On the banks of the River Pumba: Moderator Elect travels back to her childhood church

Susy Thomas, Moderator Elect of the Uniting Church WA, was invited to attend an annual Christian convention at the church she grew up in, in Kerala India. The conference was held in February this year, just before COVID-19 restrictions came into place. She shares her experience.

I was born in a town called Ranni in the state of Kerala, situated in the south west of India. More than half of the population in this area are Hindus, followed by Islam and Christianity. As all my extended family and siblings are still in Kerala, we go back to visit them in every two years.

This year, my husband Philip and I went in February for 10 days, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Usually it is a time of catching with the family, lots of laughter, sharing stories, eating our favourite foods and non-stop visits to family and friends. This year our visit was coinciding with a Christian Convention organised by my birth church: Mar Thoma Church.

The convention has been organised by the evangelistic association of this church for the last 125 years. It is conducted every year in the second week of February, on the river bed of the major River Pumba. This river flows all through the Kerala state.

It is believed that St Thomas, the apostle of Jesus Christ, came to Kerala in AD 52 and established churches in seven places in Kerala. In AD 345, around 400 Christians migrated from Syria. Through this migration the churches received the Bible, liturgy and episcopal assistance.

The Bible was translated in the local language of Malayalam by the leadership of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) from 1820 to 1841, as a result of a reformation happening during that time and the forming of the Mar Thoma Church.

There was revival in 1895, and a special meeting was organised. The church compound was not big enough to accommodate the gatherings so it was shifted to a temporary tent made out of palm leaves (Pandal) along the banks of the Pumba River near the church.

Today, the facility can accommodate around 100 000. The Palm leaf tent is made by volunteers and contributed to by parishes around the area. The messages are always about the love of God expressed in Jesus Christ. They are welcoming people to Christ, not condemning other faiths or ideologies. The convention runs for eight days.

The speakers for this convention are invited from all over the world. Previous speakers include Dr E Stanley, Rev T Walker, Arch Bishop of Canterbury, Arch bishop of York John Sentamu, World Vision leaders Dr Paul Rees, Dr Bob Peers and Rev Sam Kamalesan, and Arch Bishop Kay Goldsworthy from the Anglican Diocese of Perth.

I have attended this convention many times from my childhood onward, though have missed a few during the years I was away. This year I was invited to attend as the Moderator Elect of the Uniting Church WA.

I attended the ladies meeting, joined by around 15 000 women. The usual format for the day starts with a Bible study at 8.00am and a general gathering at 10.00 to 12noon, followed by an afternoon session from 2.00 to 4.00pm. This ladies meeting was a very special one, as we were celebrating 101 years of the ladies gathering.

Worship included singing led by around 100 choir members, prayers and the message. As the tent is on the shore of a river, the cool breeze comforts the gatherings and the sun’s rays were shining through the palm leaves. Arch Bishop Kay Goldsworthy was the speaker for the afternoon; she said the sun’s rays coming through the palm leaves in the tent reminded her of the amazing dot paintings that Indigenous women do here in Australia.

After the meeting I had the opportunity to catch up with old friends, as my university college was in the same town where I spent four years of my late teens before I left India.

Attending this convention brought back a lot of memories of my childhood, but it also blessed me.

Top image: Light shining through the palm leaf tent on Susy Thomas (second from left), Moderator Elect of the Uniting Church WA, Arch Bishop Kay Goldsworthy (centre), Anglican Diocese of Perth, and others present at Mar Thoma Church.

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