Episode #1 – The Prabhakars

Dr.John Prabhakar and his wife, Esther Prabhakar, were both born in Palayamkottai, a town in the state of Tamil Nadu in India which was nicknamed, “Oxford of the South” due to the presence of several Christian institutions established by English missionaries. They both were raised in Christian families, and they committed their lives to Christ at an early age.

John was a medical doctor and Esther was a Home Economics teacher when their marriage was arranged in 1965. They moved to Chicago in 1967 with their year-old son, Larry. Their second son, Ernie was born the next year.

After 7 years of residency in Chicago, John practiced as a surgeon in Rochell, IL. while Esther worked in her husband’s office and was active in the local church and community. Their children are married and John and Esther have six amazing grandchildren. They love traveling and studying the Bible in small groups.

John and Esther split their time between Illinois and California, so that they can remain close to their children and grandchildren.

Here’s a fun fact about Esther – Her ancestor, Rev. Aaron of Tranquebar, was the first native minister/ pastor ordained in all of India, and possibly in all of Southeast Asia in 1733. And here’s an interesting fact about John – He attended the Billy Graham Crusade in 1953.

It was an honor to speak with the Prabhakars and present their story to you. Watch the video here:

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Here’s the full transcript of episode #1:

Mabel:
Hi, everyone. Thank you for joining us on Immigrant Faith Stories. Our guests today are John and Esther Prabhakar. I met them at a Bible study here in San Jose. My first impression of them was that they were joyful Christians. Their passion for God and love for people is not only noticeable, but also contagious. I’m so happy that they agreed to have this conversation with me about immigration and about faith. And so let’s begin this conversation by asking them what brought them to America and when did they come here?

John:
We got married in 1965 by the arranged marriage system, and I was already a doctor there graduating from medical college. I wanted to specialize in surgery. So we applied to the hospitals in the United States. We came to Chicago in 1967. And at that time, we had one son. Larry was one and a half years old, and she was pregnant with our second son, and I trained for one year as a rotating intern in Chicago. Then I did five years of surgical training and two years of thoracic and chest surgery training in and all around Chicago and suburban areas. After that, we moved to a small town hundred miles away from Chicago called Rochelle, Illinois, and I practiced for 30 years and retired in 2004.

Mabel:
Okay, wonderful! So I heard you have grandchildren. Six?

Esther:
Yes, we have two sons, wonderful daughters-in-law and six grandchildren. We share our time between Rochelle, Illinois and Santa Clara, California. We go there for the winter. So we had 53 years of wonderful life in US.

Mabel:
Okay, that’s wonderful, Aunty. Yeah. Tell us about the first few days of being completely new immigrants in America. How did you adapt to being away from home? And, you know, all of a sudden you’re in a new country and the culture is new. Did you both have the same experiences or did you have different ones?

John:
Yes, it was really different. We came from a small town in southern side of India and never been to …

Esther:
Palayamkottai

John:
We didn’t go to any major cities or travel by plane. Our first flight was to Chicago and everything was new to us. So we were really fascinated by everything we saw. Chicago’s a nice place to be there in the summer, and the buildings and the parks and the beach and, and also the friendliness of the people. People really open to us and the hospitals were very nice, very clean, and they provided me with free meals as well as laundry service. But things were different. We were not exposed to a lot of things. So even the food they provided…even though looking back was very good, was kind of strange to us.

Esther:
It was bland

John:
It was bland and also it was something like… the ham and roast beef were like raw to us and not too much spices. So, in Chicago at that time, there were no Indian stores and Italian store called Contideswayda had in one corner where they had some rice and some spices and some pickles. So we got some pickles and asked the hospital people to give us some yogurt and rice. So we would have curd rice and pickles along with other meat. And all the meat we couldn’t like we poured ketchup all over, including steaks.

Esther:
The cook seems to be so mad at you guys. My experience was a little different. I had a one week stay with my cousin in New Jersey so I could adapt to some of the conditions here. But john brought me to the first apartment that he rented. And we opened the door.It was so dirty, and it was a one room apartment. This is like a Cinderella story backwards. I lived in a two bedroom house with a servant in India. Now we come to this one room apartment with the Murphy bed. And I told…I asked John, “Who cleans this place?” And he looked at me and said, “I think you do.” It was a total shock. So but then I got used to the housework. And now you know, I don’t like to have servants. It’s better do the housework yourself. And there’s a lot of pride in labor. So that changed my attitude. And I was just alone with the kids most of the time. But the thing is, we couldn’t bring anybody from India with us, but God came with us. He’s omnipresent. Right? So he was with me during the lonely days in Chicago. And I somehow learned to adjust to conditions, adjust to cooking ways. And then also made some friends. And everything was new and glamorous and interesting. One time I was looking at the…through the window and there was a white stuff coming. And John called me from the hospital and said, “Esther! That’s called snow.” I had never seen snow before, except maybe in the movies. So it was interesting. So it was both difficult and interesting.

