Why I Stayed in the ‘Indian’ Church

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TLDR: In short, I stayed and continue to stay in my Indian church because though it is largely Indian and specifically Malayalee in population, we have a heart for our neighboring community and have consistently seen people come to faith. When I think about my abilities and resources, I feel as though they’re currently best used exactly where I am. 

When I was fifteen I cried to my mom and begged to leave our church. I desperately wanted to leave and start over somewhere new. She had entertained the idea of us actually leaving or at least she told me she had considered it. It’s now 10 years later and I realize that I had issues. I battled with insecurity, negativity and a host of negative emotions. I still have problems but now I have resources.

I won’t delve into that all deeply here, that’s a different blog post. But fifteen year old me would have never imagined that one day I would come to not only still attend my Indian church, but that I would love it.

Within the Malayalee Indian church, the blog post ‘The Indian Church Must Die‘ spread like wild fire as people of Christian Indian backgrounds felt as though many of the concerns they have long held about the Indian church were voiced, finally. It is really hard growing up in the Indian church for reasons that I will touch on later in this post but the purpose of this blog post is to instead speak about the reasons why despite the longings of my fifteen year old self; I choose to stay.

We’re missional

I swear that almost every week I hear of a new person who came to faith from the Hindi service. This service has brought in a huge North Indian population to my church and has even challenged the idea that my church is Malayalee. It’s not just North Indians, over the years I’ve seen people of different ethnic backgrounds come consistently to my congregation, serve and join our family.

The problem I’ve noticed within a lot of churches is that we can become too attached to whatever rules we have. I recently heard of a church that did not allow members who wore jewelry to take holy communion. How do you expect members of your community to come and join your church with a rule like that? The idea of not wearing jewelry has deep roots for a lot of people and I can respect this decision. But requiring people to not wear jewelry limits who can feel comfortable in your congregation.

If the only reason why your church is growing is because other Indians left a different Indian church- that’s a problem. Our churches are not meant to grow through shuffling church members. But it’s truly transformative to see people who never knew the name Jesus, people who are from or come from different religious backgrounds, all coming together and accepting Jesus as their person savior. If there was every a remedy to lukewarm Christianity it would be to see the fire of someone who has just accepted Christ. There is a passion and love that puts me to shame.

There’s room for Me to Grow 

My church allows women to lead worship, teach Sunday School and even give Sunday sermons. I would often hear from other women at more conservative churches that women are not allowed any leadership position, even choir leader. In the midst of an environment like that, my pastor has spent time and invested in my gifts. He has given me a platform when I know others places wouldn’t. And he doesn’t just do that for me. Through my church I have seen incredible singers developed, talented musicians and powerful men and women who deliver God’s word. Maybe if that happened once you could chalk it up to that one person’s talent. But when you see it consistently happening, I know that God is working in a place.

My Impact Feels Larger 

My church, in many ways, is small. Because it is small by the measure of a lot of other churches, I know that the work I do has a big impact. If I have an idea for an event, I can directly see the people who are influenced. When I want to try something new, I can tangibly see how these decisions impacts others. I’ve grown to learn that there is beauty to the mega churches. There are far more resources that can give an individual a lot of room to grow. But because my church is small, I know my influence means a lot.

The Bad Can be Changed

The author of , ‘The Indian Church Must Die‘, Samuel, also acknowledges that some Indian churches can change and those are the ones that will survive, “the ones that start listening to young people, start integrating them into the church vision and projects”. I believe my Indian church is a place just like that. When I first got my ears pierced I feared the larger implications of this decision. But to this day, I don’t think anyone has really had a problem with it. I remember once recounting an older grandpa who also spoke to me in Hindi. I thought he did this because I wore earrings. But when I shared this incident with my church friends they explained to me that he speaks Hindi to literally everyone. Despite all my fear about what people might think, no-one seems to have really cared. Or at least no-one has told me they cared to my face!

Sundays are my Favorite Day of the Week

We had an annual North East region meeting today that I always try to attend because I love connecting and catching up with familiar faces from different churches in the region. But every year during this meeting, despite how happy I am to see new people, I genuinely miss my Sunday routine. You see, I love my Sundays and I love my church. It’s here that I start off Sundays by sleeping in a bit (till 8:30am) and then spend time catching up with friends until it’s Sunday School time at 10:30am. Then from 10:30am-11:30am I lead the most amazing group of girls through the book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. 11:30am-1:00pm when we have our main service that is usually filled with powerful worship and a meaningful word from the bible.

It is here at my church that I imagine and day dream about what ifs and possibilities of ways in which God will move. It is here that I first taught Hindu/Muslim students during VBS. It is in this church that I see my family. Not just those who I am connected to by blood but the aunties and uncles who I grew up with, as well as those who have come in recent years. These people and my friends have become like family. And when I think of God’s vision for my life and I know that for the present time- this is a really great place for me to grow as a speaker, a Sunday School teacher, an informal counsel and as a leader/server.

