Name C. Thomas Luiskutty, PhD
Posted On 01-07-2009
Dr. Luiskutty is a professor and the chair of the Engineering & Physics Department, Oral Roberts University, Oklahoma. He came to the United States as a graduate student in 1970 on completing B.S. (1965) and M.S. (1969) degrees in Physics from the University of Kerala, India. He completed his Ph.D. (1974) in Physics at the University of Louisville. He taught in colleges in Kerala, India, worked in Bhabha Atomic Research Center, and served as the administrator of a Christian school in Louisville, before joining the faculty of Oral Roberts University. In addition to research and publication in his professional field, Luiskutty is a contributor of articles to many Christian publications, and the author of two books. He and his wife, Celia, have three adult children. View all articles by C. Thomas Luiskutty, PhD
THE INDIAN CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY in North America can be proud of their younger generation. In general, they are brilliant, industrious, and goal-oriented. In addition, most of them are God-fearing and have a solid family life. Yet many of them face struggles as they try to adjust to two different cultures and accommodate the spiritual values of their parents and those of their peers. All immigrant communities face such struggles, although in different degrees. Although there are certain issues common to all immigrants from India, the Indian Christian community faces certain unique situations. The struggles of the younger generation of this identifiable ethnic group are discussed and certain recommendations for their survival are made in this chapter. It is to be emphasized that there are many homes where the children do not encounter the problems mentioned here. In the field of human behavior it is impossible to generalize observations and findings in a manner in which they will be equally applicable to all in the community.
The young people of the Indian Christian community are either immigrants or children of immigrants. Until the late sixties, Indian Christians mainly Pentecostals came to the United States primarily to attend Bible colleges. Some of them were able to bring their families and settle in this country, but immigration was limited almost exclusively to people from North and West Europe. As a congressman and later as president, John F. Kennedy was an advocate of changing the immigration laws so that people from all parts of the world would have a more equitable opportunity to enter the United States and settle here.1 His attempts materialized only after his assassination when Congress passed an historic immigration law in 1965. The influx of professionals and their families from India was the result of this landmark legislation. Christians of Indian background, living in Kerala and other parts of India, took advantage of this great opportunity and migrated to the U.S. In time they became U.S. citizens and were able to bring their extended families (parents, brothers, sisters, nephews, and nieces) using the preference systems established by the 1965 Law. Some of the young generation in this community were born in India and brought to America; the rest were born in the U.S. In outlook and expectations, there are differences between those who have lived in the West for their whole lives and the new immigrants. Children who grow up in a city where there is a large Indian community behave differently from those who grow up in isolated areas where their interaction is mainly with non-Indians. The issues facing the young people should be analyzed on the basis of the environment in which they are brought up and in light of their spiritual and cultural heritage.
The Random House College Dictionary defines culture as “the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.” Culture is learned, not innate. The behavior of a person is greatly influenced by his culture. Because India has such an ancient and rich history, the Indian Christian is proud of his heritage. It is believed that St. Thomas, one of the disciples of Jesus, came to India and proclaimed the gospel in the first century. As a result, a large segment of the Keralite Christian population takes pride that they are St. Thomas Christians. Others trace their ancestry to the Christians from Syria who migrated to India many centuries ago. One prominent aspect of the culture is the strong family unit with respect, care, loyalty, and affection shown not only toward the immediate family (consisting of parents and siblings), but to the extended family (consisting of grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins) as well. In such a setting, young people learn important social values from the adults in the family. They seek the counsel and blessings of their elders in all major decisions. The influence of parents and other elders in the family is important in making career choices as well as the choice of one’s marriage partner. They also receive input from people who from their experience can make an objective evaluation. Another characteristic of the Indian culture is the economic interdependence of members of the immediate family. While Western societies encourage children to earn allowances and teens to work part-time to earn extra cash, the Indian economy does not foster this. Young adults stay with their parents until they move out of town for an education or a job, and most college students are financially supported by their parents. Even wage-earning sons and daughters live with their parents and bring their pay home, if they are working in the city or town in which their parents live. The culture does not encourage a young person moving away and establishing his or her own residence until it is necessitated by marriage or out-of-town employment. This kind of family loyalty is rewarded by parents leaving as much inheritance as possible for their children. In general, the Indian culture honors moral values. The whole society looks down on people who lead a sub par moral life. India is the land of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, religions that emphasize humility, self-denunciation, and ahimsa. Even though the Christians in India do not subscribe to the tenets of these religions, they too hold people with such moral values in high esteem. Indian classical music, paintings in temples, ancient architecture, indigenous dances and plays, and ancient literature attest to the fact that the Indian culture values the arts and literature. Indian Christians appreciate certain elements of this culture, but do not promote many expressions of art, as they are closely identified with pagan religions and styles of worship.
