Starting from August 2007, I'll be staying in Kerala until May to experience our rich Syriac Orthodox tradition and become "keralized". On a random basis, I'll be posting my thoughts and experiences. Enjoy!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Journal 4: Community

For the past several weeks, a common program that we’ve been attending is church anniversaries. I’ve probably taken part in a dozen of these already. In looking into these anniversaries, I see the importance of community. Church, after all, is the place where the faithful come together and become one family or one body, crossing economic/social barriers. This becomes much more noticeable in Kerala. I don’t know of any other place where the far wealthy and the dirt poor will commune together from the same vessel. The one wearing expensive clothing stands next to the one with barely any clothing.

Cultural Differences

As a part of this theme of community, I’ve found that hospitality in Indian culture is greatly emphasized. Thought I knew this, as I’m traveling to many places, it becomes that much more visible. When visiting churches, for instance, people go out of their way to ask my name and where I’m from. When I tell them that I live in America, they respond, “I thought so when I heard your reading”! :)

At certain points I get so tired of saying the same things about myself over and over to so many people. Don’t get me wrong, this is not to say that I’m so popular but to show how things are slightly different in this culture. Another example: we visiting a very wealthy family on a way back from church. They owned a well-known business that bought in so much profit. Their house was practically a mansion. During our visit, they treated us like kings. The family members were practically serving us the whole time. And this was not just towards me; they even treated the drivers with respect. Guests in Indian culture are treated with such honor; this is great for me because I’m a guest wherever I go! :)

While in America we may say “hello” or tilt our head to acknowledge another while walking, whereas in Kerala if someone you know sees you, the initial question is “where are you going?” At first, I took offense to this. In my way of thinking, I thought what’s that to you; that’s not your business. But then I came to realize the cultural difference; they ask this not so much to keep track of me, but as a way of greeting. Strangers have even come up to me and asked where I’m from. It shows, in a sense, a communal mentality.

Now to something that’s even more uncomfortable, holding hands. I would meet someone for the first time and as we’re introducing ourselves, they’d grab my hand and hold it.
Where in America this would be seen differently, Indian culture sees it as a sign of friendly affection. As I initially felt uncomfortable, I thought about why this makes me so uncomfortable; what's the big deal. It’s interesting how socially accepted norms affect our way of thinking. But now I’m getting to the point where I’m grabbing people’s hands, too. So after six more months, I may be doing this even when I get back to America . . .

Public Behavior

Within this communal mentality, there is a contradictory social behavior. Keralites have no concept of waiting in line! For instance, the other day I went to the local store to buy some hair oil. I asked for what I wanted. And as the owner was finding it, someone else comes along to ask for another thing; a few seconds later, another guy pays for his products. I thought how rude! Later when visiting the bank, I came up to the counter and saw that the agent was working, so I waited. A few minutes later, my cousin comes up and asks what I’m doing. “I’m waiting for her to call me”. He responds, “Huh? Waiting? You have to interrupt her with your request or else you’ll be here all day”. It’s definitely a different way of doing things.

Church Festivals

Getting back to my initial point about church festivals, this communal culture is seen most prevalently in these celebrations. In the Orthodox tradition, a church is named after a particular saint and on the memorial day of this saint, the church remembers and celebrates it as a birthday. Death anniversaries are joyfully commemorated because death is seen not as an end but as a new beginning. These celebrations are certainly communal because the entire town joins in. This is the beautiful thing about being a part of one church. In America, with our countless denominations, a church may celebrate on their own, but in Kerala, the entire city celebrates.

In my first journal, I wrote about the many cross towers spread throughout Kerala. These tower are a part of the local church and during these festivals, processions take place towards these towers. One church will usually have towers in different corners of the city, so the faithful at night, holding candles, travel around town to these towers to offer prayer. And along the way, those who own houses and businesses greet them outside with candles, too. The below video shows what I experienced.

Procession Video (52 seconds):

Then once everyone returns back to church, some festivals end with fireworks.

Fireworks Video (51 seconds):

And of course all churches will give a tasty meal before the faithful heading back home (these meals are indeed tasty because when it’s all said and done, you’re sooo hungry!).