Mabel:
Yes, I can totally relate to that, Aunty. I mean, I’ve been in the US maybe 12 years now, but I understand. I was shocked to know that I had to do all the housework and just the differences and adapting to food and all that. Yes, I can totally relate to that. But during that time, while you were adjusting to America, did…can you recall an incident or can you recall a time when someone showed you kindness that you remember that really helped you in your struggles as immigrants?

Esther:
Yes, America is a… American people are very friendly. I noticed that. And so we had no problem walking in the streets. Everyone smiled and said hi. And the first thing we did was to go find a church and walk to the church. We didn’t have a car for six months. So when we went to this church, a middle-aged lady came up to us and was very friendly, sat with us and helped us out with the service. And then she became our lifelong friends. Her name is Shirley Sparks. And she had the ability to see what these foreigners, new people to the country will need. And so when my son, Ernie, was born, she brought a secondhand crib from a friend and some clothes and a rocking horse for Larry and we made her Ernie’s godmother. So from her, I learned how to recognize people that I knew or how we can go and talk to them and make friends with them. So that always stayed with me. Even when we moved to California for the winter, we came across the neighbor one day, two days before Thanksgiving, and he has just moved in and his family was back home East. And he said, “Oh, I’m going to be all alone at Thanksgiving.” Or, something like that…he said. So I got his phone number. Talked to John. The next day, we called and said, “We are going to our neice’s house for Thanksgiving at 4 o’clock, but 12 to 2 we can entertain you. So we had him over. We ate Indian chicken dinner instead of turkey. And we played some games. And finally when he left he said,”This is the best Thanksgiving we ever had.” So I learned this from my friend Shirley.

John:
I think I was very naive to start with. So, I remember one story. I went to a department store called Gold Glass at the time in Chicago. And they asked me whether I can open an account. I said okay. And they said,”You can buy anything you want. And we put it on your accounnt and at the end of the month, if you pay then you don’t have to pay any interest.” That’s good. So I did that. Then I came across a blender, which said original price $40. Now it’s for $29. It’s on sale. I have no concept of sale coming from Palayamkottai during the 60’s. I said to Kamali (Esther),”They’re trying to fool us. There’s something wrong with this blender. That’s why they want to pawn it off to others for a reduced price.” So I didn’t buy it. Next week when I went, it was $40 again. But you know, people are very friendly, especially in the hospital. My attending physicians were very complimentary. I was surprised when we did something routine, they would say, “Thank you very much. That was a very good job.” It was different from some of the critical experience I had back home in India. So some of the doctors will invite us to their homes. One of the doctors took me to medical meetings and made me present the cases that…for him and made a big impression on me. So when I had residents, I tried to invite them for dinner, take them out and so on. And I gave gifts to all my referring physicians at Christmas time and my nurses and recognized them. So we learned from…to give complements

Esther:
Whatever we learned, whatever we received, we tried to give back.There was a doctor named Petrotsky in the suburbs of Chicago. He invited us for Thanksgiving once. Then he invited my brother’s family and all 16 of us ended up in his house. He was so good to us to share the festival with us. So when we had a house of our own, we always try to spot people who are alone on Thanksgiving Day or who are new to the community and invite them. One time we got so carried away, we each invited. And finally we had 55 people for Thanksgiving dinner. So it was wonderful.

Mabel:
Yeah, that’s amazing. Because it just takes one act of kindness by someone, you know, to… And that makes such a big difference in our lives and especially to someone who’s new to a country. It means so much when someone just accepts them, invites them home or gives them something. It just shows that they understand us, that they know what we’re going through. Their willingness to help. And then just like you, immigrants feel the need to give it back to others or, you know, just like how we experience kindness. We do the same with others. So that’s amazing. Yeah. Now I know that both of you accepted Christ at a young age. And so when you came to America, you will already believers. So what did your faith influence your marriage in some way? I know you’re married for 55 years, and that’s a long time and achievement in these days. These days, it’s…it’s quite a feat. So how did you manage that? How did immigration affect your marriage? You know, maybe, because we know that adjusting to a new country, settling down, starting community from scratch, all that puts a lot of stress on a marriage. So I’d really like to know how you dealt with it.

