Photo: David Koll
Left to right: Merlin Perumalla, Chenaniah "Kenny" Perumalla, David Koll, Phillip Lee
Photo by David Koll

Chenaniah "Kenny" and Merlin Perumalla left their home in India several years ago as Mennonite missionaries to bring the gospel message to Punjabi Shaikhs in the Central Valley region of California.

Over time, they slowly built relationships, one person at a time, with Punjabi people from India in and around Merced, Calif., an area with one of the largest Punjabi immigrant populations in the United States. Many left their homeland in the late 1970s to work in agriculture in the Central Valley.

Looking back on their own experience of moving to the U.S., Kenny Perumalla said, “We didn’t want to go anywhere. I was a professor at a Bible college and working as a pastor in India, but God had bigger plans for us and opened the doors for us to come to California.” The Perumallas visited Grand Rapids, Mich., recently as part of the Ethnic Leaders Institute in Ministry (ELIM) program, designed to help pastors from other denominations become ordained in the CRC.

For nearly two weeks, the Perumallas met with professors at Calvin Theological Seminary to learn more about the CRC. Also there was Phillip Lee, a Korean pastor from California who is seeking CRC ordination.

The orientation program offers, said David Koll, director of the CRC’s Office of Candidacy,  "a fairly intensive nine days of instruction and orientation in the CRC, covering our ministries, our history, our creeds and confessions, our church order, and the Reformed identity. It also provides a lot of opportunities for relationships and connections.”

The Candidacy office also offers a similar program for Spanish-speaking pastors from other churches and another for Korean-speaking pastors who are serving in CRC congregations.

Taking a break from their study of the CRC, the Perumallas said their work in California has not been easy. Most Punjabis are part of the Shaikh community from South Asia, which has roots in ancient Islam. And many of those the Perumallas want to reach attend local Shaikh worship centers.

Soon after arriving in the U.S., the Perumallas realized that trying to connect with the Shaikh community to share the gospel would require practical approaches. “We met in parks and stores and talked and got to know people in the community. Finally, they got to know us and to trust us, and they are coming to us for all kinds of help,” said Kenny Perumalla.

After a long road of trying to find the best ways to connect with local Punjabis, the Perumallas now operate a community center out of a United Methodist church in Livingston, Calif., and they are connected with Gateway CRC in nearby Merced, which supports their work and sees it as part of an “innovative church planting strategy,” said Koll.

At the community center, they teach English, help Punjabis to become U.S. citizens, and hold special services in the Christmas and Easter seasons.

“We are meeting a felt need, but our work has many challenges,” said Merlin Perumalla. “People come to us, but if they publicly profess the Christian faith, they face a lot of problems from their own families.”

Koll said the Perumallahs will likely be ordained in the CRC early next year, allowing them to move on in their ministry as CRC pastors as they continue trying to make inroads among the Punjabi people.

When they arrived in the U.S., the Perumallahs knew nothing about the CRC and only a little about the Reformed faith.

“I had heard about Calvin and TULIP [an acronym for the main teachings of the Reformed faith],” said Kenny Perumallah. “When we first came here, we thought we would go back to India after our work was done. Now God is taking us into the CRC.”

Phillip Lee

A graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the Chicago area, Phillip Lee says he has been a bit of a denominational vagabond. He grew up Southern Baptist has served in a Southern Baptist church, and he has worked as a U.S. Air Force chaplain for that denomination.

He has also served in Korean ministry at a Presbyterian church and at a United Methodist church in English-speaking contexts.

“I have always served in education. Usually the ministry has been heavy with programs.” he said, noting that sometimes he found it hard to live up to expectations placed on him as a Korean pastor.

While working at a Southern Baptist church, Lee happened to see a posting about two years ago for an opening to serve as the lead pastor of Faith Community CRC in Fullerton, Calif.

“They said they were looking for integrity and heart over technical skill, although that was important,” commented Lee.
Seeing this as a church at which he could develop his character and expand in ministry, he applied and landed the job more than a year ago.

The church is small, with about 35 people attending worship on Sunday. Though he was well aware of the size of the congregation, he said, it is taking him awhile to adapt to the rush of activity and the general sprawl of cities in southern California.

“There is a cultural shock that I am still processing,” he said. “It is so different than what I was used to in serving churches on the East Coast.”

Fullerton is a community with one of the fastest growing Korean populations in southern California. The population in one of the local high schools is more than 80 percent Korean.

“This is a tight-knit community. Many of the people grew up together,” said Lee. “I have had to deal with feeling like an outsider.”

Lee says he has felt this way — like an outsider — for much of his ministry. But that is now changing in a way he had not anticipated.

Included in the job description to be hired at Faith Community CRC was the need for him to be ordained in the CRC — a denomination he knew very little about. And the process has become life-changing, he said.

First, he was assigned a mentor through the local classis. The mentor has taught him about the CRC, and there is more.

“I needed a friend and someone to latch on to, someone who could give me a clear perspective when I share my frustration — and he does that,” said Lee.

They talk often on the phone, said Lee, and once, during an especially challenging time for Lee, his mentor drove 60 miles to Fullerton so that he and Lee could go hiking together.

“He helped me to see that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” said Lee.

Adding to Lee’s experience is the time he recently spent learning about the CRC in Grand Rapids. Being in West Michigan and meeting many church leaders and teachers helped to enhance his appreciation for CRC doctrine and its hospitality to an outsider such as himself, he said.

“The CRC had been very personal in the way it has guided and interacted with me,” said Lee, who will be ordained this fall. “The CRC is providing me the continuing care I need.”

For the first time in his ministry, said Lee, he has found a denominational home — and he added, “That means a lot to me.”