The Impact of International Migration on Home Churches: The Mar Thoma Syrian Christian Church in India
(Article by Prema Kurien in, Journal for the Scientiﬁc Study of Religion. 2014. 53(1):109–129)
Prema Kurien’s article, “The Impact of International Migration on Home Churches: The Mar Thoma Syrian Christian Church in India” makes an important contribution to discussions on concepts such as migration and locality that have gained complex new meanings in political discourse as well as in social and religious studies. National boundaries, patriotism, attachment to a homeland and its symbols are today being re-defined by the transnational cultures and symbols of communities that defy the borders of official territories. As Kurien argues, immigrants, by their mere presence in their new locations, re-articulate the discourse and introduce newer perspectives. Within the specific context of the Mar Thoma Church (MTC) – which has deep roots in the Southern hemisphere but today is a fast growing Christian group in North America -, the author examines how migration to the North, especially during the last few decades, has posed a severe challenge to the religious and cultural identities of this ancient Indian Christian community. That is the account of a traditionally pluralist society re-discovering itself in a modern pluralist society, in the process raising pertinent questions about the migrants’ long-term transnational attachments to their country of origin, challenging conventional notions of assimilation into host countries and relating them to questions of religious organizations. The immigrant Christians have often been called upon to strike a balance between the faith and practice of their new homes and the values they bring along with them. In the midst of these changes, the members of the Mar Thoma Church in the diaspora seek to relate their familiar traditions and cultures to the challenges of the new context. Kurien’s article explores the contours of such a movement.
While the article deals with a subject of significant relevance, it also raises several questions that demand a fresh look and that is what this review will attempt to do.
Theoretical Framework of Analysis
Kurien’s article studies the Mar Thoma Church “based in Kerala that now has branches around the world” and whose policies and priorities are determined by the parent church in India. Further, the impact of migration on the “Home” country and church is seen primarily in financial terms where the churches in the diaspora function as “the branches” to generate considerable resources for the parent church. This review will examine these assumptions primarily by placing the Mar Thoma Church within the larger milieu of “the coloring of American Christianity” and secondly, in the light of the Church’s own history, theology and sociology. It will also be argued here that studies such as this by Kurien, done within the framework of religious economic theories, while welcome, must not miss the larger social and spiritual movements and inner dynamism that propel religions.
Prema Kurien’s assertion that “the tremendous growth in southern Christianity is also a consequence of transnational religious connections of these churches with the global North, particularly the United States” may be an inadequate starting point. For one, recent studies have shown that immigrant forms of religion, more than impacting their countries of origin, are fundamentally redrawing the religious demography of the host countries. Through migration, ethnic cultures penetrate nations and reconfigure societies with their values, their religions, and their ways of life. Religion “very typically serves as a foundation for the social structures of newly arrived minority communities in host societies”. The newcomers inject significant amounts of spirituality and dynamism in the host society. As the traditional Anglo-Saxon forms of American Christianity are moving culturally to post-Christianity and undergoing varying degrees of secularization, the passionate and growing religiosity of the immigrant communities seems to be redrawing the religious map of America.
Prema Kurien’s efforts to study, from a scientific and theoretical perspective, the transnational migration of the members of the Mar Thoma Church is a significant approach and carries valuable lessons for all, both practitioners and students of religion. One must, however, be careful in choosing the tools of analysis lest significant initiatives and movements of non-Western origin be missed. Several scholars have found a postcolonial approach a helpful framework to understand the complexities involved in studying the mobility of immensely pluralistic societies such as those from India. Postcolonial studies help us to understand the diaspora life as an experience of hybridity which rejects a mono or single identity in favor of multiple cultural locations and identities. Homi Bhabha considered hybridity as signifying ‘the third space’ or ‘in between’ which provides the possibility to live in multiple religio-cultural traditions without owing allegiance to any. Arjun Appadurai, on the other hand, sees the Indian diaspora, particularly in North America, as an attempt in ‘plural belonging’ – of being American while remaining somehow diasporic.
