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'Products Of The Soil': Identity Crisis In An Indian Catholic Church

Six years ago, when Marianne Alapat was a high school student in Yonkers, N.Y., she stood in her church's Bronx community hall and tried to convince the assembled Indian immigrants that they should consider holding services in English. Until that point, services at the St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Church had been held in Malayalam, the native language of Kerala, a state in south India. It's the language this community has been praying and preaching in for centuries.

The aunties and uncles seated in the hall were unconvinced. They had already conceded so many parts of their identity to America, and this church was the one place they could truly be Indian. Women wore saris, adults spoke quickly and freely in coconut-based idioms native to their state, and rice and homemade curry were often served after Mass. The church serves as a pocket of India, preserved like the jars of mango pickle on every Malayali table.

For thousands of years, this strain of Indian Catholicism has been passed down through generations, holding fast through political upheavals and India's independence. But the Indian-American youth of St. Thomas were arguing that if the church didn't evolve, it wouldn't survive.

"They [the adults] said, 'No, we don't want an English Mass; you guys should learn to speak Malayalam, because that's who we are and what we are,' " Alapat remembered. "We said, 'Most American kids, when we do anything, we do it in English. English is our native tongue.' "

It's a familiar battle in any immigrant community: The older generation fears extinction, while the young people rebel against stagnation. But to this church, this faith, that fear of loss is twofold. The Syro-Malabar community is Indian and Catholic in equal measure. Parents worry that if their children lose their faith, they will also lose an intrinsic part of their culture.

Our culture.

The Syro-Malabar faith is part of my identity. It affects the food I eat, the jewelry my mother wears, the holidays my family celebrates. There's something present at this altar that is neither European Catholicism nor Indian in any way Westerners can identify. This doesn't matter to the older generation just because they believe in salvation, or because they want their daughters to be traditional Indian girls. It also matters because this religion is our history and legacy.

Parishioners parade around the St. Thomas church on the Feast Day of St. Thomas the Apostle last summer, flying the American flag alongside the Indian flag.
/ Teresa Mathew
Teresa Mathew
Parishioners parade around the St. Thomas church on the Feast Day of St. Thomas the Apostle last summer, flying the American flag alongside the Indian flag.

Today, three flags — of India, America and the Vatican — hang in crisp parallels from St. Thomas' choir loft. They constitute the complex identity of the second generation of Syro-Malabar youth. As we navigate what it means to be Indian-American, my generation inevitably grapples with how much to retain, honor and leave behind. While you can't hold a legacy in your hands, you can let it go.

"It's like when you read Homer in Greek," Alapat said of Syro-Malabar Masses held in Malayalam. Though she was part of the fight to hold services in English, she concedes that "in English, it loses some value. You kind of lose the holiness of it — you miss the point. ...

"It might be a small community, but that sense of community is something I don't think I could have lived without. It helps me understand who I am. I may be born and raised in New York, but I'm still Malayali at heart."

The Syro-Malabar community has been called Christian in faith, Syrian in worship, and Indian in culture, a fitting trichotomy for a religion whose center is the Holy Trinity. The term Syro-Malabar comes in part from the religion's binal roots: Syro-Malabar Masses used to be held in Syriac, and Malabar is the name of India's lush, southwestern shore, where the community originated.

Unlike in the Roman Catholic Church, Syro-Malabar services last for hours. Masses are held not only in Malayalam but in a well-preserved, archaic form of the language that few speak anymore.
/ Teresa Mathew
Teresa Mathew
Unlike in the Roman Catholic Church, Syro-Malabar services last for hours. Masses are held not only in Malayalam but in a well-preserved, archaic form of the language that few speak anymore.

Unlike in the Roman Catholic Church, Syro-Malabar services last for hours. Masses are held not only in Malayalam but in a well-preserved, archaic form of the language that few speak anymore. Hymns are often chanted, and in both India and America they are accompanied by the mildly discordant notes of a synthesizer. Priests' vestments are as colorful as the saris that fill the pews. Affixed below the St. Thomas cross, a symbol this community has used for centuries, is a popular Hindu offering and the national flower of India, a lotus.

From the time I was young, I have heard and repeated the faith's origin story my parents passed down to me: that St. Thomas the Apostle visited Kerala in the first century, bringing Christianity to a state whose tourist bureau has since labeled it "God's Own Country." There is no historical proof that St. Thomas actually visited south India, but there are records of Indian Christians in Kerala dating to the third century. Syro-Malabar families believe they are descendants of high-caste Brahmin families who were converted by St. Thomas himself.

Jaisy Joseph, author of The Struggle for Identity Among Syro-Malabar Catholics, remembers being told by a Hindu classmate that she was the product of colonization. Her rebuttal was simple: "We are products of the soil."

Syro-Malabar Catholics were not created by conquerors or inorganic to India. Rather, the community takes pride in knowing it was Christian when the Vatican was still a pipe dream.

Home is a complicated concept for immigrants, who have within them the heartbeats of two nations that can never truly sync. But in St. Thomas they have found the language, clothing and comfort they left behind. Most of the aunties and uncles who regularly fill the community hall drive as much as an hour into the Bronx from cities in Westchester County like Yonkers and New Rochelle.

