My project analyzes how recent immigrant Christian groups within the Chicago Indian community are integrated into the larger Christian community. Using cases studies in Schaumburg, a west suburb just outside of Chicago, and two in Rogers Park, northeast Chicago, I show that most of the interviewees are Christian Indians with plans to bring other immigrants into their respective Christian community. I argue that the relationship between religion and bi-national influences create a new and distinct Christian community. This argument addresses two research questions: How are Christian Indians creating community within the larger Indian immigrant population? How is religious identity negotiated with and influenced by ethnic constraints and opportunities?
The South Asian Fellowship Center (SAFC) is open for a Sunday evening service. As I enter, I notice that the bookstore has been transformed. The tables and books have been removed and in their place, there are three rows of chairs split almost in half by an aisle. Up front, an overhead projector sits atop the administrative desk. Jack, an Anglo, middle-aged man is hunched over, quietly playing a Christian hymn on his new guitar. I am early and only a few people are there, mostly older men and a few older Indian women. Zohra, an older Indian woman, greets me almost immediately with a warm welcome and she points out a seat for me on the right side of the room. As more people enter, women and children sit on the right and men sit on the left. By the time the service begins, there are twenty-five people, fifteen women, seven men, and three children. All the children are Anglo, all but two women are Indians, and the other two women are Anglo. There are three Anglo males and four Indian males. All men are dressed in slacks and long or short sleeve dress shirts, whereas the women’s attire varies: saris, long tunics with pants, dresses, and long pants and blouses. Most however, wear long tunics with pants. A young college-age Indian woman stands out, wearing shorts and a tank top.
Zohra passes out three song sheets. Jack plays chords on his guitar louder indicating the beginning of the service. He stops mid-stroke and is quiet for almost half a minute. He announces that he will open the service in prayer. Five Indian women cover their heads with veils. The prayer is very short. When finished, Jack starts strumming his guitar and declares that we are to sing “Joy to the Lord.” The words are printed on the song sheet and we sing through the song twice. “Amen,” Jack declares, “Praise the Lord.” The next song, he says will be “This is the Day.” On the song sheet, the song is in English and Hebrew. We sing through the song twice in English and twice in Hebrew. The congregation claps along and Jack plays the tambourine. Zohra asks Jack why we have not sung it in Hindi. Jack says that the song is not written in Hindi on the paper. She insists that everyone knows it and some people grunt or nod their heads in agreement. We proceed to sing the song again twice through in Hindi. The Anglo, female congregants do not sing.
Next, we sing “In His Time.” This song is projected on a bed sheet on the back wall behind the desk. Jack accompanies with his guitar. He starts by humming the song through once. Then, he says, “Let’s try it.” We begin to sing; it is a slow song and we sing it twice. The next song is “Cry of My Heart.” It is also accompanied by the guitar. We sing the chorus three times and two verses. The next song is a Hindi song, “Deep Jale.” The words are:
Deep Jale Prabhu Naam Rahe
Meure Mundir Mein, Mundir Mein
Keep the lamp burning so the Lord’s name will remain
Remain in the temple, remain in the temple
Naam Rahe Mun Mein
Prabhu Naam Rahe Mun Mein
Let your name remain in my soul
Lord for your name to dwell in me
Aan Bason Dil Mein
Prabhu Aan Baso Dil Mein
Come dwell in my heart,
Lord, come dwell in my heart
Again, the Anglo women do not sing along, but the Indian women do. The next and final song is, “The New 23rd Psalm.” The words are placed on the projector. The song leader tells us, “This is an old song from 1970s. It is a worship song to the Lord. Meditate on the words. It’s like listening to a soloist.” We sing the song twice. The words are verbatim the 23rd psalm except that the “valley of death” is repeated twice and “forever is his home” is repeated twice. The worship ends with the song leader saying, “Hallelujah, Hallelujah. Praise the Lord.”
The service at SAFC, rich with religio-cultural amalgamation, segregation, and synthesis reveals the bi-culturalism of the Indian and American religious community in Chicago. First, however, it is important to establish background information of this community. The Indian community grew in three distinct waves. The first wave (1900-1910) consisted of Sikhs and Punjabs who settled in the west. Due to exclusion laws along with a steady anti-Asian sentiment, the second wave did not emerge until 1947 when those laws were lifted. This wave brought in 6,000 new immigrants. The third wave (1965-1990), because of the 1965 Immigration Act, brought in close to a half a million Indian immigrants. Particularly, during the decade between 1980 and 1990, the Indian community experienced a 125 percent growth rate.
Currently, 18 percent of all Indian immigrants in the U.S. reside in Chicago. The median age is about 30, 90 percent are married, and they have the second highest median family income of any immigrant group at $49,309, which is higher than the national average, $35,225. However, the number of families who live below the poverty line is growing. Those who came in the 1960s represented the more skilled immigrants who typically have professional and managerial jobs in science, engineering, medicine, commerce and real estate. Beginning in the 1980s, more unskilled Indians immigrated who took more service-based jobs. On a religious level, 77 percent are Hindu, 7 percent are Christian, 4 percent are Muslim, 4 percent are Sikh, and 3 percent are Jain (Rangaswamy 2000). According to Rangaswamy (2000), 77 percent of middle-income families said religion was important, whereas 40 percent of all Indian immigrants said religions was important.
From the demographic information, one surmises that the Christian Indian community is a visible, yet new reality in the greater Chicago area. I argue that the relationship between religion, ethnicity, and bi-national influences create a new and distinct Christian community. This argument addresses two research questions: How are Christian Indians creating community within the larger Indian immigrant population? How is religious identity negotiated with and influenced by ethnic constraints and opportunities?
There are three core theses at stake when considering these two research questions: informal networks, the relationship between ethnicity and Christianity, and becoming and being Christian. Informal networks represent the social side of the community. Indians become a part of the community through various informal networks such as through work, mutual friends, or even by strangers. A shared religious identity is one of the many ways in which new immigrants are incorporated into the larger immigrant community.
The second core thesis is the relationship between ethnicity and Christianity. I use “doing friendship” to explain the relationship. “Doing friendship” is a term that was used en vivo, or in the field. Through interviews, “doing friendship” was explained as a way in which Christian Indians adapted religious beliefs to ethnic practices, beliefs, and ideas. Doing friendship was often associated with a more formal theology, friendship evangelism.
Finally, becoming and being Christian specifically dealt with the reformulation of religious identity due to the ethnic constraints and opportunities of friendship evangelism or “doing friendship.” I found that religious identity was absolutely significant to this particular community and was both bounded by and elaborated upon through religious diversity and religious freedom in the U.S. Finally, the difference between becoming and being Christian was the imperative to share with others about one’s religious background. Being Christian meant being committed to share about Christianity to non-Christians.
I organized the theses with the following logic. The first section describes the methodology that I used with particular emphasis on data collection and research design. The following section offers site descriptions. Each site represents varied examples of the three core issues presented in the above section. I offer a review of the extant literature on Christianity in India and religious pluralism in the US with specific research done on new immigrants in the US and issues of ethnic and religious negotiation. In the next section, I offer my findings as a way of expanding my argument and bringing concrete details to support the three core theses. Finally, I make preliminary conclusions and propose suggestions for future research in this area.