While I think there are many legitimate reasons for why someone may choose to leave the Indian church or any church for that matter, these are my reasons for staying. This blog post doesn’t mean that I couldn’t ever imagine myself leaving. I always try to remember that man makes plans and God laughs. But what it does mean is that for the time being, I’d really love to stay.

Now That It’s Cool To Be Indian

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Something odd that has been brought to the surface recently is how things taken from Indian culture that once evoked responses of disgust are now “cool”. I read a post on the Facebook group #SubtleCurryTraits about how the stereotypical “white girl” who years earlier considered turmeric disgusting in “yellow rice”, now adds tumeric to their chai teas for the “health benefits”.

Well, the tide has turned. The teenage heart throb of my youth, Nick Jonas, chose to marry the stunning, Priyanka Chopra. But despite this change in heart by America as a nation, I’d argue that things really aren’t better. You must be thinking- isn’t this sudden love of all things Indian supposed to be great news? Indian culture may now be “in” but the truth is that I still know too many Indians who are ashamed of their culture, petrified of being labeled a FOB and are unable to erase the years of shame that we’ve associated with being Indian because of pop culture’s previous narrative. A message in which the worth or lack thereof, of an India in media was communicated by the void of people who looked like me on television shows, ads or magazines
and honestly, even within India’s own media that continues to refuse to include women of medium or darker shades on media platforms.

We still live in the same country in which I heard the white kid next door telling me that my people should get out of his white neighborhood. There are still people who are told that they smell like “curry”, presumably from people actually knowing what curry smells like. Or you still find the white guys on dating apps who only like Indian girls and treat an entire people group as a fetish. This leads to whole groups of desi people who refuse to engage in anything that associates them with their culture. Forbidden activities include but are not limited to: eating with their hands, being caught speaking their mother tongue or even spending a week in India.

The truth of the matter is that it’s not actually cool to be Indian. It’s only cool in the same way that people like dressing up on Halloween or decorating their Christian tree once a year, it’s exoticized. But even when this fad changes, I’ll still wearing my lengha blouses mixed and matched with American gowns. I’ll still try to rock my lengha skirt with a button down and my salwars pants with American tops. Because just as much as I identify as an American as my nationality, I am still and will always be Indian and that doesn’t need to be cool to you. It’s me.

The Dress That Doesn’t Fit

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*See the original post on Instagram*

Fun fact: The dress I’m wearing here was thrifted for less than $30. It seemed like such a steal, it still had the tags on and was from Nordstrom. I bought in on a whim, assuming it would fit me. Another fun (or not so fun) fact, it doesn’t. It zips halfway and then meets the point of no return and lies open. The two halves of the zipper just decided that they refused to meet and the distance between them was too large to travel.

In the past, when I put on clothing, I felt as though it was my responsibility to fit in my clothes. That my body should change to meet the demands of changing fabric.

“When I lose weight, I’ll wear those pants”

“I’ll fit that dress after I start working out”

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Newsflash, I now eat (pretty) clean and workout regularly but as I tried my best to zip up this dress I realized that it just wouldn’t fit, that it may never fit. That my torso is the smallest part of my body. That it’s pretty much as small as it can get for me while still being healthy and that even if I lost more weight, my naturally medium frame would need to be smaller to fit that dress.

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So I decided to be okay with this dress not fitting. To be content with the fact that my bones and chest are broader than this dress is willing to wrap around. Instead of running after an unattainable and likely unhealthy perfect, I decided it’s okay for me to love my body even if it would never be a size 2 or 0. That maybe it means there’s just more of me to love.

How my Pride Led to Insecurity

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As a Corporate Communications undergraduate major, I gave a ton of speeches back in college and naturally grew tired of a once intimidating task. On one occasion I gave a better speech than usual and upon leaving class two classmates ran up to me and asked, “How were you so confident?” I don’t remember what I answered but the truth was that the secret to my perceived confidence was that I didn’t care about the opinions of anyone in that class I gave a speech to. In a college of 17,000 people, it was easy to be in a class with a bunch of people I never met before and I didn’t care for the opinions of people I didn’t know.

I began to adopt an odd pattern of feeling a sense of pride around people I grew comfortable around or who I felt better than or didn’t care for because I didn’t know them. That is until one day I realized how my pride was the seed from which fruits of my insecurity sprout. But luckily, in learning this lesson, I was also presented with the incredible hope that comes from understanding that humbleness can lead to a God centered sense of security in who God created us to be.

These realizations around my pride all started two weeks ago after  I taught my sunday school students a lesson on a pride- pretty logical progression, right? We explored how pride distorts things meant to be good.

Beauty can become vanity.

Instead of feeling joy in the accomplishments of others, we wonder why we didn’t get what they have.

When criticized, we are defensive, never assessing the validity of the others claim.

I taught that lesson and admitted to my students that I failed “The Pride Test”. I looked at myself with a sudden awareness of how Pride was ruining what was meant to be good in my life. I realized that Pride had led to my feelings of insecurity.

