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The Kerala church's migrant dilemma 

Pastoral care vital for economic migrants who don't speak the local language and are often treated as second-class citizens

The Kerala church's migrant dilemma 

A Mass in Odia language in progress at the St. George Catholic Church, Kerala state. An estimated influx of 4 million migrants has increased pressure on church resources for extending pastoral care to them. (ucanews.com photo)

T.K. Devasia, Kochi
India

June 15, 2017

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Every Sunday, Vidhyapathi Dighal travels 25 kilometers to reach St. George Catholic Church in Perumbavoor in the southern Indian state of Kerala for Mass.

Though he works in a different village, Dighal takes the bus to Perumbavoor because, there, Mass is said in his native Odia, a language spoken in the eastern state of Odisha.

Dighal left behind poverty in Odisha and migrated to Kerala to find work. Many migrants like him come to Perumbavoor from different parts of the district as St. George Church is the only venue that offers Mass in Odia on a regular basis.

The service was launched eight years ago with the help of priests from the Congregation of the Mission as the number of people from the eastern state in search of manual jobs shunned by people in Kerala increased.

Father Mathew Onatt, who has returned to Kerala after serving a congregation in Odisha for more than three decades, told ucanews.com that Catholics in Odisha are very strong in their faith. "They are ready to take any pain to nourish their faith," he said.

The priest said there are hundreds of Christians from Odisha living in Kerala without pastoral care and he receives invites from several groups to conduct at least one service a week in Odia.

"People from Odisha are scattered all over Kerala. I am over 70. I cannot reach everywhere but there are many like me who have served in Odisha and other states and they are ready to provide pastoral care to migrants if the church takes the initiative," Father Onatt said.

Malayalam is the native language of Kerala and Mass is conducted in the local language in all churches. Apart from Odisha, there are Catholic from Assam and Manipur states but they must attend a Hindi or English Mass as churches do not hold services in their language.

"The migrants usually don't go for Malayalam Mass, which is common in churches across the state, as they find it difficult to understand and involve themselves in it," said Father Onatt.

Migrants from other states started moving to Kerala in search of employment following the large-scale migration of people from Kerala to the Middle East since the oil boom of the 1970s.

The number of migrants in Kerala from other Indian states is estimated to be around 4 million, according to Father Shin Kallungal, director of Jeevika, a voluntary organization working among migrants in the state. The state has a total population of 34.8 million people.

 

Migrants need pastoral care

Father Kallungal said pastoral care for these migrants is a significant need as they are often treated as second-class citizens in Kerala. The church could help to end their alienation by binding them together spiritually.

"The state cannot do without migrants since educated people in Kerala are not ready to do manual work. Kerala can retain them only by assimilating them into the society. Pastoral care is one way of doing that," he said.

Among Indian states, Kerala ranks the highest with regards to elimination of poverty, providing primary education and healthcare.

Father George Thomas Nirappukalayil, secretary for the Labour and Migrants Commission under the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council, said the church was aware of the need to extend itself to help swelling numbers of migrants.

"We have already held a meeting of stakeholders and decided to set up facilitation centers in all dioceses in the state to identify migrants who require pastoral care and priests and nuns who can deliver it. The process has begun and we hope to have centers in place within two or three months," Father George said.

He said several churches in the state have individually started providing pastoral services to the migrants. Furthermore, three churches have begun holding Mass in Hindi.

Father Nirappukalayil said the commission was trying to coordinate these efforts and ensure consistent and continued pastoral care to all migrants.

Of the some 35 million people in Kerala, 55 percent are Hindu, 27 percent Muslim and 18 percent Christian. Most Christians in Kerala trace their religious roots to St. Thomas the Apostle.

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