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Columbia The New Americans: Homelands and Diasporas

Finding Communion in Hollis, Queens

Indian Pentecostals share in prayer and praise
By Jennifer Lai, June 19, 2007

QUEENS–The outside of the Indian Christian Assembly looks like a large home. Two long driveways flank the wood and brick building and the front of the house has a Victorian-style walk-up porch. Inside, more than 200 Indians, mostly Mayalalees – those from the southern India state of Kerala – have gathered for the Pentecostal church’s Sunday service, a two-and-a-half hour celebration. Men wear gray suits and hold Malayalam- and English-language Bibles. They sit on the left side of the church facing the altar. On the right, the women sit, many with children, wearing brightly colored robes and saris.

Image: Indian Christians
Two unidentified Christian girls talk outside a church in Ahmadabad, India. (AP Photo/Divyakant Solanki)

After about an hour and a half of lively song, prayer and a rousing, on-his-feet sermon from the Rev. Philip Benjamin Thomas on the “greatness of God,” the church elders, seven men who range in age from their late 40s to late 60s, come forward and stand next to Thomas.

He approaches a table in front of the altar, on which a white cloth covers a mound. He slowly pulls back the cloth, uncovering two stacks, both silver: one, a tower of plates with concave centers holding pieces of bread, the other a tower of silver trays with holes cut into the metal lid that hold small clear plastic shot-glass-sized cups of grape juice. These are the physical elements of the Christian Communion.

Thomas first recites the story of the last supper, quoting the words of Jesus:

Jesus tells his disciples to eat bread and drink wine in remembering him, saying the wine is his blood and the bread his body.

Thomas then stands over the bread, and recalls Jesus’s words.

“Take, eat, this is my body, do this in remembering me,” he says, and begins handing the silver dishes to the elders, who then walk into the crowd, handing out the dishes. The men reach quickly into the dishes, each of which holds roughly 50 half-inch squares of white bread. They reach in with their right hands, pull out a piece, and place the bread in their left palm. Then, they grasp their left hand with their right, and reverently form a cup around the bread. After all the members of the congregation have taken bread, Thomas instructs them to eat, which they all do at once.

Then Thomas moves to the grape juice, which represents wine. He blesses the wine, again, reciting the story of the last supper, ending with Jesus’s words to his disciples on that night. “Take, drink, this is my blood, do this in remembering me.”

Again, the elders walk into the congregation, and a young man plays softly on an electric organ.

The congregants cup their hands around the sacrament. Thomas asks if anyone has not received Communion, and when nobody answers, the congregation drinks all at once.

The moment after Communion ends, a song starts, sung in Malayalam. It starts slowly, and people sway, clap and sing. It builds and builds and builds. The words 'Hallelujah,' and ‘Praise the Lord,’ are repeatedly said by individuals in the congregation, which is now rocking back and forth. One parishioner pulls out a drum, which he begins beating faster and faster, increasing the pace of the music.

One man, an elder, begins shaking his fists in the air, shifting his weight quickly from one foot to another. It’s almost as if he’s lost total control of his body, which writhes back and forth as if in a standing seizure.

Thomas beams as he sings and then close his eyes. Every once in awhile his microphone catches his "hallelujah" and "praise God." Loosely translated, the song’s lyrics describe Jesus sacrificing his life, and the congregation’s acknowledgment that this act occurred in the Communion ceremony. The song ends, the parishioners sit and listen to another 30 minutes of praise and prayer.

This Glimpse of Faith was filed by News21 Fellow Peter Cox

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