Methods, Sample and Research Design
This research is a part of a larger project entitled, The Church Next Door: Christian Congregations Face America’s New Religious Diversity. The larger project’s main purpose is to offer guidance for local Christian congregations seeking to understand and respond to America’s increasingly diverse religious landscape. I conducted an interview-based and participant-observation study over the course of three months. I participated in and observed activities and programs at all three sites including prayer groups, holiday celebrations, and church services. I made a total of three to four visits to each of the three sites. A typical event was three to four hours long. In most cases, I was treated like a congregant or a participant in the activity. However, in one instance, I was asked to help out with an activity.
Towards the end of my observations, I formulated an interview schedule. I then used the interview schedule (see Appendix A) to conduct ten audio-taped interviews (eight men and two women). Of the ten interviewees, seven were Indian and three were white. I used a snowball sampling method and I recruited by the suggestion of site leaders. I interviewed three people from SAFC, two people from St. Luke’s Lutheran-Missouri-Synod Church, and five people from Christ Mennonite Congregation.
While each interview followed a basic format, I also allowed for variance in what experiences, meanings, or explanations interviewees used to answer these questions. In fact, I was using the interviews in a two-fold manner; to fill out existing themes found in my fieldnotes and to obtain detailed accounts of past religio-cultural events. These interviews gave content to the basic theoretical frames of informal networking, the relationship between Christianity and ethnicity, and becoming and being Christian. In particular, although I used an interview schedule, through the observation process I picked up on language and symbols that I asked the interviewees to expand on such as “doing friendship,” “fellowship,” and “going native.” The meanings behind these phrases given in interviews will be further explored and analyzed in the findings section.
Although the study is based on ten site visits and ten interviews, given a similar context of immigrant religious organizations, the consistency and similarity of conversion tactics proffered in the interviews is both useful for understanding how immigrants are interacting with each other and describing their social lives as it pertains to religion. Additionally, the differences found between the sites offer a basis for comparative analysis. There are a few shortcomings to my methods. For example, the number of visits and interviews limits the scope to which I can generalize about the larger Indian Christian community and even to a certain extent the sites themselves. Also, the data largely represents new immigrants originally from South India. Therefore, again, this presents a limitation to what I can say about immigrants from other parts of India.
A Place to Worship: Site Descriptions
Site One: Saint Luke Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod
The St. Luke Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation hosts three different ethnic congregations, Indian, Sudanese, and American. Attached to the church is a Lutheran private primary and secondary school. The church is hierarchical in organization with the American pastor as the head pastor and the Sudanese and Indian pastors as associate pastors. Their names, with respective titles, are attached to the public sign just in front of the church. Indeed, the church bills itself as a multi-cultural church. Additionally, all congregations identify as Missouri-Synod.
Typically, each congregation holds separate services, but occasionally all three congregations share a service. In addition, sometimes the American pastor attends events with the Indian congregation. For example, the India Independence Day celebration brought together the head pastor and his wife, the church secretary, her husband and daughter as well as the school principal, all of whom were Anglo. At this event, Christian and Non-Christian Indian immigrants came together in a downstairs room for games, speeches, and food planned by the Indian pastor and his wife
The music was entirely in Telugu, but the speeches were in English. The principal talked about the cultural diversity of the school. She referenced the annual “Taste” of Lutheran School Day where cultures are celebrated through food and festivities. Children are encouraged to dress indigenously and talk freely about their cultures. This she felt, allows the school to truly celebrate multi-culturalism. Whereas the principal addressed diversity, the head pastor pointed to the unity between Americans and Indians, especially concerning their independence days. Moreover, she stated their shared theology regarding the body of Christ ought to unite the nationalities together.
On August 16, Indian immigrants spoke about freedom in India and in the US. For instance, one older Indian male recalled that religious freedom was not really possible without the help of missionaries. Missionaries were responsible for his education and without them, he felt that India would not have enjoyed the freedom that was won. Another elderly Indian discussed that though India was politically free, it will only be wholly free when all know about Jesus Christ. Therefore, he emphasized that missionary work needs to continue. The speeches concluded with the Indian national anthem.
Site Two: Christ Mennonite Congregation
Christ Mennonite Congregation, located in Schaumburg, a suburb just outside the city limits of Chicago, is predominantly white and led by an elderly white couple. However, they do have a special ministry, the South Asian Fellowship Group (SAFG), that engages non-Christian Indians. In the past, the congregation had special ministries for other ethnicities, but these failed to thrive. The two pastors also run a store that sells merchandise from international artisans. The SAFG began a few years ago, when an Indian immigrant, Tanveer, passed by the store and began talking with the pastor. Tanveer told the pastor of his needs for a place to start a ministry for new immigrant Indians. The pastor welcomed the idea and not only opened the church for SAFG activities, but also made the Indian immigrant the minister of evangelism of the church.
Tanveer meets regularly with a core group of eight families. He trains families through a one-day workshop concerning spiritual and social issues. He uses analogies to talk about theology. For example, in describing the God concept and the human concept, he uses the analogy of the computer. The computer works with hardware and software. The hardware supports the software, but the software helps the hardware to run. If one is missing, the other cannot work. God created the hardware, humans, and the filled the hardware with software, the spirit, to make the body live. This analogy makes even more sense when the fathers of the core families are computer software engineers. His stated goals are two-fold, to concentrate on family values and to emphasize a personal relationship with God.
Like the first site, Christ Mennonite Congregation and SAFG come together for periodic events. Two years ago, they held a picnic in remembrance of September 11th. They put a tent out on the front lawn. Both the pastors and Tanveer organized the event. Tanveer, in particular, arranged to have musicians and entertainment, members of SAFG. They sang songs, played guitars and drums. Each of the members and one of the pastors had a chance to speak. Then they lit candles. They prayed for peace and understanding, and the wisdom to combat terrorism. The event was advertised for the greater community, but only members of SAFG and Christ Mennonite Congregation attended. The rest of congregation, those not a part of SAFG, were pleased to be a part of the event. The event spurred on additional events over the course of two years.
Site Three: The South Asian Fellowship Center
The South Asian Fellowship Center (SAFC) is a non-denominational center located in a Muslim and Hindu business district of Chicago. Many of the members are congregants of other churches, specifically evangelical types of churches. The center is fully funded by these churches. The congregation consists of both Christian Americans and new immigrant Christian Indians with no clear hierarchical pattern. The space is used as a church on Sundays and a bookstore on weekdays. The Center advertises English as a Second Language, tutoring and other activities for children.
One of the original founders, Zohra, describes SAFC as a place where community is built on principles of friendship. Through research, the founders understood this to be an immigrant community with needs that could be fulfilled by a center. The first program they started was English as a second language. They put a note on the bookstore and two women attended. Today, primarily through word of mouth, they work with 30-40 women. In addition to ESL, they offer luncheons for the women. The children of the women also needed services, so they started a homework center and a kids’ club. She also described the center as place to hold seminars on health and legal concerns. All of these activities, according to Zohra, are with non-Christians and explicit preaching is not allowed.
