The former crown jewel of the British Empire proudly proclaims itself today as the world’s largest democracy. With four times the population of the world’s second largest democracy (the United States), India is undoubtedly a nation with an important future. Within a few years it is set to surpass even China, becoming the world’s largest nation. But India is also a land deeply influenced by its long and fascinating past. It is by far the world’s largest melting pot comprising at least 22 different languages and countless ethnicities among its people.This amazing amalgam of humanity is squeezed into a land area less than a third the size of the United States and no society on the planet can boast of greater diversity socially, culturally, or even geographically. Its terrain ranges from steaming tropical jungles in the south to mighty watered plains along the Ganges and the perennially ice bound ranges of the high Himalayas.
Surprisingly, this exotic sub-continent at the center of Asia is also one of the earliest cradles of Christianity, a fact of which very few Westerners are aware. The Catholic faith in India can claim a lineage of nearly 2,000 years, when the apostle Thomas arrived on its western shoreline around the year 50 AD. India, in fact, was quite well known to the Romans who traded with it heavily for spices, especially pepper. St. Thomas most likely landed here on a trading vessel loaded with Roman coins. Following his Master’s instructions to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” (Mt. 28:19)
For the next 20 years Thomas labored along that narrow strip of coastal plain wedged between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats mountain range to evangelize this ancient peoples. He established at least 7 churches up and down that coast-land comprising the southwest corner of the Indian sub-continent. Today that territory comprises the modern day State of Kerala which now contains some 6,000,000 Christians, the largest concentration of believers in all of India. Thomas himself was eventually martyred around 70 AD on the eastern side of the Indian Cape, far up the eastern shore in a city known today as Madras.
Christianity may have arrived early in southern India but the succeeding centuries proved to be particularly challenging for its adherents nonetheless. As Rome declined, contact with the West was lost, especially after the 7th century rise of Islam. The so-called Syriac Christians of Malabar (named after the Syriac liturgy which St. Thomas had established) found an impenetrable barrier thrown up between them and their Christian brothers to the West. Centuries passed and these Christians became isolated and forgotten, so much so that when Marco Polo visited Malabar in 1292, his published report on these “Thomas Christians” was scoffed at by Church authorities as a fiction. Nonetheless, the Syriac Christians of Malabar continued to practice their Catholic faith and traditions throughout the centuries of rising and falling dynasties and invasions by Hindu and Muslim factions.
It was the Portuguese who re-established contact in 1503, reconnecting the Syriac Malabar Christians to the larger Church, and proving that Marco Polo’s account had been true and accurate. “Doubting Thomas” had evangelized his little Christian communities well, for after nearly a thousand years of profound isolation, the Church in India had persevered in its fidelity to the gospel, all in the face of twin threats posed by both Hinduism and Islam.
Even today the 6 million Christians in Kerala State are overwhelmed by some 9 million Muslims and 18 million Hindus. Indian Hindu culture is very ancient and presents a staggering pantheon of pagan gods. Nor has it been overly accepting of Christianity or its followers. Overall, India, like the United States, is a highly pluralistic religious society but here Christians represent only about 2% of the population, a tiny minority. Conflicts inevitably erupt from time to time with Muslims and Hindus alike. Not only is this a society with rigid caste systems but the majority culture is polytheistic which further militates against maintaining strong Catholic values.
And faith isn’t the only challenge for many Christians. Economic conditions in southern India are also difficult. So many workers must leave Kerala for work in other countries that a quarter of the state’s GDP comes from remittances abroad. Even by Indian standards Kerala is poor. For example, 80% of the Indian guest workers in Kuwait hail from this one state, which itself represents only 2.5% of India’s population. Half of the local workforce is still engaged in agriculture, much of it at subsistence levels. Many families subsist on $500 per year or less.
I personally know of several of these Catholic Indian families through a wonderful Catholic organization called ‘Save A Family Plan’ which my parents introduce me to while they were still alive. That was one of the greatest gifts they ever gave to me. 25 years later I continue renewing that gift which opened up a whole world of awareness that this American could never have imagined. It is the gift of adoption, not of a child, but of an entire family somewhere in southern India. Over that period I have become involved with several Catholic Indian families and what a joy it has been!
Sini Kumar is a 37 year old mother of two children living in Kerala. After her husband, Harsha, was disabled years ago she managed to earn a monthly income of about $22 to support the entire family. I have had the privilege of helping support Sini’s family for the past six years now and just recently received the most gratifying news. Thanks to that aid, Sini and Harsha were able to start family businesses farming poultry and tailoring which are now profitable enough to support their entire family. They no longer require outside assistance to survive, instead they have “graduated” into a self-sufficient status. But the most wonderful part of this experience over the years has been the beautiful letters that I have received from Sini telling me of their family’s progress and the many prayers that they have offered for my family. Next year I will adopt a new family, a 31 year old widow named Shobha Swamy whose husband was recently killed in a road accident. Shobha has two children aged 10 and 7 and so for the next few years until conditions improve I am privileged to help keep the Swami family alive and intact until their fortunes improve.
I have learned there is something about the Indian people which is both compelling and heartfelt. They express a gentle sincerity that we seem to have lost in the “materialistic West. Most of all I have been overwhelmed by their gracious simplicity and calm trust in Divine providence, even in the face of disaster. Mother Theresa was right, it is we in the West who are truly poor. Real poverty of the sort that many Christians in India experience daily seems to make them all the more grateful for the very gift of life itself. They are rich in terms of love, virtue, and family and it seems to me that we could learn a great deal in our synthetic, high-tech, anxiety driven society from these simple, joyful people.
I would highly recommend this Catholic agency to your generosity and hope that as many as possible would adopt some needful Indian family. At less than $300 per year it is the best investment you will ever make. Contact Save A Family Plan at (519)672-1115 or visit their website http://www.safp.org Amazingly, 100% of your donation goes directly to your family in India. It doesn’t get any more efficient than that.You can also email SAFP directly at email@example.com Make this your Christmas present to yourself and your family this year. I promise you will never regret such a small investment once you get to know your own family on the Asian sub-continent. A Blessed Christmas to all!
Fran Pierson +a.m.d.g.