With reference to the identity construction of the Mar Thoma Church, M. C. Thomas notes that as transnational migrant communities, the lives of the Marthomites in the diaspora are not knotted between two ends – the ‘homeland’ (Kerala) and ‘host land’ (North America and elsewhere). Rather, they are “located within the complex ‘transnational circuits’ of global scapes of people, money, goods and information. Therefore, the identity-construction of the contemporary Mar Thoma diasporic communities is not taken as a simple and linear process. Rather, the constitution of their identities is truly complex which must be located within the multidimensional and complex web of interactions.” Countering the efforts to reduce the identities of people in the diaspora to a linear progression from ‘home’ to ‘host’, Thomas affirms that a single person can have attachments and connections to a range of places at the same time or he/she can maintain multiple belongings simultaneously. Such diversity that the modern diaspora living provides, along with its relationships at multidimensional levels, can enable us to overcome the rigid boundaries of caste and ethnicity.
To sum up this part of the discussion, it can, perhaps, be argued that rather than Kurien’s approach to depend on religious economic theories as an analytical framework to study the migration of Indians, a postcolonial approach may provide the needed theoretical tools to analyze the phenomenon of transnational migration. And, as we will discuss further down in this article, the “economic argument” to understand the identity and mobility of the Mar Thoma immigrants, especially to North America, is excessively simplistic and hence has serious limitations. While recognizing the accumulated historical and cultural resources that we have imbibed from several quarters, many immigrant religious groups in the diaspora today are chalking out their own course that is distinct from both the parent body back “home” and the “global North”. As this review argues, the Mar Thoma Church in North America may, very well, fit into such a mold.
How ‘Syrian’ are we?
The frequent use of the term, “Syrian” as well as the highly Kerala-centered structure for the Church outlined in Kurien’s article, may pose problems from theological, historical and sociological perspectives. As she rightly points out, the dominant Christians of Kerala are called “Syrian” primarily because they “follow the Syriac rite in their religious services”. When, however, she further states that these people “claim an upper-caste, Syrian Christian heritage”, the caste-connotations of ‘Syriac’ become unmistakable. While it is true that the term, ‘Syrian Christians’ is popularly used in such a sociological sense, it is also important to note that the Mar Thoma Church has consciously been struggling to overcome ‘the upper-caste connotation’ of the term. The very principle of the Reformation in Kerala that led to the formation of the Mar Thoma Church in the nineteenth century involved a commitment to mission and outreach which were understood by the Church as transcending the barriers of caste, race and language. There is a long history to justify such a commitment. With the mission work among the Dalit communities (the “Untouchables”) in Kerala for over a century resulting in several Dalits joining the Church and with mission work outside Kerala that resulted in thousands of Christians of non-Kerala origin joining, the Church – no doubt, with numerous failings – has been trying to live up to the spirit of reformation.
The commitment of the Mar Thoma Church to review its heritage as an institution with a “Syrian” tradition was not accidental but emerged from a concern to remain true to the spirit of the founding Reformation. In his book, Churching the Diaspora, Discipling the Families, Geevarghese Mar Theodosius challenges the popular notion that the church is an ethnic community. While the overwhelming majority of the members of the Church are indeed, ‘Syrian Christians’ of Kerala origin, he affirms that for over a century the Church has reached out to people beyond its own geographical and cultural comfort zones. In this context, he warns the members against the danger of clannishness that can erode the spirit of the original Reformation: “When a community withdraws itself and lives like a caste or communitarian group, they are making the Church insulated and isolated and thereby taking away from the spirit of reformation”.
A radical review of its social past by the Mar Thoma Church was also a response to the strong critique of the subaltern Christian communities which affirmed that a casteist society and Christianity are non-compatible with each other. As V. Devasahayam put it, “After all, what is a church? To me the church is a place where we celebrate our identities in Christ as the primary identity. If we still want to hold on to our social and cultural identities, I do not know how it will become a church of the Christ where the primary identities need to be withdrawn in terms of our relations, in terms of our faith to Jesus Christ”. While speaking specifically of the Mar Thoma Church in the diaspora, Philipose Mar Chrysostom too reiterated the universal character of the Church: “The ethnic church therefore is really a contradiction in terms. If you are saying that this church is only for people from Kerala, then that is not the church of God. Even those who marry outside the Kerala community should be seen as missionaries”.