The outreach commitment of the center, specifically to non-Christians, manifested itself clearly in the fourth annual block party last August. The street was blocked off between two major throughways. Mostly children and their mothers attended. Bollywood music blasted from two large speakers near the entrance of SAFC. A host of carnival-like games were spread out and each child won a ticket after playing. The tickets were redeemed at the prize center, an enclosed boxed-in space where children could “fish” for prizes. There was also face painting, a movie house constructed out of bed sheets and cardboard, popcorn, lemonade and watermelon stands, a clown, and a balloon maker. The event concluded three-and-half hours later with a large piñata. The children, upon leaving with candy and toys in hand, said thank you and walked home.
Christianity in India, Religious Pluralism in the U.S., and New ImmigrantsResearch shows that without a doubt new Indian immigrants are changing the landscape of American religion (Haddad, Smith, and Esposito 2003, Lawrence 2002, Warner 1998:193-215, Williams 1998: 178-195). For example, Rangaswamy (2000) reveals that Indians move quite frequently between India and the U.S. Religious organizations, in particular, function as a cultural institution and community infrastructure. For example, Indians are more likely to attend non-religious events in a religious organization than religious-based events.
However, the U.S. is not the best starting place for understanding this impact. To understand Christian new immigrants from India it is best to start with the historical development of Christianity in India. The early Christian church documents the connection between the Western world of Christianity and South Asia. According to tradition, India had early connections to Christianity first through the Syrian Orthodox Christians whose noted disciple was Thomas. The probability of this encounter is not hard to believe since according to Klaus Karttunen (1986:189), “The first centuries of the Christian era, the commercial and even diplomatic contacts between South India and the western world were in a very flourishing state.” The earliest written accounts of Christian influence in India date to the sixth century, a document rejected by the fathers of the Western church, the Acts of Thomas. In this account, two South Indian kings convert to Christianity. The tradition of Thomist Christians is a prominent beginning for the introduction of Christianity to and its influence in India.
Later historical accounts of Christianity in India referenced Roman Catholic conversions in the 16th century and Protestant conversions in the 19th and 20th century. Raymond Williams (1996) details both of these religious influences. Indian Roman Catholics emerged out of the exploration era of Western Europe. Along with these forays, Christianity was re-introduced this time by Portuguese Roman Catholics. Although there was conflict between the Syrian Orthodox tradition of St. Thomas and the Portuguese Roman Catholics, Latinization of Christianity occurred due to a stronger leadership and infrastructure of the Roman Catholic Church. However, the Syrian Orthodox presence in India never entirely disappeared nor has the conflict between the two religious traditions passed away.
The colonization of India proved fertile ground for the establishment of Protestant seminaries and missionaries. This “foreign” intrusion of both colonizers and their religion encountered hostility from some Indians. What marked this religious movement were clear signs of stratification along geographic, linguistic and cultural boundaries. The most obvious indicator for difference was caste level. The older the religious tradition, Syrian Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, the higher the caste rank. Therefore, as Williams (1996:74) suggests, “Christians adapted to the shape of the stratifications of society so that political, linguistic, caste, and regional boundaries marked and divided the Christian community.” Protestant Christianity in particular produced geographic denominationalism with particular evangelical influence among the lower castes. British Protestant Christians had more evangelistic success among higher ranked Indians due to their power to establish churches in the major cities. Although (non-British) Protestant Christians found converts in almost all parts of India, missionaries had their greatest influence in Southern India. All of these diverse Christian groups would later attempt to unite into two major geographic organizations, the United Church of North India and the United Church of South India. The two deviations to these unifications were Evangelical Christians and Pentecostal Christians.
A recent problem for converted Christian Indians arose. There was concern for the purification of Christianity amidst foreign and Hindu influences. This was a particularly important issue after India gained independence in 1947 as well as a contributing factor for impacting contemporary Evangelical Christian Indians. The missiological influence of western religion conflicted with those who felt that Christianity should be indigenously interpreted. For example, one of the main objectives stated by Bent Smidt Hansen (1986: 240) was
Indigenization as a missionary pursuit, or better termed as external indigenization, has mainly been a Protestant concern, concentrated on education and training of an Indian ministry. Hereby, however, the foundation stone was laid for an indigenous leadership, which in time could take over from the missionaries and so inaugurate a new epoch of internal indigenization. A significant effect of indigenization was the acceptance and celebration of Indian culture and nationality and the rise of Indian leadership in Indian Christian churches.
The general historical backdrop of Christian influences in India provides continuity between Indian Christians in India and Indian Christians in the U.S. It is important to understand that many of the new immigrants from India who are now involved in Christian organizations and churches in the U.S. converted in India or came from Christian families. Evangelical Indian Christians in particular have not changed from the purpose they held in their native country, to build up leadership and to honor their cultural identity.
Part II: Religious Pluralism in the US
The thrust of the research project deals with religious diversity and the varied approaches Evangelical Christian Indian new immigrants take to deal with religious diversity. Religious diversity is not a new problem for Indians. Williams (1998) suggests that the U.S. and India are the two most religiously diverse countries in the world. In India, political and cultural conflict typically occur along religious fault lines:
The general point that emerges from the foregoing description (of religious diversity) is that state formation in post-colonial South Asia is based on religion. Even in those cases where it is not explicit, religion has great potency in moulding societal ethos. The fact that religious identity is often bolstered by linguistic identity invariably reinforces the insider-outsider wedge (Oomen 2002:98).
Although there are more differences between the U.S. and India, the religious atmosphere is one of similarity. Additionally, significant changes in immigration laws making it possible for an influx of Indians to enter the U.S. have only added to possible common ground between the two countries. Williams (1998: 194) further states, “Transnational networks make it increasingly possible for the United States to receive religious leaders and religious messages from India and Pakistan. They also enhance the capability of the new immigrants in the United States to exercise influence and authority in the Indian subcontinent.”
Religious diversity is a result of new and regional forms of religions brought to the U.S. by immigrant groups. Bruce Lawrence (2002: 110) claims, “We have entered a new era in American religious practice, an era that began with the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965…” Williams (1998: 178) states, “Adherents of all the religions of the Indian subcontinent—including Hinduism, Sikhs, Jains, Muslim and Christians—are now home in America, creating a new religious landscape and requiring new religious adaptations to pluralism in America.” This is more complex than conversion from native Hinduism to Western Christianity once Indians immigrate to the U.S., as Fenggang Yang’s (1998: 237-259) study on Chinese conversion to Evangelical Christianity suggests. Within the Evangelical Christian Indian new immigrant community, individuals may have come from a Christian family, been converted in India or converted here in the U.S. Fenggang’s (1998: 238) assertion, however, that “social contextual issues and institutional factors, both in their immigrant experience in the U.S. and in their pre-migration experience in their home country” are necessary to understand Chinese conversion, is taken seriously in this study. For example, later sections will deal with issues such as cultural sensitivity towards Indian and American religious practices in light of conversion approaches.