John:
Actually, like any marriage, we had to work on it. But you know, even though we were Christians, like you said, we did not attend any small group Bible studies and prayer groups and so on. I can honestly say, I grew in my faith only after coming to America, especially settling down in a small town called Rochelle, a town of 10,000 people.

Esther:
And the Stonecraft Bible study

John:
Bible stuies and small groups and prayer cells, and even our church. And it made a big impression. We made a lot of good Christian friends, and we were able to learn from them and imitate their practices. And regarding our marriage, I lost my mother when I was five years old. And in the background where I came from, I didn’t see too much of a husband and wife interaction, sharing things and making decisions and so on. So that was difficult for me. But through listening to people, to seminars and watching programs, I learned that she has a lot to offer for our marriage. So now, I don’t hesitate to ask her opinion and also share decisions before making a decision. I ask for her opinion and surprisingly she has some good opinions…and most of them, she’s right in her perspective. So that helped. And then, you know…

Esther:
Compliment me.

John:
Yeah, we compliment each other.

Esther:
And he learned that from our daughter in law’s father, Ron Lemke, who always complimented, right?

John:
That was a surprise too, you know, when we first got… meet Ron and Sherry Lemke, father of Laura, he started complimenting his wife, told all the good things about her, all the accomplishments. I was taken aback. You know, he didn’t make any joke about her or put her down. And publicly he was acknowledging her work. So I made a decision that day so I will try my best to also compliment my wife whenever possible.

Esther:
See, when they came in the 60s, the women’s live with liberation movement was very strong in America. And I come from a very conservative background, then I hear this and I begin to think, “Should I be changing a little bit that way?” So there was a lot of struggle going on in my mind about my status in family. We attended the Indian Christian retreat in Dayton, Ohio conducted by Dr. Sam Kamalesan. And he talked about how when, when the Israelites came to the new country, they had to make a decision. Are you going to serve the gods of the Ammorites and other people, or are you going serve Jehovah? We have to choose. So it was a struggle for me, am I going to stick with Indian values? Am I going to completely change to Western values and then I realized by God’s grace, Christian values, it’s the same all over the world. So that’s how my marriage, my status in my family got stabilized. I knew God loves me just the way I am and he made me in His image. So that was the beginning of a very healthy marriage for us.

Mabel:
That’s a beautiful testimonial. Sorry, uncle. You are going to say something

John:
Well, we also had some stress because we had family members come and stay with us.

Esther:
People we sponsored.

John:
Sometimes we sponsored people and we had, not only for a week or two, some of them stayed for years. So that puts a stress on a marriage. And only now I realize that I should have paid attention to that. And one of the things before we have somebody come and stay with us and make a decision to help them and so on, should be a combined this session. Both of us should have input and both of us should agree on that. That would help a lot. Even after they come and stay with you, you have to make sure that you give undivided attention and your priorities to your your spouse and your child children and make them feel that they are very important to us.

Esther:
They’re not neglected

John:
They are not being…they don’t…they are probably not being…they should not feel neglected. So that would go a long way in creating harmony in the house.

Esther:
Yes. And nowadays, a lot of people are bringing their parents and letting them retire with them and things like that. So the same situation will happen also. You just have to be intentional to pay attention to your own family members. And that will be a healthy marriage.

Mabel:
Thank you for bringing that up. Especially because I know that especially for Indian immigrants, that is one big factor that affects our marriage and family life. Many of us either support our family back home financially, or we sponsor relatives, they come and live with us. And we just take it in our stride and we’re never… not conscious, I guess of how it is affecting our spouse or our family. So thank you for sharing that. That part with us. Now, um, I was wondering… all the experiences that you’ve described have been positive, but have there been any instances where you faced racism or any kind of discrimination?

