The Challenges and Opportunities Facing the Indian Orthodox Christian Diaspora Worldwide
Dr. Yohannan T. Abraham
I thank Thee, O Lord my God, for Thou has not rejected me, a sinner, but hast made me worthy to be a partaker of Thy Holy things. I thank Thee, for Thou hast permitted me, the unworthy, to commune of Thy most pure and heavenly Gifts. But, O Master who loves mankind, who for our sakes didst die and rise again, and gave us these awesome and life-creating Mysteries for the good and sanctification of our souls and bodies; let them be for the healing of soul and body, the repelling of every adversary, the illumining of the eyes of my heart, the peace of my spiritual powers, a faith unashamed, a love unfeigned, the fulfilling of wisdom, the observing of Thy commandments, the receiving of Thy divine grace, and the attaining of Thy Kingdom. ...May I pass from this life in the hope of eternal life, and so attain to the everlasting rest, where the voice of those who feast is unceasing, and the gladness of those who behold the goodness of Thy countenance is unending.
If one were to attend the Divine Liturgy in an Occidental (Western) Orthodox Church, most likely a series of Prayers of Thanksgiving are offered at the end of the service. The above prayer comes from that source. Setting aside the differences that may separate the Oriental (Eastern) and the Occidental Orthodox Churches, this prayer is of equal importance to believers in both camps. It acknowledges our gratitude to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for the sacrifice He made on the Cross for our salvation and beckons for the unceasing nurturing of our souls and bodies so that we may be a testimonial to our fellow believers and the world at large. What is the implication of this for the Diaspora of Indian Orthodox Christians in general and the younger generations in particular with little to no real exposure to the language and the culture of their ancestors? To what extent is the religious persuasions of the Indian Orthodox Christian community impacting the non-Malayalees, be they Christian or otherwise, in their respective home-away-from-home? Or stated differently, what is the future of Orthodox Christian faith as professed by the followers of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox or the Indian Orthodox Church in their adopted homelands? If these are problem areas, what can be done about them? These questions are the basis for this humble missive that is presented to the readers of the Jubilee publication celebrating twenty-five years of Orthodox Christian ministry by the St. Thomas Malankara Orthodox Church in the Oklahoma City area in the State of Oklahoma, U.S.A.
To the faithful of the Indian Orthodox Diaspora that is scattered in North America and many other parts of the world where Malayalam is not the local lingua franca and who are nominally connected to their ancestral land and language it remains a challenge to experience and internalize the richness and wholesomeness of our faith and doctrine through fuller participation in the worship services of the Church. One of the reasons for this is the use of the Malayalam language in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy and other services associated with the Church=s feasts and festivals. In spite of the beauty of Malayalam with all the nuances of it that make our prayers and liturgical hymns sound so moving an experience to the ones who are familiar with the language, to the extent that the language of worship is Malayalam among those who are marginally familiar with that language it is unlikely that the worshipers can be assimilated fully into the life of the Church or the Church in their lives. The late His Holiness Moran Mar Baselios Mar Thoma Mathews I made this observation not too long ago: AA Family Common Prayer Book in English has become greatly essential for the children especially of the Sunday Schools outside Kerala, who now use mostly the English language in their every day life, and are practically ignorant of Malayalam.@ This statement by our late Bava Thirumeni can be generalized with respect to other Church publications also.
A second issue perhaps is the lackadaisical or complacent attitude about matters of faith and spiritual growth. It is often heard that cradle Orthodox Christians tend to take a lot for granted in terms of their faith. Just because we are born into an Orthodox Christian family does not imply that we have grown in our faith. We go through great pains and investment to prepare ourselves for a career in life through formal education. However, that is not the case with many of us when it comes to educating ourselves on faith matters. To become well-grounded in our faith also takes serious commitment and actions. Weekly attendance in worship services and other limited involvement in religious activities are at best the very minimum.