It must also be stated that historians have linked the origins of migration and the formation of Diasporic communities to the urge of the Dalits for liberation and just living. Calling Dalits the “Pilgrim Parents of Migration”, George Oommen argues that it was “none other than the weak and the “wretched of the [Kerala] earth” who dared to make the first migratory forays into far-flung areas of Kerala.” While their initial numbers were relatively small, the Dalits heralded a significant change in the Kerala society’s attitude to dispersal, thus setting in motion a process of global migration that brought radical changes to all sections of the state’s population and was spread over the entire spectrum of the twentieth century.
Kerala: “Home” for the Immigrants?
Prema Kurien’s key argument that Kerala is “home” to the Marthomites in North America, that the Church all over the world has a highly centralized structure and that the headquarters in Kerala depend heavily on the financial contributions from America merits a closer scrutiny. In the long history of migration from Kerala that goes back over a century, sizable numbers of Marthomites, as also the other Kerala Christian communities, primarily settled in the major metropolitan centers of India (“Indian Internal Migration”) and in Malaysia and Singapore several generations ago. Later, there was significant migration to the Middle East as well. The migration to North America was among the last in this long history and a substantial number of those who arrived on the American shores, mostly from the 1980s onwards, came either from the various Indian metropolitan centers (outside Kerala) or from the Middle East. Many of them, consequently, had not lived in Kerala; nor was Malayalam their first language. A substantial number of immigrants, therefore, affirm their multiple identities – of growing up in a Malayalam speaking household located, perhaps, in a Hindi speaking society and now living in an English speaking environment. From Chennai, situated in the neighboring state of Kerala, to Farmer’s Branch in Texas and beyond, many Mar Thoma immigrants whose ancestors left Kerala several generations ago, retain today at best a romanticized sentiment about Kerala where, perhaps, they can name a distant cousin. It is true that a substantial number of immigrants to the U.S. still come directly from Kerala and their cultural context too is important. The point, however, is that virtually all who come to the U.S., come with a one way ticket. From henceforth, for them and their children, America is ‘home’. With every passing generation, links to India and, in particular, to Kerala, grow blurrier. In response to these changing realities, the Mar Thoma Diocese of North America and Europe adopted, “Identity and Mission in the Context of Multiplicity” as a theme for study during the year 2014.
Demographic and social changes in the lives of the people contributed significantly to shaping a decentralized pattern of administration in the Mar Thoma Church. While Kurien points out that power is concentrated in the various Constitutional bodies located at the headquarters of the Church in Tiruvalla, Kerala, it needs to be noted that the Constitution of the Church also provides for a de-centralized structure in which considerable power and responsibilities are delegated to various regional and local bodies, at the Diocesan and parish levels as well. This is especially true with regard to the parishes in North America where policies that are in consonance with the mission of the Church and which suit the local situations have been adopted. Except for the transfer of the clergy and the bishops, virtually all the other decisions pertaining to the Church in the United States are taken by the appropriate bodies within the country. While immigrants continue to affirm their cultural roots in Kerala, one must, therefore, be cautious in over-emphasizing the centralized administrative structure of the Church.
The practice of sending clergy from Kerala for the ministry in America that Kurien discusses in her article (“The Mar Thoma achens, posted abroad for relatively short terms, faced several demands for which they were poorly prepared. These included living and working in a new environment, driving long distances, coping with different accents, dealing with the hectic schedules of their members, and understanding the problems of immigrants.”) is a real problem but is likely to change in the future. The policy of the Church for over a decade now has been to groom Marthomites of American origin for the long term ministry here by encouraging them to go for theological studies and be ordained as clergy, to serve the region of North America on a long term basis. The number of clergy coming from India, consequently, is likely to be on the decrease as the Church increases the number of ordained ministers from this land. Already ten such members of the clergy work here and more US- born young people are in the training for ordination. Even now the selection is done locally and is reported to the Church. The Diocese of North America is also currently considering training candidates in America. The leadership of the Church seems to be committed to promoting this policy elsewhere too, as people from different backgrounds (Singapore, Malaysia, USA, Middle East, UK and the different language areas of India) are being trained for the ordained ministry of the Church.
