Why Does the Malayalee Pentecostal Church Protect Predators?

It was a normal Sunday, nothing that would make it stand out from the 100s of other Sundays that came before it. But on that particular day, something happened that changed me forever.

I was wearing a red and gold checkered churidar, my favorite one, the one that I wore slightly too often. It was totally on trend, with the bodice being cut short so that it fell just above my knees. A churidar, for those who aren’t aware, consists of a dress, pants, and a shawl for extra modesty. It was the epitome of Indian fashion in the early 2000s. Service had just ended and I was anxious to leave soon so that I wouldn’t have to talk to too many people.

I weaved and bobbed my way through the crowd as I headed to the back of the sanctuary trying to find my parents. I smiled and said hello to a few uncles and aunties but I kept moving.

Until he blocked my path. He smiled, like he had 100 times before, called me molay and asked how I was.

I gave him a shy smile and said that I was good. That’s when I noticed him coming closer. Before I could blink or take my next breath, I saw his hand reach out.

He reached out and grabbed me. Down there. Then he squeezed me. Then he let go, and brushed past me.

It happened fast. Lightening fast. Fast enough that his smile never left his face while he did it. Fast enough that not one of the 60-70 people surrounding us noticed.

I stood there for a minute completely stunned and overwhelmed. Then I heard my name as my mom called me and said we were going home.


All these years later, what shocks me the most about that moment is the sheer audacity that he had in touching me in total public. He had no fear of being seen. He had no fear of me screaming. He had NO FEAR.

Why? Because he knew that he would never be caught. He knew that even if I told my parents, which I did, we wouldn’t feel like we could do anything. He knew that he could get away with it, because he had gotten away with it before.

You see, this man that violated me, also molested my friend not long before this incident.

In the years that have passed since both of us were taken advantage of, I cannot imagine the countless number of young girls and boys he has had- and continues to have- access to. My biggest regret in my entire life is that I was not able to be the last person he ever molested.

Now some of you may read my description of the incident, and say that it wasn’t a big deal, at least I wasn’t raped. Or that I must be mistaken, he simply brushed his hand against me in the crowd. But I can confidently say that I have been in many crowds, and I have never been brushed like that before that day, or after. When you feel your crotch being squeezed, you know that it is intentional. Sure, it could have been worse, I was lucky that was all he did. But even at that age I knew that if he could do that to me so quickly and casually, he certainly would have no qualms doing much worse in private. And I was right. He has done much worse in private.

I recently shared a quick description of this on Facebook, joining the chorus of #MeToo. I posted it because I was frustrated that the Malayalee Pentecostal community refuses to talk about sexual abuse in any capacity. I have known too many Malayalee kids who have been sexually abused, and yet never once have I heard of an abuser being held accountable for their actions.

After I posted my status, I received a request to take my post down. Apparently it made me look bad. Apparently it was shameful.

No.

The only thing that is shameful is that you want to silence me. Because you do not want be uncomfortable. You do not want to deal with this problem in the community. You do not want to believe that the person who sits next to you every Sunday is capable of such atrocity.

I’ve been looked dead in the eyes and told by Malayalee aunties and uncles that I would go to hell because I wore nail polish and got my ears pierced. I’ve been told that wearing jewelry and dresses to church makes me unfit to teach Sunday School…yet these same people hear about sexual predators lurking around their churches and they keep quiet.

I am now in seminary, and I work as a full time Children’s Minister in a church in Southern California. We background check every person that volunteers in our Sunday School. We have training where we talk about what it is appropriate touch and speech. To my fellow leaders in Malayalee Pentecostal churches- do you talk about these things with your volunteers? Do you do background checks? Do you vet the people who have spiritual authority over your children? Don’t assume that because most of your volunteers are women you have nothing to worry about. Women have just as much capacity to be sexual abusers, and boys can be targets to be victims. Same sex abuse is also possible.

To Malayalee parents of young children- I am fortunate enough to have parents who are profoundly open with me and my sister. My mother talked to me from a very young age about being careful around people, and what I should deem as acceptable touch. I felt comfortable to tell my parents about the incident and I am grateful that they both believed me. They told me not to go near him. At that time that was all they felt they had the power to do.

Parents, please have an open dialogue with your kids. You may think that they are too young, but it is never to early to teach them how they can protect themselves. Make sure that you can be the person that they trust to tell if they have been hurt. Lastly, if your child has the strength and bravery to tell you something happened, please believe them. The disbelief can sometimes hurt more than the abuse itself.

You may ask why I am talking about this more than a decade later. I am talking about it now because I want our community to stop being afraid of talking about our issues in public. Each time we shove an incident under the rug, we are creating an opportunity for that abuser to abuse another child. The mentality of ‘as long as it’s not my kid’ is disgusting.

The first step is to actually talk about the fact that this is happening in our community. The next step is to take action. Ideally, these abusers should be in jail. Ideally, they should be on the National Sex Offender Registry. Our children should be able to go to church without seeing the face of their abuser every week. I hope if you are reading this and you have been abused, or you have a child who has been abused, you will feel inspired to tell someone who can help you. Tell the Senior Pastor. Tell the Director of your Children’s Ministry. Tell the police. Tell someone who can protect the other children.

Our Malayalee Pentecostal churches are a safe haven for sexual predators. I, for one, am tired of protecting them.

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Rift

Silence is the substitute for our laughter.

Formalities are taking the place of familiarity.

I’m begging you to notice me.

Knees on the floor, hands to my heart, desperate and reaching.

Silently shouting from a distance.

A distance that’s nothing but a few feet.

A distance that widens with each passing day.

You’re running ahead of me.

I’m trying to keep up.

But you don’t see me running, don’t hear me calling out.

You don’t see me struggling to keep pace.

