Monday, July 26, 2010

India-Bangladesh #9

One final India story (and in a way the most annoying). At passport control in Delhi the official gave my passport an odd look, said something to me, and tapped a line on the stamp I received in Dhaka. Eventually I understood that I was supposed to have registered at the Indian Foreign Office within 14 days of arriving in Calcutta. I pointed out that I was leaving within the 14 day grace period, so I assumed that I did not need to register. The passport guy said, "But you did not register, so you may not leave." I started getting worried. He asked another official to come over who confirmed what he'd said and who reassured me that I just had to drop by the Indian Foreign Ministry and poke my head in the door. Apparently, they just wanted to make sure that I was having a good time and have me fill out a customer satisfaction survey about my time in India.

I never did fully understand why I needed to register. I've always thought that you only need to register if you're going to stay for a long period of time in a country. I had to register with the British Foreign Office when I was a grad student in the UK and occasionally I would write the Foreign Minister letters that said, "Hi! Remember me? I'm still working on that damn PhD."

My registration in India seems to have had something to do with getting permission to re-enter India. In other words, they were not going to let me leave because I had not properly requested permission to re-enter India. So if I missed my flight, went to the Foreign Office the next day and properly registered, then I could leave India and return as often as I liked. The only problem would be that, of course, I would have missed my flight home and would be stuck in India and would lose my job and would become a ward of the state and a drain on the national budget and would eventually bring down the Indian economy. Alternatively, I could get a job as a "chai walla" (tea boy) with the Indian railway or a post card vendor in Benares and become responsible and economically productive, at least until I got hit by a van full of tourists being driven by a maniacal and incompetent driver and was condemned in my next incarnation to be a passport control officer at the Delhi airport as a way of making atonement for all my bad karma.

Eventually, I explained all this to the passport guy at the airport. Well, maybe I didn't explain it exactly the way I've told it here but I did manage to convince him that although it defied the imagination I had no desire to return to India. Two weeks or dust and dirt and marginal accommodations and dodgy food and undrinkable water and bathrooms that were unbearably filthy and flies... everywhere flies and traffice that was designed to deal with India's over-population problem and so on. So giving me a deeply suspicious look, ht epassport guy reluectantly stamped my passport, closed it, gave it back to me, and said, "Thank you, Mr. Vaughn. I hope you had a good time in India."

The strange thing is that I realy did have a good time in India. The place exerts a mysterious fascination. At first, India gives you a violent punch in hte gut with its heat, humidity and monsoon rains, dirt, flies, poverty, and so on. But once you get past that, once you accept India on its own terms, instead of imposing your own expectations, then India comes alive and spaces open up. It will always be frustrating and challenging because that's its nature. In several years, I think, I would like to return (if the Foreign Office will let me). Although I would like to do stuff a little differently: No over nights on trains (unless absolutely necessary). I want to see more of British India and South India. But I have become a reluctant and conflicted fan of this enormous, beautiful, appalling and incredible place we know as India.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

India-Bangladesh pilgrimage #8

Today is my last day in India. I skipped the sightseeing this morning to pack and get ready to leave. A.B. Sutton of Sixth Avenue Baptist Church and I took a taxi around 1.30 to join the rest of the group for lunch.

After lunch we toured New Delhi, the city that the British built when they moved their capital from Calcutta to Delhi early in the 20th c. This appears to be the most western city in India. The British built a beautiful capital city of grand buildings and wide avenues.

Our first stop, however, was at the house in which Gandhi lived for the last 4 months of his life. Gandhi envisioned a united India in which Hindus, Muslims, and those of other faiths would live together peacefully, but as in all political movements there were disagreements. The other three leaders of the Indian National Congress - Nehru, Jinnah, and Patel - all aspired to be India's first prime minister. Jinnah, a secular Muslim, and Nehru, a Hindu, made a deal with the British for the partition of India into separate Muslim and Hindu states immediately before independence in 1947. Thus Pakistan and India were created out of what had been a single country.