In the United States, many young people are brought up by single parents whose moral values are different from those of the previous generations. The “baby boomers” rebelled against the establishment, followed their own ways, experimented with drugs, practiced “free love,” and in the process, lost the moral right to bring up their children in families with discipline and failed in their responsibility to raise up godly families. The result is “Generation X,” with little self-control, and no strong role models or heroes with character to look up to as examples. The second generation of Indian immigrants does not face the same problems because their parents were not part of the rebellious sixties' generation of the West. Yet as the young people observe what is going on all around them and try to adjust to life in this country, and at the same time attempt to do what they believe is right, they encounter many struggles. The most important are conflicts in cultures, conflicts in spiritual values, and external pressures from their peers and from the adult generation. To them, the consequences of failure to adjust to life in America seem greater than any adjustments their parents had to face.
While immigrants from all nations face conflicts in cultural values, the conflicts in spiritual values are not as universal. For example, a Hindu does not have to worry about the spiritual values he finds in America -- he can look at them as the by-product of a foreign religion. Because his religion is different, it is simpler because he need not reconcile beliefs or practices. The new nation or its culture does not require him to adopt its spiritual values or train his children according to these values. But the Christian who looks for a Scriptural basis for his spiritual (and even cultural) behavior cannot take this easy route. There is a large Bible Believing Christian community in America, which also claims that the Bible is the basis for its behavior. What does the immigrant do when his scripturally based spiritual values are in conflict with those of the Westerner who claims his values are also scripturally based? Most Indian Christian youth do not experience any conflict with most doctrinal issues. Doctrines of salvation, baptism, and the Second Coming of Christ are the same in India and in the United States. Conflicts occur when spiritual values and cultural values are intertwined. The medium and style of worship, interpersonal relationships, the method of choosing one’s spouse, submission to parental authority, and standards of holiness are such areas of conflict. The adult generation is comfortable with worship services in their mother tongue and in the format they practiced in India. Many of them believe that this style is divinely inspired and any deviation from it is a deviation from spiritual values. Although the ideal situation is that the younger generation learns the language of their parents, many do not. Thus, services in native languages like Malayalam are not meaningful to them. Even when the sermon is translated into English, they do not pay much attention to it, because the perception is that the messages are culturally irrelevant to them and directed to the adult generation. Unless this perception is changed, the young people will continue to experience struggles. Some young people interested in evangelism complain that they cannot invite their friends to come and listen to the Gospel preached in their churches because of the language barrier and the way visitors of a different culture are treated in their churches. These are not merely cultural struggles, but issues bearing far-reaching spiritual consequences. Adult immigrants grew up in a culture that separated boys and girls. In church, school, or a bus there was separate seating. Conversations and associations between boys and girls were discouraged. While some may look at this as a cultural boundary, others see it as a means of protecting the young people of opposite sex from becoming too intimate with one another, which can lead to sexual sin. As such, it is not just a cultural issue, but a moral, and hence a spiritual one. In the immigrant community, there are some conservatives who would like to see the continuation of this separation, but most have concluded that in America the separation is too artificial and impractical to maintain. Thus, the conflict is not between the adults and the youth, but between those adults who want to hold on to the old way and those who are willing to loosen the reins. Perhaps the subject that causes the greatest conflict is the method of choosing one’s spouse. The Indian culture calls for an arranged marriage in which the parents or other elders find the spouse for their grown son or daughter. Among previous generations, the children were not even consulted. As dutiful children they accepted their parents’ choice for them. But now, even in the most conservative families in India, the young man and woman get to see each other, interact with each other for a short period of time, and choose for themselves whether that is the right person for him or her. While many young people of Indian background are comfortable with this method (some even prefer this), a growing number see advantages in the Western way of dating and choosing their own spouse. Some people may consider this just a cultural conflict; but for the Indian Christian, this has significant spiritual ramifications. First, they see the Old Testament examples of choosing a wife from one's own background and race. Second, they see a pattern for the arranged marriage in the story of Isaac and Rebecca (Genesis chapter 24). Third, they see great danger in dating. Allowing a young man and woman, who are attracted and emotionally attached to each other, to be together without supervision can yield to unspiritual behavior, the consequences of which can be severe. Some may argue that dating is required for young people to know each other, to determine mutual compatibility and preparedness for being life-long partners. In reality, dating as it is practiced in modern American society leads many young people to engage in pre-marital sexual relationships, unwanted pregnancies, single parenthood, and abortion. Many broken relationships during adolescence and youth condition a man or a woman for broken marriages. American