Essentially, these processions are a way of spreading the news and blessing of the festival to all. Even Hindus join in the celebration, for they see the saint as another god. The lights and sounds last all day and into the late night. Below is another video that shows the professional drummers who play throughout these processions; they definitely have talent:

Drums Video (1:49):

This kind of faith is far different from the usual “in the church standing for prayer and sitting for sermon” type of setting I often experience. This faith is experienced and lived outside the church building, into the community.

What Can I Do?

The more I thought about this theme of community, the more it became apparent to me that I should do something. After all, I’m here for several months in a country that's growing economically, but along the way, is also leaving behind many. For instance, you won’t guess the number of suicides I read about in the newspapers due to economic difficulties. A father taking the lives of his wife and children, then hanging himself . . . one can only imagine his state of mind to do this!

From my own experience, I know how I’ve often felt the desire to help but don't know who to trust. In this unfortunate world, we can’t even trust those who help the needy. So I felt that I can do my small part in giving you this opportunity. We, who have more than needed, are called to give to those who have few. I want to present to you one unique family in our community who lacks:

This family converted to Christianity about 10 years ago. From that point onwards, they have been very active in church, attending services and activities, much more so than many of those born into the faith! And they live 8 kilometers from church, walking the whole way.

Living in a village outside of town, they recently lost their home during a storm in August. One of their child had to stop studying because of economic burdens. But the worst part is the mother, Sarah, who has a tumor in her womb and needs operation. Her faith is strong; she's definitely the one who keeps the family going. But they've been delaying surgery with medicine so far because of the high cost; surgery will be over Rs. 30,000 (close to $1000). Furthermore, their extended family does not provide any support because of their conversion to Christianity.

Now this is as genuine as it gets.

I looked into the best way for you to help and found an option to pay by credit card through Paypal. This will be the easiest way for you and me to get money to this family. And of course, I will give you much more details of the family if you’re interested. But first email me with your interest and then we can communicate on a one-on-one basis.

Any help will mean much for this family. Hope you are all doing well.

(As an FYI, I’ll be writing these journals on a somewhat monthly basis since I’m finding it more difficult to get time for it.)

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Journal 3

During a casual conversation with my teacher, the bishop informed me that for 10 days he’ll be in Dubai for a church anniversary. So I could stay at my family’s house . . . but then I thought this would disrupt my main intention, so I asked him about other options. This is when he told me about St. Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute or SEERI.


Christianity in Kerala is unique in that all seven churches share the ancient Syriac patrimony. In fact, these churches bear the identity in their name in some way, no matter if it’s the Roman Catholics, whose majority members are called Syro Malabar, or the Protestants, whose majority are known as the Mar Thoma Syrian Church. Though unfortunately only one church, the Malankara Syriac Orthodox still stands with the Syriac Patriarchate, the other six churches do not deny their common origin at least in name.

SEERI was formed to keep this identity and language alive in Kerala. Courses are offered in Syriac language, literature, history, patristics, spirituality, etc. Most of the students take the two-year master’s program in Syriac language and literature.

I was pleasantly surprised by the positive atmosphere of this institute.

Prayers are set in the morning, afternoon, and evening with food thereafter, all in a timely and orderly fashion. Noon prayer is completely in Syriac; I could not but notice how our prayers come from this ancient language.

The students were all too friendly, making me feel right at home. My first contact was with one of the sisters. When she was introduced by the director as a PhD student, she kept a very serious face. I jokingly commented to the deacon who came to drop me off that all her studying has made her stiff-necked . . . then to my surprise, her true personality came out amongst other students. She laughed and smiled, always the one with comments. It just shows how first impression may not be that accurate.

Syriac Studies

My intention for the next ten days was to read as much as possible on Syriac literature since exposure to Syriac fathers was limited during my two years in New York.

The Syriac Church is often referred to as the hidden pearl. How true this is! The text I read, thought limited due to my command in English only, was rich. These writing ranged from the 4th century till the 13th. One of the fathers I want to briefly introduce to you is someone who is truly a genius: Mor Gregory Bar-Hebraya.

Bar-Hebraya (13th Century)

If there’s someone who had knowledge on every known subject, he’s the one! Just to give you an idea: he wrote on Greek philosophy, completed an encyclopedic history of the world up to his time, wrote on hundreds of subjects on church teaching, plus he learned and practiced medicine on his own. And then there’s astronomy; by astronomical calculations, he accurately predicted the year he would pass away! This exceptional bishop did all this while successfully reorganizing his diocese after Mongol invasions.

