CNEWA
ONE Magazine
God • World • Human Family • Church

From India, With Love

The author travels to India to meet some of the people we serve in this vast land.

The magnificent land of India could never be traveled in the five weeks we were there, so we compromised by scheduling most of the visit to the state of Kerala. After landing in Bombay, we flew to Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala. By jeep and by foot we made our way throughout the state. Our purpose was to visit the people and the bishops of the Eastern churches – to renew personal friendships and meet the people we serve.

Our journey began in Bombay, a metropolis poised at the site where many centuries and traditions meet. It is all here: the East of the film set, mud huts and inscrutable crowds, the dhoti, kurta and sari, rickshaws and limousines. Turn a corner and you are in the midst of a traffic jam. Turn another and the Arabian Sea beckons. Bombay teems and glitters; a village of six million souls named by the mother goddess Mumba Devi.

In a small school in Bombay, children are assisted by benefactors of Catholic Near East Welfare Association. The warm meal of rice is their single source of food for the day; before the teachers even attempt to fill their minds, their stomachs have to be filled.

Devoted to education, Kerala spends 40 percent of its budget on schools. It is one of India’s smallest states, yet it leads the country in health care, education and enthusiasm – a model of development.

We were often reminded by our hosts that they had rejected the “beggar” image Westerners often gave them. They seek assistance not as an “underdeveloped nation,” but as a “developing nation.” And when needed, they in turn would help. Msgr. Stern described this attitude in terms of family. When one family member helps another, it is appreciated and mutually recognized as an act of kindness, which later will be reciprocated.

In the church, this is exemplified by many religious congregations whose vocations number hundreds of men and women offering to serve in the missions of Africa and northern India. The church in Kerala is bursting with converts and vocations. Many religious have already been sent to the developed nations in the West, including the United States, to bolster the declining number of vocations to religious life. A mother never counts the times that she assists her child. Nor does the child forget his mother. That is the church family. That is the message of Christ.

Visitors to India confess their inability to define the quintessence of the land and the people. Yet all agree that there are aspects which yield a glimpse of it. India’s infinite variety is among these. It is overwhelming.

These multiple images arise from the assimilation of alien influences into the Indian mainstream throughout the centuries. While some of these influences developed further, geographical factors and the sheer size of the country prevented their simultaneous and similar impact.

The church is not isolated from these influences. Inculturation, the process of purging the faith of excessive western elements and incorporating it in native traditions, is a primary goal of India’s church.

An example of inculturation is the use of dance. Traditionally, dance formed an intrinsic part of worship in India. Just as Hindus offer flowers in the temple of God, so was God offered music and dance as being the most beautiful expressions of the human spirit. India alone has a concept of God who dances: Shiva is Nataraja, the king of dancers who performs in the Hall of Consciousness and creates the rhythm of the Universe.

Illiteracy is still high, so dance is the “medium of message.” Dance greets guests, tells stories, participates in festive occasions, instructs – in fact, any communication the dancer wishes to convey. In Kerala, the sisters in formation are taught dancing to tell the story of the goodness of God; their dances are of praise – much like our Psalms. The head, hand and eye positions are complex and full of meaning. Unlike the West, Indians consider dance as much a spiritual offering as a form of entertainment. Even the earthiness of technique symbolizes this spiritual attitude. Movements, jumps and elevations of western ballet are rejected in favor of maintaining contact with the earth by stamping out rhythm and relying on other elaborate footwork.

“Sahib sickness” was once described as an affliction giving its victims delusions of superiority and making them blind to all that is exciting and beautiful in India. The work of Catholic Near East Welfare Association over the years had given us an immunity to this sickness. We were able to enjoy the Indian Christian community as family.

Each visit to a church community brought out the entire village, whether Christian, Hindu or Muslim. Families came armed with firecrackers, flowers, fruit and colorful umbrellas. All came to celebrate.

Village weddings are huge celebrations. We visited one parish in the Diocese of Tiruvalla which rents out its incomplete parish hall for Hindu weddings. In the parish courtyard, Msgr. Stern and Kamini Desai Sanghvi examine several large cooking vats.

Together – not togetherness – is the way the people survive. The Malayala people of Kerala and their dynamic church are the essence of strength, struggle and solidarity. Church hells ring out the Angelus over velvet green rice paddies. And though only one or two of the many women planting are Christian, they will all stop and pray together.

The people we serve in Kerala have fun and frustration; they experience anger and rapture. They are revered and neglected. They are the embodiment of complexity and simplicity in a land of purity and pollution. They are filled with hope and joy. Surprise! They are like us; we are like them.

Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M., is a Sister of Mercy of the Chicago Province.

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