South Asian Christians bring their own flavor to Christmas
Appam and gajrela are traditional foods for some of South Asia's diverse Christian communities
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South Asian Christians, a minority within a minority
Alfonse Javed speaks at the South Asian Fellowship holiday dinner in Metuchen earlier this month.
Nothing says Christmas like spongy appam and tender lamb biryani for some New Jerseyans.
South Asian Christians — those hailing from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and other parts of the subcontinent — are a minority within a minority: just 1%-2% of all South Asians.
But even as that translates to tens of thousands of South Asian Christians in New Jersey, their unique traditions are little known, even among fellow South Asians.
“When people think of India, they think Hindus, and when they think of Pakistan, they think Muslims,” said Alfonse Javed, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Metuchen.
But serving a congregation with large numbers of immigrants, including from South Asia, he believes Christians from Asia have a unique perspective to offer.
“In Eastern culture, spiritual conversations take place everywhere," Javed said. “God has to be at the center of everything.”
Christians have existed in South Asia for over 2,000 years. The faith has come to the region in layers over time, with some members of that community being recent converts and others able to trace their Christian lineage back more than 25 generations.
“We have been Christians for 2,000 years in Kerala,” says Mary Algoo, who immigrated from India as a young girl and has lived in Warren for 25 the last years. “It’s a cultural identity and a religious identity.”
Algoo migrated to New York City with her family as in the 1970s and then to New Jersey 25 years ago. In America, her father insisted that she and her siblings learn about Indian culture and their language, Malayalam.
“Culturally, we are 100% Indian. We are not Hindu by culture, we are Indian,” she said.
Although she attends a mainstream evangelical church today, she grew up attending church in Brooklyn with fellow Keralan Christians. They would sit separated by gender, the women with their hair covered, as is the common practice in South Asia across religious traditions. During the holidays, they would go to each church member’s house to sing Christmas songs in Malayalam.
Today, Algoo has a broad circle of South Asian friends, many of whom are not Christian, and she is known for her big Christmas party. Her North Indian friends — many of whom are not Christian but attended private Catholic schools in India — love singing along to the carols they learned as children.
“I don’t know if Northern Indians think that I belong. I feel like I’m 50% Indian and 50% not in their eyes,” she says. “In my Malayali community, I don’t have to explain anything.”
Over the years, Algoo has developed friendships in the tristate area with Christians from all over India, including those from Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Telugu communities. Each has its own traditions and ways of practice.
In Kerala, Christian homes would adorn their houses with a red star for Christmas, but Algoo opts for traditionally American lights at her home in Somerset County. One tradition she hasn’t broken is serving appam, pancakes made with rice and grated coconut, which are a special food eaten at Easter or Christmas. They are always a hit, she said.
A divided community
For Javed, the Pakistani American minister, the traditional Christmas food is biryani and gajrela, a carrot dessert that is eaten in his homeplace of Lahore, Pakistan, in the winter.
He eats a more traditionally American meal now that he is settled here, but his wife still makes gajrela especially for him. In Pakistan, he remembers Christmas as a loud celebration. His church in Pakistan has a procession, and people would stay up all night talking and eating.
“That’s unheard of here,” he said of the late-night festiveness, likening the Pakistani Christmas to other festivals celebrated there, including Eid, a Muslim holiday.
Javed is a rare church leader of Pakistani origin in America, a perspective he says helps him better connect with a diverse congregation.
Unlike Algoo and many other Indian Christians who migrated for economic opportunity, Javed says that many Pakistani Christians came to the United States as refugees escaping religious persecution. About 1.6% of Pakistanis are Christian, and that community faces widespread discrimination in their home country.
Even here, Javed feels unwelcome at times in the broader Pakistani community. He proudly had his four young children don green-and-white to attend a local event celebrating the nation’s independence in August, but he said he left feeling hurt when attendees there spoke of Pakistan as a Muslim nation.
“By and large, there is still prejudice against Pakistani Christians, even in the New York area,” said Javed, although he noted that younger Pakistani Americans appear more open to discuss the ways Christians are treated in the country.
Trying to build bridges
At a holiday dinner by a group called South Asian Fellowship in Metuchen earlier this month, several Muslim and Hindu leaders from the South Asian community spoke alongside Javed about the importance of building bridges across faiths.
Ghazala Amoon, who helps run South Asian Fellowship alongside her husband Amoon Sharon, is also Pakistani. She and her husband settled in Metuchen in 2008, after they had to leave Pakistan following an attack on their business. Still, she feels very connected to her home country, where many of their family members still live.
“I feel very proud of being Pakistani. Our mothers are there, our siblings are there,” she said.
In Pakistan, she and her relatives were careful about how they celebrated Christmas. Inside their homes, they would put up decorations and trees, but they didn’t light up the outside of their houses because they did not want to attract attention.
Christmas is a much less commercial holiday there, so shopping and gift-giving are less important than visiting family members and enjoying rich foods together. Like Javed, Amoon also remembers eating gajrela, alongside Christmas cakes relatives would order from bakeries.
“We put on new clothes, go to each other’s homes like others do on Eid. We say, ‘Christmas Mubarak’ or ‘Happy Christmas’ to each other and go to church. We sing carols in Urdu,” she recalls. “It’s a party.”
In New Jersey, Amoon’s family celebrates with a mix of traditions from back home and those adopted here. Their house glitters with lights, proclaiming loudly and proudly their celebration of the season.
“When people come to the U.S. from a different culture and a different country, they do feel challenges to assimilate,” she said. “But religiously, there have been no challenges. We have a lot of freedom.”
This article was produced in collaboration with NJ Spotlight News.
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