YONKERS, N.Y. — When Dr. Listy Thomas, an emergency medical specialist at St. Vincent’s Medical Center and Bridgeport Hospital, walks into a new patient’s room, she can sometimes sense disappointment in her patient’s eyes. “Oh, they say, ‘I thought Dr. Thomas would be a man,’” she laughs.  “I think that with a name like Thomas, they’re disappointed that I’m not a white man.”

Thomas is Indian, and her family moved to the U.S. in the early 1970’s from the Southern Indian state of Kerala. When her father came here, she says, “He had $10 in his pocket, and now he’s a millionaire.” Being part of the quintessential American immigrant success story has always been a way that Thomas, who moved to the U.S. at the age of eight, identified herself. She’s also a part of India’s long-standing Mar Thoma Christian community, with a strong faith and cultural roots going back almost 2,000 years.

Growing up in Connecticut, Thomas and her siblings were Indian children in a very white community. But it’s only since Donald Trump came to political prominence last year that she’s started to feel differently about her place in the U.S. Many Mar Thoma Christians are reassessing their identity and community because of recent violence against South Asians in the United States. This is especially difficult for South Asian Christians, like Thomas, who grew up in the U.S.  For the first time, she feels vulnerable to bigotry. “My medical students who are Muslim are scared,” Thomas says. When she was drying her son’s hair after a bath, he joked about how he looked in the turbaned-towel. “Even my seven year old, brown, Indian kid joked about being labeled a Muslim.”

Mar Thoma Christians believe that their community, officially know as the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, came to India  52 BC with the missionary St. Thomas. In New York, they held weekly Sunday services for years in a nearby hall of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the fourth largest Christian church in the world. Vacant churches were purchased in the early eighties, and today there are four Mar Thoma churches close to New York City. Congregants live all over the tri-state area, some as far away as Rhode Island, and drive into the city every Sunday for service. Thomas drives in to a congregation in Yonkers each week from her home in Trumbull, CT.

The Yonkers church,  St. Thomas MarThoma,  has grown from 63 families when it was established in 1981 to 248 families today. At a recent Easter service, row upon row of extra chairs were set up as men in pastel shirts and women in bright saris ushered children and grandparents up the aisles. The atmosphere was cheerful, with incense illuminated by sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows, giving the parishioners a private showing of the northern lights. Near the end of the three-hour-long service, children were invited up to get Easter eggs with candy and a Bible verse in them.

There was chatter throughout the sanctuary in both English and Malayalam, the language of many Mar Thoma Christians. As warm and communal as the church atmosphere is, the community has been affected by the recent rhetoric of anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States. But with strong conservative governments presently ruling both the U.S. and India, no one I spoke to was considering returning to India.

In India, Mar Thoma Christians are the small minority in a country of 800 million Hindus. It’s an insular community that somewhat transcends the caste system still prevalent in Indian society. They do not associate themselves with any particular class, but are said to have descended from converted Hindu Brahmins in early centuries AD, giving them high caste status. Most Mar Thomas are from the southern Indian state of Kerala, and marry within not only Christian but also Kerala-specific communities.

The Rev. Abraham Matthews is the head of the Immanuel Mar Thoma Church in Noida, outside of New Delhi.  On one morning earlier this spring, he was leading a group of seniors in a discussion of the role of Eve and gender equality in the Bible in Malayalam. Many of these twenty-odd men and women are from Kerala, and hope to return there one day. Some of the women display golden crosses hanging outside of their saris, and many in attendance have a well-worn pocket Bible in Malayalam.

The members of Matthew’s church do not see themselves separately as Indians and Christians, but as proud members of both. The rise of Hindu nationalism on behalf of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing BJP party is worrying to many, but the focus isn’t on their community. Mar Thoma Christians, who  make up just one percent of the country’s population, are not mentioned in the jingoistic speeches of right-wing Hindu nationalists when they lambaste Muslims and call for a “Hindu India.”

Looking from India to America, however, younger Mar Thomas are more wary than before. Benson Benny is 25, and lives in Modi’s home state of Gujarat. At church service on a Sunday, he proudly points out that their community is strong in India. “You don’t see any empty seats,” he boasts. “In America, churches have empty seats.” Benny says that he used to think about becoming a software engineer and moving to the United States, but as he grows up he started to have doubts. He and his friend Jibin Jose, also 25, say that they hear stories of violence from the United States, and that the risks and difficulties of moving overseas seem to outweigh the benefits.

Both Benson and Jose both talk about their youthful IT ambitions, but now Benny works in the outsourcing business and Jose sells jewelry and ornaments. They plan to stay in Gujarat. Of their childhood dreams of the U.S., they fear that  “anything can happen” if they live  in a “non [Mar Thoma] Christian community.”  Neither of them has experienced persecution in India, they say, but with what they read in the news, they don’t rule it out in the future.

President Trump says in speeches that he welcomes Christians from non-Christian countries, but the Mar Thoma community is struggling with how to present itself in Trump’s America as a sympathetic group. South Asian men of Hindu and Sikh faiths have been attacked in 2017, and Mar Thoma Christians worry about protecting their members and their identity. Thomas says that she worries about having to talk to her kids about bullying and discrimination. Meanwhile, other young church members are breaking away from the Mar Thoma Church and moving toward American Evangelical churches, where vibrant expressions of faith and piety are a tempting change to more conservative worship. For them, retaining their core faith and fitting in means leaving their Indian culture behind.

But for Thomas, “It’s the church of my youth,” she said. She won’t be leaving anytime soon.