The lies of Pride become smaller next to God

I became prideful in small ways, in comfortable circumstances. My mom would always joke about my cavalier attitude around family members and my church family. I would take up as much space as I liked and probably said some things I shouldn’t have without thinking much about it. I felt confident of myself because I saw others as less. That person doesn’t have a job, at least I have one. I could only feel secure if I could imagine myself as better than someone else. I hate that I thought that. I hate that I’m writing this paragraph and that I’m admitting something so disgusting about myself. I feel ashamed to admit that I treated others so poorly and in turn hurt myself.

How would God look at my heart? I think he must have felt so disappointed. This is the same God who came to earth and didn’t look for any of the things we look for in others. Does the bible talk about how he chose a disciple because of his PhD from an Ivy league? Did he befriend the stylish woman at the well? Sure the bible will give merit to beauty and wisdom, but those factors never stopped God from loving or helping someone. God chose the lowly and despised of the world to shame the wise.

One lesson I taught my students and continually remind myself to remember is that we can begin to feel humble when we remind ourselves of how great our God is. You’re proud of your beauty or intellect? Have you heard of the almighty God? He’s so majestic and beautiful that our eyes cannot even see him and live. When we change our perspective to see ourselves in light of who God is, how can we not be humbled?

How Pride breeds insecurity

In the same way that I would feel better than certain people, I felt worse than others. Pride lied to me and told me that because of my looks or education or my background, I was inherently worth less than someone else. Seeing the success of others made me fear failure.

Did I deserve to work at my job? Was I worthy to be that person’s friend? All of the things I built my worth on crumpled because my pride was built on such an insecure foundation.

 

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Without Pride, we see ourselves and others and God intended

God offers us a unique freedom and privilege to gracefully accept our limits as humans. We are beautiful but not the most beautiful. We are given wisdom, but only because God allows it. We may have accomplished a lot by worldly standards, but how small are our feats in light of eternity? How different would our lives be in a different place or circumstance?

Just as pride brings forth fruits of insecurity, I believe that humbleness can lead to fruits of security in who we are and who it is that God longs for us to be.

You can become anything…

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In the age of perfectly chiseled bodies, bleached relaxed ombres and reconstructed noses on celebrities as a norm- I am constantly reminded of the scene above in the graphic novel American Born Chinese. The protagonist told a woman that he wanted to become a transformer, to which she replied, with words that have haunted me since I first read it more than two years ago, “It’s easy to become anything you wish […] so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul.” On my blog, my social platform, I bear my heart out as I admit to constantly struggling with valuing vanity more than virtue- with unknowingly sacrificing important values in trying to become someone or something that I realize I never wanted to become.

I think back to being in middle school, aka as the worst time of my life. I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood and as a chubby Indian girl, it’s needless to say that I stood out and hated it. Man, I couldn’t even cut gym class in high school without the gym teachers noticing; all I wanted was to blend in. There was an unwritten social code for fitting in. The uniform was Juicy Couture jumpsuits with chestnut uggs or a tank top with so low pants. The cool look was sleek straight hair and dark eyeliner. As if it wasn’t bad enough that I was one of maybe 10 Indians in the school, I had such a terrible sense of style and the fact that $13 for jeans was a lot for me while other girls spent $100+ dollars on a pair of sweatpants left me longing to be like everyone else without much of a means to become like everyone else.

Back then my mom used to remind me that I wasn’t like “them”- so why try? I wasn’t ever going to be white. But deep down I wanted to be like the other girls in my grade so I entered into 9th grade with Japanese straightened hair that my mother somehow complied to. We were in India the summer before and were able to get a treatment for around $150, a steal at the time. And do you know what happened? People like it. That’s what’s so confusing about doing whatever you can in order to fit in for the wrong motives. You might be rewarded for it. I’m not saying straight hair is bad. The motive behind my decision was the problem. I swear to you, straight hair, getting eyebrows done and growing a few inches can do wonders- but every part of who I was, was motivated by an insatiable and unachievable goal of blending in.

A decade later and I sense traces of my middle school self dictating how I live my life. As I scroll through my Instagram feed it’s easy to value things that are fleeting. During my residency year of teaching, nearly 2.5 years ago when my journey to become a teacher first began, I was asked to create an “image” of the kind of educator I wanted to be. And I’d like to take that exercise a bit further and ask you as a reader of this blog to imagine who it is you would like to be. Who is it that God created you to be? Who is your very best self? Are you making steps towards being that person?

I don’t know who exactly I imagine my best self to be but I imagine someone who is prepared for the obstacles in front of her- confident and strong. I am reminded of the fruits of the spirit and wish to become someone who is slow to anger. I long to be disciplined and kind. Creative and comforting to others, I want to be an advocate and someone who lives a life that encourages others. There are a million traits and ideas to meditate and pray about and as I think of who it is God wants me to be I am reminded of the smaller actions I take that draw me further from that person- forfeiting my soul in the process.

It’s easy to look like everyone else. This blog post is really to anyone else who feels that struggle to sacrifice themselves to bend in. The world doesn’t need another person who dresses and looks like everyone else. The world needs you- whoever it is you were created to be.