Hindu-esque Orthodox Christian commuters?

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.

Is it:

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.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Dave

    Bobby, I think you’re being a bit harsh here. This is a short story about a neat parady by an odd church, in the context of Metro New York, which probably has more odd churches than anyplace else in the US east of Los Angeles. It’s not intended to be an academic-level screed on any of the topics on which it touches. If I lived nearby I might make a point to check it out next year.

  • Jerry

    I suspect that the reporter was attracted to the, by local standards, exotic nature of the event and the people and was interested in doing a survey story which showed a few highlights about what made this group exotic. I do agree that the Calvanism part should have been left out with some more details about that group.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Dave, a bit harsh maybe, but I don’t think I was asking for an academic-level screed. I just wanted a few basic questions answered and, in a best-case scenario, less zigs and zags in the story’s direction.

  • http://www.ocf.net pxs155

    There are a number of Orthodox churches that use instrumental music in liturgy, most notably including Coptic Orthodox. Eastern Orthodox are not supposed to, but organs are used quite a bit in the US. I am not sure, but I think the rules are less stringent on instruments in the Western Rite with regard to organs. Obviously, bells are still a big part of the Church, as well as small chimes, and (alhough the name escapes me) the wooden planks used sometimes in place of bells.

  • Jimmy Mac

    Is it: a story on “the feminization of the church?” Note that the only males are the preist and 2 men nex to him!

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    pxs155, thanks for the background.

    Jimmy Mac, the photo is not specifically related to the story, although it is of folks from the diocese mentioned. The Times photos are quite good (from my amateur photography perspective), but unfortunately, they’re copyrighted.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I asked Bobby to react to this as a reader, not as an Orthodox reader. My confusions about the story would be different than his. Do we ever really find out what branch of Orthodoxy this parish represents, in relation to Eastern Orthodoxy itself?

    You must remember that exotic is fun and cool. Eastern is cool. Pseudo-Hindu is cool.

    Precision and information is, apparently, not very fun and cool. I think Bobby’s central point — that the story simply attempts too much — is the heart of the matter. Do less. Get the facts clear on what you take on.

    Are there any other Orthodox readers out there? What think ye of this?

  • Chip

    The writer isn’t some summer intern or religious beat neophyte. Paul Vitello has been covering religious stories from the Vatican to Staten Island for more than two years.

    The cutesy bits are not only not professional but demean the Malankara Indian Christians. He could have better spent his time Googling Malankara Orthodox Church so he could have provided some real information about the Christians he was writing about.

  • Matt

    There is no Dutch Reformed Church in the United States anymore. It has splintered into several new churches.

    This is yet another topic brought up unnecessarily by the reporter and not discussed intelligently. The two main bodies of Dutch Reformed Christians in the U.S. are alive and well and have remained unchanged for 150 years, surely predating the building about which the article is talking. The Reformed Church in America (which, it is true, dropped the word “Dutch” from its name in 1867) is the direct descendant of the churches established by 17th-century Dutch colonists, while the Christian Reformed Church dates from a mid-19th-century renewal movement.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    tmatt–You hit what I was thinking about. How many reading the article will be aware that the Syrian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox are not the same “Orthodox” communion of churches as those in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople (oops!—Istanbul since its bloody conquest by peace-loving Islam). In fact, do these churches even recognize each other??? Are they in communion with each other??? If not, does the word “branch” fit since each grouping claims to be THE Orthodox Church?? Or do they consider each other at least partly heretical??? The Coptic Orthodox Church vehemently opposed the Council of Chalcedon and the Tome of Leo–Constantinople cheered it. (Wow! My head is spinning.–How could a reporter explain even some of this without driving his readers into a Big Snore. Yet some of this is crucially important.)

  • Julia

    You must remember that exotic is fun and cool. Eastern is cool. Pseudo-Hindu is cool.

    Exotic is cool unless it’s Catholics, whose priests are ridiculed for wearing dresses and the church itself for not allowing women priests. I wonder if this exotic group has women priests? If not, why are they not castigated as bigoted? Americans are so parochial.

    Sorry for the chip on the shoulder. I just read an MSNBC piece on how awful the Catholic Church is for being “upset” about Julia Roberts’ recent movie ignoring the Catholic Church when its Rome segment used extensive Catholic images in Rome without a nod toward the church in a movie about spiritual quest – when it was just a movie review by a movie reviewer, not the Pope or even a bishop. The MSNBC comments are even worse – accusing the church of trying to tell them what movies to see when the church should be concentrating on its wayward priests.


