Monday, June 28, 2010

Erosion of faith

Young Malayalis, belonging to the Mar Thoma church in America, do not have the same commitment as their elders

By Shevlin Sebastian

Rev. T.S. Philip, the parish priest of the Mar Thoma Syrian Christian church at Palarivattom, is slowly getting used to life in Kochi, after a three-year assignment in Houston, Texas. But he reflects often upon the myriad experiences he had in the United States of America.

“The big struggle for parents in America is to inculcate the Malayali culture among their children,” he says. “These children are Americans first, and Malayalis second. They don’t have much of a link to their roots. On the other hand, the American customs and culture have had a big impact on them. Parents find it difficult to accept this.”

There are three distinct groups in American parishes. “There is the older generation who want to strongly keep up the Indian culture,” he says. There are the youngsters who grew up in India, moved to the US, and are now sandwiched between American and Malayali culture. And finally, there are the Malayalis who are born and brought up there. “I have tried to carry all three groups together,” he says.

In America, the Mar Thoma church has about 65 parishes and in each parish there are about 300 families. Most of the families are well-to-do. The men work as engineers, doctors, IT professionals, businessman, chartered accountants, and journalists. The wives, for the most part, hold nursing jobs.

But the priest has observed that for most of the parishioners, going to church is more like a social gathering, rather than one of faith and spirituality. “I have felt disappointed by this attitude,” says Rev. Philip.

He has also felt disappointed by the widespread drinking of alcohol. “We are against the consumption of liquor,” he says. “But in America, all hotels have bars. Alcohol is always served during marriage functions.” The priest remembers that, once, when he had to attend a marriage reception of a community member, to gain entry, he had to go through the bar.

“Drinking is part of their culture,” says Rev. Philip. “But they are very careful about how they behave. If somebody makes a nuisance of himself, the police will be called immediately.” Even in the house, you cannot make so much of noise that it disturbs the neighbours.

“This is in stark contrast to the situation in Kerala,” says Rev. Philip. “People often get drunk and behave in an obnoxious manner.”

However, what is of growing concern to the priest is the attitude of the young Malayali-Americans. “They believe in God, but are willing to go to a church belonging to any other denomination,” he says. “They are not dedicated to the Mar Thoma church.”

Another problem is that more members are marrying non-Malayali Americans. As a result, they are leaving the Mar Thoma church and joining the denominations belonging to their spouses.

This decline of membership may affect the future of the Mar Thoma church in America. “As it is we are a small community, and if the second generation stays away it will be difficult for the church to survive,” says Rev. Philip. “The parents also feel upset. They want their children to stay within the community. But the culture in America is different. There is a lot of freedom for children to make their own decisions.”

When Rev. Philip asked the young Malayali-Americans about the reasons behind their aloofness, they complained about the church politics practiced by the elders. “They are not interested in that,” says Rev. Philip. “I admire them for their sincerity and straight-forward attitude.”

Meanwhile, the priest says that despite all the problems of living in Kerala, the faith is very strong in the state, even among the youth. “I am very happy about that,” says Rev. Philip. “The future of the Mar Thoma church lies in India, and not in America.”

Asked whether he missed America, Rev. Philip says, “I miss the smooth roads, the orderly queues, and the discipline shown in public life,” he says. “But my soul belongs to India. So I am happy to be back among my people.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

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