August 2, 2004

Indian autumn


By Eric Rangus

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.

Thomas 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.

"It's 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."

Over 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.

In 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.

 "This 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."

The 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.

"I 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."

Thangaraj 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.

"My 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."

Thangaraj's 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.

"I 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.

"I 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."

Thangaraj 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.

"The 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?"

Thangaraj 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.

"It 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."

The 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.

"In 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."

Not 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.

But 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.

Beginning 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.

"I 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."