  • Julia

    You are right, Deacon.

    And where’s the explanation of why this Orthodox group celebrates the “Assumption” of Mary and not the “Dormition” like other Orthodox?

    This is particularly funny when most secular news reports on Catholic celebration of the “Assumption” say it’s a new dogma invented in the late 1800s – when actually the same date is anciently celebrated by the Orthodox (all kinds) as well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=725186583 Kurian Jacob

    oh ok seems like there is lot of confusion. I am a member of the church mentioned here.

    1.It is a part of the oriental Orthodox and uses the same liturgy as the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch( the church is in communion with coptic, syrian, ethiopian and armenian church). Please note that it is not Eastern Orthodox.

    2. The liturgical language is Syriac but malayalam( the local language) is more used nowadays.

    3. Comparing Dutch reformist churches and Indian Orthodox will be like comparing…uh..

    4. Psuedo Hindu – might be coz of the use of banging sticks, koladi..etc. These r not used in our churches in India..(but drums r used for procession)…but then when hindus and christians lives together side by side for more than 18000 years…there will be some influence ofcourse!

    5. And one more thing, this is one of the most ancient,conservative and patriarchal church in india. The photo is from a women’s meet.

  • Donna

    What I’m wondering is : why does an Oriental Orthodox group have a picture which, to my eyes, closely resembles the decidely Western image of Our Lady of Schoenstatt, rather than a proper icon ?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=725186583 Kurian Jacob

    Icons r not much used in Syrian , Indian churches. But now days icons r becoming more popular.
    The reason why western images r in use coz of its contact with Roman Catholic church. If u read the history, the ancient christians of india were ruled by nestrorian patriarchs in the beginning. Later the Portuguese came and tried to influence the church. They burned most of the syriac manuscripts and brought the church under Pope. The above mentioned Orthodox church revolted against the Portugese and sought help from the Antiochian Patriach. So The reason could be this relationship, strained yes with the catholic church. (note that icons were more associated with byzan rite which the indian church had no connection)

  • Monson Varghese

    Just like any other orthodox church,Malankara Orthodox church also believe in the dormition of the holy Mary.After her death her body was resurrected and was taken to heaven.The Catholics believe that her body was assumed into the heaven.

    Still there are some theological differences between the Oriental Orthodox churches,Malankara is one of them, and Eastern orthodox churches

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    Kurian, thanks for some insight from your congregation. My comment is on the story & isn’t directed to you, but if you can respond it would be interesting.

    The church has been worshipping at this building since 1992. Mr. Vitello notes what he and the neighbors he quotes say is a lack of interaction between congregants and the neighborhood. Has it been that way for 18 years? During that time, have any of the neighbors who “occasionally [glance] over the tops of their newspapers at the passing parade” ever visited the congegation? How about the life of the church on other days of the week? Does the priest office elsewhere? Are there meetings, dinners, youth events, picnics and such? We get some quotes from neighbors who say they don’t see much of the church people, but as Bobby notes, a nice round goose-egg from church members or leadership.

    It just seems like once Mr. Vitello found his hook — “quaint little exotic congregation meets in the middle of quintessential Americana neighborhood” or something — he stopped looking for new things to learn and started looking for things to back up what he already knew. I seriously doubt he did it maliciously, but it still offers a pretty incomplete story and some pretty substantial holes.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Thank you, Kurian. I, too, appreciate you stopping by.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=725186583 Kurian Jacob

    You are welcome. Am no expert, but i agree with your post. It seems like he wanted to talk about a lot of things…but couldn’t concentrate on anything.

  • http://www.samueljhoward.us Samuel J. Howard

    I was amused by this graph:

    Though the churches hew closely to Orthodox Christian liturgy, members also sustain many Indian cultural traditions. Worshipers remove their shoes before entering the church. Men and women sit separately.

    There may be something about the conservatism of Indian culture that causes men and women to still sit separately in their churches, but for men and women to sit separately is not an Indian cultural tradition. It was common in many Christian Churches until the 20th century including several types of Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church.