Partition of the country into separate Muslim and Hindu states sparked terrible violence. In an attempt to stop the violence Gandhi came to Delhi to appeal for calm. He was given a house by Birla, a prominent Indian industrialist. Independence and partition occurred in August 1947. On January 30, 1948, at 5 pm, Gandhi, supported by two grandnieces, walked into the garden of the Birla residence to lead a prayer meeting. As Gandhi raised his joined hands for the traditional India greeting of "Namaste", a young Hindu man rushed forward, knocked one of Gandhi's grandnieces to the ground, and fired 3 bullets into Gandhi's body. About 15 minutes later, the Mahatma was dead. His last words were "Lord Rama."

The house and garden where Gandhi was killed are kept as a museum and shrine. There is no doubt in my mind that Gandhi was a remarkable man who consistently preached and practiced nonviolence. My favorite part of the museum was a cartoon showing Gandhi speaking to Martin Luther King, Jr., saying, "The funny thing about these assassins is that they think they actually killed us."

After seeing the Gandhi museum we drove to the site of the Indian parliament and presidential residence. The president's residence was built by the British viceroy Lord Curzon in the early 20th c. and is enormous and imposing. It may be as much as ten times as big as the White House. In front and on either side of the presidential residence are two administrative buildings that are equally imposing. The current president of India is a woman, Pratibha Devisingh Patil, who is a Hindu. However, her vice president is a Muslim man; India's prime minister is a Sikh man; and the president of the congress is a Christian woman. Amazing India...

The final site was the India Gate. Like Paris' Arche de Triomphe, the India Gate is a war memorial. In 1914 Gandhi made a personal appeal to Indians to fight on behalf of Great Britain in WW1 and almost 1 million Indians volunteered. There were almost as many Indians fighting for Britain as from Britain's 4 "white dominions" (Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa) combined. The India Gate commemorates 90,000 Indians who died fighting for Britain.

I leave for Amsterdam tonight and then for Atlanta tomorrow. It's been an amazing journey and in a few days I will share some general thoughts about my experience of India.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

India-Bangladesh pilgrimage #7

Our hotel in McLeodganj had a restaurant on the roof. The second morning I was there I sat outside in the sunshine, drinking tea, and looking down into the valley. McLeodganj is about 6000 ft above sea level, and everywhere there are spectacular views.

Our second day started with a bang... literally. As we were driving into Dharamsala, our driver tried to pass a bus on a curve. As we rounded the bus we slammed head on into another bus coming our way. Fortunately, our vehicle and the one we hit were going very slowly. We suffered only a few cuts and bruises.

Palden, our guide, got us 2 taxis and we continued. Our first stop was a Tibetan cultural center. It was one of the loveliest places we've visited in India. The grounds are beautifully manicured, flowers were everywhere. We crossed a bridge over a koi pond going up to the temple. While there we watched Tibetan artists painting traditional Tibetan Buddhist icons, doing needlework, and making furniture. The temple featured a status of the Buddha as the "warrior monk" and it felt like a really prayerful place. Before we left we had a really good lunch in the cafeteria.
After lunch we visited the temple or monastery of the 17th Karmapa lama. He is the second most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism. Along with about 100 people we sat cross legged on the floor until the Karmapa lama and other monks entered. Then one by one we went forward to receive his blessing.
The next day our two taxis took us from McLeodganj to Amritsar. I think we were all a bit nervous as the taxis descended the mountain on narrow and windy roads. Also, it rained heavily at intervals. But about 6 hours later we arrived in Amritsar.
Amritsar is the holiest city in the Sikh faith because it is the home of the Golden Temple. Our hotel was located just around the corner from the temple. It sits in the middle of a large compound with other buildings on the four sides. In the cener is the "pool of immortality" and in the center of the pool is the temple itself. Its walls are stone but they are covered with gold and it's a brilliant sight in the day and even more brilliant at night when the light reflects in the water.
Sikhism is a synthesis of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam and began in the 16th c. Today there are about 20 million Sikhs, mostly in India, and it may be the 6th or 7th largest religion in the world. The goal of Sikhism is to eliminate the 4 evils: ego, greed, anger, lust, and attachment. The central ritual of the Sikh faith is reading from the scriptures written by their gurus. The Sikh holy book is kept in the center of the temple. From 4 am to 10.15 pm every day it is open and there is constant singing of its texts. We were able to look down upon the book and the musicians from a gallery in the temple. There were 2 singers, each playing a "lap accordion" and a drummer who was drumming extremely complex patterns. Just before the book was closed and put away for the night, the music changed. It became louder and everybody began singing along. Then a portable throne was brought in, the book was packed up, and with great ceremony it was put away until 4 am the next day.
Also in Amritsar we saw the site of the 1919 massacre at Jallianwalla Bagh. Gandhi had called for a national day of purification but the British interpreted this to be a national strike. A British general fired on peaceful protestors in Amritsar, killing hundreds and injuring over a thousand. It was one of the most significant events leading up to independence in 1947.
Later that day we drove 30 km to the Pakistani border and watched as Indian and Pakistan troops changed the guard and lowered their flags. Then we were off to the train for our last overnight train journey. The train left Amritsar right on time and arrived in Delhi only a little later than scheduled. After transferring to our hotel and resting a bit we went out to see the Jama Masjid mosque (the largest in India) and to have lunch at Karim's, a famous Muslim-oriented restaurant near the south gate of the mosque. Our guide in Delhi, Ali, ordered for us and the food was delicious (even though I afterward learned that I was eating goat).
The highlight of our first day in Delhi for me was a visit to the site of Gandhi's cremation. It is a national shrine and like all holy places in India one is required to remove one's shoes. I removed my shoes but not my socks and afterward regretted it. There is something different in these holy places when one feels the cold marble or sun-warmed stone or earth beneath one's feet. One feels a deep connection with the place and also feels strangely vulnerable and exposed.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

