Some people sell off a lifetime of possessions when they hit
retirement--homes, furniture, riding lawn mowers, etc.--buy an RV
and tour the countryside with nothing but the oncoming horizon
in their way.
Thangaraj's upcoming retirement doesn't quite fit that blueprint,
but his plans, which are going to be spread out over the next three
years, are no less dramatic. This past June, he and his wife Cecelia
sold their home in Tucker, taking their first step in their plans
to spend the next three years shuttling between two continents.
been very difficult to say goodbye, because I'm not really going," said
Thangaraj, D.W. & Ruth Brooks Associate Professor of World
Christianity in the Candler School of Theology. He has been on
Candler's faculty since 1988. "I'll still be hanging around here
every spring. Maybe it will be easier in 2007."
the next three years Thangaraj, as part of what he has termed his "phased
retirement," will be splitting his time between Atlanta and Tirunelveli,
India. He will spend six months--fall and winter--in Tirunelveli,
and the other six--spring and summer--here at Emory.
India, Thangaraj, a native and citizen of that country, will serve
as director of the Bishop Stephen Neill Research and Study Centre
at Tirunelveli, which is run by the Tirunelveli Diocese of the
Church of South India. Tirunelveli, a city of more than a million,
is located near the southern tip of the country. Thangaraj has
served as a minister in the Church of South India and taught 17
years at the Tamilnadu Theological Seminary in Madurai.
is really going home," said Thangaraj, who left Atlanta for India
July 20. After a brief trip to Florida for a conference later this
month, he will go back to India, where he will reside until January. "I
know every street there, and lots of people, my classmates, people
who grew up with me, will be there."
study center was established to serve two purposes: to compile
an archive of the history of the church and to organize local seminars
on the Christian faith.
want to introduce an element of Hindu-Christian and Hindu-Muslim-Christian
dialogue; that is my area of interest," said Thangaraj, who has
written several books on the subject including 1997's Relating
to People of Other Religions: What Every Christian Needs To Know. "I
could bring some programs where the seminars are not purely for
Christians but an occasion for Hindus and Christians--and Muslims
and Christians--to be in conversation."
grew up as a member of a tiny religious minority. Christians make
up less than 3 percent of the population in Hindu-dominant India,
and while the state of Tamilnadu, where Tirunelveli is located,
has a relatively high Christian concentration (8 percent), Thangaraj's
religion remains an important aspect of his identity.
name is Thomas," Thangaraj said. "When I tell people my name, I
don't have to tell them I'm a Christian. Nobody else would have
a name Thomas, only Christians, so that's conspicuous. Your religious
allegiance--you can't escape it. You live with the consciousness
of it all the time."
experiences as a minority prepared him for his move to the United
States, where he has been a member of the religious majority; however,
as a South Asian, an ethnic minority.
am a minority here; I am very much aware of it," Thangaraj said. "This
country is so tied to the black/white definition of the world,
so when you are brown you stand out. You don't fit into either
category. You have to negotiate and find out where you are.
have to debate with my African American friends against their thinking
of me as white," he continued. "And they have very good reason
to think of me as white--I grew up with white education. But I also
have to deal my white friends' perception of me as black.
No, there is a different category. When I am criticizing the West,
I am not criticizing the history of slavery, I am criticizing the
history of colonialism, which is different. But I think the country
is moving slowly toward recognizing that you can't define a society
by two categories."
has devoted his teaching and research to bringing disparate cultures
and religions together. "I come from a church that is a united
church of four protestant denominations: Episcopalian, Presbyterian,
Methodist and Congregationalist," he said. "They are not united
in any other part of the world.
first shock I had [in America] was when people used the word 'religion,'
they would say, 'Yeah, I'm a Baptist,'" he continued. "We wouldn't
say that. In India we say a religion is Christianity or Hinduism
or Islam. We don't talk about these little groups of Christianity.
My teaching here has been getting people to see there is some point
to being united. Religion is all about love, really. If you can't
get along with one another, what is the point?"
came to the Candler School in 1988 as a visiting professor. Although
Thangaraj earned his doctorate in theology at Harvard Divinity
School, he had done all of his previous teaching in India.
interested me because it talked about somebody from outside the
United States helping students see a bigger world," he said. "I
thought it was something I could do, at least for a few years."
original plan was to stay in the United States four or five years.
When 1992 rolled around, Thangaraj's family (Cecelia and their
two children, Stan and Grace) moved back. However, the high school-aged
children had become ingrained in the American school system; to
place them back in the Indian system wasn't easy. The family decided
to return, and Thangaraj, who had been a visiting professor, became
permanent and jumped on the tenure track.
one sense when I came [to the United States], I knew we
would be going back some time," Thangaraj said. " This is that
time. I also feel obligated to do something for my home country.
It's not that anyone in India needs me--I need them. I just want
to go back to my own place and make whatever kind of contribution
I can at this stage in my life."
only will Thangaraj essentially serve as a scholar-in-residence
in Tirunelveli, but he also will guide the study Candler graduate
student Julia Turner, who will spend a three-month internship at
the center. If the setup works out, Thangaraj hopes more students
will follow over the next two years. This is not the first time
he has hosted students in India (four times before, Candler students
have accompanied him on four-week study programs), but the intensity
of the upcoming project is a step up.
Thangaraj's time in India is only half the story. For the next
three years, he will spend the spring and summer in Atlanta and
teach two spring semester classes at Candler. He and his wife will
live in Turner Village, a housing community for Candler students.
in spring 2006, one of those classes will be a course he'll design
while in India. Its working title is "Theological Challenges from
Christianity in India." At the end of summer 2007, he will move
back to India permanently.
grew up in an emerging independent India," said Thangaraj, who
will be 62 in September and was 5 years old when India earned its
independence from Great Britain in 1947. "That creates a sense
of attachment to the country, and it's difficult to imagine staying
in the United States forever. But I have no regrets. Teaching in
Candler has been a wonderful experience and for that I am deeply
grateful to my students and colleagues."