To give you a taste of his writing, one of his books translated to English is on the subject of prayer and fasting. He writes about how true prayer is union with God that brings ecstatic joy . . . think about that, prayer bringing indescribable joy. He then says:

“For him who does not know what he says in prayer, keeping silent is much better than speaking.”

He tells it like he sees it.

My ten days in SEERI was not used just in reading books, but as things worked out, one of the students became a great friend.


His parents chose the appropriate name, Zaki. He’s small in statue like Zacchaeus of the NT (Luke 19) and like him, he’s very much giving. He comes from Turkey, the area where Syriac Christianity began. Having been born in a village, then lived in a monastery for schooling, and thereafter worked for Bible Society amongst hostile Muslims, he had so much to share. And this is stuff you can’t find in books.

Since he's been in Kerala for twelve months, Zaki knew the city well. In fact he knew of places the locals don’t even know about! Now imagine this: a white Turkish man guiding and directing a Keralite all around town! That’s me and Zaki; he led and I followed. Along the way, he introduced me to many things. For instance, we made regular stops at a roadside area that sells tender coconuts. For 12 rupees, you first drink the sweet water and then they break the coconut into two so we can eat the inside. We must have had one every day!


One of my primary goals is to learn the Keralite language, Malayalam. This is the language that’s spelled in English the same both ways: Malayalam. I try to learn mainly by reading newspapers. In fact, one the common sights every morning in Kerala is people reading the newspaper; if you look at the front porch you’re bound to see it. By reading the paper, I get to accomplish two things at once: find out what’s happening around the world while practicing the local language.

While on this topic, Zaki shared with me about how he knows many languages from his extensive travels. When he decided to spend two years in Kerala, he thought he could learn another language. But as he puts it, there's not a harder language in the world! After 12 months, he still can’t speak Malayalam; it’s too difficult to pick up. At least this made me fell much better because my progress is slooooow; now I know it’s not just me!


On Sunday, Zaki and I decided to attend service in Manarcad Church, only a few kilometers away. This cathedral is one of the famous churches in Kerala, declared recently as a pilgrimage center. Their anniversary from Sept. 1-8 brings an incredible number of people every year. You have to see the altar at this church (its looks so much better in person):

When Zaki went up to do one of the readings, all eyes were on him because, of course, he stood out. He took the church back in time with his Syriac chanting.

Beyond the history, beauty, and fame of this church was the much more awesome experience of celebrating Eucharist with full participation of the congregation. The choir quietly led (without all the annoying background sounds) and the faithful followed. This is what our liturgy calls for: everyone chanting and singing with one voice. As the songs were sung in unison, the church really became the church, the One Body of Christ.

Travel to High Range

We enjoyed our company so much that Zaki decided to come a few days with me to stay with Bishop Aphrem. And we planned it so that our visit to his diocese in the High Range Area was that same day.

During this time together, I was the teacher of Malayalam to Zaki. The student has become the teacher! He had much to share about the Syriac Church in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. It is but a miracle that Syriac Christians still survive in this area. Throughout these conversations I could sense his deep love and devotion to his church despite its shortcomings. This is what being faithful is all about; loving the church despite its negatives while at the same time working towards its progress.

The high range area was quite beautiful, especially in the morning as the fog settles in:

That morning we both climbed to the top of that mountain, all the way up to the source of its waterfall. The journey was tiresome, sweating the whole way; at some points I thought I can not go any further . . . but once we got there, it was all worth it:

At the first level:

Mid-way (the stick was quite helpful!):

At the very top:

Now this is why they call Kerala, God's own country!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Journal 2

I planned to stay at my uncle’s house for a few days to adjust to the time difference. I found that the ideal time to land in India is early morning. This way I have no choice but to stay awake all day in order to meet everyone and get settled. Then once night approached, I had no problem sleeping. My body adjusted to Indian time rather quickly.

After a week with my family, the bishop I will be learning under, H.G. Aphrem Mathews, instructed me to meet him at the Patriarchal Center in Puthencruz, only a few minutes away. When I first saw the new center of our church, I was taken aback. What a grand structure! The view from the front entrance was captivating:

The two side portions are still being built. Once its done, it’ll be one of the largest religious centers in the state.