These changes by the administrative leadership of the Church at the policy level have been necessitated by social changes that have been visible among the members of the Church. Roughly one in every three marriages of Marthomites conducted in America today are to non-Marthomites, many of them Caucasians and people of other ethnic backgrounds. And, parishioners of these diverse ethnic-national identities pepper the worship services on Sunday mornings. The presence of a large number of Marthomites who migrated to the U.S. from outside-Kerala contexts, combined with the increasing number of American-born people of Indian origin (Kurien calls them the “second generation” that is often overlooked by the leadership of the Church “who favor the Malayalam-speaking migrants who were its most loyal members and its ﬁnancial base”), now constitute the majority of members in many parishes, provide the major source of financial support for the Church and hold leadership positions at the local and diocesan levels, thus setting in motion a process of change that is likely to re-define the very structure and policies of the Church. By its very nature, the Church should be open to accommodate people and embrace the changes that are required in the constitution of the Church. The addition of new members from different language and cultural backgrounds to the Church seems to be the logical step within such a theological framework.
Changes at the structural and demographic levels have led to a process of bringing in contextual changes in the liturgy as well. While Kurien points out that the liturgy had been translated into English as “a concession to the children growing up outside Kerala who are often not ﬂuent in Malayalam”, that situation too is now rapidly changing. During the last two years, all the liturgical chants in the Malayalam language, that were earlier present also in the English liturgy, have been replaced with appropriate chants in the English language thus making the service 100% in English. And, regular worship services in English, which were earlier an occasional “concession to the children”, are now mandatory for all the parishes in North America. A related significant change has been the selection of ‘Altar Boys’ and ‘Covenant Girls’ from among the members of the parishes in North America to assist the celebrant during the Holy Communion service. The Diocesan Council is also considering acknowledging Lay leaders from among the new generation, and providing them with training to provide leadership here. Liturgical revision and diversification, to go along with these changes, seems to be going ahead at a somewhat slower but steady pace.
Headquarters and Branches
The Indian roots of the Mar Thoma churches in America are unmistakable; yet, one must be cautious about describing the Mar Thoma Church as an institution with “branches” around the world and having a highly centralized structure. In her article, Kurien enters into a detailed discussion of an administrative pattern where power is concentrated in the “Prathinidhi Mandalam” (the representative assembly of the Church) and the other Constitutional bodies located at the headquarters in Tiruvalla, Kerala. It is further stated, as we have already mentioned, that as “branches”, the Mar Thoma parishes around the world function as centers to generate financial and other resources for the headquarters of the Church. The reality, however, is more nuanced. The Mar Thoma Church, while having a centralized organization, has always found room for de-centralization by way of appointing Boards of Trustees in different countries, Boards of Missions in different language areas and providing bye-laws for the localized administration of organizations. The bye-laws that are in place in the Diocese of North America and Europe provide an example of this. The Council of the Mar Thoma Parishes in Europe (COMPE) is an umbrella organization for the parishes in that region. All the parishes in the Diocese are registered entities with the local government agencies. Currently, the Diocese is considering regional registrations to make the ministry and mission of the Church more relevant and effective at the State and Federal levels.
The decentralization of power in the Mar Thoma Church in North America has had a significant impact on the programs and policies of the Church as well with regard to the allocation of funds. The Diocese of North America has identified a number of outreach programs where considerable amounts of human and material resources are being invested. The mission work in Mexico, among the Native Americans and ‘India Mission’ are central in the Diocese’s priorities and these are being carried out in a non-sectarian manner, as essentially American programs. The parishes too have their own programs and priorities. Many have a ‘Neighborhood Mission’, conducted in an ecumenical spirit, in partnership with the local (non-Indian) churches. It is important to note that 90% of the financial resources raised by Mar Thoma parishes in North America are used within this region, mainly for these programs. As such, there is a significant problem in seeing the parishes as mere “branches” that exist to generate financial resources for the Church in Kerala. No doubt, a certain amount of ‘Kerala-influence’ will linger on in the Mar Thoma Church in America; however, that is unlikely to be primarily for economic reasons.