Evangelical Christian Indian new immigrants fulfill a unique role in this religious pluralism. On one hand, this group does not exist distinctly or separately from other American religious traditions. In fact, the group seeks to evangelize within the American context. Also, they are moving away from their Indian ethnic and national identity. One example of cultural preservation is seen in gender relations where men and women preserve the tradition of sitting on separate sides of the church and women in particular continue to wear Indian-style dress and cover their faces with veils during prayer (Williams 1996). This cultural-religious place is different from the “American way” that Kwai Hang Ng (2002: 195-214) explains as the cause of Chinese immigrants’ conversion to Christianity.
One particular approach to conversion is that of friendship evangelism. Christian Indians often see the U.S. as a new mission field. Moreover, it is not surprising for Indian congregations in the U.S. to send Indian missionaries back to India. Christian Indians have developed a response to religious diversity with a particular kind of evangelistic strategy. Namaan (2001: 127) identifies forms of friendship evangelism, “This includes a passive evangelism where we are a presence in the lives of those who come and want to open up and share with us. But sometimes there is an aggressive angle as well, where we go out into the community.” I explored friendship-based approaches towards converting non-Christian Indians in my research sites.
Community-Building and EvangelizationA common thread found across my Christian Indian sites was the process of community-building and evangelization. In all the sites informal networks, the intentional connections that bridge ethnicity to Christianity, and the meaning of being and becoming Christian for Indian immigrants informed and shaped the theological imperative to share Christ with others.
Part I: Informal Networks
The New Immigrant Survey Pilot (NIS-P) found that religious preference reflected social and economic connections between the U.S. and other parts of the world (Jasso, Massey, Rosenzweig, and Smith, 2003). This shared religious identity is one of many paths in which new immigrants link up to social networks in the U.S. Although I did not collect explicit data on the impact of religious preference on immigrant experiences, interviewees discussed religious conversion strategies pertaining to informal networks. Strategies included a social dimension, which illuminated how conversion is plausible. For example, Rangaswamy (2000) explains that once Indians accept the U.S. as their new home, they begin to cultivate family ties, religious and cultural traditions, and new connections to their immediate environment. Informal networks function in the third sense, how Indians might make new connections to their immediate environment. This chapter outlines how informal networks form through social appeal.
Bringing together the Indian community into a Christian sphere for social purposes is an intentional process. The members of the immigrant congregations I visited sought to bring other non-Christian immigrants into their church through passing out tracts, inviting colleagues from work, and a strategic casual conversation in public.
The minister, Saraj (Indian male, age 52), at the Telugu church developed a series of tracts using non-Christian religious terms to make a case for Christianity. He stated,
I created one or three gospel tracts, that is ‘The Great Guru that is Jesus Christ,’ The Great Guru is Jesus Christ…And one more tract is ‘Moksha, the Kingdom of God.’ How to attain moksha…our moksha is the Kingdom of God…Even though it is different meaning for them, but I can explain the Christian way of thinking.
Part of his friendship evangelism training was to pass out the tracts to start a religious conversation. His tracts are specific to the religious and cultural background by using particular religious symbols and Indian language. Furthermore, the uniqueness of the U.S. as a free country gives Saraj confidence to make new friendships and discuss his religious beliefs.
At the workplace, a taxi driver, Aneet (Indian male, age 32) spends his lunchtime conversing about religious and non-religious matters. After engaging co-workers in conversation, he feels free to invite them to social functions. As he articulated to me, religious conversation and invitations to church functions happen everyday. The shared language of Telugu, for him, was the common ground between himself and his fellow workers. Specifically, he felt that bringing Telugu-speaking immigrants into the church was his plan. He tells me that he is not the only one and in fact someone invited him to church and that is how he became involved. Aneet, like his pastor, represents the planning aspect of doing friendship.
The minister of missions at the Mennonite church, Tanveer (Indian male, age 52), discussed a three-fold strategy to announce non-religious activities and social get-togethers. His first and preferred strategy is person-to-person contact. This strategy entails encouraging a family to invite their friends. The second approach is putting up advertisements in Indian/Asian stores. However, he states, “Most of the time, I meet them on the road, like public libraries, stations, airports and I will introduce myself that I am so-and-so. And I get their addresses, phone numbers, and I’ll invite the new contact to the group (Indian Fellowship).” The last time he did this was when he went to the airport to pick up his brother. He says that often he will go to public places with two purposes, to pick up someone or read a book, and to concentrate on any new person he can meet. All three are making a conscientious effort to bring in people with similar cultural backgrounds into the church. From the street corners, their work place, and libraries or airports, Saraj, Aneet, and Tanveer are using public spaces with a religious impetus.
Doing friendship is categorized as a social activity primarily through invitations to non-religious activities, relationship-building events, and the Christian community. Interviewees expressed that because of shared language and culture, their religious organizations have events that appeal to non-Christians. For example, the Lutheran church organized an India Independence Day celebration that brought together the Indian community. On this day, twenty-two people arrived at the church to play games, share a meal and hear speeches about this important event. In actuality, this was a co-national, inter-religious, and multi-cultural event where white Christian Americans and Hindu and Christian Indian immigrants shared the table. Co-nationality was represented physically by an American flag and an Indian flag. One women was dressed in a sari with the Indian flag colors. The American head pastor sat at the head of the table, and the Indian minister sat to his right. In the speeches themselves, there was a collective sense of what independence meant including mutual freedom from Britain.
Culturally, this was a complex event, but religiously this event also represented the pluralism and diversity of the Christian church. One of the organizers would tell me later that not all of the participants were Christians. Some were Hindu friends from work. Due to the shared cultural symbol of independence, religious differences were downplayed or rather Christianity was accepted for the sake of the event. The head pastor emphasized the role of Christianity in shared cultural experiences in terms of the body of Christ, but none of the Indian participants alluded to Hindu symbols. Finally, Christian diversity within the Lutheran church played an interesting role in this event. This was one of the rare events in which the head pastor joined the Telugu minister in his activities. Along with the head pastor was his wife, the church secretary and her family, and the school principal, all of whom were Anglo. The following day would bring together all of the congregations (American, Indian and Sudanese) in their annual pan-Lutheran service. This event, like many others, would show how the Christian church becomes a shared space for social gatherings in a complex, multi-dimensional way.
Non-religious events, in particular, present an open door for further informal relationship building. For instance, the pastor at the Mennonite church, June (white female, age 67), stated, “We have plans for special programs or gatherings. Some people have interacted with non-Christians through a personal level or associations through business. Many have amicable relationships with neighbors no matter who they were and they foster a relationship with them…” The idea of relationship is a salient point across all organizations. Relationships based on mutual sharing and using one’s life as a religious example spell out the many ways in which Christians socialize with non-Christians.
Mutual sharing is a personal, respectful and organized effort to share one’s faith and open up the opportunity to have the other person share back. As Tanveer put it, sharing is a discovering of truth together,
There is a general response on both sides out of curiosity and it may be of help in their spiritual journey. There is an innate need to search for truth, ultimate truth. If it is found, it should be shared. Sometimes truth is a diamond and sometimes it is just a rock. A rock sometimes has a diamond within and a diamond may be just a rock. For truth to be found one has to look and find if it is a diamond.