My thought then turned to meeting my teacher. Though I’ve spoken to him in New York, most of the things I know about him come from others: he’s unpretentious, sings beautifully, very knowledgably, speaks English well, and funny. Now I have 7 months to find out if it’s all true! The first quality was proven true instantaneously: his presence made me feel comfortable and relaxed. Whereas some come across as being formal and “by the book”, Bishop Aphrem was friendly and for a lack of a better word, down-to-earth.

Why Visit Kerala?

After finishing my formal education in New York, I wanted some practical/hands-on experience of our faith and culture. Reading it in book versus being there are two entirely different things. Thus this decision to go to Kerala. The state of Kerala is unique in that most of the Christians in India live here:

This faith miraculously survived from the days of the disciples amidst the otherwise large population of Hindus and Muslims. This was the reason why I wanted to visit this state; Christianity is ancient, mature, and well-preserved. Plus it's where I come from.

First Church Visit:

I got my first taste of my Syriac Orthodox faith when we visited a small village church with Bishop Aphrem for their anniversary. As a side-note, Bishop Aphrem is in charge of the high range region within Kerala. These are areas outside cities, mostly mountainous. And it somehow worked out that this place is also very beautiful. But the way to this particular church was not so beautiful. I had my suspicions when I saw that we would be traveling by jeep, not car. As the bishop put it, we’ll be well-massaged once we get to church! Though it was a few kilometers away, it took us over an hour, so you can image the condition of the roads.

As we drove into church, you should have seen and heard the welcome! Everyone was waiting outside while a band played songs. Fireworks were going off in the background, church bells ringing. What a grand welcome! I had to remind myself that it’s not me that they’re welcoming. :)

People in villages and rural areas are often perceived to be “under-developed” and poor. As I saw these people, they did, yes, look poor on the outside, but they were rich and “developed” in many other ways. For instance, though they may be uneducated according to our modern standards, their faith was firm. I spent two years learning graduate level theology, but these people know God in many more ways. If you asked me why, I could only reply, “come and see”.
Furthermore, they honored the bishop not because he’s Aphrem Mathews but because he’s God’s representative. It’s not so much the person they’re honoring but who he represents. Their faith was alive.

As service started, the church choir caught my attention. Consisting of a few girls . . . and before you jump to any wrong conclusions, these girls caught my attention because they were children with loud, confident voices; voices still innocent. Hear and see it for yourself:

After service, the congregation was all too friendly. No sign of pride, but humbleness only. They went out of their way to make sure we were taken care of. As the bishop’s deacon put it, there’s something fulfilling about the services and overall atmosphere in these small churches that you won’t get elsewhere.

Different Yet Similar Experience:

A few days later, I got a taste of another church anniversary in a much larger scale. Our ancient church is called Syriac Orthodox because of its relationship with the Patriarch of the Syriac Church in Antioch. And when I say Patriarch, I do not mean the one person. Much more than the person is the way of life or identity he represents. Who and what I am comes from this ancient Semitic faith and tradition. This faith, as Scripture tells us, began from the days of the disciples: “And they were first called Christians in Antioch" (Acts 11:26).

A testament or proof of this handing down or 'traditioning' of what we hold dear is the grand feast of one of the Syriac bishops who came to Kerala and died in Kerala, Mor Baselios Yeldho. He came at the age of 92 (92!) when the church was facing difficulties, traveling a far distance, especially on foot through the forest after arriving in India. Four others traveled with him but only two survived the dangerous journey. He soon died thereafter in 1685.
The memorial anniversary for this beloved bishop takes place in Kothamangalam Church where he is buried. People from all parts of the state travel to this church just to see and pray in front of his tomb. I witnessed this crowd. The entire city is decorated, as is the church:
All transportation leads to this church. Streets were blocked off around the church for people on foot only. I went in the early evening and then at late night of the same day. People never stopped coming. Many walk from far distances as a group or pilgrammage. After walking many kilometers, they then have to fight through crowds and then finally for a few seconds, they get a glimpse of the bishop’s tomb.

