Indian Christians Struggle with Identity in America

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.

Covering Religion through Illustrations

Covering Religion Through Illustrations

By Pia Peterson

Daily Dispatch 11: Farewell India

AHMEDABAD -- Like Christians everywhere, we rolled out of bed on this Sunday morning, hit alarms, stumbled towards the coffee and, seeking inspiration, went to church.

Our eleven days in India has been a series of visits from one house of worship to another. But today, our final day in India, was the first time we attended a Christian Church. Given that only 2 percent of India is Christian, the timing seemed somewhat appropriate.

We attended two Christian services: the high Anglican Dalit Church and the Mar Thoma Syrian Orthodox church, both in the Christian district of Ahmedabad called Behrampura. The Anglican church service was packed, housed in a sanctuary with dusty pink walls. A wooden cross hung high on the wall behind the preacher but the decorations were simple. Most of the color in the room came from the saris of the women in the congregation, with white lace scarves over their hair. On their laps, under folded hands, lay personal bibles in Gujarati.

We arrived as the sermon was underway, removed our shoes and made our way to the balcony. Overhead fans stirred the hot air. The minister was dressed simply, with a white cassock and a red stole around his neck.

From the moment we slip off our shoes and step into the church, we notice similarities between the church and other houses of worship we visited: Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Zoroastrian. Here, as elsewhere, the women wear saris, barefoot children wander around the balcony and the music is Indian in tone if Christian in message. At one point in the service, church members hold their bibles aloft as a physical representation and reminder of the power of Christ in their lives.

A short walk from the Anglican church, down a sunny street lined with bottle brush trees, we find a Syrian Mar Thoma Church. It too is packed with Sunday worshippers. The pews are filled, and so are benches set outside. As children and men stand on steps and outside the windows, a group of young men make lemonade outside.

In front of the congregation, the priest wears full vestments. Many of the church members are from Kerala, and their families came to Ahmedabad “for a better life,” as 25-year-old Jibin Jose puts it.

Jose is one of the young men mixing lemonade in a giant metal pot behind the church. The drink will be served as a refreshment after the service. Jose was born in Ahmedabad and grew up here. He speaks Hindi, Gujarati, Malayalam, and a little English, and says that he comes to church every Sunday because this is his community.

After the church services, most of us returned to the Hyatt for their special Sunday brunch. It was also the last meal for our group in India. As the afternoon wore on, students wrapped up this phase of their reporting and returned to their rooms to pack. About half of class had plans to spend a few more days in India before returning to New York. As evening fell, the other half got on our bus for the ride to the Ahmedabad airport. Professors Goldman and Trivedi saw us off at the airport.

As our trip comes to an end, memories of the previous ten days are starting to blend together like Holi colors washing down the drain. Reflecting back on what we’ve seen -- and the thousands of photos we’ve taken -- Emily says that this has been “one of the most profound learning experiences of my life. Not just for the study of religion and journalism, but also for the study of people, those that I came here with and those that I’ve met in India.”

Elizabeth said that the trip surpassed her expectations. “I knew I was going to see and experience amazing and new things but I didn’t know how much it would change me and the way that I look at the world.” After reporting from India, she’s encouraged to look for a job outside of the U.S. and continue to explore the religious themes that the class investigated. “Religion drives the world and this realization has made me a better reporter,” she said.

From the ashrams to the temples to the churches to the rickshaws, the Indians we’ve met have been so incredibly welcoming and instructive. We only hope that we can tell their stories well.


Photo by Ana Singh

Patterns and Rice: Jainism in Queens

Entering the shrine room of the Jain temple at 11 Ithaca Street in Jackson Heights, Queens, is to walk into a cave of white marble. The room is bright, lit by two windows and a chandelier, and the sunlight reflects with a bluish tint off the cool white stone of the walls, pillars, and the shrine set in the middle of the room. Everything in this room, aside from the ceiling mural and the air vents, is carved from stone that came from deep within Gujarat, brought to light in Queens.

