Exploring a new faith In India (but not the one you’d think)

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Author: Ben Poor

“See this bindi?” my host sister Hasani asks.

“Yeah,” I say, noting her gold dot between her eyebrows.

“My mother says, ‘If I don’t wear this I look like a Muslim!'” she smiles excitedly.

It didn’t make her look especially Christian, but I kept my mouth shut and got in the car as we headed to Indian church.

If anyone, like one of my professors, understands globalization as the exchange of goods, services and ideas between the East and West, it’s easy to see that some exchanges have been going on long before the telephone or telegraph.

From the apocryphal first Christians in 52 A.D. to the rapid growth of Christian missionaries following the passage of the 1813 Charter Act (yeah, I pay attention in my “Modern Indian History” class), Christianity has had a presence in India.

As we got close to our destination, my sister became even more excited for me to mix and mingle with other Indian Christians.

“They will see you and become shocked,” she said happily.

My host family is four of India’s approximately 24 million Christians. The few churches I’ve been to in America have all been fairly muted affairs, so I really had no idea what to expect from this “Christian synagogue,” as it were. How has the church changed since the 19th century? Would there be fiery denunciations of other faiths? Would they quote Ezekiel 25:17?

Acknowledging that I’ve only been to one church in one part of India, Christianity in India is crazy. The worship I went to resembles an 18th century church revival meeting. In fact, the Wikipedia page for revival meeting has a picture from my Indian state.

The pastor, thanks to the glory of God, has amassed great wealth. Pastor Thomas personally owns the six wedding gardens that can each hold over 3,000 people where his broadcasts of God’s message are shared every Sunday. In our garden, we sat amidst rows and rows of chairs facing a large screen with a live feed of Pastor Thomas enthusiastically pacing around a stage somewhere else. He preached primarily in Telugu, the local language, but I caught many “amens” and “hallelujahs” in between.

Many things were fairly similar to American worship settings that I’d been to. The musical interludes held the congregation’s attention more than anything else, including a sick electric guitar solo.

There was similarly a variety of interest paid among the congregants. My host siblings ran off somewhere as soon as we arrived, while my host father’s head was bowed deeply in prayer every time I looked over. He continued praying even after the preacher finished his sermon. He finally raised his head when the music started, thanking God with a big stretch and a yawn.

The most impressive difference between the American churches I’ve been to and the one India church, however, were the 12 people I watched be cured of cancer.

A complete set of disciples was led onto the dais next to Pastor Thomas. After a brief chat, he placed his hand on the first person’s head and loudly shouted, “Out of his kidneys you foul spirit of death and cancer!” I guess cancer spirits speak English.

As the demons left the afflicted body, the patient fell backwards, where two assistants were waiting to catch him.

This continued down the line until the pastor reached a small boy with brain cancer. Perhaps it was his youth, or the brain cancer, but the youth apparently didn’t know what it looks like when cancer demons left your body. Rather than falling backwards when Pastor Thomas laid his hands on him, he started wandering around the stage. The preacher stared at him for a second, perhaps wondering if he should just push the toddler over; but he moved on the next person in line.

As church wrapped up, and I enjoyed sour grape juice and dry crackers, I tried to think about how weird the churches I’ve been to would seem to these attendees. They would perhaps be amazed by the lack of bindis, brown skin or miraculous healing. Through it all, I think it just reminds me that being a good religious person ­of any faith, anywhere in the world, is less about what you’ve got on your forehead and more about what you’ve got in your heart.

Ben Poor is a junior American Studies major studying abroad in Hyderabad, India during the Spring 2014 Semester. He can be reached at benpoor1@gmail.com or on Twitter @WklyBPoor.

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