Transnational linkages for immigrant groups are unmistakable and there is no doubt that various ethnic and linguistic groups will continue to co-exist in the Mar Thoma Church too. Yet, such linkages are more rich and significant than merely those between the “headquarters” and “branches” with the latter existing primarily to support the structure and programs of the former. Just as the Greek Orthodox Church in America is today more American than Greek, as the African Methodist Episcopal Church is more American than African, the Mar Thoma Church in America too is set on a path that is more indigenous, local and authentic, even as the Church continues to retain significant historic and traditional links with India and liturgical links with its Syrian heritage. Philipose Mar Chrysostom locates this distinction in the context of the theological direction of the Church: “the Mar Thoma Church in America and the American Mar Thoma Church ought to be different… The Mar Thoma Church in Kerala and the Mar Thoma Church in Chennai or Delhi should not be the same. I mean the Church is the same, but the expression should vary if it belongs to the Church”. Michael Kinnamon, in his capacity as the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches in USA, too affirmed this reality from an American perspective: “The NCC members do not think of the Mar Thoma Church as an Indian Church with branch office in America, but as an American church with deep roots in India.” The Mar Thoma Church today is a global Church sharing its heritage in different countries and at the same time growing in local areas with diversified manifestations of its hereditary nature.
The ‘New-generation Churches’ and their impact on the youth and others in the Church that the author points out, are real, but the extent and scope of such impact needs to be closely scrutinized. In his study of Christian fundamentalism and Communication in India, Pradip Thomas too argues that such Christian groups are creating genuine challenges for the aspirations of pluralist societies, particularly in the South. While disillusionment with the established structures is a global phenomenon, it can, perhaps, be stated that in comparison to the traditional American churches, the Indian immigrant faith communities continue to be rich in membership and dynamism. Soong-Chan Rah cites one example: “In 1970, the city of Boston was home to about 200 churches. Thirty years later, there were 412 churches. The net gain in the number of churches was in the growth of the number of churches in the ethnic and immigrant communities. While only a handful of churches in 1970 held services in a language other than English, thirty years later, more than half of those churches held services in a language other than English.”. Even as traditional religious groups, such as the Mar Thoma Church, move to the American context, the very dynamism of mobility coupled with the fresh and unconventional presence of young people who form the mainstay of most migrant groups could be contributing to warding off some of the lethargy and boredom that has crept into many traditional American churches. In any case, the author is right that this is an area about which the Church should particularly be concerned about.
In the final analysis, Prema Kurien’s difficulty, as a social scientist, seems to be to penetrate through the obstacles in the transition of a young migratory community in order to realize what the group can offer, at a deeply spiritual and social level, at the global level. Financial ties to any “home” communities are bound to loosen with the passage of time and as the largely one-way mobility of a small group reach peak levels. And, revolutionary technological advancements in communication skills have proved that translation from one language to another will not remain a major obstacle for long, especially for the techno-savvy younger generation. If, despite the best financial resources, communication skills and cultural parity with the surrounding community that the mainline American churches enjoy, the younger generation seems to be deserting them at a faster pace than those people who find the young immigrant churches to be irrelevant, the problem obviously, lies elsewhere. What is important for us is whether non-Western forms of religion have any resources to offer in the midst of the rapid changes taking place all around. If there is a renewed interest today among Western scholars in Eastern forms of Christianity, it is due to the challenges an alternative vision has to offer in such a context. And, for us, the paramount question is whether the Mar Thoma Church, as a Reformed Eastern Christian group and a bridge community – between Western and Eastern traditions of Christianity – has sufficient spiritual and/or social resources to offer at the global level. That is an important discussion and we are grateful to Prema Kurien for making a significant theoretical contribution to this process.
 See, Solange Lefebvre & Luiz Carlos Susin (Ed.). Migration in a Global World (London: SCM Press, 2008).
 Prema Kurien. “The Impact of International Migration on Home Churches:
The Mar Thoma Syrian Christian Church in India” in, Journal for the Scientiﬁc Study of Religion. 2014. 53(1). p. 110 (Subsequent page numbers cited in this review refers to this article).
 In the light of the radical demographic changes happening in American Christianity, Stephen Warner, Raymond Williams and others had spoken of the ‘coloring of American Christianity’. See, R. Stephen Warner. “Immigrants and the Faith They Bring” http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2946 (Cited, September 25, 2014) and, Raymond Williams. Christian Pluralism in the United States: The Indian immigrant experience (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
 P. 109
 See, Paul Bramadat. “Religious Diversity and International Migration: National and Global Dimensions” in, Paul Bramadat and Matthias Koenig (editors): International Migration and the Governance of Religious Diversity, 1-26. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2009.