The exits at the left and right, through the aqua-colored wooden doors, are so incongruous with the marble hall that they seem like portals to another world. Occasionally, a man will step in through a door, in jeans and a fleece vest, seeming as if he came from much farther away than just the neighboring Ithaca Street. Looking back at someone in the stairwell, he nods his head in the Indian way, a few quick pivots on a sideways hinge, before entering into the beautiful, fragrant room.

The smell of incense is strong and welcoming in the second floor sanctum, and the marble floor is cool on bare feet. There is something very intimate about watching strangers walk barefoot, so rare a sight in New York. People’s heels are flattened out and pressed against the floor as they stand and pray, fully supporting their weight. Everyone walks into the room with such purpose, and though many of them touch the ground and their heart before entering and turn towards the gods in the center, others go about their own practice in a different way.

There are about 15 people in the sanctum, a few older men in glasses and identical tunics with their bare backs visible through the thin cotton. A young boy in red frames and a bright yellow t-shirt bows and prays earnestly to each of the eight gods along the wall in succession, the male gods stare straight ahead over cheery mustaches, the goddesses with small red smiles set in their round faces and elaborate capes turned forwards, covering their modesty.

A young woman, her long hair pulled back in a ponytail, enters the shrine room. In an embroidered white blouse and black skirt, she sinks to her knees behind a low wooden bench. A patla or bajoth, it’s the simplest item of furniture in the room by far, hidden behind an engraved silver chest upon which rests a lantern for incense and a small offering. With her black stocking feet tucked underneath her, she pulls a Ziploc bag out of her rattan purse. She reaches in to grab a few handfuls of dry rice, each time letting it run through a hole in her fist until there is a small pile on the patla. With manicured nails, she starts to pat out the small pile and then draw a design in the rice with her ring finger.

After she’s made a small rectangular, geometric pattern, she turns and takes two more ziploc bags from the  purse, one containing a few large crystals of sugar, and the other two raw almonds. She then makes a small mound of rice at the top of her design, like a kalasha on the top of a temple, arranges the sugar crystals and sets the two almonds on top. From another purse pocket, she produces a small brown envelope with a crisp $2 bill, which she folds lengthwise twice and puts on top of her rice pattern. A young man in a blue sweatshirt sits next to her, and she passes him the tools to start his own design, called gahuli in Jainism.

The gahuli is a kind of mandala, what scholar John Cort refers to as “a depiction of the ultimate order of the cosmos in an abstract form.” One worshipper, Dilip Doshi, says that the woman is worshipping to God with the rice, and asking the gods to “help liberate her from the four birth/death cycles, to attain free status.”

Cort points out that mandalas such as these are a shared characteristic of Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism, and often have ties to hopes and prayers in spirit and architecture in form. Often, the making and shaping of the symbols in rice, sand, or cloth is a meditative practice unto itself. He speculates whether the mandalas represented in Jain temples are a visual reminder of prayer, or the Gods themselves.

In the temple, the practice continues as an older woman in a bright yellow sari with pink flowers enters the room and sits on the young woman’s left. As the family completes their devotions, they sit and chat with each other, and are soon joined by a young girl of about 13 in blue, who has just finished pathshala upstairs. At her arrival, the older woman in the sari drops a few stray grains of rice on the table, and then stands. The family rises to pray, following the woman in the sari who reads quickly and at length from a small, yellow volume. On the table, the gahuli each represent the individual who made them. The man places an apple and a folded $10 bill on top of his design. The mother’s has a few wobbly lines and stray grains around a small temple design, like errant birds or falling leaves, and a single dollar. The young woman’s is perfect.
When the family has finished praying and singing, they hold their hands down by their sides with their thumb and forefinger touching, the other three fingers pointing towards the ground, before bringing their palms back together in front of their chests. The money is collected from their rice and brought to the chest in front of the three gods, and the rice is scooped into a small metal bowl called vataka underneath the wooden patla. As the mother rings a hanging bell and turns to leave the room, the young woman looks back and folds her hands one last time before following her family out through the blue door.