Church of South India, Diocese of Madhya Kerala


Rev. Henrietta Andrews

Associate Conference Minister for Detroit Metropolitan and Eastern Associations, 

Michigan Conference, United Church of Christ (June 1, 1998 to present)


“That they may all be One”…this is the mutual motto of the UCC and of CSI.  Today several members of the Michigan Conference are much more aware of that motto than they were before January 21, 2004.

From January 21 – through February 5, Henrietta Andrews, John and Ruth Biersdorf, Lynn Lyon, Dianne Roberts and Chuck and Sherry Schacht traveled together in South India .  It was the first time any of us had visited in India . After many weeks of preparation and a long grueling flight from Detroit through Amsterdam to New Delhi to Kochi , India and then to Kottayam we arrived at our destination.

The trip was in response to an invitation of The Rt. Rev. Thomas Samuel, Bishop of the CSI Diocese of Madhya Kerala.  Bishop Thomas Samuel relates to the Church of South India congregations established in the United States of America .  Some years ago, he had suggested to the Church of South India congregation of Great Lakes that they join in fellowship with other churches in the Detroit area.  He was concerned that they not be alone in their ministry.  The pastor at that time, the Rev. Samuel Matthew and the Secretary for the congregation, Mr. Bobi Chandy, contacted the Michigan Conference Minister, Kent Ulery to start discussions.  Many meetings with the pastor, leaders of the congregation and the Division for Church and Ministry followed resulting in the Church of South India congregation of Great Lakes being granted standing in the Detroit Metropolitan Association. Several months following that event, the Bishop extended an invitation for a delegation from Michigan to visit India January 2004.

                Our purpose was to visit with the Bishop, the pastors and the people of the Church of South India and to participate in the 38th Diocesan Convention held in an outdoor arena set up with 2000 chairs at the Baker School Compound, in Kottayam. For one week, from Sunday to Sunday, we worshiped with the people of the Dioceses.  The ministers in our group had an opportunity to preach before the convention. The expectation was a one-hour sermon.  Most of the group presented before the Women, the Sunday School Children, the Youth, the Clergy and the Center for Christian Church Youth Council. 

                The experiences of sharing were transforming for us and for those who listened to our witness about God’s presence in our lives.

                Culture shock – an experience of the unfamiliar! Our first shocker was that of traveling along the roads of Kerala. In most places there are no sidewalks, nor curbing. Pedestrians walk in the streets. It is the honking of a horn that alerts them to the fact that a car is coming. The people will move out of the way but the dogs never do. There are traffic rules but no one obeys them.  The closest thing to a traffic light was a palm size stop sign held by an officer standing on a podium in the middle of a wide intersection.  People get around in cars, buses, rickshaws, bicycles, motorcycles (with entire families on them), delivery trucks and cabs. Vehicles pass one another with a honk of the horn and with just inches to spare.  People weave in and out and often pass the car in front with another vehicle coming head on.  The roads in the city of Kottayam are curvy and hilly and one can drive no faster than 40 mph.  We had many close calls and some hair-raising moments, by God’s grace, we never even received a dented fender.

Traditions in India play an important role.  Men and women sit on opposite sides during the church service, shoes are removed before entering all churches and most homes, arranged marriages are the norm in most households and the young people are accepting of such a tradition.  In most schools children wear uniforms, and in the cases where they did not the traditional Sari or Salwar Kameez was the standard for the girls and shirt and tie for the boys.  Gift giving in the form of flowers, freshly made jasmine leis and shawls is also a part of their tradition.  We received the leis at the beginning of our journey when we were welcomed to the convention and a shawl was bestowed on us at the closing ceremony.  We also received other gifts from our hosts and the bishop and the pastors of the diocese.  Morning tea with hot milk and sugar is a popular tradition as is an afternoon tea and rest. 