You don’t hear me gasping for air.

Or worse.

You see me.

You hear me.

You whisper to one another.

Take each other’s hands.

And run faster.

Unicorns from North Carolina

“Where are you from?”

“North Carolina.”

“…what? There are Malayalees in North Carolina?”

Cheryll and I had the opportunity to go to Youthfest in Chattanooga and that’s the reaction we got from pretty much every person we met. I swear it was like telling people that unicorns existed. As it turns out, there are Malayalees in North Carolina! Not just Cheryll and I, but also our twins in Raleigh. They showed up at Youthfest looking for the Mallu community too.

Chattanooga was everything we hoped for and way more. For months we felt isolated and invisible- explained better in my post Thengaa Jeeveethum- and it was fantastic to finally make our debut, to finally be able to say that we exist. Everyone we met was just who we needed to meet. We were encouraged, challenged, and amazed. But most of all, it felt familiar. It was nice to be able to make jokes in Malayalam -Anu? Ano? To eat at the Curry Pot, heck, to wear a scarf in church and not feel self conscious about it.

Saturday night was the night that stood out the most to me. Instead of a typical altar call, Chris Green told us all to start praying for one another. Slowly, people made their way out of the aisles and began praying for others. They laid their hands on friends, family, strangers, and lifted up heart felt prayers to God. At one point I opened my eyes and looked around me to see groups of people worshiping God wholeheartedly, people counseling and comforting others, people praying in unison.

Seeing that sight is one of the most blessed images I will ever have. I burst into tears, overwhelmed by the thought that I was at last worshiping with my brothers and sisters- not just in Christ, but in blood. I know that most people won’t understand why I think this is a big deal. But there is something so powerful in experiencing God with people who have the same ancestors as you. To know that our grandparents discovered God together in India, that our parents fought tooth and nail to keep that faith alive in America, and to see the children of those people lifting up One God together is to know the faithfulness of God through an entire culture.

As far as I am concerned, this is just the beginning. I believe that the Malayalee Pentecostal community is on the cusp of a spiritual revolution. A revival that will sweep an entire generation in a way that hasn’t been seen since all of our grandparents converted to Christianity. And I plan to be there for it. Do you?

Chicken Curry

  • Dice onions and ginger. Saute till your arm falls off or till golden brown (canola oil)
  • In decreasing amounts: Moluka podi, the stuff in the white bottle [geram masala], erechi masala, manyal
  • Add chicken. Add salt.  Add a little water. Add cilantro.
  • Cover and let simmer. Mix occasionally so it doesn’t stick and ruin your pot.

* All ingredient proportional to taste and amount of chicken.

Thengaa Jeeveethum

For those of you who aren’t quite fluent in the beautiful Malayalam, my blog is titled Coconut Life. When I was younger, a friend of mine called me a coconut- brown on the outside, white on the inside. I suppose this is true. I am very Americanized since I’ve grown up in the states since I was three. But in recent years, I’ve dug my claws into Malayali culture because I don’t want to let it all go. The sad thing is, Malayali culture has let me go.

You see, I grew up on Long Island, NY till I was 13. You throw a rock down the street and you’re bound to hit at least 6 Mallus. I went to a church with so many members, that every Sunday it felt like you met someone new. I was immersed in Kerala culture.

But, I didn’t fit in. I was always the awkward one, and I just couldn’t help but feel invisible. Then one day my parents asked if I wanted to move to NC. I packed my things that night and carried them down to NC on my bare back. Just kidding…at least about the carrying part.

So we moved to Charlotte, NC. Honestly, it’s been the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. I would never take it back. When I visit NY, people always ask me which I like better, NY or NC. And then they’re shocked when I tell them I don’t miss NY at all. I adore this place.

You could fit all the people in my new church into one pew from my old one. I love it. Five solid families, some rotating IT families, the cutest kids in the world, and a fantastic pastor. Another girl and I are the only people our age in the church. We’ve taken on a lot of responsibilities, Sunday School teachers, VBS coordinators, worship leaders, outreach planners- you name it, we’re it. And as much as we grumble about the work load sometimes, we wouldn’t have it any other way. (I say that now, before the stress of this year’s VBS planning takes over. I may will change my mind in about 3 months.)

Anyway- I’ve loved it here the past few years. As I get older though, I realize the one pitfall in my perfect world. I live in a predominantly white community. I don’t really interact with other Mallus my age on a constant basis. When  I tell a MaluPenteWoes joke, no one around me gets it. I have to explain why I don’t wear jewelry, why my parents used to think the movie theater was Satan’s lair, no I don’t wear the dot, yes I go to church on Saturday and Sunday, no I don’t have to get an arranged marriage, I speak Malayalam, not Indian, and on and on and on. And I have to explain these things everytime I meet someone new. Everytime. It gets to be draining after a while. I just want to meet someone who knows what a pavakya is. Is that too much to ask for?

Somtimes, I’m the first Indian person that they’ve ever even met. It isn’t their fault. It’s just the area. And to their credit- a lot of them are genuinely interested in learning about Mallus. I recently met a guy who asked me to teach him Malayalam- he and I can have a decent conversation now! That’s always rewarding- when I’ve taught someone about Kerala. I love that.

But here’s the other side to my dilemma- the Mallu community doesn’t know who I am. My family doesn’t go to PCNAK, I’m pretty sure my cousins have forgotten I’m related to them, and we don’t go back to NY that often. That makes me sad. I want to reconnect with my community. I want to get to know the other thengas out there. Which makes me come to the realization that I’m going to have to leave this glorious place soon. Because I’m beginning to understand that my culture means more to me than I ever realized.

So for you Mallu kids out there who hate going to Malayali church, and can’t stand Mallu “traditions”- I’d be more than willing to trade places with you. Hit me up.