The following is a reflection from the Advance Initiative Conference in 2019 and was written as an assignment for a writing cohort I was part of. More information on The Advance Initiative can be found at https://advanceinitiative.com/.
I don’t go to Advance Conference to learn about church planting; I am strongly convinced that starting new churches for the gospel to take root and grow is a good idea. But I do attend regularly to see familiar faces. The conference is an annual gathering of first and second generation Indian Americans to discuss church planting from a uniquely Indian American perspective. It is a conference that is hosted by the Advance Initiative, an organization that began when several Indian-American church leaders from around the country met to dream about what it would look like to catalyze their kinsman according to the flesh to plant churches by and among Indians. To that end, Advance Initiative leads a year-long cohort of ministry-minded men interested in starting new churches for the advancement of the gospel, and puts on an annual conference.
Church planting is not a familiar concept for most Indian-American Christians. When the first generation immigrated from India to the United States, they “planted” churches in the cities they landed in: New York, Dallas, Philadelphia, Chicago, Miami, Houston, Los Angeles. Sojourners and strangers in a new land, they started churches because they couldn’t identify with the predominantly white and black churches they walked into. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, but they sure seem to exist in His Church. For these immigrants from India, the language was different, the worship styles were different, and the perceived values were different, so they started churches partly as places to preserve Indian community and culture. These congregations were places where they could worship the God who had saved and preserved them through much trial and adversity with others who had the same stories and experiences. They gathered several times a week, and sometimes multiple times a day on weekends. They shared meals, raised children, and created a wide, interconnected support system in this new land.
These churches were fed and grown by a steady stream of immigrants from abroad and children born in America. They thrived as tight-knit communities, but it was not always peaceful. When conflicts arose within churches, sometimes a split would occur, and a new church formed, and this happened hundreds of times across the country.
I left the Indian church for the first time when I went away for college. I attended a large, predominately white congregation in Austin, Texas that I loved and influenced me greatly. When I came home after college, I found that I disagreed with many things in the church I had grown up in: theological emphases, the lack of local missions, and what I perceived to be an almost intentional rejection of youth ministry. After a brief and unsuccessful stint trying to reform the church, I left Indian churches for good, to the dismay of my family and community. Like Lot’s wife, I’ve often looked back, expecting to see disaster and carnage. But the Indian church isn’t Gomorrah, and the only pillars of salt are the remains of my mother’s tears that have dried on her pillowcase because I no longer worship at the same church as her.
Lunch at the conference was served in the fellowship hall and consisted of your choice between vegetarian and chicken biriyani, vegetable korma, raita, pickle, and naan, with payasam for dessert. The conference attendees buzzed with excitement. Here was an event where they served our own food, good Indian food. It made sense, of course they would serve Indian food at Advance, but the thought had crossed our minds: would they eschew chicken curry for Chikfila? Skip the parathas for pizza? Or would they serve chicken tikka masala, the one dish every non-Indian knew?
Serving Indian food was a celebration of our heritage, and our heritage is varied. I’ve often marveled at the complex and intense flavors of Indian cuisine: snacks are deliciously salty, curries are eye-wateringly spicy, and desserts are almost cloyingly sweet. Like the festive colors of saris and the cheesy song-and-dance numbers in a Bollywood movie, everything is taken to extremes. There is not much subtlety in our culture.
Everyone grabbed their plate and sat around circular tables with friends and soon-to-be friends. The volume level in the fellowship hall intensified as people shared life stories and lessons learned from the sessions, and laughter boomed at nearly every table. We were relaxed and able to playfully tease in a way that is just as much a part of our heritage as the saffron-spiced rice we ate.
The second day of the conference, they served Jason’s Deli sandwich boxes.
“American” is a word many Indians use as a synonym for white people: American church, American TV show, American food. Megachurches, sitcoms, and sandwiches. It betrays the deep-seated belief that being American means being white, and so Indian Americans will never really fit in. It’s not an adjective used consciously; my parents still describe my wife to their friends as an American girl, even though they themselves are both American citizens, and all three of their children were born here. What they mean is that I didn’t marry an Indian girl, but my parents’ friends don’t need an explanation. They nod with understanding.
I went to several “American” churches after I left the Indian church. The music at these churches sounded like it was professionally recorded, the preaching was biblically sound, and the production level was flawless. I grew in theology and developed neat frameworks for reading the Bible and understanding the world. But I missed the communal component of the Indian church. Christian community is just as integral to following Jesus as baptism, but there seemed to be differences in what “community” was. In “American” churches, post-services conversations always ended at the door as people rushed to get lunch or kids to naptime. Social gatherings always had to be pre-planned and had a strict two hour limit. Small groups were great places to have polite conversation and eat some finger foods, but didn’t seem to build deep friendships, even among majority culture church members. Most challenging of all was the sense of other-ness I felt around this new community. I never felt unwelcomed, but I also never felt fully at ease. We were different in a way I couldn’t put my finger on, and they didn’t really understand me. Nor did it seem like they wanted to. I was expected to accept their norms, references, and expectations. I had not realized that leaving the Indian church would mean not only losing a significant part of my community, but relationships that didn’t take quite as much work.
The conference had several breakout sessions you could attend, and my wife and I walked into one that explored honor-shame culture. Honor-shame is the framework cultural anthropologists use to describe societies where decisions are primarily made in terms of what brings honor and pride to a community. Shame and ostracizing are often used as motivators for good behavior, and these societies tend to be collectivistic, emphasizing family and community. India is an example of an honor-shame society.
America, on the other hand, typically operates as an innocence-guilt society, which means that decisions are made primarily on whether something is right or wrong. Laws and the punishment for breaking the law are emphasized. These societies tend to stress the individual’s responsibility, and use innocence and guilt to motivate good behavior.
Naturally, people raised in conflicting environments that emphasize both as the correct worldview are often left with an internal struggle. Western culture thinks honor-shame as archaic, and eastern culture denigrates the hyper-individualism of innocence-guilt.
Four Indian panelists from varying backgrounds and life-stages shared their perspectives in this breakout session. Together, they untangled the knot of trying to reconcile eastern and western worldviews. Across the room, brown faces nodded furiously and pens rapidly took notes as a room full of men and women finally began connecting the reasons they don’t feel understood by their parents or their non-Indian friends.
I looked over at my wife and she smiled at me. I had done my own processing while we were dating, and it still hasn’t ended. I had found a woman, a white woman, an American woman, who wanted to know about my Indian and American experiences. I told her about how it’s normal to have three or more generations living under the same roof, and why unmarried (and even married) children live with their parents. I confessed the embarrassment of having the pungent scent of cooked masala cling to every article of clothing I owned, something kids at school often pointed out. I told my wife the lasting impact September 11th had on people who looked like me. And I reminisced about how my Indian friends were my church friends, and were my best friends.
My wife has learned to eat choru (rice) and curry with her hands, and to accept the near-suffocating hospitality shown when we visit my family. She has realized that Indian people love big groups, hanging out late, and laughing till tears stream their faces. She has discovered that an Indian person never meets an Indian stranger, but greets the other as if they were old friends reunited. She has seen both the beauty and shame of the culture, and though she doesn’t fully understand it, she appreciates it.
The conference had nearly ended, but we had to leave early. My wife and I grabbed our things and slipped out through the back doors of the sanctuary. She looked up at me and searched my face.
“Is there anyone else you wanted to see?” she asked. I smiled and shook my head. I grabbed a samosa off a table with one hand, and took my wife’s hand with the other, and we walked out the doors.