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Born again in the USA (video)

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
May 3, 2013 at 12:03 a.m.
Updated May 4, 2013 at 12:04 a.m.

(ABOVE) His Holiness Baselios Mar Thoma Paulose II, 62, the leader of the Malankara Orthodox Church in Kerala, India.

Land of the Gods

•  April 13 - Enlightenment in India

• April 20 - Christianity and yoga

• April 27 - Education in India

• May 4 - Christianity in Kerala state

Go to VictoriaAdvocate. com/India to read past stories and Jennifer Preyss' blogs from India.

Editor's note: This is the final part of a four-part series on the spirituality in India.

The aroma of tobacco lingered on the tips of his fingers and stalled on the fold of his collar.

He agreed not to smoke for the duration of the church crusade, but his two-and-a-half-pack-a-day habit had Roy Jacob longing for a cigarette.

The then-31-year-old Jacob knew he didn't belong among the charismatic churchy types surrounding him, who found joy and meaning praising Jesus under a tent in the middle of nowhere, India.

But he was obligated to stay and fake his comfort. He was in charge of the musical entertainment, including 75 musicians and choir members. He'd learned all the church songs so he could teach them to his musicians.

Jacob, who now lives in Victoria and works as a DuPont lab analyst, didn't realize it then, but he was about to embark on a journey that would take him far from his roots in a Christian tradition that stretched back 2,000 years in Kerala, India.

The journey begins

Jacob knew the conference would soon end, and he'd be free to go home and wrap his lips around a pint of whiskey and inhale a few drags of nicotine. That was the usual sundown routine - a contentious point for his wife, Elsie.

He agreed he wouldn't drink through the weekend. It was a request from the crusade's organizer, an evangelical preacher who paid him good money during the week to teach his daughter to learn guitar. The preacher and the request, Jacob respected. He would do about anything to be able to play Western music in front of a crowd.

Jacob sat in a chair next to his cousin, Jimmy, in the back of the revival tent, where hundreds of traditionless Pentecostals gathered in Kerala, India, for a weekend of wholesome Christian fellowship.

The crusade was polar opposite from the piety and religiosity of the Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Orthodox church tradition he was raised in. He was used to high bishops, three-hour-long communions, repeating liturgy on command and ordered sitting and standing during service.

Sitting in the chair, Jacob heard something unusual. Confused, he thought he heard a voice telling him to speak to a pastor.

He said he later realized it was the voice of God, guiding him to speak to a man at the front of the room.

Jacob had no idea he was about to surrender his life to Jesus, even if it required that he leave his family, and his country and walk away from a 2,000-year-old Orthodox religious family tradition that he had always been told was the only way to heaven.

Growing up Orthodox

When he was a child in Kerala, India, it wasn't unusual for his family to entertain high bishops of the Mar Thoma Orthodox church in their home. His father, a respected layman of the church, helped build the Korba Mar Thoma Church from the ground up when the family moved to Korba.

Jacob's father would often invite the high priests to stay in their home and Jacob, now 55, remembers as a young boy, sitting on the bishops' knees when they'd visit. He remembers what a coup it was for his father.

"My dad was a hard-core Mar Thoma. He had a lot of influence with the bishops. They were always close to us," Jacob recalled "They always saw big things in our life, and they always thought we'd do something big in the Mar Thoma church."

Church was never missed on Sunday; and Sunday was always respected as a day of rest.

"Sabbath meant Sabbath. We couldn't play radios or work, and if you did anything, it would have to be Christian," he said. "That church was just so traditional. . We all hated it as kids."

Even with years of exposure to godly men and his father's impressed importance of the church, Jacob said he never accepted Christianity. Church was simply something his family did, like watching soccer or drinking tea.

"I didn't have anything to do with God. I was pleasing my dad, I guess," he said.

Still, his father had high hopes for Jacob in the church and was grooming him early to learn and perform musical instruments so he could perform for the church.

With a talent for bass, guitar, drums and other instruments, Jacob was put to use as early as sixth grade, conducting choirs and leading music for the church's youth program.

"My dad's goal was to make us famous musicians for the church," he said. "We were kind of big at one point."

Jacob enjoyed his guitars and performing them for an audience. God didn't keep him in church, but his love of music and performance did.

History of Orthodox Church

When St. Thomas, one of Jesus' Twelve Apostles arrived on the coast of Kerala state in 52 A.D., he left behind more than the gospel of Jesus. He introduced Christianity to the region, where to this day, Orthodox and Catholic believers in Kerala are quick to inform foreigners their church traditions are rooted in more than 2,000 years of antiquity.

By the sixth century, Christianity was firmly planted in the state.

The Saint Thomas Christians, who still practiced the faith in Aramaic, the tongue of Jesus' time, existed peacefully among the Hindus for more than 1,000 years until the Portuguese arrived on a second expedition in the 16th century.

Upon their arrival, they forcibly converted many to Roman Catholicism and forced Indian Orthodox believers to acknowledge the Pope above others.

Protestantism didn't arrive until the 19th century, brought by British and American missionaries. It's still not quite as popular as Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

In subsequent years, many of the Orthodox churches went through periods of branching off and beginning new churches in Kerala, each of them recognize St. Thomas as the bringer of Christianity.

His Holiness, Baselios Mar Thoma Paulose II, the supreme head of the Malankara Orthodox Church, a breakaway from Jacob's Mar Thoma Church, acknowledged the divisions inside Orthodoxy but said he doesn't feel they weaken Indian orthodoxy or Christianity in general.

