Deepu George was the kind of kid who took old Walkmans apart to see how they worked.
If a stereo was on its last leg, that’s when the real fun began for Deepu.
He knew early on, therefore, that he was destined to be a scientist.
“I was always fascinated by stories about physicists,” he said. He remembers reading about Isaac Newton, for example, and the legend of the falling apple sparking Newton’s theory of gravity. The 17th century physicist/mathematician did his theorizing in English gardens, while Deepu’s love of science developed in a lush tropical village along the Arabian Sea in southwestern India.
By the time Deepu had arrived in the capital city of New Delhi to pursue his masters’s degree in optics, he was studying lasers, not Walkmans.
His plan, after receiving a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees, was to earn a doctorate in physics and then settle somewhere close to family.
A professor offered another idea. This advisor received a call from a colleague at the University of Massachusetts in Boston who was looking for doctoral students. Deepu seemed a perfect fit.
He was 26 and had never left India.
“I don’t think I really knew what I was getting into,” he said.
As Deepu puts it: “Everything is ‘the other way’ in America.” Whereas a light switch in India flips down to turn on, it flips up in America. Doors that one pushes to open here would be pulled in India. Cars travel on the opposite sides of roads.
And of course, Boston can be very cold. Not like the rainforest where Deepu spent his youth.
But in the midst of the unsettledness, Deepu found community.
For one thing, “universities are about the most diverse places around,” he said. It didn’t take long to find other Indians to share meals of dosa and thali with.
The other place Deepu found community was church.
Deepu was raised Christian. According to an old Indian legend, the disciple Thomas traveled to Kerala, Deepu’s home state, in the first century A.D. to spread the Good News. Deepu was raised in a Reformed church that resembles somewhat the congregations he encountered in New England.
“We always went to church growing up,” he said. “That’s just what you do. It would feel odd not to go on Sunday morning.”
Deepu transferred to the University of Buffalo in New York, and he was drawn to the University Presbyterian Church there because he could walk to it. The congregation, though small, reached out to university students, and offered them lunch after worship. Deepu grew very close to several families, including one couple he regularly babysat for. Another church member offered him a room to stay in during his last year in Buffalo.
“She refused to take money from me, so that is a generosity I can’t pay back,” he said. “She really is like family to me.”
Those connections offered a sense of grounding, when home was tens of thousands of miles away.
But they also helped change Deepu’s perspective. While Deepu had been raised in a Reformed church, it was a good bit more conservative than the congregations he has been part of in America.
So over long dinners at kitchen tables with new Presbyterian friends, Deepu started thinking differently about certain social issues.
When he moved to Virginia Tech as part of a post-doc program there, he sought out another progressive Presbyterian church, to continue those conversations. And when he followed up on an advertisement for a roommate, and learned that he would be sharing space with a same-gender couple, he didn’t hesitate as he might have once. His friendship with the women blossomed.
“Once you have a human relationship with someone [different from you], you have to think about them and their situation more,” Deepu said. “You have to think, am I going to stand in judgment or is this person worth my attention and time to really understand?”
When Deepu moved to Northern Virginia early this year, his church hunt began anew. It was some of the sermons in the “Risky Resurrection” series—on topics such as sexuality and gun violence—that drew him to BPC.
Most days Deepu is in his lab, developing a retina imaging system at George Mason University, using something called photoacoustics. He is excited about the possibility of working someday for a large technology firm, and he’s not sure where he ultimately will land.
But wherever he lands, he does know he will find a church home there.