“We have turned into the kind of Indians we have always hated.”
I cringed. I couldn’t believe my husband would say something like this—at least out loud. But inside, I agreed.
Though we are both ethnically Indian, I grew up in the Middle East among other Indian immigrants, while my husband was born and raised in India in a town where his family has lived for generations.
We’ve both been living in the United States for nearly two decades now. And while we both wanted to retain ties to our Indian community in the US, over the years, we’ve struggled to keep the connection.
Part of the reason was because we wanted to strengthen our Christian connections. We became increasingly involved in our (predominantly white) church, and our family found it comfortable to stay in our “holy huddle” even if that meant becoming more and more Americanized. But even as we judged others who had forsaken their Indian traditions, we worried we were doing the same.
Something has changed in recent years, though. I have felt God prompting me to cultivate closer relationships with my Hindu Indian friends. I still receive invitations to Diwali and Holi celebrations, and lately I’ve begun to accept these offers.
I’m not interested in worshiping their deities or adopting a syncretistic faith. Rather, I now see that my Indian heritage is a gift that allows me to build relationships with people who share my culture, who intuitively feel comfortable with me. Sometimes that leads to opportunities for me to thoughtfully share about my relationship with God.
After years of trying to find a Christian community in America, I realize I’m now called to lean into the process that the apostle Paul described as “being all things to all people” for “the sake of the gospel” (1 Cor. 19:22–23).
I grew up in a religiously diverse community in Oman, where my family and I lived in an Indian immigrant enclave. Thousands of miles from our loved ones, we attended each other’s birthday parties, watched movies together, and ate dinner with one another.
Whether Christian, Hindu, or Muslim, we didn’t live as isolated nuclear families; rather, mothers and fathers parented every child as their own, and I knew each adult as my uncle or aunt. We learned our mother tongues and retained our traditions easily. I had a ringside seat to the celebration of many Hindu festivals and felt that casually observing religious holidays didn’t compromise my Christian faith.
After moving to the US, our Hindu friends always remembered us and invited us to celebrate. They kept asking us to join them. But our schedules filled up, often with church events, and we found ourselves declining most invitations.
While these rejections were primarily due to family logistics, in speaking with Indian church leaders, I noticed deeper theological concerns. Christians attending Diwali or Holi events risk “making the gospel softer,” Nitin Christopher, senior pastor at Church of the Way in Plano, Texas, warned me.
Though American culture may see these holidays as more broadly “Indian,” pastors of Indian immigrant congregations I spoke to in Texas, where I live, said they don’t see these holidays as ideal outreach times because of their Hindu origin.
In some ways, the fact that I grew up (casually) celebrating these holidays makes me more of what I would call a “normal” Indian. Most Indian Christians do not observe the festivals with the intent of a puja (act of worship).
Many of us would have a day off from school for Diwali or Eid, and we loved it when our friends came with sweets prepared specially for the day, and even small gifts or trinkets. We lit sparklers and firecrackers for Diwali, and everyone loved playing with the colored powder for Holi. It did not seem sinful to be happy for our friends on their special festival days.
When I moved to the US, I wanted my family to belong. But belonging in America looked different from the kind I had experienced growing up.
It often meant pretending to understand what TV shows or singers everyone was discussing. American friends and acquaintances misunderstood my Indian slang, and I determined to never use those phrases out of the house again. I felt exhausted from my self-consciousness about my “conspicuous” attire, with its bright colors and ethnic jewelry. I decided to attend church events in Western clothes to fit in.
But what if there was a place where these parts of my culture—which I had learned to reject—might not only be accepted but also help me lean into what I believe is God’s call in my life: to be a bridge builder?
Since I’ve begun actively reaching out to my Hindu friends again, I’ve started to reflect on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:19–23:
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
Paul also tells us in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
This verse “does not mean the dissolution of all identities under one; instead, it can be shown through other passages in Paul that he expects his pagan listeners to accept a new identity as Christians, but at the same time not to discard or deny previous identities,” writes Felix K. Maier, who studies cross-cultural interactions in the Roman Empire.
Paul embraced various identities and spaces, viewing them as tools provided by God for spreading the gospel. Despite his role as an apostle to the Gentiles, he cherished his Jewish heritage and maintained ties with his kin. His Roman citizenship endowed him with rights and credibility. He respected the cultures he encountered and used this knowledge to connect with people effectively.
Further, Paul’s upbringing in the multicultural city of Tarsus shaped his complex character. His ministry primarily focused on Gentiles, forming diverse churches with leaders from various backgrounds. He fostered relationships with individuals across societal hierarchies, from slaves to their masters, exemplified in his correspondence with Philemon and Onesimus.
As I studied Paul’s example, I asked myself what it would mean for me to lean into my eclectic identities and begin using them to build relationships. Could I once again get comfortable in Hindu spaces? I hardly felt like I could invite my Hindu friends to church events or functions if I was unwilling to meet them at gatherings they were organizing.
Despite my convictions and my shared heritage, truthfully, I felt awkward the first time I accepted my Hindu friends’ invitation to a Diwali celebration.
I had become used to a very Western form of Christianity and Western hospitality expectations. Even dressing up in Indian clothing felt unfamiliar, let alone dealing with Indian culture, which includes tables filled with sweets and delicacies, children running around, silks, sarees, jewelry, the scent of flowers, agarbatti (incense sticks), and people stepping in to help the hostess and make themselves at home. Things are not always super scheduled at Indian events—not that we don’t ever plan things—and time often flows freely.
I wondered if I had forgotten how to behave around people who were Indian, as even the Indian Christians I knew had adopted Western habits. And yet, on the other hand, I knew the rituals and inside jokes—and that affirmed my presence.
Over time, our shared culture has allowed me to build trust more quickly, to engage my friends in spiritual conversations, and to discuss God with them. Sometimes I even end up pushing them slightly out of their comfort zones by asking how I might pray for them.
As an Indian, I see myself as a counterexample to my Hindu (and Muslim) friends, who might worry that becoming a Christian might cost them their heritage. (Christianity, I often point out, has been in India since St. Thomas shared the gospel here in the first century.) And regardless of where Christians might fall on this holiday discussion, Indian Christians, like other Christians who are part of a specific subculture, have a unique responsibility and role in reaching the people with whom we share a heritage.
Today, part of being a Christian in the Hindu community means being an ambassador for Christianity.
Growing Hindu religious extremism has increased violence against Christians and other religious minorities in India. An unfortunate number of Indian Americans and immigrants to America have continued to cheer Modi and his regime on. Among other reasons, the intense persecution of many Christians in India underscores the criticality of the American Hindu community’s relationship with Indian Christians.
Having wrestled with these feelings for years, I have concluded that Christ has not called me to discard or deny the identity I was born into—or the one I’ve put on since coming to America. Instead, I believe Christ seeks to reconcile my different parts into a cohesive bridge that connects non-Christians in my world to him.
Perhaps my husband’s statement—that we’d become exactly the kind of Indians we didn’t want to be—is one we both needed to think about and contemplate. Maybe it wasn’t about hating the kind of immigrants we had become, but about the wake-up call we needed to hear to become the immigrants God intended us to be.
Sherene Joseph is a third-culture kid born in India, raised in the Sultanate of Oman, and now living in the United States. She is currently working on the SICNA21(Study of Indian Christians in North America 2021) project, including recording an oral history of the community and studying the prospects and challenges facing the diaspora.
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