India/Bangladesh #6

A little more about Sarnath and Buddhism: Another piece of sculpture in the museum at Sarnath is the earliest known depiction of Buddha. Dating from the 3rd century AD, it depicts Buddha seated with his eyes half closed and the index fingers of his hands intertwined. Our guide Shailesh said that one interpretation of the hands is that the Buddha was untying a knot that represents the dilemma of suffering.

Later that day Shailesh took us out on the Ganges in a small boat. He told us that there are 100,000 shrines or temples to Shiva in Varanasi. That was believable as we were rowed past at least a dozen just on the banks of the river. Less easy to comprehend is the Hindu practice of cremating bodies atop wooden funeral pyres along the banks of the Ganges. We saw at least a dozen such pyres. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around that.

As the sun set we were given small cups made of a single leaf of a tree with a candle in the center. As Shailesh said a prayer in the ancient language of Sanskrit, we lit the candles and set candle and flowers adrift on the river. The glow of the candles reflected in the water as the sun set was enchanting. Shailesh told us that all Hindu prayers include the following petitions: "May all beings be happy; may all beings be free from fear; may all beings look upon one another with eyes of love. And if pain still remains in the world, may it come to me."

After our sunset cruise, we walked to a restaurant overlooking the river and watched as young Brahmin priests made offerings to "Mother Ganga." I have to say that it was a beautiful ceremony. Their movements were like ballet. First, they rang bells as they turned in circles to summon the gods from all corners of the world. Next they waved lighted sticks of incense to cleanse themselves. Then they offered flowers and finally they offered fire.

Reflecting on our time in Varanasi and Calcutta, I realized that Western Christians believe that worship must be quiet, solemn, sober, and interior. But that is not the way most humans at most times have worshiped. For most people in most times, worship is about saying the right words and performing the correct rituals. It seems noisy, chaotic, and far from worshipful to us, but not to them. More about this later...

The next day we took another overnight train. Our first overnight on a train had been 1rst class; this one was 2nd class (but it was the best we could get). I have to admit that I did not enjoy it, but we did get to Agra only about 2 hours late.

Agra was the seat of the Mughals (Mongols) who ruled India from the early 16th century until defeated by the British in the 19th century. It is better known as the site of the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jehan as a tomb for his favorite wife, Mumtaj. Taj Mahal means "palace of Taj". It was completed in 1639.

The Taj Mahal is rightly regarded as one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. It is made of brick but every surface is covered with white marble. From a distance it looks weightless and seems to float above the ground.

