A recent news report about Christians in Syria in the Christian Post and a seminal article in Christianity Today by my friend Helen Lee over a decade ago, stimulated me to connect some dots and make following two critical observations.
The common phrase between both reports is “silent exodus”, which has generally come to refer to defection of the American born children of immigrants from the immigrant churches in the US. More about it later, but first about ethno-religious cleansing of Christians in Syria.
The church in Kerala (India) had long historical link with the church in Syria from ancient days and is obvious from thriving Christian communities in Orthodox, Catholic and Reformed traditions in Kerala. Once Syrian church send their priests and bishops to oversee the growing Christian community in Southwestern India. Many of the Kerala churches still maintain ‘Syrian’ in their names like Malankara Syrian Catholic Church, Syrian Orthodox Church of India, Mar Thoma Syrian Church etc.Many in Kerala claim to have Syrian ancestry as some early Syrian Christians married Malabari Christians and settled in India. Except for few splinter groups, there are no official connection now between the churches in India and Syria, but for the face they are part of the Church of the East..
The ongoing war in Syria has decimated the minority Assyrian Christian community of the East. Many of them fleeing their homeland of their forefathers and historic Christian heritage, much like Christians in Iraq few years ago. The relatively wealthier Christians in Syria are being kidnapped for ransom or raped and killed mercilessly. This 2000 year old history of the Church of the East is being destroyed before our very eyes. The so called Syrian churches of Kerala have a moral obligation and responsibility to come to the aid of Christians in Syria. The Kerala Syrian Church must speak up against atrocities leveled against fellow Christians and the growing persecution of Christians in Syria.
What could Syrian Church in India really do? a) Establish a coalition of Syrian Churches in India and express solidarity with church in Syria, b) Put pressure on Syrian and Arab leaders for protection of all minority groups in Syria, c) Offer help to the Syrian Christian refugees in the region (Can Kerala or India open doors for these refugees?), d) Indian Syrian Christian diaspora churches could connect with the Assyrian diaspora churches and explore partnerships to handle this crisis in Syria and e) Indian American Syrian churches must put pressure on American and NATO forces to decisively handle the Syrian crisis and to protect its Christian population.
There is another “silent exodus” happening in diaspora Syrian Christians of Kerala that most seems to be oblivious or not willing to admit. It is the mass exodus of its young from its churches. In the 1970s and 80s, the Kerala immigrants in the West were quick to establish churches in their host countries with links to their respective denominations in Kerala and become bastions of cultural preservation. However, their children who grew in these community churches were quickly assimilated into the Western host culture and ended up losing much language and cultural competency. As they went away to college and got married, they began to drop out of their parents churches in astonishing numbers. Yes, immigrant churches are often viewed as parent’s church, NOT my own. This is true across language, denomination, doctrinal beliefs.or leadership styles.
In recent years, many scholarly researches have come out with studies on children of immigrants in the US and higher levels of assimilation among Asian Indians on account of professional education and higher household incomes. The growing influence of Evangelical groups in college campus and thriving multiethnic, multicultural churches can be obviously seen in a significant sections of immigrant church defectors. Not to mention a sense of disillusionment they feel about immigrant dynamics and unwillingness of the church hierarchy to accommodate changing needs of a new generation.
Youth leaders and pastors in immigrant churches often face a strange dilemma. When some active youth, newly marrieds or ministry leaders stop coming to the church they had grown up in and prefers to go to a local American churches, how would one respond. Whether to make them feel guilty of such eviction and pride in the rich cultural history they areabout to squander or let them find their place in their native land by breaking out of cultural ghetto. Whether allow them to plug where they feel at home and escape the dysfunctionality of ethnic churches, yet knowing that they will never feel the same way about the church no matter where they go.
Moreover most are not prepared to theologically handle churches of different kinds and baggages of having grown up in an Indian immigrant churches. But what is more disturbing to me personally is that majority of second generation who are dropping out are not going anywhere at all – not their parents church nor any local churches. They are in fact falling through the cracks of cultural disparity and getting dechurched and lost completely. Sadly, nobody seems to care, neither those who go or those who stay; neither parents nor immigrant church leaders. They simply do not seem to appear on anybody’s radar!
The Kerala Syrian Churches in India and in diaspora have an urgent task at hand engaging the people in silent exodus.