Without going into a lot of details, it is safe to say that the consequences of marginal involvement in the Church is that a lot of its members lose interest in the Church and remain on the fringes, become victims to heretical teachings that pray upon their ignorance, and ultimately the Church loses a good many of its followers forever. This in turn can lead to the gradual extinction of the Indian Orthodox Church outside of its motherland. It behooves the Church and its leadership including the laity to press forward with proactive steps that can turn around the present and potential erosion into a strong and vibrant Church where its faithful can continue to utter the Prayer of Thanksgiving quoted earlier.
In the backdrop of the foregoing, a few ideas are shared here by someone who was transplanted to the U.S. over four decades ago and who has been blessed by Creator to cling on to the faith that was handed to him in his cradle. There have been several factors that reinforced and nurtured the seeds that were planted in me at an early age: parental discipline, nine years of Sunday School, a series of lessons by some learned priests and bishops of the Church, the literary works of scholars, an inquisitive mind, and an unceasing quest to learn more about the faith that has sustained me for so long. As a professional educator, I believe learning never stops. Thus no matter how much exposure I may have had to the Orthodox Christian faith, I still remain inadequate in many ways. At the same time, knowing what I know I am convinced that the Orthodox Christian teachings represent the fullness of Christianity.
There are many proactive steps that can be taken to stop the erosion of our faith and at the same time be a source of inspiration to others who are unfamiliar to Orthodox Christianity in particular and Christianity in general. The ideas presented here are not necessarily new but a restatement of what others have said and continue to say. These include:
1. Study of church history, faith, doctrine, and the teachings of the Church Fathers along with daily reading of the Holy Bible. One of the problems for cradle Orthodox Christians is the perception that since their hereditary is rooted in Orthodoxy, they know it all. This is far from the truth. It is a sad reality that a good segment of Orthodox Christians lack a reasonable understanding of the history of the Church as well as the teachings of the Church. Therefore it is imperative that one takes a fervent interest in studying these matters so as to have a reasonable level of competency. Regrettably, the resources available for this purpose are mostly in Malayalam and not translated into English and other languages that are commonly used by the Diaspora. Two recent publications would be of immense value in gaining deeper understanding of the history of the church and a modern and complete translation of the Holy Bible with a full complement of instructional and reference materials.
2. Translating our liturgical and service books into the primary languages of the Diaspora. Absence of a complete and comprehensive set of service books and other literature in languages common to the Diaspora is a daunting problem. Though there are translations of various service books available they have evolved in a piece meal fashion. I am not aware of any concerted initiative from the Church=s top leadership to translate a complete set of all service books in other languages, especially in English, the predominant language common to the Diaspora. This should be of top priority.
3. Partnering with others of common concerns. Translation is not an easy task and requires the skills of individuals with multi-lingual competency who can translate the material without losing the intended meaning. A case in point is that as of August 2006, The Holy Bible and/or portions thereof have been translated into 2,403 languages including 593 Asian languages. It is a miracle that the meaning of this ancient book has been retained quite in tact over the years in so many languages due in no small part to the role and commitment of the United Bible Societies and the dedicated efforts of thousands of individuals. The Church could commission a team of experts whose task it would be to translate the common service books at the earliest and market them through various outlets. One way this can be expedited is to team up with other Oriental Orthodox jurisdictions (Armenian, Coptic, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Syrian) as well as the Occidental Orthodox (Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople) who may be facing similar problems and learn from one another effective ways of translating the liturgical hymns and prayers for various occasions into a common language.
4. Parental adaptation to the language of the Diaspora. Another issue has to do with the reluctance of parents to give up their insistence on having most of the services conducted in Malayalam. It is true that some of the parishes of the Indian Orthodox Church have services in English at varying frequencies every month. However, to the extent that parents and children are proficient in English, parents would be leaving a lasting legacy to their offspring by adapting themselves to worship services conducted in English as such a sacrifice definitely will lead to the spiritual growth of those who are not familiar with the Malayalam language. Therefore, once the translations become available the entire Church hierarchy and the affected laity should be given adequate training to worship in English.
