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By Natalie Romano

For the Phougat family, becoming Catholic was anything but easy.

It was a harrowing journey that spanned more than ten years and two continents. Their dreams were finally realized on Holy Saturday, March 30, when all four were confirmed at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Rancho Cucamonga.

“I can proudly say I’m confirmed now,” beamed Meena Phougat, parishioner of Sacred Heart. “I am a Catholic.”

Meena along with her husband, Prashant, and his parents Rajender and Sunita were officially welcomed into the Church after completing the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). The year-long process allows converts to learn about the faith and receive the Sacraments of Initiation: Baptism, Holy Communion and Confirmation. Prashant is already eager to share his Catholic faith with others.
“I am a child of God. I am a blessed person,” he rejoiced. “I can spread this message to everybody.”

Four adult family members confirmed all at once is a parish first. Father Benedict Nwachukwu-Udaku, Pastor of Sacred Heart, calls it a “beautiful blessing” and an inspiration to others who might be considering RCIA.

“There is no idea of you coming late or coming early. God meets us at a time that He Himself has already planned,” he said. “It’s not too late to say ‘yes’ to God, it’s not too late to say ‘yes’ to the Sacraments.”

Prashant perpetually wears the necklace he received at the Rite of Acceptance, the Mass that recognized his decision to become a full member of the Church. As he explains how much he cherishes the simple wooden cross, the other Phougats grin, reach under their clothes and reveal they’re wearing theirs too, an act that shows the road to Confirmation was truly a family affair.

The Phougats’ conversion originated in their native India more than a decade ago. They heard others talk about Christianity and their curiosity was piqued. The family started to attend Mass and slowly traded the practices of Hinduism for those of Catholicism. Rajender says he was particularly drawn to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

“Jesus gives messages of humanity that inspire everybody to love each other, to be faithful, to be honest, to be kind,” explained Rajender Phougat. “All these principles attracted me.”
His daughter-in-law recalls that as a child she was taught to pray to multiple Hindu deities but didn’t feel a connection to any of them. That void disappeared when she learned about Christianity and the belief in one God.

“There’s lots of gods we had to worship in Hinduism but in Catholicism, there’s just one God. There’s no confusion,” stated Meena. “We just close our eyes and feel Him.”

After discovering this new faith, the family started to encourage others to convert, even going door to door to share literature. However, their evangelization efforts were despised by many in the Hindu community. Verbal harassment eventually escalated into violence. The Phougats’ expressions turn serious and their eyes fill with tears as they flash back to this terrible time.

“They started to protest against us. They antagonized us, they followed us, my parents got beaten by a lot of people,” described Prashant. “We also faced the same thing. They slapped us and said, ‘You should not follow Christianity. You are Hindu, why are you moving into Christianity?’ ”

The Phougats’ experience isn’t an isolated one. Earlier this year, the Catholic Bishops Conference of India announced that attacks on Christians were on the rise. Advocacy group Open Doors lists India as the 11th worst country in the world for Christians, noting an increase in anti-conversion laws. Despite all this, the Phougat family stood firm. They looked to the example of Jesus rising up after stumbling from the weight of the cross.

“If you fall by taking on a burden, one time, two times, three times, just get up, stand up, walk,” said Meena. “...He gave this lesson to the world.”

Strength aside, the family eventually sought the employment opportunities and religious freedoms available in the United States. Meena and Prashant moved here with their young daughters three years ago, Rajender and Sunita followed suit a year later.

“There’s no problems here. We’re happy and at peace,” said Sunita Phougat. “And we’re really excited about being Confirmed.”

While the family was enthusiastic about the RCIA process, they didn’t know any Catholics to sponsor them. Sacred Heart parishioners Erica and Daniel Gomez along with staff member Monica Hernandez volunteered.

“I was the one who registered them here at the church,” said Hernandez, Confirmation sponsor. “It was a blessing to then get to journey with them. I gained more faith, felt more happiness…I think it’s something really beautiful.”

RCIA teacher Larry Meyer couldn’t agree more. He says the family was truly seeking God and found Him during the RCIA process.

“There was just this look on his face when [Rajender] said he really felt the presence of God,” said Meyer. “I think the satisfying thing for me…is that the Good Lord is allowing me to be part of that process.”

And while that process was long and challenging for the family, Prashant says Jesus was always present.

“I want to give advice to everyone who is struggling, just have your faith in Jesus and continue on your journey. He will definitely help you out.”

Natalie Romano is an award-winning freelance writer based in Southern California.