Bhajan (Indian male, age 64) gives a specific example where sharing led to someone to come to church, “There was a man, a cab driver, and one Christian brother was his friend because he was also a cab driver. And so that person was regularly coming to church, a Hindu, but he used to respect and others also. And he showed some interest in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Through a mutual process of searching for truth, Christ was revealed in the good works of Christians. Mutual sharing must be done with respect and in love. For many interviewees, they draw upon the examples of the disciples to justify these cornerstones. It is important that when sharing one does not belittle or judge, but rather gives others a chance to share their religious beliefs and then offers Christianity as another form of truth.
An important aspect of mutual sharing is the individual as the authority rather than a book or an official leader. As Saraj commented, “People interact in the places where they work, they share. All these people, they share. See, once you are a born again child of God, the same person, then you will share your testimony.” Sharing one’s personal life is not about preaching, it is about sharing one’s spiritual life with another. This is where the element of respect plays a significant role. Speaking from one’s personal experience implies a non-forceful way of sharing religious beliefs. Sharing means not preaching, but rather allowing one’s life to speak a certain truth. Ranchi (Indian female, age 54) puts it this way, “I share first what Jesus has done for me and then I ask are you interested? Then I talk, I don’t force.” Her last experience at sharing was with her neighbor on their regular walk where she often shares what Jesus has done for her. Her neighbor asked her to pray for her, but she was careful to go no further as she stated, “I leave it to the Lord, he will do what he has to do.”
Even though religion per se is not forced in these interpersonal networks, sometimes the relationships have moral and familial implications. For example, the women’s director, Zohra (Indian female, age 44) stated, “We develop friendships. We go into homes. We meet their needs. We become friends. Like this lady upstairs, the little baby she was going to abort him. So we started praying and here is this precious little one, we gave her a shower. She is a friend and she brings her baby and all of us love her. And she has found community in us.” Obviously, Christian Indians frame informal networks with certain moral principles that carry an influence in the relationship. Zohra also shared that the center enforces general moral ideas such as the Ten Commandments, but they do not preach specific Christian teachings, “Our lives must speak for itself, that is all.”
The intertwining relationship between mutual sharing, individual as authority and familial/moral language sets the stage for more organized sharing as well as a foundation for a Christian Indian community. More organized sharing focuses on non-religious activities. From English as a second language classes to regular home visitations, Christian Indians use these activities as a starting place to develop relationships. Organized sharing is typically one-on-one or at least small groups of two or three. Relationships, for Christian Indians, are not all the same. The strategy of sharing depends on the nature of the relationship. For example, a debate in the community is the degree of aggressiveness. Zohra defines the degree in this way, “We are trying different things, and you know from time to time you change your approach. If something doesn’t work…it depends on how deep your relationship has gotten.”
Organizations arrange non-religious social activities through a network of several Christian Indian organizations. Christian churches, Christian schools, seminaries, Christian universities and church groups provide volunteers for the Indo-Pakistani Christian Friendship Center. Ministries incorporate multiple Indian pastors from different churches and invitations to social events cut across denominational affiliations. Activities themselves tie together the church community and the cultural community, which as Dan (white male, age 44) expressed cuts across racial boundaries as well,
They have a ministry…and they were stating what their focus and goals would be, they were praying to God to empower them to do what they needed to build this ministry, they were praying for each other. They were singing (that was a great part), they were really focused on making this ministry as God would have it be and building it up, and reaching out to Indians and in particular Hindu Indians in the community. They had no thought of participating in our family just because of their momentary focus. I encouraged them. They were open to it, even though their task at hand was big, their focus needs to remain there for now.
The future of the ministry, as interpreted by Dan, will determine the incorporation of the ministry into the larger church community. Informal networks play a significant role in how Christian Indians in Chicago respond to religious diversity within the Indian community. They are doing friendship and building trust. The intent is clear; Christian Indians want other Indians to become Christian. By doing so, they are integrating Indians into a Christian community.
From Socializing to Converting
Organizational structures facilitate the formation of informal networks where Indian Christians can share their spiritual lives. My participants felt compelled to seek out other Indians and bring them into the Christian community. Non-Christian Indians and Christian Indians share a common nationality, cultural background, the immigrant experience, and the experience of being a racial minority in the U.S. Friendship evangelism works from these common assumptions and embraces the possibility of an Indian subculture in a foreign place. Still, I would not downplay the significance of religion in this explanation because as every interviewee expressed, sharing Christ to non-Christians is a moral imperative.
Conversion itself is a product of organizational structures including both Indian and Anglo Christian churches and organizations. Training and accountability are examples of organizational procedures that assist conversion. Where the “how” question gets murky is in considering who facilitates conversion practices and training within the organization. At the center, both Christian Americans and Christian Indians share organizational responsibilities. The Bethesda Telugu Church and the Asian Christian Fellowship are a part of larger American denominations. On the local level, Americans and Indians share responsibilities in their respective church, but of course, beyond this level, Americans dominate decision-making.
On a more specific level, most conversion practices as noted in the data, are actually non-evangelical practices in that Indians are not directly asking other Indians to become Christians; rather, they are sharing their faith to raise religious interest. Another term that can be categorized as non-evangelical is seeker-friendly activities. The Mennonite church stated that its mission was to reach non-Christians and the center expressed similar sentiments, “The service is really designed for seekers to be open for people from Hindu and Muslim backgrounds to be there and to feel comfortable.” Sharing and seeking are two sides of the same coin for friendship evangelism. The center of both of these methods is the relationship that exists between the Christian and the non-Christian. At this initial analysis, the non-Christian is a stranger, a business colleague, or a newly made friend. Relationship-based, informal networks facilitate both the organizational goals and the individual imperative to share their faith and bring in seekers. This is not to say that more traditional strategies are not occurring, such as passing out tracts, but largely, Christian Indians are using friendship evangelism to convert others to Christianity.
Part II: Ethnicity and Christianity
Friendship evangelism has cultural and ethnic implications. For instance, the evangelistic technique contextualizes or shapes Christian theology to Indian culture. Cultural contextualization involves the construction of ethnic boundaries and the “re”construction of Christianity to fit within these boundaries. For the immigrant community the church has historically been a place where newcomers could “regroup” with people from similar backgrounds (Harney, 1991). Joane Nagel (1994: 153) argues that, “Ethnicity is not simply an historical legacy of migration or conquest, but is constantly undergoing redefinition and reconstruction.” Likewise, the immigrant church adapts Christian beliefs to ethnic practices. In this chapter, I will use the data to answer the analytic questions that Nagel asks herself, “What are the processes that motivate ethnic boundary construction? What is the relationship between culture and ethnic identity?”
Ethnic Boundary Construction
Espiritu (1992) defines ethnicity along two dimensions, primordialism and instrumentalism. Primordialism relates to the shared culture aspect whereas instrumentalism relates to the shared interest that maintains ethnic communities. Both dimensions are rooted in a shared nationality and common culture. Of particular interest to this research is how ethnic communities change due to contact with other ethnic communities. Barth (1969: 32-3) argues that three possible changes will occur for ethnic minorities: the ethnic minority will become incorporated into the normative or dominant culture, the ethnic minority will accept its minority status, but reduce negative implications in this position, or ethnic minorities will emphasize ethnic identity to develop new positions and patterns to organize activities not formerly found in the normative or dominant culture. Both theorists pose an important question about ethnic boundary construction: how do ethnic minorities deal with marginality (Dayal, 1998)? How are Christian Indian organizations incorporated into, segregated from, or disassociated from non-Indian Christians? And how, if this is plausible, are Christian Indians normalized into Christian culture?
