It isn’t the particular brand of Christianity that attracts parishioners from across the state to the Free Methodist Telugu Church in Silver Spring.
The Sunday services are no different from those taking place at Free Methodist churches nationwide, according to the Rev. Samuel Paul, the church’s pastor. What sets his church apart is its cultural identity, aimed specifically at providing a gathering place for Indian Christians.
“For many people who come here [from India], it’s hard to adjust to the American culture,” said Paul, who moved from India to the U.S. in 1997. “Our church, it gives them some easiness, some comfort.”
That familiarity is what makes Isaac Athota and his family drive 40 minutes each week from their Frederick home to the Silver Spring church. The services are offered in English, Hindi and Telugu, a native language in southern India, which meant he could sing along to the songs and better understand the sermons, he said.
And the relationships he developed with other parishioners, fellow Indian Christians, helped him feel at home in a country where he was still adjusting, even years after he had moved here. Hoping to share that comfort with others, Athota commissioned Paul to come lead a weekly Bible study group at his Frederick home.
What began six months ago as a small group fellowship has ballooned to a gathering of sometimes 60 to 70 people, barely fitting inside the house, according to Paul. But starting Sunday, those cramped residential quarters will be replaced by a larger, designated worship space.
The Free Methodist Indian Church in Urbana will host its inaugural services at 10:30 a.m. Sunday at Centerville Elementary School, followed by a fellowship lunch. And on every subsequent Sunday, the rented school cafeteria will be transformed into the home of morning services and fellowship for local Indian Christians.
It will be the third church under Tabernacle of God Ministries that Paul has planted, the first in India, one in Silver Spring, both of which are still active, and now in Frederick. Across geographies, the three share one purpose: fulfilling what Paul described as God’s call to him to serve Indian Christians.
It was this calling that inspired him to found the original Tabernacle of God church in India in 1987, where he served as pastor for a decade before moving to the U.S. After the move, he again felt drawn to his mission, and founded the Free Methodist Telugu Church in Silver Spring in 2003.
“There was no Telugu church in Silver Spring, but there were Telugu-speaking people there,” he said.
Paul initially offered services only in Telugu. But as the church attracted more parishioners, including younger generations who did not speak Telugu, he expanded services to include Hindi and English languages.
In addition to using a native language, his ministry also practices traditional Indian customs, the small things that remind newcomers and longtime U.S. residents alike of their homeland. In India, for example, people often keep their heads down when speaking, he said.
“But here in America, if you don’t make eye contact, you are rude,” he said. “Our church, we understand the culture, so we offer a bit of home.”
Kiran Panabakam, a Germantown resident and parishioner of the Free Methodist Telugu Church, also highlighted the benefit of the cultural familiarity in worship. “We have the same emotional attachment, so it helps us feel closer to each other and closer to God,” Panabakam said.
Panabakam also hopes to pass on those native customs and traditions to his 5-year-old son, who was born in the U.S. and speaks little Telugu. “I don’t want him to lose his family background,” Panabakam said. “This is a way to be connected to those origins.”
Although Paul’s ministry offers parishioners a taste of home, he also emphasized the importance of embracing American culture. It is the richness of the two cultures combined that is most valuable, he said.
He was unsure how many parishioners the new church would serve. Christians made up 2.3 percent of India’s population as of the 2011 census. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 1.42 percent of Marylanders are Asian natives from India.
He has relied on social media and mailings distributed to people in the Urbana area to attract members to the new church, he said. He also hopes that word-of-mouth among existing members will bring more worshippers.
But the number of people who would attend was far less important than the service the church will provide, he said.
“I am a missionary, so my job is to serve the people,” he said. “That is what we are doing.”