Christian parents may not like this situation, but have no choice; it is the norm of the society and dating was the method they chose when they were young. Thus, even though they fear the possible spiritual consequences of this, it is allowed as a social practice. An Indian leans on his spiritual values and cultural background to prohibit his children from dating. He shows his children the importance of holding on to traditional values by contrasting the divorce rate in India compared to that in America. Since there are no statistical figures available for Indian immigrants, the effect of American society on the marriage of the immigrants can be learned from the figures available for another immigrant community of the present era. While the divorce rate of American women is 40 per cent, that of women in Korea is 0.6 per cent, among first generation Korean immigrants, it is 3.7 per cent, and among second generation Korean immigrants, it is 7.3 per cent (1991 statistics).7 If the Indian Christian community does not adhere to biblical teachings and impress upon their children the need for choosing the right spouse with great wisdom, counsel, deliberation and prayer, they also may be dealing with such exponentially increasing divorce rates. In America, even among many Christians, marriage is an arrangement precipitated by emotion, rather than a life-long commitment that transcends all circumstances. The Indian Christian views this not only as a serious social problem, but also as a spiritual issue. Another spiritual concern is the biblical admonition to children to obey their parents. For many parents, a son or daughter that does not honor their desires concerning important decisions in his or her life, such as marriage, is living in rebellion; this becomes a spiritual issue for the individual, for the parents, and for their church. Another point of contention between the adult generation and the youth in the Indian Christian community is the standard of holiness. For example, in the matter of external appearance, Christians especially Pentecostals from Kerala would prefer to hold on to the standards established at the beginning of the movement almost eighty years ago. Essentially they were the same as those followed by the Holiness churches in America.8 But the American Holiness movement and most Pentecostal churches have changed so drastically that there is no distinction between them and the rest of the world in the type of clothes, jewelry, or make-up one wears. Changes have occurred in the Indian Pentecostal community in America too; men and women do not wear the same kind of clothes their parents wore in India and there is only limited opposition to wearing make-up in moderation. Yet many young people are not satisfied with the pace of changes. Most jewelry is still not acceptable, and the young people exhibiting the latest fashion encounter raised eyebrows. While young people look at these as cultural struggles, the adult community views them as spiritual issues that should be settled on the basis of Scriptural commandments and patterns.
Communication media such as television and the Internet expose the modern person to an ever-increasing volume of information. In addition to informing, such media place a tremendous pressure to conform. One may be able to resist the pressure from distant sources, but it is difficult to ignore the stress placed by immediate surroundings. For a young person growing up in church, the pressure comes from three sources: peers, family, and church. Man is a social being -- he likes to be part of a society. In order to be a part, he must accept the norms of the society and behave like other members of the society. As he moves from one society to another, expectations may be different, and thus, he has to adjust to fit into the different societies. If the values or standards of the different societies in which he moves are contradictory to his own, he is placed in a difficult situation, which can have serious implications on his integrity and moral behavior. It is an undeniable fact that every young person attending public or private schools in America is under great peer pressure. Certain aspects of peer pressure are positive and beneficial. For example, peer pressure can instill a certain amount of self-esteem and healthy competition. But peer pressure can be burdensome, too. When the values of the peer group are contradictory to one’s own values, whether they are of spiritual or cultural origin, a person is put in a stressful situation. For instance, for cultural or spiritual reasons, a young man of Indian origin may not associate closely with girls. His peer group does not understand why, does not appreciate it, and eventually shuns him and perhaps brands him as a homosexual even though he is not. This can devastate his self-image and survival as a social being. In a society where smoking, the use of alcohol and drugs, and pre-marital sexual relations are common, it takes extra effort and special strength not to succumb to peer pressure. The Indian youth experiences a certain amount of pressure from his family. The degree of this pressure depends on the extent of the family’s acculturation. Parents who have moved recently from India or who mainly associate with people of their own culture expect their children to honor all their traditional values and not conform to the standards of the new society they find themselves in. Some young people respond to these demands very positively and willingly and have a healthy relationship at home. Unhealthy relationships occur in those homes where the children deem their parents’ expectations too demanding, authoritarian, and unreasonable. In some cases, these expectations are not limited to moral and spiritual behavior, but extend to other areas such as career choices. The church plays a major role in the lives of Indian Christians. In cities where there are Indian churches, the church assumes the role of the extended family. The church is the only social group many people associate and identifies with; all other associations are merely out of necessity. The youth who find the activities and the style and medium of worship meaningful gain great satisfaction and joy through active participation in church functions. But others are not comfortable in this environment. Often their spirituality is