 George Zachariah. “Identity and Social Distinctions among Indian Christians, at Home and in the Diaspora: Some Theological Reflections” (Keynote Address delivered at the AAR workshop in Chennai, India on July 19, 2014 – unpublished paper).
 Arjun Appadurai, “Patriotism and its Futures,” Public Culture, 5, (1993). p. 422.
 M. C. Thomas. “Diaspora, Mar Thoma Church Identity and Mission: Theoretical Considerations” in, Mar Thoma Church: Identity and Mission in the Context of Multiplicity. Edited by Rev. K. E. Geevarghese and Dr. Mathew T. Thomas (New York: Diocese of North America and Europe, 2014). p. 56.
 P. 113
 In the Chennai – Diocese of the Church, the majority of the parishes and congregations are of non-Kerala origin.
 The letterhead of Philipose Mar Chrysostom, when he was the Metropolitan (head) of the Church, merely stated, “Mar Thoma Church” without any reference to “Syrian”!
 Geevarghese Mar Theodosius. Churching the Diaspora, Discipling the Families. Tiruvalla: CSS, 2013. p. 141.
 J. John and Jesudas Athyal (editors). Religion, State and Communalism: A Post-Ayodhya Discussion. Hong Kong: CCA, 1999. p. 112.
 Jesudas Athyal & John Thatamanil (editors). Metropolitan Chrysostom on Mission in the Marketplace (Tiruvalla: CSS, 2002. p. 119.
 George Oommen. “Re-imagining a Migratory Self: A History of Malayalee Migration” in, Malayalee Diaspora: From Kerala to the Ends of the World (edited by Sam George & T. V. Thomas) (New Delhi: Serials Publications, 2013). p. 4.
 For a discussion of the Kerala migration to Madras city see, Migration and Ethnicity in Urban India: Kerala Migrants in the city of Madras, 1870-1970 by Susan Lewandowski (New Delhi: Manohar, 1980).
 According to demographer K. C. Zachariah, the Syrian Christians of Kerala who migrated out of the state in large numbers during the last century, coupled with declining fertility and in-breeding habits, could soon experience the “Parsi Syndrome”. See, “The Syrian Christians of Kerala: Demographic and Socioeconomic Transition in the Twentieth Century” by K. C. Zachariah. http://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/handle/123456789/3027#.VCUiEvldWO0 (Cited, September 26, 2014).
 See, Mar Thoma Church: Identity and Mission in the Context of Multiplicity. Edited by Rev. K. E. Geevarghese and Dr. Mathew T. Thomas (New York: Diocese of North America and Europe, 2014).
 P. 115.
 P. 119
 P. 114
 The chants were not translated from Malayalam but composed in the English language, in the American context, for this specific purpose.
 Geevarghese Mar Theodosius, the current diocesan bishop, who has been spearheading a movement to contextualize the liturgy and programs of the Diocese, stated recently that out of the 50 Holy Communion services he had led in the various parishes of North America and Europe during 2013, only four were celebrated in Malayalam and the rest were in English.
 Jesudas Athyal & John Thatamanil (ed.). Metropolitan Chrysostom on Mission in the Marketplace (Tiruvalla: CSS, 2002. p. 119.
 Quoted in, Jesudas Athyal: “Beyond the Diaspora: Challenges and Concerns before the Mar Thoma Church” in, Mar Thoma Church: Identity and Mission in the Context of Multiplicity edited by Rev. K. E. Geevarghese and Dr. Mathew T. Thomas (New York: Diocese of North America and Europe, 2014). pp. 92-93.
 P. 123.
 Pradip Thomas. Strong Religion, Zealous Media: Christian Fundamentalism and Communication in India. Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore: SAGE Publications, 2008.
 Soong-Chan Rah. 2013. ‘The End of Christianity in America?’ http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/End-of-Christianity-in-America.html (Cited, September 25, 2014)
 For a recent discussion on the relevance of Eastern forms of Christianity, see, “He Has Made the Dry Bones Live”: Orientalism’s Attempted Resuscitation of Eastern Christianity” by Christopher D. L. Johnson in Journal of the American Academy of Religion (Vol. 82, Number 3, September 2014) pp. 811-840.