One way to argue for ethnic reconstruction within the normative or dominant culture is by examining one cultural institution. In this case, the cultural institution is the Christian community. I found that Christian Indian organizations in Chicago both incorporate into and segregate from the larger Christian community. An instance of incorporation into the larger Christian community is the multi-cultural project of the Mennonites. The Mennonite church pastor shared the newsletter, Mennonite Weekly Review, where several articles alluded to the church’s mission and vision toward multicultural diversity. Their harvest festival involving both Christian music and Indian food exemplified this newfound purpose. Tanveer expressed that this particular Mennonite church puts on several outreach, bicultural events. Again, like the other sites, Tanveer and his church are making an effort to be inclusive of Indian culture within the Christian sphere. The church itself supports Tanveer’s ministry with an office, supplies, church space, and mutual support.
Whereas the Mennonite church represented incorporating Indian immigrants into the larger Christian community, Lutheran church was an example of segregation from the larger Christian community. The Lutheran church houses three separate services, Sudanese on Sunday afternoon, Telugu Indian on Saturday nights, and American on Sunday morning. From the outside, a wooden sign designates these three services with pastors for each. The pastor of the Telugu congregation, Saraj, is also a pastor of another Chicago Telugu congregation, also sharing a space with other ethnic congregations. This is an interesting trend where multiple ethnic congregations use church space for their services and events, but do not actually worship together. This church is not entirely ethnically segregated, however, since all three congregations come together three or four times a year for a multi-cultural service.
Another variation on the same theme is partial integration and partial segregation. For example, the friendship center clearly integrates both Indian leadership and Ango leadership, but white males give sermons and lead music. Both Indian families and Anglo families attend events and services, but in formal settings, Indians and Anglos typically sit separate from one another. Music is in Hindi and in English, but the remainder of speaking is in English. One event that brought together both Anglo and Indian families was the annual block party. The exception to Anglo primacy, quasi Indian/Anglo integration was the block party. An Indian leadership prevailed in this case largely because the focus was to bring Indian families into the center. The purpose behind the block party might point to why leadership structure changed to accommodate the event. The goal of the party was to “break down religious barriers” between Christians, Muslims, and Hindus in the Indian community. Through Indian music, multiple games for children, movies, and informal discussions, religious differences were downplayed. Highlighting the cultural elements of the party advertised the center as a place where Indian families are welcome and a place of belonging. How then do places like the center move from belonging culturally to belonging religiously? In other words, starting from a common cultural position initiates relationships, but religious differences remain. What are the other ways that religious barriers are broken? The following section on culture and ethnicity will attempt to answer this question.
Culture and Ethnic Identity
Mutual sharing is one way to break down religious barriers. For example, the pastor of the Telugu church, Saraj, stated, “I talk about Jesus Christ, and they talk about their religion. I explain how Jesus came to this world and how he saved our soul from sin and condemnation.” This same pastor often formally shares his religious beliefs at non-Christian settings such as with Hindu and Muslim groups. He is called upon in his community to give the basic tenets of Christianity. He says that this is because he is part of the Telugu family. He also distinguishes this sharing from worshipping, rather he is there to give a talk about Christ to these non-Christian organizations. This is called common fellowship, which is different from actually participating in the other’s religion. However, it is natural for participants to engage in inter-religious dialogue. The last time the pastor participated in common fellowship was an invitation from a friend who had a Hindi group. At this group, he came and talked about Jesus Christ.
How does talking about Christ happen? Pastors contextualized Christianity to suit the audience to which they spoke. Contextualizing Christ is another method to break down religious and class barriers. On a religious level, by translating Christian theological terms into Hindu terms, pastors are able to communicate the Christian message to Hindus and Muslims. Likewise, class also plays a role as Tanveer expressed, “India is a land of religions and culture, classes and casteism. So, each individual is different. In my group I could not find a single person who comes from the same background I am from.”
For all the sites, there was a vision of commonality and unity within the church. As the head pastor of the Mennonite Church, June, put it, “Christ is the head of the family making us one…All walls of partition are broken down and there is no this or that or the other, we are one.” This was especially true of the Mennonite church because of its interaction with non-Christian groups and a characteristically diverse congregation. Similar to other sites, this church encouraged inter-religious dialogue by mutual connections between Christianity and Hinduism or Islam. The pastor observed these kinds of connections made in the store. In this way, the Mennonite church has made a concerted effort to unify diverse groups of people in informal and non-intrusive ways. They sell items made from international artisans for a fair wage. Those looking for a church are welcomed, and those that are just there for the shopping are treated respectfully. Finally, it is important to note that this Mennonite church explicitly encouraged unity while respecting diversity in its inception. As June stated,
From the very, very beginning our church was designed to be multicultural and multi-racial, and from the very first public service, we have been a real mix of people. We value that and so it is for our church, I don’t think it is a huge leap to also be friends to…to reach out to people of different religions, different faiths, or people who are not Christians. And of course we use the Bible, we preach it, and we teach it.
In other words, non-Christians are welcome, but the primacy of Christian authority, namely the Bible and its teaching, is held firmly.
This begs the question that many theorists of immigrant communities and ethnic studies ask, are Christian Indians adapting or assimilating into the Christian culture? Gordon (1964) analyzed assimilation by examining the communal life of ethnic groups. The strength of communal life decreased forms of discrimination and prejudice. Connection between sub-society structures and the subculture improved chances of incorporation into a common cultural life. This theory is inadequate however in addressing how ethnic groups influence or change “common cultural life.” Written in a civil rights context, Gordon (1964) rightly questions forms of segregation and discrimination against ethnic groups, but strategies of preservation of culture for new immigrants are just as important as gaining access to civil society. Nagel’s (1994) definition of ethnic identity is helpful here; ethnic identity is both optional and mandatory, based on individual choices, but structurally enforced. Adaptation to the larger culture is another basis for theoretical debate. In his study on a Vietnamese community in Oklahoma City, Rutledge (1985) found that the group was both culturally ghettoized and integrated. Vietnamese religions were adapted to the American context, and used to jumpstart common ground for ethnic revitalization, ethnic cohesion, and obtaining material needs. Similar to the Indian community (Rangaswamy, 2000), the Vietnamese community did not assimilate into American culture because they still had a desire to return to Vietnam.
This idea of de facto congregationalism (Warner 1994) is applicable to the Christian Indian community. Warner suggests that the new paradigm of sociological study of religion affirms pluralism as a rule for religious persistence rather than its demise. De facto congregationalism theoretically describes the role of subcultural influences on congregational identity beyond prescribed denominational values. The active agents in bringing Indians into the Christian community are other Indians. This may point to assimilation, but how Indians are strategizing is culturally based. As the director of women’s ministry, Zohra, stated, “We try to do things in an ethnic way…we dress like the community does. We dress very modestly. We are all things to all people for the sake of the Gospel, like Paul said, ‘Without compromising the Gospel…’ So we make it as easy as possible for them, so that the outer does not disgust them, that sort of offenses are kept to a minimum.” Indians are sensitive to how other Indians might perceive their practices, their organization, and how they interact with the Indian community. Another interviewee used the phrase, “going native” to describe how Christianity is introduced to the community in order to work against common perceptions that Jesus is the god of white people. The “de-Europeanization” of Christianity (Maffy-Kipp, 1997) becomes a form by which ethnic identity is negotiated and structured.
