Their names are the outliers among all the Jerrys and Margarets of my Catholic family: my little sisters Khushi and Vaishnavi, both adopted from India. Khushi came to us in Falls Church, Virginia, when she was a year old, and grew up like any suburban American kid might. Vaishnavi arrived when she was seven, speaking Marathi and a little bit of English and bringing with her a short lifetime of Indian culture and religious tradition, from offerings to household deities and celebrations of festivals like Diwali. Her name means “worshipper of Vishnu.”
I and most of my family were born into Catholicism. Its rituals are an unquestioned part of our life. Communion at Mass, prayers before dinner and before bed, countless confirmations. How could we incorporate Vaishnavi into our faith without forcing it upon her or overwhelming her with doctrine?
Our family attends Holy Trinity Church, a Jesuit parish in Georgetown. Sunday morning often saw us tumbling out of our red van and making a beeline for the last pew in the back, cutting off the priest as he was about to process up the aisle. I usually found myself squished next to Vaishnavi. She and Khushi were usually two of only several brown faces amidst a sea of overwhelmingly white families, and we tried to make them feel welcome. So I would often goof around with Vaish during the service: squeezing her hand too hard during the “Our Father,” giving her a sloppy kiss along with my “peace be with you,” taking her on as many bathroom breaks as she liked. It was my attempt to say “I know this is all a bit strange, but you don’t have to be intimidated.”
All this I did in the hope that she would feel comfortable at church. I’d furtively glance at her face, searching for any indication that she was affected by the homily or ceremony. Like many of us did as children, she started to bring a pencil case and stack of blank papers to Mass. She would sketch out silly and unflattering pictures of different family members and pass them down the pew, knowing she’d get muffled laughter from at least several of us.