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: Still Moments and Moving Memories

The following presentation is a combination of photographs taken by Sylvia Kang and Ana Singh. The descriptions are taken from the daily dispatches compiled by the students during the eleven-day trip. 

Many scholars and believers argue that religion as a term and concept in India is a British construct. In some sense that disconnect persists today. Of the thousands of Indian universities, only a handful have religion departments.

This information would seem to suggest that religion is somehow absent from India or perhaps all-pervasive. We found that our western conception of religion could be found everywhere – from the Sikh symbols woven into the fabrics of cloths at the 1469 shop at Connaught Place to the remains of murti idols submerged in the waters of the Ganges. In India, religion could be felt in all domains of life.

Not only was religion embedded in all aspects of public life, but many religious sites had multiple layers of religious identity. While we read about unfolding religious conflict at the Ram temple in Ayodhya, we witnessed signs of peaceful syncretism at the Nizamuddin Dargah in New Delhi where Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and atheists tied threads of wishes on the outer walls of the Sufi tombs.

As photographers, we attempted to capture how religion often served as silent yet visible guide in the daily lives of the people we were fortunate to meet with on this once in a life time trip.

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On route to Nizamuddin Auliya

Photo by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang

DAY 1: NEW DELHI After settling into our rooms and grabbing a quick dinner, we started our religious exploration with a visit to one of India’s holiest Sufi shrines, Nizamuddin Auliya for an evening of sacred song, known as the qawwali. If we expected a narrow look at Islamic practice, we were surprised by how diverse the crowd and the ritual turned out to be. - Roda Griffin, M.S. '17

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We were joined by 29-year old Syed Bilal Nizami (center), a caretaker of the Sufi shrine. When we asked him how the qawwali has changed over the years, he said it has become more and more popular with people of all faiths. “When people pray here, their prayers are answered,” he said with confidence. - Roda Griffin, M.S. '17. PHOTO CAPTION Syed Bilal Nizami (center) at Nizamuddin Auliya.

Photo by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang

DAY 2: Our second day in Delhi was a day for the senses. We met Imams at the Jama Masjid, washed our feet at the entrance of a Sikh temple, rang a hanging bell in Jain mandir, heard a song about a lonesome bride, sampled Indian fragrances in the main bazaar and ate Punjabi food at a market stall that has been in the same family for six generations. -Ellen Ioanes, MS'18.

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Jama Masjid.

Photo by Ana Singh

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LEADERSHIP OVER THE GENERATIONS: The leadership of the Jama Masjid has been in this family for over 300 years. According to Sayid Taariq Bukhari, the brother of the mosque’s Grand Imam, it’s become particularly important since Partition, when many Indian Muslims moved to the newly created state of Pakistan, and his family was left responsible for the political and religious leadership of India’s Sunni Muslims. -Ellen Ioanes, MS'18. Photo Caption -
Sayid Taariq Bukhari, the brother of the mosque’s Grand Imam, photographed with his nephew, the next Grand Iman.

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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Young boys wait on a elevated platform at Jama Masjid for a midday prayer to begin.

Photo by Ana Singh

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SIS GANGJ GURUDWARA: The Gurudwara sits on what Sikhs believe is the execution site of the sixth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, who was beheaded by the emperor Aurangzeb. The Gurudwara contains a shrine to the guru, where adherents stop to pray, as well as a bedchamber of sorts, where the Adi Granth, or Sikh holy book, is put to bed each night. The book is considered the living Guru and is revered as such by practitioners. -Ellen Ioanes, MS'18.

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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CAREER ADVICE: Geshe Dorji Damdul (photographed above), the director of the Tibet House, who works closely with His Holiness the Dalai Lama spoke to us about the nature of happiness and suffering, and how one must find peace within oneself to limit the influence of external factors on one’s state of being. And he had the following advice for being better journalists: “First be yourself happy,”

Photo by Sylvia Kang

DAY 3: After two days of being shepherded around Delhi by Professor Trivedi and friends, today we were turned loose to report on our own. Alone or in twos, we left our hotel early this morning to navigate a city most of us had never been to with the challenge of reporting in a language we don’t know, within a culture that we’ve only read about in textbooks. Delhi is an absolutely vibrant city, fast paced and full of unexpected moments on every turn. -Elizabeth VanMetre, MS'17

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PERFORMANCE: The gopis began to toss flower petals over Krishna and Radha, ceremonially binding their love with flowers. The couple sat in a growing pile of gold, yellow and red petals as baskets of petals were poured over their shoulders. Then, in a startling move, Krishna and Radha jumped up from the flower pile-Thea Piltzecker, MS'17

Photo by Sylvia Kang

DAY 4: VRINDAVAN- Soon enough, strains of music issued from the ashram’s main hall. We were right on time for the Holi play. The Rasdeva theatrical performance commemorates the original Holi; it recreates the story of Krishna’s playful interactions with the gopis (milkmaids) and his favorite gopi and consort Radha. An all-male troupe dressed in elaborate gold saris danced onstage; these were the gopis, enjoying their work in the village of Barsana. Krishna and his friends arrived next, decked out in gold pantaloons and bristling mustaches. The two groups engaged in a tit-for-tat exchange, drawing laughter from the large audience. After a tug-of-war and whirling musical numbers, Radha won their game. -Thea Piltzecker, MS'17