A profound example of how ethnic identity is practiced, reinforced, and adapted into the Christian culture is the role of women. Ebaugh (2003) briefly discusses the particularities of the role and status of women in immigrant religious institutions. She argues that women continue to play the role of reproducing cultural traditions, but are increasingly a part of leadership. Women’s programs are typically segregated from men’s programs, which Ebaugh believes provides mutual support groups for newly arrived immigrants. More specific to this study Rangaswamy (2000: 144) states that women have been “crucial in shaping the experience of the entire Indian immigrant community.” She describes the cultural background for women in India as a mix of women leadership in government and moral justification and reinforcement for women’s social, legal, and economic dependency upon men. Indian women immigrate with educational and working skills that gain entrance into the job market in the U.S., but while appreciating the workplace, they also affirm their role in the home. She concludes that Indian women believe that they should not act aggressively, which is an American value, but acting assertive is necessary for survival.
Rangaswamy’s (2000) conflicted account of Indian women is helpful in analyzing the equally confounding situation for Indian women in the Christian community. Services at the center are always gender segregated; women sit on the right and men sit on the left. Women cover their faces during prayer with a shawl, and it is more likely that women rather then men will dress in traditional attire. What women wore was often scrutinized and modesty was reinforced. For example, at the friendship center a young woman dressed inappropriately was taken aside to suggest more conservative outfits for future events. At the same center, however, women led ministries, and were key organizers in the center’s activities. Like Ebaugh’s (2003) discussion, women only led other women and groups are characterized as mutual support groups, often for newly-arrived immigrants. Women will also go in pairs to visit homes of non-Christian women to meet their social and religious needs. In terms of friendship evangelism, however, there were not significant differences; men and women equally practiced mutual religious sharing. The justification for gender segregation and feminine propriety is a part of cultural sensitivity that is vital for friendship evangelism.
The next logical area to examine in the Christian Indian community is the larger Christian organization. Integration of Indian Christians into the Christian community not only changes the “Christian” culture, but it also provides grounds for conflict and accommodation in light of the evangelistic thrust of this particular subculture. The following section will address these issues.
Part III: Becoming and Being Christian
Conflict and community coexist in immigrant religious organizations. On one level, as discussed previously, immigrants are negotiating and constructing ethnic identity, but on the other hand is the religious imperative to share the Gospel. Ethnicity and religion are not mutually exclusive processes, but for the sake of this study, religion will be treated separately from the ethnic constructs discussed earlier in this paper. The main focus of this section is to develop the meaning of religious identity for Indian Christians in the U.S. and the conflict and community implications that American religion has for this Christian immigrant community.
Religious Identity in the U.S.
As Indians begin to participate in social, economic and political life, they are becoming active agents in every arena (Shankar and Srikanth, 1998). This new and engaging concern is a salient issue for Christian Indians. The opportunity to share their faith is constructed differently in the U.S. For example, Saraj commented, “We want to talk to people to share the Gospel to non-Christians because God gave us a challenge to talk to them in America. In India, we don’t have this chance to talk like that, now we do. So, in our case, in this free country, we are able to talk. So we have a lot of friends with me to go and talk about Christ to Hindus.” Because of religious freedom, the U.S. is seen as a new mission field. Within this new cultural context, Christian Indians have an opportunity to reformulate Christian identity.
Although interviewees discuss their ethnic identity in the way that they discussed their immigrant experience in the U.S., their religious identity contains explicit purpose and agency. There is a clear method for Christian Indians, self-identifying as Christians to others and showing the difference that makes in their everyday life. For example, Tanveer explained, “Christ said, ‘Go into the world and show me within yourself.’ You have to show Christ to the world. As a human being…I might not be able to show because I have so many weaknesses, but Christ is present within me, he himself makes the difference.” Interviewees operationalize the mandate to show Christ to the world by using casual friendships and occasional-based meetings to give a plausible construct to share religious dialogue. The dimensions of religious dialogue and reformulating religious identity within an American context might influence how this works.
A clear example of how religious identity is renegotiated in the U.S. context was their acceptance of U.S. religious diversity. In fact, all of the sites made an intentional effort to offer programs or gatherings to which non-Christians would feel welcome. For example the center offers trips for small groups to the local Hindu temple. As Ranchi recounted this experience,
I visited the temple with the center. We visited just for my own knowledge to see what is there and the priest was good. He explained everything….we went as a group to know what they believe, to find out what they believe in…I wanted to go also and see because even though I am from India, I had not gone inside to see. So, I went there to meet with them and to know. Even though I come from India, I don’t know too much about it. I didn’t have the curiosity to know at the time, but now because lots of them are coming here, I want to know.
In India, Hindus represent 80 percent of the religious population, in Chicago Hindus represent 77 percent of the Indian population (Rangaswamy 2000). With the similar religious composition of the Indian population, why are Christian Indians in the U.S. compelled to learn about Hinduism? Pluralism or the mutual dialogue across religious disciplines is perhaps a more receptive characteristic of religion in the U.S.
Being open to share about multiple faiths, for Christian Indians, is about the opportunity to learn, to be open, and to feel good about the religious differences that exist. At the same time, non-Christians are prayed for, invited to community activities, and offered non-religious services such as counseling, legal advice, and immigrant-related information. As Imran (Indian male, age 47) put it, “One should respect individuality, but be firm in their gift to God.” In other words, the American ideal of liberalism and free choice is respected, but there is something universal and important about Christianity that should be respected more. Christian Indians are helping other Indians in their daily lives, especially issues that pertain to their immigrant status, but the end goal is to offer Christianity as the ultimate choice.
Religious diversity views orient around the subject of religious sensitivity. For example, a volunteer at the center, Ranchi, articulated, “I think we need to be aware of religious diversity in America now. And the response is not to condemn, the response is to love and accept them. And we need to be different to show them that there is a difference in us…We shouldn’t be condemning and saying that you are wrong, no, but we should love them.” Respecting differences is the basis for which Christians gain an audience in which to share their own faith. As an interviewee at the Mennonite church, Imran, stated, “Religious diversity is the reality of the world. One cannot deny it. The most appropriate response is Jesus’ mandate: Go out and preach. Churches should understand that mandate contextually and apply it the best they can.” Saraj, at the friendship center, shared a similar way, “There is many religions which talk about the same thing, goodness and the model life, like that, but we have only Christ to save us from sin.” The idea of plurality is the starting place for many Christian Indians, an idea that should be contextually considered, but at the same time, the distinctions of Christianity ought to be made clear. This is a response to religious pluralism that is a “yes, but” answer. There is acknowledgement of diversity, but there is also exclusive claim for Christianity that gives it authority above other religious traditions. This is different then a pluralist position where all religions have equal authority and therefore takes an inclusive claim over divine truth.
