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Queens Chronicle

BUILDING FAITH: The Commuter Church—Modern Means Keep Old World Faith Alive

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Posted: Thursday, November 30, 2006 12:00 am

As Queens’ population becomes more ethnically diverse, so do its houses of worship. In “Building Faith,” a four part series, the Queens Chronicle examines four congregations and their struggles to grow—or simply maintain—their homes.

Sunder Devaprasad leaves his upstate home in Greenville, Orange County, by 5 a.m. to arrive in time to conduct his 9 a.m. Sunday service in Middle Village. The 72 year old pastor makes stops along the way to pick up congregants in the Bronx and Manhattan. Other members of the church drive from all over Queens as well as Yonkers, Long Island, Brooklyn and even New Jersey.

Immediately after the only Tamil language, Church of South India service in the United States ends, Devaprasad and his assistant pastor hand things over to a Korean speaking United Church of Christ congregation for their 11 a.m. service. A Filipino UCC congregation will use the building later in the day, and the building also houses an office for the UCC and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

With 108 families, Christhava Tamil Koil is believed to be the largest Christian Tamil church in the country. Services follow the form of the Church of South India but the congregation is formally associated only with the United Church of Christ, a broad umbrella of Protestant faiths.

Still, the church is so small and its members geographically dispersed that it has come to rely on modern means—commuting—to keep the community coming together in both faith and culture. “All my life I have been immersed in other languages and traditions, so at the end of my life I got the desire to be in my own,” said Devaprasad, who led the effort to find a permanent home.

The Congregation

Tucked away in a quiet neighborhood dominated by Italians and Poles, Christhava Tamil Koil has owned the church, at 79 11 Caldwell Ave., since 2003. The congregation bought it from the regional United Church of Christ, after the previous elderly congregation had grown too small to sustain itself.

Many elements of the previous ownership remain. With the exception of a new sign on the front lawn, the red brick exterior has not changed. The colorful triptych of stained glass windows still illuminates the whitewashed nave and the pews still bear the names of their original donors.

New details, however, like the brass ceremonial lamps on the altar and the pulpit itself, are all from India and employ typical Tamil metalworking styles. They establish the link between Christhava Tamil Koil—which translates from the Tamil language as “Christian Tamil Church”—and Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India. There, Christians trace their faith to the Apostle Thomas who, they believe, came to India in A.D. 52 to evangelize. He is believed to have died in what is now the state’s capital, Chennai.

Compared with other world faiths, the Church of South India is not large. Christians make up just over 2 percent of the population of India and only 6 percent in Tamil Nadu.

Other factors also contribute to Christhava Tamil Koil’s relatively small membership. According to the Rev. Alfred Thiagarajan, the assistant pastor, roughly half of the congregation was part of the founding group in 1982. For the other, shifting half, Queens and the church are more of a stopping point. Some congregants are in the country only temporarily, like Elizabeth Hanna, who will return to India when her three year postdoctoral research fellowship ends. More commonly, new jobs or new homes move congregants too far away to attend regularly. Some visit for the major holidays, while others have started fledgling, informal congregations of their own.

Language And Identity

The choice to hold services in Tamil further limits the size of the congregation. Though not formally affiliated with the Church of South India, the Church of South India lists Christhava Tamil Koil as one of 31 congregations in the United States. Six are in New York state. Christhava Tamil Koil is the only one offering services in Tamil, a language spoken by 66 million people worldwide.

Almost all of Christhava Tamil Koil’s congregants are immigrants from Tamil Nadu, though a few Sri Lankan Tamils bridge the significant dialect differences to join. The church could grow quickly, if that were the goal. “If tomorrow I make this an English speaking congregation, we would have no trouble,” Devaprasad said.

Yet language is key to Christhava Tamil Koil’s identity. Christian Tamils are a linguistic and religious minority within the broader pool of Indian immigrants in New York City. Whereas work and free time are spent in polycultural environments, the church is a place where a focus on tradition deliberately narrows the experience to a monoculture. “During the week, we go out into the mainstream, so the church is a refuge where we can speak our first language outside the home,” said Ruth Albert, 60, a member of the founding congregation.

Thiagarajan said that when his wife joined him in the United States five years ago, the collective shock—the changes in dress, climate, language, social interaction as well as missing relatives and friends—were enough that without the church, she would have returned home after six months.

The connection of language and community even extends across faiths. Padma Maduramuthu is a retired nurse who lives in Flushing. She is Hindu and attends temple regularly, but the service is in Sanskrit, so she also attends the Tamil Koil for the sense of community that comes from hearing Tamil spoken and sung in the hymns familiar from her days attending a Christian high school in India.

The church also provides connections that extend beyond the spiritual realm. Nearly all of Christhava Tamil Koil’s founding congregants worked in the medical field as nurses, doctors or technicians. They offered each other referrals for open positions and sponsored new immigrants. The latter tradition remains, although most positions are now in the computer software industry.

Finding A Home

Before moving to Middle Village, Christhava Tamil Koil rented space from four churches in three neighborhoods: Elmhurst, Richmond Hill and Rego Park. Each move required significant time and effort and added to a sense of transience. Renting also inevitably meant worshippers were given the unused evening time slots.

The Tamil church now has the prime time morning slot, but owning has required just as much entrepreneurship and creativity as being a tenant. Christhava Tamil Koil now rents the building to two other nascent immigrant congregations, one Korean, the other Filipino. Remembering the challenges they had while getting started, rents are nominal. “More than money, we are happy that we are able to provide space for other ministries,” Thiagarajan said.

And though Christhava Tamil Koil has its own building, the congregation still doesn’t have a full time pastor. “There is no such thing as a part time minister in India,” said Thiagarajan, who is vice president of human resources for a software company in Manhattan. “Here the bi vocational pastor is almost the norm.”

Devaprasad, himself a former hospital administrator and community developer, drives down from Greenville four times a week to attend to church business. This is not exactly what he had in mind when he retired there five years ago, but he accepts the schedule as a sign of success and does his best to wrap up his Sunday duties to be home by 10 p.m.

Having seen the pattern of linguistic assimilation at immigrant churches elsewhere—he did his training in the Midwest, in churches that formerly held services in Swedish and German—he is working hard to ensure that Christhava Tamil Koil will be a Tamil speaking church for years to come.

Yet he is also a realist, allowing the purchase of Bibles that have side by side English and Tamil text. There is also one small bilingual evening service, mostly for congregants who have married people who don’t speak Tamil. More bilingual services may be added as the congregation’s second generation grows up.

“Kids are growing up speaking Tamil as a mother tongue but are not able to read and write,” he said, adding: “When they grow up, we don’t want them to leave us and go to another church.”

Welcome to the discussion.