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A young child plays in the leftover flower petals of the play

Photo by Ana Singh

DAY 5: In atmosphere, Vrindavan feels like a village. It’s mud streets and tiny alleyways cloak a population of approximately 57,000 people, and yet, in the history of Hinduism, its importance is profound. Krishna, the eighth incarnation of the Lord Vishnu, was born here. Radha, his supreme wife was born in a neighboring village. To celebrate their love and, in turn, love in general, Indians of all faiths spend a good part of the day pitching pigment at each other. Those of us who ventured out of the confines of the ashram came back splattered from head to toe in all the colors of the rainbow.-Gudrun Wilcocks, MS'17

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UNDERSTANDING HOLI: In the multi-colors of love, all the shades of skin are gone,” said Shrivasta Goswami Maharaj in his explanation of Holi. Maharaj is the head of the ashram known as Caitanya Prem Sansthan and photographed with Professor Yogi Trivedi (Left) and Ari Goldman (right).

Photo by Ana Singh

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In the aftermath of Holi

Photo by Ana Singh

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Holi celebrated in the Caitanya Prem Sansthan ashram

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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Playing Holi outside the ashram

Photo by Ana Singh

DAY 6: RISHIKESH – The River Ganges sets the pace for life in this city at the foothills of the Himalayas, just as it set the pace for our day of markets and aartis, puja and performance.Even though we arrived in Rishikesh after midnight, a few early-risers took to the river with the break of day. Along the banks, local volunteers filled buckets with water to wash out the last brightly colored dregs of Holi from gats along the river. One man sat in the Lotus position and meditated. Two women in pink and turquoise saris cupped their hands around an aarti’s flame and sent it out across the water. As the sun rose higher, we sat on the hotel balcony with chai, watching the light catch on the swells.-Natasha Frost, MS'17

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Two women participate in an intimate aarti ceremony on the banks of the Ganges in Rishikesh

Photo by Ana Singh

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ON THE BANKS OF THE GANGES: Haridwar seemed like part water park and part temple. We watched as hundreds of devotees, many of them with families in tow, bathed playfully in the river, the men in their underwear and the women in their saris. This bathing is one part of the washing away of sins – one step along the path to moksha. -Natasha Frost, MS'17

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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A Believer at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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An aarti ceremony at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram

Photo by Sylvia Kang

DAY 7: Rishikesh is a hard place to leave. The city offers an interesting contradiction in Indian culture. A beautiful town on the foot of the Himalayas, it is surrounded by natural beauty. The turquoise hues of the River Ganges flow below colorful bridges and alongside scattered buildings and shops. This morning, a few of us leisurely explored that world for a couple of hours. We wandered, we shopped and we questioned this enigma of a place — a place of countless yoga practices, ashrams, Ayurvedic cafes selling vegan foods and scones to people who have come here from across the world, clad in baggy pants and with yoga mats under their arms, to embrace their spirituality in India.-Nicole Einbender, MS'17

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Shiva representation in Rishikesh

Photo by Ana Singh

DAY 8: Ninety-one small, carved elephants appeared to hold up each side of the Sun Temple, totaling 364 mini-elephants: the same number as the days in the solar calendar. The structure was carved out of sandstone from a nearby quarry, a material that absorbs heat. When our group stepped inside the temple, everyone gasped. The details which were eroded by the wind and rain on the outside were preserved in sharp images inside and told the story of the Ramayan. - Andrea Januta, MS'17

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Group Photo at the Sun Temple

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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PRACTICING COMPASSION: “Any being can reach enlightenment. An insect can reach enlightenment, ” said Maiti Jratha Suriji, a Jain nun (photographed with her sister). The two sisters practice a strict interpretation of the concept of ahimsa or compassion, doing everything they can to minimize their footprint on the world and protect life, from the biggest elephant to the smallest micro-organisms.-David Klein, MS '17

Photo by Ana Singh

DAY 9: AHMEDABAD- Our day started at 8:30 when we set out for a walking tour of Ahmedabad’s old city. There, in the twisting alleys and secluded courtyards, we had the opportunity to see a few different threads in India’s religious tapestry. Though we stepped into a mosque and a Hindu mandir, we also had the opportunity to sit down and interview two Jain nuns about their lifestyle and experiences. They practice a strict interpretation of the concept of ahimsa or compassion, doing everything they can to minimize their footprint on the world and protect life, from the biggest elephant to the smallest micro- organisms. -David Klein, MS '17

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Jama Masjid Mosque in Ahmedabad

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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AN UNCERTAIN FATE: The Zoroastrian community arrived in Gujarat nearly 1,000 years ago, fleeing persecution in what had become Muslim Iran. Today they face a harsh demographic reality. There are only about 1,400 Parsis in Ahmedabad and the death rate has far outpaced the birthrate in the community, explained J. P Anklesaria , a retired brigadier and leader among Ahmedabad’s Parsis (Photographed above). Though hopeful that things will change, Anklesaria feared that if the trend continues in 25 or 50 years there will be no more Parsis in Ahmedabad -David Klein, MS '17.

