Church aids migrants from India
April 12, 2008
Christian house of worship in Gilbert eases shift for newcomers
Chelsea Schneider -
The Arizona Republic
Eighteen-year-old Mervyn Abraham's introduction to the International Assembly of
God rings true for many of the church's members.
The church is one of the few Christian churches in the Valley that caters
predominantly to Asian Indians. Abraham's family moved to Phoenix from the
United Arab Emirates without knowing anyone and found a home in the
That's what brings many immigrants to the Rev. Roy Cheriyan's church. Prayers
are spoken in Malayalam, an Indian dialect, and women wear traditional Indian
congregation, which shares a building with Sonrise Assembly of God in Gilbert,
offers immigrants an opportunity to continue to embrace their culture while they
acclimate to life in the Valley.
Cheriyan founded the church 10 years ago, and the congregation has grown from
two families to about 120 members.
Most have recently moved from India and know little about American life. Before
some leave their homeland, they connect with Cheriyan, who will often pick them
up at the airport and help them find an apartment.
The church has several outreach groups around the Valley to increase its
In 2006, Phoenix was home to more than 9,000 Asian Indians, according to the
Abraham's family moved to Phoenix two years ago and drove 30 miles every
Saturday and Sunday to attend services in Gilbert.
One of the main reasons they decided to move to Chandler was to be closer to the
People have come from as far as Tucson to attend Cheriyan's church, Cheriyan
The room is lined with chairs, but they aren't used much during the service. On
a recent Sunday, members raised their voices and lifted their arms or
rhythmically clapped to song. Men danced to the altar and worshippers were
blessed by Cheriyan and a visiting Indian pastor. Members took turns praying
loudly to God, while others bowed and softly prayed along with their eyes
Knowing the Bible is emphasized, and children stand at the front of the church
reciting the verse they memorized for the week.
"We always keep the taste of India," Cheriyan said. "The way we worship is
totally different from Western style."
There was no conventional sermon. Instead, the visiting pastor spoke in an
Indian dialect while Cheriyan translated his words.
"We stand here victorious in the name of God," Cheriyan said. His words were met
with an outpouring of praise.
There were few still moments during the 2 ½- hour service.
"It's just awesome to see everybody in the spirit and pumped up for God,"
The congregation is home for Anisha Rajan, 18, whose family was driven by
Cheriyan from Phoenix to Gilbert for church when they moved to the Valley four
years ago. There's also Dennis Samukutty, the church's youth leader, who met
Cheriyan when he picked him up from the airport.
"I usually just let myself go and let God lead me through worship," Samukutty
Finding a balance
In India, the members of Cheriyan's church were in the minority. Only about 2
percent of the country's population is Christian, according to the CIA's World
Cheriyan bridges cultures with the service. They begin in Malayalam, but end in
Abraham attends high school with several youth-group members and says it helps
having his church friends at school. Abraham says they all struggle with how
free teenagers are in the Valley to make their own decisions. Back in India
there was a rigid social code.
Sonrise's Pastor Rick Oller said sharing the building with the church has been a
lesson in diversity and commitment to God for his congregation.
"The church is a place where unity can be met," Oller said. "It teaches our
people that many of them have experienced severe persecution for their faith."
At the end of service, thecongregation gathers at the front of the church to
praise God. Abraham leads them in English songs with verses promising, "We will
worship you with all of our strength" and "We totally trust in you, Jesus."
If you closed your eyes, you could be in any of several Sunday service across
"When you have complete realization of who God is and realize there are no
limitations to your feelings," Abraham said. "An Indian community worshipping in
English is pretty awesome.
"When you lead worship, you really feel God's presence on stage."