What one learns soon after arriving is the way of greeting others.  The palms of the hands are together and the head bowed upon greeting and leaving.  The women of Kerala wear the sari (about six yards of material tied around the waist, with the pleat tucked into an under-skirt.  The palav (end-piece is either drawn over the left shoulder or draped over the head. Very often, the women would cover their head with the end piece during prayer. The men wore the lower garment (the mundu) and a western style shirt.  All of the women in the Michigan group had at least one salwar-kameez tailor made.  The Salwar Kameeze consists of a baggy pyjama and a loose tunic along with a dupatta (a shawl)

We were introduced to a variety of foods, including Chicken Curry, Prathta, Rice Papadam, Raita (yogurt) and Tea served with hot milk and sugar. Great care was taken not to serve spicy foods without first warning us.  We quickly learned if it said, “pickled or contained anything that sounded likes “pickles” it was very spicy. 

We discovered we had no control over anything. This is a humbling experience. We learned to respond to many changes in program and travel plans and outages and translation/communication difficulties with grace.  We had a powerful experience of God’s presence as a blessing to us through prayer.  We learned to trust that God would provide as we prepared sermons and presentations without benefit of resources that would have been readily available at home.  We learned something about being ambassadors.  We experienced one graced-filled day of bonding in the Spirit when we all came together in a strange land. 

The pastors and the bishop welcomed us.  We found the people of the Church of South India to be simply wonderful.  It is as though their own life situations have freed them from the illusion that one can have everything under control.  They live as if they understand – already - that God will provide.  

The Church of South India is faced with issues of their culture – i.e. a protestant presence in a country where they are in the minority.  Women are ordained but not yet serving churches.  There is the awareness of the Caste System and questions emerging about the role of the church responding to that caste system.  But central are a people eager to be spiritually fed and clearly focused upon mission that addresses some of the social needs of the people not addressed by the government.  Their attention to schools for the orphaned and training for young men and women is a priority.  Kerala has a 95 % literacy rate, which is defined as each citizen being able to read and write three languages and three different alphabets.  The Government cannot be depended upon for continuity of services and programs because of the predictable pattern of alternation between the two parties.  The Diocese provides educational opportunities for thousands of children and youth in the State of Kerala , some who can afford to pay for the education and most that cannot. There are more than 300 CSI churches in the Kerala Dioceses and they are served by about 100 pastors and assisted by lay “church workers.”  The white-robed pastors stand out and give constant witness to the influence of the church and its mission.  The Madhya Kerala Diocese plays a crucial role in education and it was obvious that the churches and their leaders lay and clergy take pride in this mission.

            We were amazed at the children and youth, all with smiling faces, well behaved, eager to learn and taking their education seriously.  They would sit for hours during the teachings at the convention and also in their schools.  The classrooms in their schools are simple with wooden benches, a chalkboard and hard floors.  Most schools went from pre-school to the 12th grade.  We discovered they know their Bible Stories. The children memorized many songs and whole portions of scripture.  Their beautiful sparkling dark eyes, black hair and smiling faces will forever be imprinted in our minds eye. 

            In addition to spending time at the outdoor convention, our hosts also arranged a visit to a wildlife sanctuary, a bird sanctuary, a woodworking trade school for boys from poor families and several orphanages.  We saw coconut, tea and rubber plantations, rice paddies and banana, mango and other fruit trees. We saw elephants in the wild, warthogs, and bison. We saw and heard and many species of birds.  We were also given the opportunity to ride an elephant.  Kerala (which means Land of Coconut Trees ) is always green and lush, and you do not see much open ground.

          Our memories of this experience will be rich and lasting. We remember especially the gracious hospitality, which was shown to us at every church, school and home that we visited. We thank especially our family hosts, The Bishop and his wife Lily, and the Reverends Sam Mathew and Joseph Mathew. The people are surely rich in God’s Spirit and they have much to teach us.

(From: United Church News, UCC Michigan Conference, March 2004.)


Church of South India, Congregation of Great Lakes, Michigan