measured on the basis of their conformity to the expectations of the adult generation. Since many young people consider these expectations to be unrealistic, the local church is sometimes more a source of conflict rather than a place to find strength. Survival There are many factors that will determine the survival of the Indian Christian community in America in its present form. To a great extent, it will be decided by the immigration policy of the United States. If the present policy continues, the church will continue to grow. The fact that about four to five thousand people attend the annual conferences of the North American Pentecostal Keralites indicates that people are interested in the survival of this community. In a seminar held at the Fourteenth Pentecostal Conference of North American Keralites in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1996, young people expressed that the Indian Pentecostal church has a bright future in America if the community is willing to make certain changes. On the contrary, a survey of Keralite Pentecostal youth in Florida indicated that in their view, the Keralite Pentecostal church has no future in America.9 An important issue facing the immigrant Pentecostal community is choosing which aspects of their society they wish to see survive. The survival of the youth as vibrant and spiritual people building the kingdom of God and making substantial contributions to their community can be facilitated through a change in attitude of the various constituents of the community. This has to be implemented through a prioritization of values, communication in the community, an emphasis on Scriptural standards, and dependence on God. a. Setting Right Priorities As the preceding sections have described, the values of the Indian Christian community have their origin in their cultural as well as their spiritual heritage. Because of the long history and interdependent nature of these values, it is often difficult to separate them. For a person living in India, it is not essential that they be distinguished. But in a new environment, where people are in close communication with other value systems, it is imperative that they be able to distinguish what is cultural from what is spiritual. Cultural heritage is important. Young people should be given appropriate lessons of their culture, sufficient reasons to appreciate that culture, and an environment conducive to their growth in that culture. Yet it should be remembered that young people will have to choose to what extent they want to keep their parents’ culture. The choice will have to be made on the basis of their perception of need, appreciation of their cultural heritage, and their environment. Although culture is good and may be very important to an individual or a community, culture is of no eternal value. Lifestyle, attitude, and behavior with Scriptural support and spiritual foundation are of eternal value. Bringing up children in a godly way is not optional; bringing them up in the Indian way might be. Therein lies the importance of distinguishing the origin of each value and prioritizing the values. There is no blanket rule for prioritization. It will vary from community to community and from family to family. What governs the eternal life of the individual and his spiritual growth must have the top priority; what will make him a good citizen of the community follows. The spiritual values are absolute, the cultural values are relative. Marvin Mayers presents a paradigm which creates different combinations using cultural absolutism and cultural relativism in one set and biblical absolutism and biblical relativism in the other set.10 Because the Indian Pentecostal tends to oppose biblical relativism (that the teachings of the Scripture are relative), only two combinations will be dealt with here. First is the combination of biblical absolutism (that the teachings of the Bible are authoritative) and cultural absolutism (ethnocentrism), resulting in a traditionalist position. Second is that biblical absolutism and cultural relativism (the position that ideas, actions, and objects should be evaluated by the norms and values of the culture in which they are found rather than by another culture’s norms and values), resulting in a position of mutual respect.11 Where one finds himself in this spectrum is determined by how much he adheres to his ancestral culture or how much he is willing to adapt to the new culture. In the present Indian Pentecostal community, very few people are willing to forsake their cultural heritage and embrace the new culture totally. They will adopt those elements that are beneficial to them and resist those elements that they perceive as destructive. Very few people are absolute traditionalists; most will find they agree in varying degrees with the position of mutual respect. In order to minimize struggles within the family, young people should know which values are of paramount importance to their parents and make every attempt to live according to those parameters. They may not be able to accept every demand of the adult generation, and that is where the prioritization becomes important. It is also important that high priority values are so significant and compelling that the youth will internalize them; then only can they explain it to their peers, which is necessary to minimize conflicts in their community. b. Communication An important tool for the propagation of the cultural and spiritual values and the continuation of a community feeling is communication. Whether one realizes it or not, communication occurs all the time. It may be verbal or non-verbal. A boy who walks away as his parent admonishes him is communicating, without words, to his parent, “I don’t want to listen to you; I don’t respect your authority.” Aloofness, ignoring another’s presence, facial expressions, and body language send messages to others, which sometimes are not intentional. Parents should watch their spoken communication as well as body language so that they do not send the wrong message to their children. Indian parents love their children dearly; this love must be expressed not only in action, but also in words. Children expect this. There will be times when children need to be scolded or disciplined, but if a child receives only scolding and punishment, he will lose respect