American Religion and the Immigrant Christian Community
Finding new churches in the US that resemble churches in their host churches means that new immigrants are both relocated and dislocated within the American religious organization (Gjerde 1991). The immigrant church represents both a reassertion of familiar rituals and an accommodation to an American religion. As a gathering place, the church often represented a home away from home (Harney 1991). The complex nature of the immigrant church, however, is to be both pseudo-home and not at all like home. Religious identity, like ethnic identity, is renegotiated and restructured into an American context (Jones 1998). In Christian Indian congregations, religious identity is structured by evangelistic methods and activities. The imperative to evangelize is critical to highlight. As Tanveer put it, “The first object is going into this mission field, evangelizing each person to know that God is significant in their life.” Within this purpose to share Christ is the hope that non-Christians will convert.
Herein lays the conflict within Christian Indian organizations. Most disagreement centers on how to approach non-Christians in terms of aggressiveness. One plausible solution is to base the approach on the type of relationship that the Christian has with the non-Christian. Another is the context in which one shares his/her faith. Still, there is considerable debate and variation on the appropriate method.
What does being Christian mean to the Indian Christian in an American context? It ultimately means changing their life to serve God’s purpose and loving those who are not yet Christians. Simply put by Saraj, being Christian is “to love the Lord with all of their heart, mind, soul and strength.” The necessity of the Christian life is that Christians “must have a passion present, transform their life, must love, and must understand the supremacy of God’s word” (Saraj). Experiencing the power of God is personally transformative, but at the same time compels Christians to change others as they themselves were changed.
The process from becoming Christian to being Christian is a step toward evangelical commitment. For example, Tanveer from the Mennonite church stated, “Once they understand God and God’s presence and the importance of God, they are part of the third group, the core group. The third group is evangelists, sharing what they believe.” The last step, being Christian, opens up the likelihood that others will become Christian. The process of becoming and being Christian is the substance and core to religious identity for Christian Indians in this study. Without the religious identity that Christian Indians hold dear to their life, ethnic sensitivity and social cohesion falls by the wayside.
Conclusions and Future Research
A few conclusions can be drawn from this initial study on Christian Indians. There are twin goals in this project that were examined and analyzed in the findings: access to community in a non-Indian society and the contextual influences on ethnic and religious identity. With considerable support from interview and fieldnote data, Christian Indians support the new Indian immigrant community with frequent events and services as well as shape the Christian message to perceived American context of religious liberalism and pluralism. The link between these two important conclusions is the identity transformation and reformulation that occurs in the process of inviting non-Christians into the Christian community. Through the interaction with non-Indian Americans and non-Christian Indians, Christian Indians are reshaping Christianity in a distinct fashion, albeit strongly affirming their evangelistic heritage.
By starting with network analysis and moving toward ethnic considerations, religious identity becomes better understood. These are not Christian groups simply evangelizing to non-Christians, but rather groups that are sensitive to the bi-culturalism that exists in their respective organizations and have used social ties to strategically build a religio-ethnic community. Had I begun with religious identity, this may not have been as clear. In other words, the interconnection between networking, ethnic construction, and American religion produces a unique and interesting religious immigrant community.
In this study, I explored the nuances of this interconnection, but I admit to the shortcomings of my method. For example, this study does not purport to be generalizable for the greater Indian immigrant community. In order to achieve a deeper and broader understanding of this community, future research should go in a number of different directions. First, there should be ethnographic studies of non-Christian Indians’ impressions of Christian Indians, with particular attention to exclusion or inclusion at Christian Indian activities, views of or impact of evangelistic strategies, and exclusion or inclusion of Christian Indians within the Indian community at large. Capturing how non-Christians are reacting to Christian Indians or if they are even aware of their activities would add to the significance to this study.
I also think that Anglo and Indian relations within the Christian subculture should be further explored. Again, what are Anglo Christians’ perceptions of Indian Christians, how are they impacted by their presence in the church, and what is the future of the immigrant churches in light of non-immigrant relations? Finally, I would like to explore the Christian Indian community in India. How is it similar or different, what ideas or strategies are carried over from the Indian context, and what are the transnational ties between the American and Indian communities? These are a few of the many questions that should influence future studies on Indian immigrant communities in the U.S. and India.
This study refines prior research done on new immigrants in the U.S. Particularly, my research reinforces research done on Indian new immigrants and the importance of religion for new immigrants. For instance, the role of friendship evangelism or “doing friendship” is made explicit and the informal backbone of the Christian Indian community. While the term “friendship evangelism” is used in theological circles, a sociological study on the term and its meaning has not been done. Furthermore, the indigenous leadership issue present in India fused with a new context presents a new set of conflicts and change for the community. This was noted in the organizational structure of the various sites. Finally and most importantly, my research continues to affirm the position in research that religion plays a significant role in immigrant communities. It is without a doubt that at least three American Christian organizations are intentionally bringing in and developing a new and distinct Christian community with Indian immigrants.
—Lori Henk, Pluralism Project Student Affiliate
APPENDIX A: INTERVIEW SCHEDULE
Interview Protocol (11/4/02)
The Church Next Door Project, Loyola University Chicago
Summarize the project and the extent of the interviewee’s participation in it, as explained on the Informed Consent Form for Individuals, then secure signed consent. Do the same for the Organizations form if the church will be part of the project. Ask the following questions, keeping handwritten notes of responses (do not audio or video tape record). Some questions may need rewording to fit the circumstances or your own verbal preferences, but try to retain the substance of the inquiry. Let the discussion flow freely and allow the interviewee to move into pertinent areas not covered by these questions. Don’t worry if the interviewee gives answers to questions out of sequence—use your interviewing skills to pull it all together by the end of the interview. Add questions tailored to your interviewee if you wish, but stay within a one-hour time frame unless the interviewee wishes to go longer. As soon as possible afterwards, preferably the same day, type up your notes using the interview report template.
1. What non-Christian religious groups or organizations are located near your church? Do you know of other non-Christian groups or organizations in the larger area?
2. Has your church interacted with these local groups or organizations on an institutional level? If yes, in what ways (e.g., joint projects, discussion groups, open houses)? How did this interaction come about? Who initiated the interaction? Has this interaction changed in any way over time?
3. Does your church address local religious diversity in its regular programming (e.g., through sermons, educational offerings, youth group discussions, evangelism training)?
4. Do individual members of your church interact with non-Christians on their own (e.g., neighbors, co-workers, witnessing to them)?
5. In general, how have non-Christian groups and individuals responded to your church or its members?
6. What biblical or theological resources has your church used in responding to religious diversity? Do you draw from certain Bible passages or Christian beliefs?
7. Can you sum up your church’s approach to religious diversity in a phrase or sentence (suitable for a chapter heading in a book)?
8. If there are differences of opinion among your members about religious diversity, can you summarize those different views? Do these differences run along certain group lines, such as young/old, men/women, racial or ethnic identity? How does the church handle these differences?
9. Is there anyone else in your church I should interview? Is there another church I should look at?
10. Is there anything else you’d like to say about Christian responses to religious diversity?
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