Esther:
Yes, I think we kind of felt subtle racism when we went to look for apartments or job hunting in that kind of areas. But you know, I come from India with a lot of prejudices, cast prejudices and religious prejudices and community prejudices. So, I was used to that. So I never thought much about it or did any struggles against it. When we joined the Lutheran Church in Rochelle Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, they were starting a new program called Anti Racism Teams. So they selected me and they picked me to go for two weeks training and we talked about how racism is institutionalized. It is within the institutions. And so we can dismantle racism by working together. So a person of color and a white person, we went to different churches and presented programs. So that enabled me to see racism, which is a sin and how to overcome it. And I realize sometimes, you know, that we have our own prejudices that we’re not aware of, until God shows it to us. When I was sent to South Africa as the Exchange Visitor for the women, I was walking in a shopping center and a big South African Africano policeman came up to me and said, “Madam, are you from America?” So I got scared, you know, stories during the apartheid time were all about the how mean the police are, so I thought he was going to arrest me or do something. I said, “How do you know I am from America?” Because I was still wearing a sari. You said you, you have a handbag that said, “Lutheran Church in America.” So that’s how I found out you are from America. And all he wanted to know was whether I could find an American flag and mail it to him when he when I go back, because he collects flags from different countries. And here I was already imagining all kinds of prejudicial things about him. So we became friends afterwards, we wrote to each other, and he shared how difficult it is to be a police officer in South Africa and nobody likes you. And the suicide rate is very high and all that, so we became friends. And that kind of prejudice went away. So when you educate, when you move with other people, you learn good things about others.

John:
I was a doctor in a small town, and I was a surgeon so I operated on a lot of people. So I don’t feel…I didn’t feel too much of racism that way. If there was there may have been subtle but our children did have some…peopple called them names and bully them. It may have been just school kids doing that. One time, one of our sons was being bullied a lot. He decided to stand up to him, and they were going to have a session with each other.

Esther:
Yeah, fight it out

John:
And, immediately, Aunty…

Esther:
I called a friend and she came over the time he was going to meet with the bully. We both knelt and prayed for him. And God answered their prayers, and it didn’t happen. I mean, I saw that again and again in raising the children, whether it’s bullying or even finding a life partner for them, you leave it to God. I have a pitcorial prayer book with photos of people that I pray for. So I put my boys’ pictures and prayed for a woman according to Proverbs 31:10 and God answered that prayer. So coming from an arranged marriage background, I had to let go and let God choose their right partners. So we learned lots of things and we learned to give it to God. He does a much better job than we do.

Mabel:
Yes, absolutely, Aunty. And and then you’re right, you know, we all have prejudices. But it’s only when we have relationships with different kinds of people do those prejudices kind of strip away, and a stronger faith…a strong faith and prayer helps us definitely deal with any kind of discrimination. It could be. Not just not just race, but all kinds of discrimination. I think the answer is prayer, and God will show us how to deal with it. And in my experience, most of the time He acts on our behalf. It’s also amazing to see how God used you in this ministry of reconciliation…reconciliation. So that’s, that’s wonderful. So you’ve been in America for more than 50 years now. And God has used you both not just in your local church, but I know that you’re speakers. You’re invited in many places to go and speak. You’ve both written books. It seems like you know, you’ve reached a certain amount of success or you’ve achieve the American dream because many immigrants come to America for that. They have this American dream in mind. So what do you have to say about that? And what do you…what’s your advice to new immigrants who who are still struggling? Or maybe they have recently arrived? What would you tell them?

John:
I think you’re right. We are really blessed to be here. We felt that this is the promised land for us, the land flowing with milk and honey. And God has blessed us so much. And we thank God all the time for all the things that we experience here. So I would suggest that we should give back. We should…what we’ve experienced, we should tell others or help others and serve others. You can start with a local situation, you know, going to either PTA meetings…

Esther:
Food pantry

John:
Or helping out in other voluntary organizations. And we…we have a rotary club in Rochelle. I joined the Rotary Club and eventually, I was president one year and we were able to help two villages in Nigeria by digging wells. So giving back is very gratifying. You feel blessed, even when you give back. And after our boys were out of college, we went to Africa and then did medical mission tours, short term trips of two weeks to four weeks to six weeks, both in Africa, Middle East, and in India. And you feel when you’re there that you have a satisfaction of being there helping the people if you are not there, there would not have been a surgeon there to assist them. So you feel God brought you there for a specific purpose, for helping somebody there. And you…I learned from my experiences there. For example, in the Mission Hospitals, they prayed before operations. So when I came back from the first trip to Swaziland, just before I started with operation, I asked the patient, “Can I pray for you before I start?” and you could see a quietness come over the nurses, the anesthesiologists. The patients said yes. So I started praying. And it was not only for the patient, but for God to guide me and people helping me and to be with the family outside and so on. That was really gratifying over the next few years. Nobody had ever refused me when I asked them whether I could pay for.