5. Ethnic isolationism. A serious problem facing the Indian Orthodox Christian Diaspora seems to be the ethnic isolationism. That is to say, just as the immediate followers of St. Thomas allegedly kept their newfound faith to themselves that perhaps prevented the spread of Christianity in India, we too seem to establish parishes and institutions in the U.S.A. and elsewhere primarily to cater to the needs of the Indian Orthodox Christians. Furthermore, many among us tend to keep ourselves isolated from the local community perhaps due to xenophobia or for other reasons. This is not consistent with the command Jesus Christ gave His disciples and through them to us as well: AGo ye therefore, and teach all nations, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: ...@ (Matthew 28:19-20). Any tangential impact of our faith on others is mostly coincidental as I believe we have fallen far short of the expectations about Ateaching all nations.@ When we look at the demographics of the Indian Orthodox parishes outside of Kerala, what is the proportion of non-Malayalees therein? What proactive steps has the Church taken to reach those outside of our ethnic community? The answer to both questions is the same: very little. Therefore, there is a tremendous task ahead that includes not only to strengthen the faith of those within the Church but also to engage in serious evangelization of those outside. Any evangelical program must be accompanied by scriptures and other material available in a language understandable to our target audience. The investment in translation should lead to lasting positive impact not only in strengthening the faith of the cradle Orthodox but also those from the outside that are drawn to this sacred and true faith.
6. Assimilation into the host culture and community. If we recognize that ethnic isolation and xenophobia are hampering our outreach among non-Malayalees, the appropriate step would be to engage in greater integration into the host community that include our friends, fellow workers, neighbors, and others in our social and civic circles. We certainly can witness Christ through our conduct but it is even more appropriate in the sight of God Almighty when we commit ourselves to witnessing both in word and deed. In every community there are numerous organizations in which we can get involved and contribute to the well being of our communities in more ways than our professional and career pursuits. Let us prayerfully approach our assimilation into our host societies and seek God=s help in being true witnesses of His Kingdom.
7. Fellowship with other Orthodox Christians. Another way that Indian Orthodox Christians can strengthen their faith and assimilation is through fellowship with Orthodox Christians belonging to other jurisdictions, both Oriental and Occidental. I have come across Indian Orthodox Christians who in the absence of an Indian Orthodox parish in their community would chose to attend Roman Catholic or Protestant churches even when there exist in the community Orthodox Churches from other jurisdictions. It is true that just as has been the case with many of the Indian Orthodox parishes, some of the parishes of the other jurisdictions also tend to be stuck in their ethnic isolationism. However, in the U.S. the Orthodox Church in America and the Antiochian Orthodox Church have been more proactive in using English language in many of the worship services. Also, some churches with a pan-Orthodox membership use English for a majority of the services.
8. Church library/bookstore. Having access to a body of church literature in English is essential for the education of the faithful and the novice. To this end, each parish can set up a small library with selected resources. Also, a bookstore featuring Orthodox Christian literature is a viable idea. While a number of publications by Indian Orthodox authors are available, the majority of them are in Malayalam though there are a handful of them in English as well. Having these and other publications available as part of the library or for sale through the bookstore (also a source of profit income from sales) will place them in immediate proximity to the parishioners when they are in church and potentially increase the parishioners= reading of church literature.
9. Internet technology. The Internet has opened a vast resource base for our education and edification. Information on Orthodox Christianity is just a click away; a Google search on Orthodox Christianity would point hundreds of sites that feature material on Orthodox Christianity hosted by various Orthodox Christian jurisdictions, individual dioceses and parishes, various Orthodox Christian organizations, and some enterprising individuals. Browsing and sifting through these sites can be a daunting challenge because of the sheer number of them; however, with the help of parish clergy, youth leaders, Sunday school teachers, and other like-minded individuals, this effort could be turned into group projects that could be disseminated for the edification of the entire parish.
10. Educational initiatives. Supplement Sunday school education to provide additional and intensive learning opportunities during weekdays and weekends. In order to elevate the knowledge base, especially in a short time, parishes could organize study sessions on various topics outside of the Sunday school program such as on Saturdays. The bustle and hustle of American life can make it difficult to get everyone together but if we are to accomplish anything it calls for sacrificing something. If that sacrifice is toward the goal of attaining the Kingdom of Heaven, is it not worth everything in the world? Often times these initiatives start out with a small nucleus of dedicated individuals. As others see the blessing resulting from such beginnings, they too are drawn into the fold and become a powerful and permeating force in the community.
