It’s amazing how much information can be packed into a 950-word newspaper story — and how much can be assumed and left unsaid.
As Exhibit A, I present a New York Times local story on an Indian church’s colorful tribute to Mary:
WEST SAYVILLE, N.Y. — Without doubt, many more people line the sidewalks to see the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Manhattan than to watch the St. Mary Malankara Indian Orthodox Church’s annual Assumption Day Parade, which began here on Sunday with the usual blowing of the kumbu horn and the dancing of the koladi by the congregation’s teenage girls, dressed in saris and banging sticks.
But the Indians’ parade has its longtime devotees: neighborhood residents, mostly, who say they look forward to the procession because it is practically the only time when the people of the congregation venture outside, not counting getting in and out of their cars.
None of St. Mary’s 100 or so parishioners live in West Sayville, a predominantly white, middle-class community on Long Island’s South Shore where in the last few decades a surfeit of empty church buildings has attracted various religious communities on wheels.
Go ahead and read the whole story and help me understand what it’s about.
1. A spot news report on an annual religious celebration?
2. A trend piece on a commuter church?
3. A feature on a Christian community with “Hindu-esque” traditions?
4. A report on the notion of “arranged marriages” among Indian families in the U.S.?
I exaggerate to make my point, which is that this story covers a lot of ground in less than 1,000 words. Too much ground, in my opinion, resulting in inadequate treatment of all of the above subjects. Reading this piece is like eating a bite each of beef, chicken, pork and fish. Everything on the menu has potential. But none of it fills you up.
Let’s start with the annual Assumption Day Parade. Horns are playing. Teenage girls are dancing. Parishioners are marching through the neighborhood. But why? What is the religious symbolism of these rites? What is the spiritual significance?
We’re told that Malankara Christians “hew closely to Orthodox Christian liturgy,” but there’s no explanation of what that means. Near the end of the story, the writer contrasts the Indian Orthodox church with the building’s former Dutch Reformed tenants:
The Indian Orthodox congregation, with its bells and drums, had taken over what was once an outpost of the strictest Calvinist worship.
That’s, apparently, a reference to early Calvinists eschewing the use of musical instruments and advocating a cappella psalmody in worship. Now, I’m no expert on Indian Orthodox or Calvinist theology, but that 22-word sentence seems to leave so many questions unanswered. The biggest one in my mind: Are Indians unique among Orthodox in using bells and drums? I thought most of the world’s Orthodox worshiped without instruments. (Help me out here, Tmatt.)
On to the story’s second theme: commuter churches. Way up high, there’s that reference to the parishioners venturing outside only to to get in and out of their cars — except for the parade. Then there’s this:
The Indian congregants drive in from Queens, Brooklyn, western Nassau County and even New Jersey and Staten Island, to worship in a former Dutch Reformed Church building they bought in 1992. Inside, they speak Malayalam, the dialect of the Indian province where most have their roots, and they worship according to an Orthodox Christian liturgy that traces its origins to the teachings of the apostle Thomas.
At an hour or more, their road time is longer than the average trip to church, but national surveys show that most Americans travel farther to religious services than they used to, just as they journey farther to work. Except for Orthodox Jews, who are required to do so, hardly anyone walks to a house of worship anymore — a shift in the landscape that may be best illustrated by the now-unimaginable tableau of Norman Rockwell’s 1953 work “Walking to Church.”
Norman Rockwell? That’s all interesting background. It just seems like a weird detour in a story whose headline focuses on the religious holiday and parade — and then gives short shrift to explaining both. Wouldn’t it be better to save the commuter church angle for a story without so many other questions begging for attention?
For instance, these two paragraphs could use some work:
In West Sayville, the congregation and its parade have assumed a mysterious, almost mythical status, despite the procession’s official permit and the three Suffolk County police cars assigned to traffic control.
“If you didn’t actually see this with your own eyes, and some people around here haven’t, you might think I was making it up,” said Christopher Bodkin, a local historian and a former town councilman. “I mean it is so rococo, wonderful, Hindu-esque, with the flower petals, the girls holding the decorative parasols — everything but the elephants.”
OK, the church and its parade are mysterious and almost mythical. They are Hindu-esque. Please do elaborate and explain how. Unfortunately, the story never does. But it does veer off into the question of arranged marriages by Indians.
Perhaps the strangest part of the entire story is how little input it provides from actual church members.
We hear from neighbors. We hear from a former pastor of the church that used the building previously. But unless I’m missing something, this is the extent of direct quotes from a church leader:
Varghese Poulos, one of the congregation’s founders, said church members originally met in a rented basement in Astoria, Queens. Every Sunday, it had to be completely furnished — from the portable altar to the folding chairs.
Finding out that there was an empty church for sale, even an hour’s drive away, was “like a miracle to us,” he said.
How do church leaders respond to the neighbors’ concerns about the church’s lack of involvement in the community? How do the Christian faith and Indian culture intermingle in this congregation’s beliefs and practices? Is there anything “Hindu-esque” about this church?
That silence you hear is the Times failing to enlighten readers on the church’s perspective on such questions.
IMAGE OF A LEADERSHIP TRAINING CAMP, via Web site of the Northeast American Diocese of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church.