse. Although this construction seems crude, hygiene arrangements were even more primitive in the village prior to this innovation.

Father Michael is an easygoing man who is much loved and respected in Pinkulam. We were greeted enthusiastically as we wandered door to door. The majority of the population is Christian, he explained, and most are members of his Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.

“Most of them embraced Christianity 25 to 40 years ago,” he added, “and came from the OBC, or Other Backward Castes.”

In other words, they were not of the bottom caste, or Harijans (untouchables), but were from castes just a notch above. The OBC’s suffer from their low place on the Hindu social scale and conversion to Christianity holds a liberating allure.

“In addition to the dominant Syro-Malankara Catholic converts, Pinkulam also has Latin Catholics, Anglicans, Pentecostals and Hindus,” he added.

“We are always gaining converts. They come from the Hindu and the Latin Catholic traditions, though we are also losing some people to the Pentecostals,” Father Michael admitted.

Perhaps more than anywhere else in India, it is in the extreme south that people have best learned to live together. With their commitment to education, literacy and high morals, the various church groups in southern India have been instrumental in supporting this spirit of cooperation.

A secondary effect of evangelization has been the emergence of a modern civil society. One irony worth noting is that godly Kerala is run by a Marxist-style government; both Christianity and Marxism have helped to shape Kerala into a modern, relatively liberated state.

In Pinkulam, the rest of India with its sectarian conflicts, religious politics and unrest seems far away. The tip of the continent is largely Christian. Many have been Christians since apostolic times. For the most part, the Christian groups and other religious communities get along well. With their extremely committed faith – one of the strongest in the world – together they all set an example by indeed practicing unity within a colorful diversity.

Sean Sprague is a frequent traveler through “our world.”

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