Sachin Mathew came to Oxford from India. He was born in Chennai in India, a native of Kerala, and moved to Kuwait as a small boy. He says he is grateful to have been brought up in a Christian family, worshipping in the Mar Thoma Syrian Church. The denomination grew out of the missionary activity of St Thomas the Apostle who spent the last 20 or 30 years of his life in an area then known as Malankara (now Kerala).
Sachin met Jo Duckles in the super-modern John Henry Brookes building at Oxford Brookes University, where he has been studying. Coming to England meant moving from one culture to a very different one. It was great that the Revd Shemil Mathew, also from Kerala, became friends with Sachin. It was Shemil, the Anglican chaplain at Brookes, who introduced Sachin to Canon Geoff Bayliss at St Francis Church in Cowley, Oxford.
Worshipping in Oxford has meant a welcome opportunity for a lie-in on Sunday mornings. “In India and Kuwait church starts really early in the morning, at 7am. The services last 2.5 hours but you are done by 9.30am. Most Sunday evenings there would be a worship session at various homes. The church is divided into groups. These groups consist of families living near each other – say within a five-mile radius. Members within the group gather at a family’s home and celebrate (sing songs, read the Bible, preach the gospel and pray). This usually lasts for 1.5 hours, and is followed by a grand dinner,” says Sachin.
Worshipping in Cowley means a relative and most welcome lie in for Sachin. “I can sleep until almost 10am, have a shower, something to eat and then run to church, for a mass at 10.30am,” says Sachin, who has also enjoyed having the time to go to Bible studies.
“Church is a great place and here I have time to go to Bible studies…
“In India I studied 9am-5pm six days per week and then had assignments to do. Sunday was my only day off. Church is a great place and here I have time to go to Bible studies where you can learn much more. A sermon is only 10 to 15 minutes so how much information can you get?”
Sachin remembered Sunday School from his childhood but says his denomination likes these to take place after normal Sunday worship. “They say it’s important for children to know what it is happening in the service, but most kids don’t understand what is going on.”
There are other cultural differences in the Mar Thoma Church, with sacraments only administered by a priest. “Here the priest gives out the bread and a layperson gives out the wine,” says Sachin, who is embarrassed to tell me that women are not ordained and not allowed to administer sacraments in his denomination.
Another key difference between Sachin’s home church and an Anglican church is that we tend to keep our shoes on during services. This is often necessary, especially given the state of the heating systems in some of our ancient buildings.
“In India, we take our shoes off when we go to church. I’ve been doing that here and people have warned me I might get sick due to the cold floor” says Sachin.
In India, and other countries, it is etiquette to take your shoes off before going into church, or another person’s home.
Families also pray in their houses. On a special occasion, like someone’s birthday, they will have special prayers at home. Reading the Bible is also important, with families reading scripture together. “We have an Old Testament and New Testament reading from the priest (for Sunday mass) so we read it together and try and understand it,” he says. Proverbs is one of Sachin’s favourite books because of the wisdom in the 31 proverbs written by David, Solomon and other authors. Another favourite verse is Genesis 11 vs 6: ‘…and he said, “No then, these are all one people and they speak one language: this is just the beginning of what they are going to do. Soon they will be able to do anything they want!”’
“God knows our potential when we work together. He saw that if we were all together and wanted to do something we could, this was the reason why he confused their language to stop the work (Tower of Babel). We’ve put someone in space and we’ve made the nuclear bomb. God knows our potential when we act as one, the only problem is that we (the humans) are never on the same page.”
And Sachin knows that one of the hardest things to do is to forgive. “There is the ‘an eye for an eye’ approach but that doesn’t accomplish anything,” says Sachin, who went to school in Kuwait, studied civil engineering in Chennai and went on to work in the building trade there, until moving to Oxford. Here he has been studying quantity surveying and commercial management while working at Marks & Spencer.
He thoroughly enjoyed a two-month internship in a construction company, Watkin Jones “I was an intern for two months with Watkin Jones and they were good, understanding people with a collaborative approach to work. For them, safety is a main concern. Back in India where I worked, I am not saying there is no safety, but there is certainly less than here. For me, as an engineer, I worked 12-14 hours a day (in India), whereas you do an eight-hour shift in the UK. Here you make a mistake, there is a collaborative approach to solve a problem, minimising additional cost and time for correcting the mistake whereas, In India, you make a mistake and people get very angry. It’s a different work culture.”
Sachin’s role is to execute a building contract, putting costings together and dealing with any necessary dispute resolution. When we met he was preparing to return to India, where his priority will be to look for work.
With more time on his hands during his time in Oxford, Sachin has taught himself to cook. “In India my mother used to cook and I would eat what was given to me. When I came here it was really expensive and I realised I couldn’t buy food from takeaways all the time. Now I really like cooking. If you are bored you can look at YouTube and learn how to cook different things. I was awful to start with. I ended up throwing food I’d prepared away, but I’ve got better. Practice makes perfect.”
As we met Sachin was getting ready to get the bus to London to visit his elderly great aunt for one last time before heading back to India. We ended our interview with a brief phone chat with Shemil, before taking a selfie in the Brookes Chaplaincy.