PASADENA, CALIF – “I was 18 years old when God called me to America,” explained Sam Theophylus, born in Hyderabad, India. “I didn’t know what it meant then, but the call was clear and the burden for your country stirred in my heart,” he continued. But, as strong as the call had been, and as clear as it had seemed, life, as it does, unfolded.
With a flourishing corporate career that began at HSBC for Sam and as a head manager in human resources for his wife Priya, they settled into life in their native India, buying a home and becoming very involved in their English-speaking church in Hyderabad, one of the largest cities in the world.
“I had almost forgotten my call to America — but then God rocked our boat,” explained Sam. He found himself out of work, with one door after another closing — and none opening. Except one — to come to America.
“Before our marriage Sam shared this vision with me,” clarified Priya. But she did not sense the same call, even after asking God repeatedly to confirm the call in her as well.
“I never got an answer,” she said. But then, five years after they had been married, she was offered the opportunity to come to America on a business trip, which she did.
“On that trip I felt as though God were showing me so many different things,” explained Priya.
Upon arriving home in India she told Sam, “I think I need to quit my work and we need to go to America.” That was in July of 2009. In December of 2009 they found themselves landing at Los Angeles International Airport — having sold their possessions, including their house, and receiving the blessing of their home church as they journeyed into the unknown.
Now, four years later, Sam is finishing a Masters of Divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary. In addition, Sam has joined the staff of Bridges, a validated mission support group of the Presbytery of San Fernando. Bridges currently nurtures 23 Presbyterian members from 8 congregations in ministries with the unchurched. Because Bridge leaders minister amongst the truly unchurched it can take years of discipling before beginning a ‘new worshipping community.’
Sam and Priya are working with Bridges in a partnership with the PC(USA) to plant a church in Los Feliz, California, once he graduates — or, to be more precise, to plant themselves.
The idea of ‘missionaries’ to America might strike some U.S. Christians as a foreign concept. Sam concedes that he’s also had friends ask, “What will you do differently that is not already being done?”
But different is not what they have in mind.
“I don’t think we are going to do anything different,” Sam explained. “Everyone wants to do something different.” As a creative person he understands this desire — to do something that stands out.
“When it comes to the church there is nothing different anyone can do,” he continued. “The opposite is what is missing — getting back to our core, which is prayer.”
“It is not about issues— it is about getting back into conversation with God,” he continued.
“Coming from India does give us a different perspective,” shared Priya. One aspect of that is their firm belief in planting themselves in the community.
“When you actually invite people into your home it is very different than only talking to people during a worship service,” explained Priya. Of course corporate worship will be an important part of what they hope to ‘plant’ — but they hope to begin more organically by inviting people into their home.
“Whenever you invite people into your home, the Holy Spirit, of course, is there,” shared Priya. “We always expect people, when they come into our house, to take away something.”
It’s not hard to imagine, given the sense of God at work in their lives and through their lives.
“One thing I almost forgot,” shared Sam. “I didn’t speak until I was 15 years old.” A severe speech impediment silenced him for that first decade and a half.
But at the age of 15 he was attending a youth prayer meeting when he was called upon to pray. “My sisters were so embarrassed, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to,” Sam remembered. But he walked up to the front and prayed.
“I tell my wife that the reason I speak so much now is that I am making up for lost time!” joked Sam.
The call of Jeremiah is a call he takes upon his life in a fairly literal manner — “ ‘The Lord reached out and touched my lips’ is literally my story.”
ERIN DUNIGAN is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.