PITTSBURGH, Pa. (BP)–The gleaming white of the Sri Venkateswara Temple rose majestically on top of the hill as we approached it one Sunday afternoon last spring. The exquisite architecture reflected intricate Indian design. Tall green trees formed a beautiful backdrop as we drove up to it. Scores of cars were parked right out to the street and throngs of people were either leaving or entering the temple. We drove around the temple and saw the priests performing their duties in front of the holy fire and blessing people by putting a red mark on their foreheads.
This could have been a scene right out of any town or village in India. Only this was suburban Pittsburgh. And I was with the pastor of the church where I had just preached that morning.
THE CHANGING FACE OF NORTH AMERICA
We are slowly realizing that our neighborhoods, communities and workplaces are changing. We’re waking up to the fact that we now have new kinds of neighbors — they look different, they speak a different language, they eat different kinds of food and speak with a foreign accent. We know they aren’t Christians, because they worship other gods.
North America has always been a land of immigrants, but now we have a new wave of people coming from countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East adding to the growing religious diversity in North America. We don’t have to go overseas to meet someone from another culture. Each one of us can now be a missionary in our own communities.
Between 1990 and 2000, Hinduism has emerged as one of the fastest-growing religions in America. The number of Asian-Indians, most of whom are Hindu, has doubled every 10 years since 1980 to reach a record 1.7 million in 2000. USA Today reported that there are currently 1.3 million Hindus in the United States. The Pluralism Project of Harvard University (www.pluralism.org) lists more than 700 Hindu temples in the United States, many built in the last 10 years. Many more are in the construction stage.
CATCH GOD’S HEARTBEAT
Revelation 7:9 says, “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” What a glorious picture! People from all over the world, in fact from every nation, will be praising God. If His heart beats for people from every nation and if Jesus died for all nations, then how can we keep the great news of the Gospel to ourselves, especially now that they live next door?
We can effectively reach Asian-Indians by knowing a little about their culture, beliefs and practices. First and foremost, we need to learn as much as possible about Hinduism. There are a number of books about this faith including “Hinduism — A Very Short Introduction,” an objective survey of Hindu beliefs, culture and scripture by Kim Knott. For more resources about the Hindu faith and culture and a testimony from a former Hindu, visit www.onmission.com. For a belief comparison chart, visit www.namb.net/evangelism/iev/belief_bulletins.
We need to keep some cultural pointers in mind. Asian-Indians born in the United States are more Americanized, so the pointers apply more to the majority who are first-generation immigrants.
HOW TO GREET AN ASIAN-INDIAN
Handshakes are common, although men should wait for a woman to offer her hand first. A common form of greeting in India is to put the palms together, put them at chest level, bow slightly and say “Namaste” (pronounced Na-mus-tay). It is customary to use titles (such as Dr., Prof., Mr., Mrs., etc.) along with the last name of the person, and friends usually go by their first names.
A strong and immediate bridge can be built with your Indian friend if you know just a few phrases in Hindi. The fact that you took the trouble and made an attempt will mean a lot, and you will develop a rapport almost immediately. Although hundreds of languages and dialects are used in India, most Indians can speak English and/or Hindi. Here are some common phrases you can use when addressing an Asian-Indian:
• Hello: Namaste (nah-mus-tay)
• Yes: Hah
• No: Nah or Nuh-hee
• Good morning/afternoon/evening/night: Namaste (nah-mus-tay)
• How are you? Aap kaise ho? (ahp kai-say ho?)
• I am fine: Mein thik hoon (may theek hoo)
• Please: Kripya (krip-yah)
• Thank you: Dhanyabad (dhan-yah-bahd) or Shukriya (shook-ree-yah)
INTERACTING WITH AN ASIAN-INDIAN
The Indian culture is highly collectivist. This means that most Indians will consider their acceptance of the Gospel in light of how it will impact their families and friends. There is also a strong possibility of being rejected by family members if a person changes his or her religion. Chances are you will not get an immediate response. Be prepared to walk with and support your Indian friend if he or she wrestles spiritually.
Safe topics of conversation include Indian culture and heritage. Cricket and soccer (they call it football) are among the most popular sports.
Most Indians are either Hindus or Muslims. Keep in mind that Hindus don’t eat beef, and Muslims don’t eat pork. Most Hindus are vegetarians. Also, since most leather products are made out of cowhide, any gift items made of leather would be inappropriate for Hindus.
You might see a child bowing and touching his or her parents’ feet. This is an age-old practice of showing respect to elders.
Keep in mind that Indian food tends to be spicy and hot (yes, they love curry!). If invited to an Indian home, it is appropriate to find out if a particular dish will seem hot to your tastebuds. You might even try to take a little and taste it before taking more. Also, you will find your Indian host or hostess will ask you several times to have more food even after you say you have had enough. Do not take offense, as this is a common Indian custom to make sure the guest is truly satisfied.
Most Indians eat with their hands, although this is not as common among Indians in the United States.
Hospitality is highly prized in Indian culture. Hindus consider it a spiritually rewarding experience to entertain guests.
As Indians come from a collectivist society and yearn for community, many will be open to coming to church if it means being a part of a community where people are genuinely concerned about each other. You might start by inviting them to less-threatening events outside of a Sunday church service.
As is the case with people from most other countries, avoid discussions on politics. If your Indian friend initiates a conversation on politics, do more listening than talking.
Don’t touch or lean on any idols of gods and goddesses you might see at an Indian friend’s house.
Don’t put your feet on top of books or magazines. Indians (especially Hindus) revere printed literature as a source of wisdom. To deliberately mishandle them is to dishonor wisdom. Letting your feet touch the Bible or flinging it around is a sure way to turn off an Indian — the thinking will go this way: “If Christians don’t respect their own scriptures, then their faith must not mean much to them.”
Avoid questions that may have a “no” for an answer. Indians generally hate saying “no.”
Don’t criticize your Indian friend in front of others, as this will cause him or her to be humiliated and lose face.
Do not get into conversations about personal issues. Avoid arguments.
Concentrate on proclaiming the Gospel, not on winning an argument (people rarely come to Christ as a result of an argument!). If you feel the conversation is becoming argumentative, drop the subject and continue later.
Don’t make fun of the fact that Hindus consider the cow a sacred animal.
Avoid discussions on the India-Pakistan conflict.
Don’t talk about poverty in India.
Most Asian-Indians yearn for community. Coming from a collectivist society, they have a tough time adjusting to the American individualistic culture. This is where Christians can step in, and the church can become the community they are seeking.
One thing that turns off many Asian-Indians is when Christians in this country just share the Gospel but are not interested in them in any other way. So if they say “no” to the Gospel, the same Christian friends and acquaintances disappear from their lives. Christian Asian-Indians who used to be Hindus say the most convincing argument for following Christ came through the love Christians showed toward them.
So the next time you come across “curry-lovers,” take a second look. Jesus died for them, and by your sharing the Gospel, they could well be standing next to you on that day when we all will be praising the Lamb.
Rajendra Pillai of Clarksburg, Md., is founder and director of Turning Point, an organization dedicated to equipping and inspiring Christian writers. Portions of this article were adapted from Pillai’s new book, “Reaching the World in Our Own Backyard.” Reprinted with permission from On Mission magazine, published by the North American Mission Board.