I was told that many of these people are Hindus, who also see this bishop as someone extraordinary. To this day, there is a Hindu family, healed by this bishop on his way to Kerala, who from that generation onwards lead the inaugural procession with a lighted lamp. In addition, elephants come to the church during the feast and bow down before his tomb! More importantly, you should see the faith of the people as they approach his tomb:

I observed parents coming to the tomb with their child, whispering to them special prayers to be repeated. Men and women, young and old, stand with tearful eyes of supplication. Some bow down. Others simply stand in reverance. This is faith in action!

When it comes down to it, no matter if the place is a small village church or a grand cathedral, God hears those who come to Him with a broken and contrite heart.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Journal #1: My First Week

For some reason, I actually looked forward to my long plane ride to India; maybe it's the time alone to read, watch movies, meet others, and rest. My initial flight from DFW ended in Switzerland, taking about 9 hours. I have to say that American Airlines was a disappointment. This was made more obvious when I then took Swiss Air. Swiss' service, food, and amenities were much more satisfying. They even offered free wine; I couldn't pass it up!

I then had a stop in Switzerland for 5 hours. When we landed, I followed the inviting sign: “Swiss Lounge”. I had to find a place to rest. When I got there, I heard the disappointing welcome: "Hello, are you a first or business class traveler?" :(
Their sofas looked so soft and comfortable! . . . thank God that the rest of Swiss airport was clean and well-kept.

My next flight took me to Muscat. Here I had to switch to Oman Air. What a change of scenery! As soon as I stepped out of the plane, it was obvious; this airport must have been built in the last century. Agents were still using paper filing . . . my only prayer was that my luggage would safely transfer.

A prevalent sight at this airport was their Muslim citizens. I have nothing against them wearing their traditional, very conservative clothing. But the conflict with this practice versus "modernization" was all too obvious. The Muslim women covered their heads, but pictures of half-naked women were regularly seen advertising perfumes and jewelry. I could hear rap music in the background while waiting in line. As we landed, Marriott's and Hilton's were all around the city . . . westernization is taking hold even in this otherwise very conservative land.

On Oman Air, my neighbor shared with me his life in Dubai. He's on the way to see his wife and two sons in North Kerala. Though he describes life in Dubai as restrictive, he's been there for the past 16 years. Every year that he makes his trip to India, he promises not to go back. But he goes back thinking one more year . . . the money is hard to pass up. His life consists of working two years then going to India to see his family for 4 months . . . what a life! So we talked about how certain things are priceless; thank you MasterCard!

Welcome to Kerala
I landed in Kerala at 6 am and was all too relieved to see my luggage come through safely. Going home, I noticed that highways were in impressive condition.

But then we took the local roads . . . still the same:

First Day

The first morning began with great news. The goat at my uncle's house just had two babies! In watching them, I noticed how a mother's love for their children is universal; she keeps them close, licking them constantly.

If you look at this picture, a dog is also in the stable:

My cousin tells me that the mother is great friends with it. But now with her babies, she's constantly poking at the dog violently to make sure he doesn't come too close . . . that's mom!

My Initial Observation

While traveling I couldn’t help but notice guys urinating on the roadside; it's hard to miss. How repulsive I thought; don’t they have decency?! After seeing this many times, guess what?:

There's something “freeing” about being able to go when I need, where I need! :)

Now this is a great transition to my next topic:

Daily Religious Life

Let's move on to a more serious topic. I noticed that faith is put into action regularly in the religious culture of Kerala. For instance, whenever one passes a cross, they make the sign of the cross. People do it instinctively as they pass by. There are many of these cross towers all around:

As a side-note, if these cross towers are #1 on the most seen sights, a close second would be this:

(it's a sign for liquor shops!) I guess it’s either God or alcohol in Kerala.

Besides the cross towers, I’ve noticed many cars, trucks, and buses have God's or a saint's name written on it. Businesses have pictures of Christ or saints prominently on their walls. All these are reminders of who they are. Of course, it's the faith within us, in our hearts that matter, but these tangible gestures and visuals couldn't hurt.

So far, I’ve been waking up at sunset. My aunt said that it's still common practice for locals to wake up at 5am for morning prayer. In fact, our nearby church rings its bell at this time. I take a walk for some exercise (I need it after all the food I’m eating!); plus walking helps in getting to know my surroundings. I hope I can keep up this routine.

These are my main observations after my first week in Kerala. I'll try to post as often as I can, and please post your comments, too. Hope everyone's doing well . . . God bless!