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.)


Anonymous said...

George, you use hair oil now? hehe =)
I'm interested in helping, please just email me:

Jessica said...

It was good to see you, during our short visit. Let me know if you have a chance to visit the Arthat Simhasanna church in Kunnumkulam.