  • http://www.one-christ.blogspot.com Joe Varghese

    Whoa! To those writing some of the comments above, I want to clarify that as a member of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, I read this NYT article with half-amusement and half-sorrow. “Mary” in the title is St. Mary, whom all Apostolic Churches revere as the Theotokos – the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ. The person writing the article quoted several people but not the *priest*, who studied at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in the New York area and would have correctly explained the traditions and what seemed to be an odd parade. There is truth that our Church, which has been established in America for less than 50 years, still has many parishes that are culturally closed … but that has nothing to do with the Doctrine of the Church or the belief. We are Orthodox Christians – a pre-denominational Christian that was evangelized in India by St. Thomas. We are members of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. There’s nothing “Hindu”, although as with many Apostolic Churches many local customs and practices were integrated in to the worship .. but never, ever did that change the teachings of the Church and who Christ was. If so, then we would not be Orthodox anymore

  • http://www.one-christ.blogspot.com Joe Varghese

    Regarding some of the questions in the comments above, the Oriental Orthodox are a group of Churches that disagreed with the Eastern Orthodox at the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.). There are many who believe (myself included) that there will be a unification of the Orthodox Churches as many believe it was misundertanding that led to the schism (e.g., http://www.monachos.net/content/patristics/patristicstudies/35-themes/252-severus-chalcedon). The best sources to learn more about the Churches are the websites of the 2 Dioceses in America – the North-East (http://www.neamericandiocese.org/index.aspx) and the South-West (http://www.ds-wa.org). A You Tube video of a recent Missions trip to India also better explains that Christ is the center of our teaching, and in fact the “parade” was a celebration only because the Church was named after St. Mary, who’s Feast of the Dormition is indeed all about Christ and the promise to all of us as Christians of everlasting life in Him. The “perunaal” or celebration occurs on the day of the Feast of the Saint that the Church is named after … my Church in Illinois is named after St. Gregorios, who’s feast day is in November so we had normal Liturgy on August 15th.

  • http://www.one-christ.blogspot.com Joe Varghese

    The YouTube video that I mentioned above: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cr1Ni4OvFgI

    I love this video as it shows how culture, Christianity and teaching can work together … not just a “neat parady by an odd church”

  • Kristina

    The commentator who called the procession a “parady” (sic) is missing the point entirely. The worshipers are honoring the Theotokos, the Mother of God–there’s nothing mocking or ironic about it at all.

  • G Varghese

    Bobby, Thank you for writing this.

  • Abraham

    Deacon John (#10), I hope you do take some time to consider the commentary in #22.

  • Carl

    “the Oriental Orthodox are a group of Churches that disagreed with the Eastern Orthodox at the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D)”

    To be clear, the Eastern Orthodox were united with the Roman Catholics until the 1050s, so the split can also be called a split within the proto-Catholic Church.

    FWIW, the names “Catholic” and “Orthodox” are just convenient labels, since all of the churches consider themselves to be catholic (universal) and orthodox (right believing).

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    The “proper icon” quote seems to me to say “this is not an Eastern Orthodox icon”. Well, it is not an eastern Orthodox Church, so what is the problem there. Oriental Orthodoxy and Eastern Orthodoxy differ at a deepr, earlier level than Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism do.

  • joseph godleski

    i do not understand what the author is hinting at i am russian orthodox christian under the patraich of moscow and i have visited the assyrian orthodox the malakara orthodox the cotic orthodox the armenian orthodox the ethiopian orthodox churches they reject the church council of 451 ad and hold to Monophysite meaning they reject the two distinct natures of christ as being separate that christ was true god and true man the oriental orthodox churches believe that both natures are fused together they usual reject calling mary the mother of god or use the title theotokos and shy away from the use of icons the other group is the mar thoma church which looks likeand worships like a episcopalin church and allows drums and musical insturments in the worship but claim to be also oriental orthodox

  • Monson Varghese

    I am a Malankara Orthodox Christian from Kerala India.
    We are not Monophysites but Diophysites We follow the faith as presented by St Cyril in the council of Ephesus that human and divine nature are united in Christ without confusion, mingling or alternation. Explaining this divine union or holy mystery by words is beyond the scope of this blog. We believe Holy Mary is Mother of God and generally agree with the term Theotokos
    Of course we do not shy away from the use of icons. Plenty of Icons are used in our churches. We also use mural painting, the pictorial representation of biblical events in our churches

  • Monson Varghese

    The group Mar Thoma Church is an Anglican communion sect.They never claimed that they are an oriental Orthodox church but identify them self as a protestant denomination