ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

New World Children of St. Thomas

The “constant explanation” has followed India’s Christians to the United States

Many Americans are surprised to meet or hear of Indian Christians, assuming all are Hindu or Muslim, even though Christianity has been part of the subcontinent’s culture since the time of St. Thomas the Apostle.

Being an Indian Christian in the United States is perhaps best described by Msgr. Robert L. Stern, who, as CNEWA’s Secretary General, has been helping Indian Catholics establish their communities in the States: “It requires a constant explanation.”

Indian Christians cross the threshold of the New World with the same longing for opportunity as countless other immigrant groups – and like other settlers, Indian Christians, who have been arriving steadily since independence from Great Britain in 1947, can also feel lost or isolated.

Combining nationality and religion. The inky tattoo above a young waiter’s right thumb was not at first obvious. But with each samosa or helping of vegetable pakora he served to a couple, it made them more curious. By dessert, they asked to see it.

In this Toms River, New Jersey, restaurant – adorned with images of Ganesh, a Hindu god said to remove obstacles, and filled with the sound of traditional Indian music – the waiter raised his hand, palm down and proudly showed off a small heart with a steeple at its cleft.

“This is because I love Jesus Christ very much,” he said.

Ask an Indian Christian how Americans react to this particular combination of nationality and religion and almost everyone has a story. Most stories are benign, some even comical with Americans’ inquiries ranging from curious to clueless.

“Many people want to know when I converted,” said Father Saji George, a 35-year-old Syro-Malankara Catholic priest in Hempstead, New York, explaining that most Indian Christians, particularly those from the southern state of Kerala, were born into the faith.

Susamma Seeley, a 29-year-old Syro-Malankara Catholic from Elmont, New York, is always a little shocked and amused when “people ask what tribe I’m from.”

Because most of India’s one billion people are Hindu, the country is internationally regarded as such. As a result, an Indian man named Samuel Abraham or an Indian woman dressed in a colorful sari carrying a Bible may elicit surprise among Americans.

Like other immigrants, Indian Christians have to work at establishing new homes for their faith and culture – much as Italian-Americans created Little Italy, observed patronal feasts and danced the tarantella at weddings.

Indian Christianity may be a surprise, but it is nothing new. St. Thomas the Apostle brought Christianity to India in A.D. 52, arriving in what is now Kerala. Today, nearly 24 million people, about 3 percent of India’s population, are Christians, with the greatest concentration – about 6 million – residing in Kerala.

Latin (Roman), Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholics, Evangelicals and Malankara Syrian Orthodox are just a few of the many Christian communities in India.

Known collectively in Kerala as Thomas Christians, the community divided in the 16th century after the Portuguese arrived in India and began to Latinize the Indian Church’s ancient Eastern traditions. Over time, Indian Christians further divided and adopted other denominations from outside influences, such as the British.

From old world to new. Now parishes and missions can be found across the United States. And just like in India, the communities have an unofficial capital. In the States, it is – as it has been for all immigrants – New York City.

Christians do not cite religious persecution as a reason for leaving India. Although there have been cases of persecution, most of these are isolated incidents and the work of Hindu extremists. Many Indian Christians living in the U.S. say they lived in India with Hindu neighbors as normally as neighbors live anywhere.

Indians began immigrating to the United States in greater numbers in the late 1960’s and 1970’s.

“As they always say, there are a lot of opportunities here,” said Jimmy Thomas, a 25-year-old Syro-Malabar Catholic and Yonkers resident, who arrived in New York from Kottayam in 1997. “And you can start a life in New York.”

Starting a new life, as happy as it may be, does not mean immigrants do not long for their homeland.

That is why Jimmy Thomas is found on 221st Street in the Bronx every Sunday at St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. Here, surrounded by fellow Syro-Malabar Catholics at a social gathering after liturgy, “I feel like I’m not too lonely,” he said.

Standing at the entrance of St. Thomas – a large neo-Gothic building – is a cheerful man. Children wave to him on their way into catechism classes. Men, in slacks and dress shirts, and women, some dressed no differently from American women and many others wearing silk, satin and chiffon saris, greet him with smiles and handshakes. “Good morning, Father. How are you?” they ask.

Father Jos Kandathikudy and the people greeting him made all the contributions that transformed the unused St. Valentine’s Roman Catholic Church into St. Thomas Church. The church was donated to the community by the Archbishop of New York, Edward Cardinal Egan.

In the eight years since his superiors in Kerala asked him to organize Syro-Malabar communities in the eastern U.S., Father Kandathikudy has established 21 missions. St. Thomas was founded as a parish last year and is the headquarters for Syro-Malabar Catholics in the New York area.

The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church is the largest Eastern Church in India with 3.75 million followers. The newly established St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Chicago, headed by Bishop Jacob Angadiath, shepherds some 113,000 Syro-Malabar Catholics in parishes, missions and schools in 12 states and the District of Columbia.