11. Select Internet sources. A short list of some of the popular Internet sites is included here that can open up the World Wide Web for further exploration and study.
a. www.wikipedia.org - The Free Encyclopedia that features extensive information on Orthodox Christianity as well as other faiths.
b. www.orthodoxherald.com - Thanks to the efforts of Father Babu Varghese (Shebaly) and others, The Indian Orthodox Herald (IOH) aims to educate the faithful of the Malankara Orthodox Church about faith, traditions, and teachings of the Mother Church in addition to providing church related news and information. It has hosted a number of essays in English and Malayalam on a wide variety of topics on historical and contemporary issues pertaining to the Indian Orthodox Church. It also has links to number other useful sites. The Indian Orthodox Herald is facing a financial crisis at the present time limiting its ability to continue its operations. Readers of this article may want to consider and encourage others to promote IOH initiatives with financial support at various levels to sustain the import service being provided by IOH. Contact BMM Creations, Inc., 915 Levick Street, Philadelphia PA 19111. Email: email@example.com. Phone Office: 215-279-8452. Facsimile: 215-754-4247.
c. www.indianchristianity.org - This site provides a comprehensive list of the various Christian denominations in India in terms of their historical, jurisdictional, and doctrinal contexts.
d. www.conciliarpress.com - Supplies historic Orthodox Christianity to today's world through the internet, printed page, icons, music and media. Conciliar Press Ministries Inc., A Department of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, 10090 A Hwy 9, Ben Lomond CA, 95005. (800) 967-7377, (831) 336-5118.
e. www.oca.org - Hosted by the Orthodox Church in America, this site features an extensive array of material in English as well as a links to other useful sites.
f. www.antiochian.org - The official site for the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, PO Box 5238, Englewood, NJ 07631-5238. The Publications Department of the Antiochian Archdiocese sells hundreds of books and pamphlets for Christian education at all levels.
g. www.antiochian.org/orthodox-christian-web-sites - Includes links to a host of Occidental Orthodox sites and resources.
h. www.goarch.org - The official site for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America is another powerhouse of resources available in English.
The foregoing material represents a very superficial attempt at pointing out the challenges and opportunities facing the Indian Orthodox diaspora. A number of ideas have been presented. It is my humble belief that if we prayerfully approach our commitment to deepening our faith God Almighty will show us the path. But that commitment requires a lot of sacrifices and hard work on us individually and collectively as a Church. The Church-at-large should acknowledge the challenge facing its diaspora as a real concern and take immediate steps to rectify the situation rather than being complacent about it. May the Lord bless us all in helping us keep repeating the prayer presented at the opening.
Dr. Yohannan T. Abraham is Professor of Management and Director of International Business Programs at Missouri State University, Springfield, Missouri where his professional career began in 1969. He hails from Pathanamthitta and his home parish is St. Stephen=s Cathedral in Makkamkunnu. Currently he is a member of the St. Thomas the Apostle Orthodox Church (Orthodox Church in America) in Springfield, Missouri where he also serves on the Parish Council and is the Director of Parish Communications.
"Prayers of Thanksgiving After Communion," The Divine Liturgy According to St. John Chrysostom, Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of America, New York: 1967 (pp. 105-111).
His Holiness Moran Mar Baselios Mar Thoma Mathews I (Translator), Children=s Book of Common Prayer, Malankara Orthodox Church Publications, Kottayam, 2004, p. 4.
Dr. C. V. Cheriyan. Orthodox Christianity in India: A History of the Malankara Orthodox Church AD 52-2002. Academic Publishers, Kottayam: 2003.
St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology. The Orthodox Study Bible: Ancient Christianity Speaks to Today’s World. Thomas Nelson, Nashville: 2008.
www.biblesociety.org/index2.htm. Retrieved 8 August 2006