for his parents. On the contrary, if he receives an apology when the parent is at fault, expressions of love and appreciation at the most unexpected time, words of commendation when something is done right, and encouragement when he tries to do things right, there will be a good relationship in that home. Young children should learn from their parents what values are most important to them. If the parents can explain the rationale behind those values, children will be more willing to adopt them. Communication is not a one way street. Children should take the initiative to talk to their parents, express their love and appreciation, and apologize when they hurt them. Communication is different from confrontation. Do not expect others to agree with you on everything; be prepared to reason with them in an amiable fashion, and be content with their decision, because they are in charge. If an authority’s lines and boundaries are clearly defined and well understood, there will be better relationships within the home. For the Indian Christian, the local church is the basis for community relationship, and open lines of communication are essential for the survival of this community. Youth should have the opportunity to express their views with honor and an expectation of understanding. If all the spiritual and cultural activities of the church are oriented toward the adult, the youth will be alienated. The pastors should look at the youth as valuable members of the community and precious souls in the eyes of the Lord Jesus Christ. They may not like certain aspects of their life-style. If they are sinful, they should be corrected; if they are just different, try to understand why they want to be different. Rather than condemning them, if the leaders of the church will pay more attention to the youth, reason with them when they differ, and communicate with them with love and respect, they will respond. Young people need support, encouragement, and edification from homes and the church. Once this is done in a sincere manner, they will be more responsive to corrections. If the young people respond in a mature way to reasonable demands and keep themselves from the sinful ways of the world, the adult generation will be more relaxed and everyone’s lives will be more peaceful and pleasant. c. Emphasis on Scriptural Standards The Bible is the standard for daily living. It is the responsibility of the adult generation to clearly instruct young people on biblical values. These values include honesty, love, compassion, forgiveness, humility, sexual purity, and respect for elders. The pastors, elders, and parents should set examples of integrity, love and care for one another, humility, and forgiveness. If the adult community does not promote these values through their words and life-style, then other values that they emphasize as important for the younger generation will not be taken seriously. If children grow up witnessing dishonesty, bitterness, hatred, slander, and jealousy in home and church, they are not going to pay great attention to instructions on other areas of moral and spiritual behavior. Everyone should realize that they are dealing not only with what they consider good for their life, but also with biblical standards that cannot be altered as social or cultural backgrounds change. Young people may find that it is not convenient to live by their parents’ expectations, but if through rebellion they violate God’s laws, they are sinning against God. The consequences are serious and eternal. There cannot be compromises when it comes to biblical principles. It is important to remember that God has not left His people on the earth with a set of laws that they cannot keep, only to return to punish them for each violation. The children of God have the privilege of experiencing the love of God and hearing His word every day. The presence of Jesus Christ can be felt as Christians meditate upon the word of God and pray in adoration and love with sincerity. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is to give counsel, guidance, and strength to the children of God. The second generation can receive wisdom to live in this vicious world, and guidance to grow spiritually if they stay close to the Lord and ask for forgiveness when they sin. They cannot blame others for their struggles. They survive with trust and dependence on the Almighty God who showed His love to mankind by giving His son Jesus Christ. Conclusion The young people of the Indian Christian community will benefit greatly from learning to appreciate their cultural and spiritual heritage. At the same time, all members of the community must realize that, as people migrate from one environment to another, certain changes are inevitable. Changes cause confusion, struggles, and sometimes identity crises. Through an ethnocentric approach, changes may be delayed, but not stopped. Proper prioritization of values will help young people to realize what values are of great significance to their community and what can be compromised; such an understanding and open communication among the various elements of the society will reduce tensions and struggles. The spiritual future of the community depends on the adult generation and the youth holding to Scriptural principles and not yielding to sinful ways, however gainful and appealing they may seem. A society in transition needs God’s wisdom and guidance. It can minimize its struggles by trusting in God, following His will as revealed in the Bible, and seeking the communion of the Holy Spirit. Notes 1. John F. Kennedy, A Nation of Immigrants (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1964), 77-83. 2. Ibid., 6. 3. Stephen A. Grunlan & Marvin K. Mayers, Cultural Anthropology, A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988), 72,73. 4. Ibid., 80. 5. Raymond B.Williams, Religions of Immigrants from India and Pakistan (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 1. 6. Grunlan & Mayers, 82. 7. Jo Euntae, Korean Americans and Church Growth (Cross Cultural Ministries Institute, 1994), 91, 92. 8. Vinson Synan, The Holiness Pentecostal Movement in the United States (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), 58, 66, 72, 90. 9. Impact Vol.1, Issue 3, Fall 1992. Florida Teen in Action Publication. 10. Grunlan & Mayers, 256, 257. 11. Ibid., 252.