When Father Kandathikudy began his pastoral work in the United States, most of the Syro-Malabar Catholics he encountered “had no identity,” he said. “There was no one to tell them, ‘Keep up your identity.’ ”

Because of the lack of Syro-Malabar Catholic churches, many Syro-Malabar Catholics attended Roman Catholic churches. While being biritual is common among Indian clergy, the laity was losing the essence of its own traditions.

“I felt my spiritual point getting weaker,” said Jose Malaickal, a Yonkers resident who came from Kottayam with his wife and two daughters in 1982. “We have a lifelong heritage. When we came here, we didn’t have access to that.”

The possibility that his two daughters would lose that connection “was my main concern,” Malaickal said.

However, Malaickal’s younger daughter, Laleni, now a 24-year-old computer consultant in Manhattan, saw what she was missing in Roman Catholic churches when she attended college in India.

“I consider myself an American, but one of the things I did miss [when she returned to the States] were the liturgies. It’s very nice to have that sense of India back,” she said of St. Thomas Church.

Independence is a goal. In Hempstead, Father Saji George is celebrating the liturgy at St. John Chrysostom Syro-Malankara Catholic Mission. In the pews, parishioners assume a traditional seating arrangement: men on one side and women on the other. Children occupy the front rows.

Like Syro-Malabar Catholics, Syro-Malankara Catholics attended Roman Catholic churches until they could find their own community. There are only 400,000 Syro-Malankara Catholics in the world; 500 families live in the United States.

When Jose Thomas, now a 40-year-old Metropolitan Transit Authority dispatcher from New Hyde Park, arrived in 1986, he was fortunate to have to ride only three trains from Brooklyn to join a Syro-Malankara community in Manhattan. Going to Roman Catholic Masses, he said, left him a bit empty. “I didn’t get the full satisfaction as from our Malankara liturgy.”

Religion is more accessible for Mr. Thomas, his wife, Susan, and their two daughters, ages 9 and 6. At St. John’s, the girls have grown up worshiping with most of the Syro-Malankara rites retained.

But having their own church (St. John’s celebrates liturgies in a Roman Catholic church) is something Father George and his parishioners say they look forward to having one day.

Until then, men and women like the Thomases, are relieved to have a church honoring the Syro-Malankara traditions to keep their families connected to India. So even though Mr. Thomas cannot pick mangoes or bananas off the trees outside his house, as he said he misses doing, coming to St. John’s makes him feel closer to home.

On Staten Island is St. John’s Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church, one of the church’s 28 parishes across the nation. Though the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church has about 3 million followers worldwide, it is not well known.

“People don’t know the Orthodox Church,” said Father Mathai Varkey Puthukkunnathu, one of St. John’s priests.

“I believe as time goes on, the public will have more awareness of this faith,” said Father Puthukkunnathu.

Breaking down boundaries. In Yonkers, loud singing and hand clapping vibrate the red-rimmed doors of a store front church. Wednesday night Bible study at the New Testament Church, an evangelical mission, is beginning.

Brother Michael Thomas, a tall American, is preaching at the podium. “How many of you can say Amen!?” he shouts.

In front of him, Indian men and women hold their hands in the air and bow their heads. When the music starts again, all the children old enough to talk and stand on their own follow along, some clapping and hopping in place.

The New Testament Church, known in India as the Pentecostal Mission, is an exception. There are no cultural longings in this church. The mission is not exclusive to India and has a following in the United States of about 3,000 people of all ethnic backgrounds. It just happens that the Yonkers center is primarily Indian because of Yonkers’ large Indian community.

The services are conducted in English, not Malayalam, the language of Kerala, and the traditions of the mission do not have cultural slants.

Mini John, a 33-year-old resident of Scarsdale, followed her parents from Kerala 16 years ago. She is trying to teach her 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son Malayalam, but not for their experiences in faith. In church, she prefers English. She believes it is proper to use the vernacular of the country in which one lives. Also, she said, “You are not being isolated this way and anyone can join you.”

George Elango is a 43-year-old information technology specialist from Yonkers who carries his Bible in a green corduroy case. He and his wife, Rachel, do not feel their 13-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter were ever at a loss for Indian culture or religious traditions.

“My God created heaven and earth. It is only the mind of man that created boundaries of countries,” he said.

Members of the New Testament Church, however, do not avoid stereotyping because of their inclusiveness.

Mini John laughs at most Americans’ assumptions that all Indians are either Hindu or Muslim. “We have to explain that India has other faiths, too,” she said.

Indian Christians of all traditions in the United States are obscure because of their scant size. Regardless, their faith should not be a surprise to anyone or a case to prove because, as Lincy Chacko, a 23-year-old Syro-Malankara Catholic said, “You can find God anywhere.”

Leanne Arcuri makes her CNEWA WORLD debut in this issue.

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