"When colonization occurred, some divisions happened. Roman Catholics came, and other denominations came," he said. "With the arrival of the Portuguese in 1500s, slowly our freedoms were lost."

He said the other churches, both Orthodox and Catholic, may be separated by name, but they are together worshipping the same God.

"We keep a traditional faith as it is. We are in communion with other churches. We are one group - same church, same faith."

But Jacob said the Mar Thoma church takes its role in preserving the history too seriously. Because members claim their lineage to Syria, and history to St. Thomas, no one is admitted as a member of the church unless they are part of the pure bloodline of Syrian descent.

"They are very prideful of it. Because they claim that's first church. That's what they believe," Jacob said.

Members marry only other members of the church, even if it means marrying first and second cousins to preserve the bloodline.

"That doesn't happen as much anymore unless you're in the smaller villages where the communities are smaller," Jacob said, mentioning his arranged marriage to wife, Elsie, the day after their engagement. "But yes, sometimes."

Jacob knew his entire life his marriage would be arranged to a girl of the Syrian Mar Thoma church.

Elsie, an educated Orthodox woman from Kottayam, a city about four hours from where he lived in Trivandrum, was the perfect match for Jacob.

They had nothing in common, except they were single and Orthodox, the only necessary qualifiers.

"When we started our life, I was not a Christian. I hated Christians and always thought they were phonies."

Born again in the USA

Sitting in the chair at the back of the crusade, Jacob listened to an American preacher share the gospel with a room of Christian Protestants.

He wasn't thinking about God, but an audible voice crept into his mind and told him to go speak to a man at the front of the room.

"Jimmy," Jacob said, turning to his cousin. "Someone just told me to go speak to that man."

"That was the voice of God," Jimmy replied, urging him to walk to the front of the tent.

Jacob finally went up to the man and explained they were supposed to meet.

"You're not saved, are you?" the man asked.

"No," he replied.

"You're leading all this music at this big event, and you're not saved?"

"I'm not ready to get saved," Jacob said, flatly.

"Why not?"

"I have yet to see a Christian who's real."

"So you evaluate God based on every Tom, Dick and Harry?"

That was the question that captured Jacob's heart.

That's when he realized he'd spent his entire life judging everyone else's relationship with God and realizing their imperfections rather than where God had stretched them.

"What he said, it hit home for me. I realized I was running away from God," he said. "That was the day I got saved. I quit drinking and smoking, and I lost half my vocabulary because I stopped using all curse words."

Jacob got serious about going to church. He was water baptized a few weeks later and then spiritually baptized, in which he accepted the gift of speaking in tongues.

Six months later, Elsie was saved.

"She came up out of the (baptismal) water speaking in tongues," Jacob said.

Lamenting the years they spent in an unhappy marriage, Jacob said his beloved wife most certainly would have left him if he hadn't been saved that day.

Jacob was ordained in 1989 and felt God leading him to the United States to learn more about church life.

He sold his guitars and most of his valuables to pay for his trip to New York. He also gave up a lucrative sales job in India where he was earning a top salary and the respect of his family to follow God's path in a foreign land.

His journey to the states wasn't easy, but he said God was always near, making sure he was provided for.

He left Elsie and their two sons behind for about a year, so he could establish himself in South Carolina and set up a home and job for his family.

From New York, he traveled to Virginia, then to Pennsylvania. From there, he traveled to South Carolina, where he and Elsie lived for 22 years with their two sons.

Jacob said they helped launch a church in South Carolina, where Jacob preached and grew a music ministry greater than any he ever envisioned in India.

Their sons never felt the burden of church, Jacob said.

"Our kids learned the easy way. They didn't struggle with faith the way we did," Jacob said.

"We had to unlearn a lot of things that were taught by the church," Elsie said. "Our kids didn't have that."

Jacob said that the traditions of Orthodoxy he learned growing up prevented him from knowing the true gospel of Jesus and that he can have a relationship with him. He realized he didn't have to wear his hair a certain length or dress in a certain type of suit to be a Christian.

"These are cultural things. They're religious spirits, the same as what the Pharisees did," he said. "I couldn't believe at first that a pastor could come preach in jeans. I thought he had no reverence for God. But I learned that God doesn't care about that. And eventually those things were broken off for us."

Three years ago, the couple moved to Victoria. Their sons are grown, dating American girlfriends, and Jacob went back to an engineering profession at DuPont.

Every morning he reads his Dake's Annotated Reference Bible, a version named after an American Pentecostal minister.

For many years, family back home in Kerala, especially Jacob's father, weren't accepting of the couple's conversion to Pentecostalism.

But as the Jacobs continued to follow God and preach the gospel to their Indian friends and family, members of their family started leaving the Orthodoxy, too.

"Her two sisters were saved. My mother was saved. And my father was saved about a year before he died," Jacob said. "He told me, 'I'm going to do what you did, and become a Pentecostal.' He thought he was serving God his entire life, but he wasn't. He realized there was something more."

The Jacobs said their sons, who are both studying to become doctors, are considering mission work in India in the next few years.

The Jacobs also are considering a return to Kerala to start a church and help others find God the way they did.

"There are so many in India who have never heard about Jesus. Our part is to preach, and the Father brings them to Christ," he said. "So I would love to go back. It's something I dream of."



Clarification:

The Advocate wants to correct promptly any error in fact or clarify any misleading information we publish. To report any error or need for clarification, please call 361-574-1222.

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