Photo by Ana Singh

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A man practices puja in Ahmedabad

Photo by Ana Singh

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An Intimate Dinner with a Jain Family

Photo by Sylvia Kang

DAY 10: Saturday was our last full day in India. After a morning panel with Indian journalists, newspaper editors and media entrepreneurs at our hotel in Ahmedabad, we went our different ways to finish our reporting projects before meeting in the evening for our formal farewell dinner, held at a restaurant called the House of MG. Then it hit us: None of us will ever be the same after this trip. We’ll look at the world through a lens crafted by our experiences in this incredible nation full of religious diversity. We gained the skills necessary to cover religion with an open mind and an empathetic heart.- Cole Pennington, MS'18

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Indian Journalists discuss how they cover religion in their reporting

Photo by Ana Singh

DAY 11: 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.- Pia Peterson, M'S 17

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Believers raise their bible at the high Anglican Dalit Church

Photo by Ana Singh


A Sufi Shrine for All Faith: In India, Religious Pilgrims Cross Traditional Borders

NEW DELHI — Deep in a meandering marketplace of India’s capital city, replete with hanging tapestries and hawking merchants, lies a Sufi shrine known as Nizamuddin Dargah. The ground here is littered with flowers flattened by feet as people push past each other to move towards the shrine, where a prominent Muslim saint, Hazrat Khwaja Syed Nizamuddin Aulyia, is buried.

For all the attention it draws, the shrine itself is surprisingly small, an above ground tomb draped in rugs and tapestries and sprinkled with petals – tokens from visitors. Only men are allowed inside. The tomb is surrounded by an intricate stone mesh that partially blocks the view for the women, who circumambulate outside.

And though it is primarily a Muslim holy site (Sufism is a mystical expression of Islam), the shrine is a place that attracts believers across the faith spectrum. A Muslim woman bows her head to the ground outside the shrine next to a Christian woman, praying upright with hands tightly clasped. Mala beads and rosaries hang alongside Sikh kirpan bracelets, tied on with yarn. These believers come not only to see one of the most famous Sufi tombs in the world, but also to pray and worship.

Interfaith tourism and worship characterizes India, a land in which the borders between religions are more flexible than those in the Western world. These sentiments of praying to leaders and saints from across the religious landscape and celebrating the diversity of faith in the subcontinent is seen in both the leaders of religious orders and organizations and in their devotees. Particularly in a time when communal violence and religious and political polarization is sweeping through the subcontinent, this phenomenon remains an important uniting factor in the Indian society.

 

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Syed Bilal Ali Nizami, one central caretaker of the Nizamuddin Dargah and a descendent of the saint himself, spoke of the strong interdenominational nature of the shrine, saying that he frequently receives visitors from across the world and from many faiths.

“The shrine hosts celebrations for many religions,” Nizami said. “We celebrate Diwali, Holi, Eid, Guru Nanak’s birthday, Christmas, and devotees of that religion come to pray.”

He said that many non-Sufis are drawn to the shrine not only for its relevance in pop culture – it has been the set of over six films – but also because they believe they can get good luck by donating to it.

The same interfaith spirit can be seen at Shrivatsa Goswami’s ashram in Vrindavan. Goswami spoke of how it aspires to be a home to all people, regardless of caste or creed. Calling it a “non-ashram-ashram,” Goswami sat cross-legged on the carpeted ground in the large central room, wrapped in orange robes. He said that he has maintained the desire of the ashram’s founder and kept it available for any type of worship.

“There are zero rules and regulations,” he said. “It is a completely free space for our own liking.”

Many visiting devotees spoke of the cultural and religious reasons why they are drawn to alternative faith’s houses of worship.

Richa Agarwal, a Hindu visitor to the Nizamuddin shrine, said that she visits many shrines throughout the country to both worship and visit.

“There is no specific reason why I come to this saint,” Agarwal said, gesturing around the shrine, well lit with lamps as classical sitar and tabla music filled the air during a nighttime performance. “When you grow up in India, you know who is the influential saint of any religion, so that is why you come here.”

“I have come to pay my gratitude and have my wishes heard,” she added. “I want mental peace.”

Rupal Shah, a Swaminarayan Hindu from Ahmedabad, sees visiting other houses of worship as not only a religious experience, but also an opportunity to learn and teach. In an early-morning BAPS service to watch the guru of the faith pray before he left for a trip, Shah said that giving darsan, or sharing sight with the divine, at any religious temple can help problems go away.

“Each place has its own values,” she said. “If we are passing by a temple, we stop by and give darsan and explain their religion.”

In a reflection of Agarwal’s explanation of the typical pluralistic Indian childhood, Shah spoke of teaching faiths to her young daughter, who she is raising Swaminarayan. It is clear that, though a personal faith and guru is a key component to life, it is extremely important to expose the next generation to other ways of worshiping.

“It’s good for the children to visit,” she said. “It helps them be more aware of other faiths in India.”


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