Indian, Methodist churches form melting pot of the faithful
Friday, December 25, 2009
As the choir launched into the Christmas song, Betty Leach sat in her pew and stared at the words on the page, trying to make sense of them. "Puttenesudu nedu," the Indian parishioners all around her sang.
At 79, she has passed more than four decades' worth of Christmases at this Silver Spring church. She brought her children here and her children's children. But now as the congregation broke into song, Leach couldn't begin to pronounce the words or translate their meaning: Jesus is born today. Instead, the bespectacled grandmother resigned herself to humming along.
After years of holiday tradition -- the "O Holy Nights," the turkey and gravy galore -- Christmas has undergone a dramatic makeover for Leach and two dozen other longtime parishioners. Now they celebrate with plates of goat curry with rice, folk songs from halfway around the world, and a people and culture they are only starting to understand.
This is what happens when you take two congregations -- a predominantly white church in desperate need of new members and a booming Indian church desperate for space -- and blend them together. The result at the now merged Memorial First India United Methodist Church is a study in frustration, joy, struggle and, above all, grace. And Christmas has become a chance for everyone involved to live out the season's themes of unity and peace amid what has turned out to be an unusual and sometimes complicated relationship.
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Although many churches share their space with other congregations, full church mergers remain rare. Some experts estimate that 1 percent of Protestant churches merge each year. Two congregations so ethnically distinct agreeing to merge was a first for the denomination in this region.
And it hasn't been easy.
Since the two churches -- First India and Memorial United -- joined together three years ago, the combined Sunday services, conducted mostly in English, have become a balancing act between the two worlds. And the man doing most of the juggling is the Rev. Samuel Honnappa, the church's diplomatic, soft-spoken pastor.
"Every Sunday is a big challenge," said Honnappa, 60, who is careful to choose someone from the Indian congregation and the original church to do the scripture readings each week. He also makes sure representatives from both groups serve on all the planning committees.
Even the church's decor reflects the delicate position in which it now operates. On one side of the simply adorned altar is the American flag; on the other, the Indian flag.
Three Indians have joined the English choir to try to bridge the gap, but it's been harder to get the English-only members of the congregation to join the Telugu choir.