Elizabeth Mampillil drives to St. Thomas from Rockland County. When she immigrated to New York from India, she found a Roman Catholic church that was predominantly Irish. She never felt at home there. Much like faith, discomfort is hard to define — but it was hard to miss the fact that some parishioners pointedly avoided shaking hands with her and her family during the Sign of Peace.

Mampillil wanted to worship somewhere she could belong. "The prayer part never mattered to me," she said. "It was the community aspect. Here, it's done the way my parents did it."

When Shaimole Kumpiluvely was diagnosed with cancer four years after moving to New York, members of the St. Thomas congregation ferried her children to and from school and cooked Kerala comfort food for her and her family.

"They really cooked," Kumpiluvely said, laughing. "At some point we told them, 'If anybody wants to come and see me, don't bring any more food.' There was no place."

As an afterthought, she added something rarely said about immigration or chemotherapy:

"They made it easy."

It's understandable that Mampillil and Kumpiluvely, immigrants looking to be reminded of home, would want to hold on to what they know. What surprises people is how millennials actively invite the past in. Many mothers told me that their children clamor to come to St. Thomas. Kezia Joseph, a college student who moved from Kerala to New Jersey when she was a child, shed some light on why.

"Wherever you go, you are an Indian, and you are a Malayali — to American people you're Indian and that's it," she said. "I think one of the best things about coming here instead of going to an English Mass is that the kids grow up in the Malayali community. It's the only way they're going to learn. That's what makes you unique: your culture, your traditions."

During a homily one Sunday morning, a visiting priest at St. Thomas spoke about this retention of faith in a way that was classically Malayali. "Our children know the taste of rice and moruh," he said. Moruh is a yogurt-based Kerala curry, a staple in most Malayali households.

The priest was invoking it to remind the congregation of all the different ways their traditions needed to live on: a symbol of faith in the face of religious and cultural assimilation. Catholicism places a lot of symbolism in food: loaves and fishes. The body and blood of Christ. But moruh symbolizes neither body nor blood; it is a symbol of endurance.

The Rev. Jos Kandathikudy, St. Thomas' founder, left Kerala in 1999 to create a Syro-Malabar parish in Chicago. He sought out Malayalis in every nook and cranny of the city, creating an extensive database of names and addresses. Often, he would stop by Indian grocery stores and ask customers where they were from, what they practiced and what their lives were missing.

Once the parish in Chicago had been established, he was sent to replicate his success in New York. When St. Thomas opened in 2002, it was the third Syro-Malabar parish in the nation. Now there are more than 62 official parishes and even more smaller churches scattered across the country, with clusters in Texas and Southern California. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2012, 5 percent of Indian-Americans are Catholic — though the study does not break down how many are specifically Syro-Malabar. Kandathikudy estimates that 200 families are active in his parish. He can reference each man, woman and child by name. He is trying to preserve not only a belief system, but a way of life.

Marianne Alapat sits in St. Thomas' religious instruction classroom, where she once taught the congregation's children.
/ Teresa Mathew
Teresa Mathew
Marianne Alapat sits in St. Thomas' religious instruction classroom, where she once taught the congregation's children.

"Many are becoming more American," he said of young Indian-Americans. "Some children want to be loyal to their parents, so at home they dress like Indians. They are good in the eyes of their parents, but once they reach school they go to the toilet, they have hidden dresses, they go and change. Then they are walking around and acting like Americans."

The Indian values Kandathikudy holds so dear, the India he and the older generation put on a pedestal, is "an India of, like, 50 years ago," said Alapat. "It's the India our parents lived in. It's not the India of today."

And the importance placed on retaining Indian values, on shying away from acting too much like an American, raises complicated questions for a generation born and raised on U.S. soil. What, after all, does it mean to act like an American if that's exactly what you are?

"I wouldn't say I'm afraid of being too American," Alapat said. "I realize I am."

Regardless of what you believe or become, it's not so easy to extricate yourself from the thick tangle of blood and faith that constitute the fabric of the Syro-Malabar community. The church is a village in which everyone knows not only your name but your grandparents' professions, your mother's hometown, and all of the reasons you should have been married by now.

Brian Alapat, Marianne's brother, no longer attends Mass at St. Thomas or considers himself a believer. But he isn't leaving his community behind.

"Most likely I'll be involved [in the church] in some very, very minute way for the rest of my life," he said. "And I'm all right with that."

When I was growing up in Northern California, the only connections I had to the Syro-Malabar faith were relatives and the cold marble floor of the church I would visit on trips back to Kerala. As someone often at odds with church politics both here and in India, I have spent months wondering if I truly have a dog in this fight. But there is still something in me that fears losing it. As Joseph said, we are products of the soil. I fear that if subsequent generations of Indian-Americans forsake our faith entirely, we will be letting the loam of our heritage erode.

So I understand why this church is trying to preserve its community. On one of my visits to St. Thomas, a young girl summed up what everyone — young and old, believers and nonbelievers — had been trying to tell me.

"This is what I am," she said.

"This is why I am."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: November 14, 2016 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story incorrectly said Rockland is a city in Westchester County, N.Y. It's actually a county. Previously posted Nov. 14: A previous version of this story incorrectly said that the Chicago parish founded in 1999 was the first Syro-Malabar one in the U.S.
Teresa Mathew