New World Children of St. Thomas

Indian Christians in the United States work to establish their roots

text by Leanne Arcuri
photographs by Maria Bastone

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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.

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Tags: India Syro-Malabar Catholic Church Immigration Syro-Malankara Catholic Church Thomas Christians