Esther:
And your son also.

John:
Yeah now.

Esther:
And when John went to medical mission trips, I always wondered how God’s going to use me and He used me in many ways. One such incident happened In Jerusalem when we were at Augusta Victoria hospital, and John was helping with surgery, and I wondered what I should do, maybe I should organize a Bible study and I did. But there were a lot of German Lutherans living in the Mount of Olives. So one of the came and said, “Esther, we have a cooking outreach once a week on Wednesdays, would you be able to cook Indian food?” Well, first of all, I don’t like to cook. Second of all, where do you find Indian spices in Jerusalem? But they showed me where to go the marketplace. I found it. I cooked chicken curry and rice and some vegetables. And I dressed up all the German ladies in saris. We had Indian music going and they served food. We had lots of fun and we raised money to give back to the hospital for their dialysis program. So God uses any talent that you have. You can smile and be nice to people. He uses that. You know how to cook or you know how to do Bible study. So we really enjoy being back at the mission stations. One thing I want to do is to celebrate, if we can give advice, is to celebrate and be proud of who you are. You know I am an Indian Christian, I will never become a white American. But God created me this way, I’m going to use my Indianness to be an ambassador for God. So I took every opportunity to talk to local churches, schools, and Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts about India. I’d do a program. And in those days it was a slide presentation with many slides. Sari style shows. So whatever gifts that I had, whatever…whoever I was, I was able to share. And even doing Bible studies…at first, I felt uncomfortable because of my accent. People may not understand me. So at a neighborhood Bible study, I had a Japanese American sitting next to me. And I told, “Sako, I I don’t know whether people will understand my accent.” And she said, “I understand you perfectly.” Because she herself had an accent. So after many Bible studies, my husband even wrote Bible studies, right?

John:
I think that’s one thing I found out, Mabel, that when we give back two things happen – people recognize talents that you have which you never thought you did. And second of all, your expression of faith helps other people. And, for example, when I was a Chairman of the Zoning Commission of our local town, they started praying before the new business came to town. And the inauguration, there was a celebration with balloons and cakes and…

Esther:
Ribbon cutting.

John:
Ribbon cutting…just before that they’ll ask somebody to pray and there were like 27 pastors in our town. They asked me to give the opening prayer. So all the six years I was there, I was the only one doing the prayer, you know. Even Walmart and Walgreens and so on when they first came to town. And also Aunty, when she started being active in the church, they recognized her talent. And they had her speak to the Vacation Bible School first, then Sunday school. Then the national church recognized her talent. She went all the way to the national level being on committees and stuff. The Lutheran Church is organized in dioceses. There are 65…they call Synods in the ELCA. ELCA was the fifth largest denomination denomination at the time. And in our synod, Northern Illinois synod, she was elected as the vice president. And you know, obviously see, we are immigrants, but again, they recognize talents and then she was able to use her talents to help other people, to pray for other people because of her position. So we thank God for all our friends and our church that recognized our talents. And because we are willing to involve, God use us in many, many ways, and we thank and praise God.

Esther:
Another advice I will give other immigrants to…don’t always just stick together with your ethnic group, mix and match, learn cooking from Korean neighbors or you put on a costume, Kimono or something from a Japanese friend. So learn richness of other cultures. So that way you spread goodwill, and you make other people feel at home too.

Mabel:
Yeah, thank you. That’s really good advice. And especially for me, I learned so much from just listening to your life stories and listening to how you know God provided for you, blessed you and He exalted you and used you not only in your local church, but even globally…He used both of you in your own different capacities. And what I learned from this also is that our ethnicities are given by God. We must be proud of them. I’m happy I’m Indian, and like Aunty said, we use our Indianness because we are uniquely made like that by God, to glorify Him and to seek out opportunities to serve Him. And giving back to the community is one thing that God wants everybody to do, whether we are immigrants or not. So, thank you, both of you for being on this show and sharing your lives with us.

Esther:
We have closing thoughts.

Mabel:
Sure

Esther:
In a way Mabel, we are all immigrants on this earth. Yeah.

John:
Okay. We say, remember, we are immigrants in this world. Our true citizenship is in…

Esther:
Heaven.

John:
Thank you for having us.

Mabel:
Yes, thank you. Thank you. This was good.

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