However, more interesting and appealing to me is the Red Fort across the river from the Taj Mahal from which Shah Jehan ruled. It was also the seat of Akbar who ruled the Mughul empire from 1556 to 1605, approximately the same dates that Elizabeth I ruled England (1658-1603). In fact, Elizabeth wrote Akbar a letter in which she said, "We have heard of your humanity..." Akbar (a Muslim) was noted for his toleration of other faiths.

We had one other 2nd class overnight train trip: from Agra to a station near Dharamsala. However, it was exactly on time leaving and arriving. From the train station we had a 3 hour van ride up into the mountains to the village of McLeodganj, near Dharamsala. The main road was closed for repairs, so we took a secondary road that was never wider than 1 1/2 lanes and often narrower. McLeodganj dates from the British period and its name means "McLeod's place". I wonder who McLeod was!?

Dharamsala is the headquarters of the Dalai Lama, who is both the spiritual head of the Tibetan branch of Buddhism and the head of the Tibetan government in exile. The Chinese communists initially promised him and his people autonomy but installed their own government in 1960, forcing the Dalai Lama to flee to India.

McLeodganj is filled with Western tourists and the commerce they attract: restaurants, hotels, coffee bars, and internet cafes (in one of which I'm typing this). Every coffee shop seems to have WiFi. The streets are no more than 15 ft wide and cars go by at regular intervals, offering careless pedestrians the chance to learn about the cycle of death and rebirth first hand. As in other Indian towns, cattle wander freely, depositing their offerings wherever they please. The pedestrians who avoid the cycle of death and rebirth are likely to participate in the blessings bestowed by the sacred animal of the Hindu faith.

India/Bangladesh pilgrimage #5

We were booked on the over night train from Calcutta to Varanasi (Benares) but the train was several hours later departing and arrived 22 hours later than scheduled. Our guide, Nagendra, assured us that this rarely happens.

The villages between Calcutta and Varanasi are primitive. Except for electric lines and people talking on cell phones, there's not much evidence that this is the 21st century. In the more developed towns the railway stations are covered and a few more enterprising Indians put out boxes covered with cloth on which they offer water, sweets, and other things. The women walk by in saris and the men with heavy sacks of flour and rice on their heads.

Warren Hastings, the British Governor General of India from 1773, greatly admired Indian civilization and commissioned a translation of the Bhagavidgita, a Hindu holy book. In the preface he wrote, "Every instance which brings the Indians' real character home to observation will impress us with a more generous sense of feeling for their natural rights, and teachus to estimate themby the measure of our own. But such instances can only be obtained by their writings, and these will survive, when the British dominion of India shall have long ceased to exist, and when the sources which it once yielded of wealth and power are lost to remembrance."

Our first stop after checking into our hotel in Varanasi was to drive out of the city to Sarnath, the birthplace of Buddha and site of his first sermon. The story of Buddha's life is fairly well known. Born around 550 BC to a noble family, he was known as Prince Siddhartha. After a sheltered childhood, he began to inquire about the suffering he saw and decided to become a monk. After years of meditation, Siddhartha received "enlightenment" and became known as the Buddha (the enlightened one). He taught that the central problem of human life is suffering and that suffering is caused by attachment to things that are temporal and finite. The path to enlightenment, Buddha taught, is to release our grasp upon the things that cause suffering.

Sarnath contains a small but impressive museum of antiquities. It houses the top of a pillar that dates from the 3rd century BC erected by Prince Ashoka, a convert to Buddhism, to mark Buddha's birthplace. The top of the pillar or capital consists of 4 lions, facing the 4 directions. The lions symbolize Buddha who was (according to Hindu thought) a member of the "warrior" or lion caste ("shakya") and is sometimes known as Shakyamuni (the lion or warrior monk). Although it no longer exists, the pillar also supported a 32 spoke wheel. The 32 spokes symbolized the 32 characteristics of an incarnation of the god Vishnu, because Buddha was believed to be such an incarnation. The spokes also symbolized the Buddha's Four Noble Truths times the Eight Fold Path to enlightenment. Although India is a predominantly Hindu nation, the state of India adopted the 4 lions of Ashoka's pillar as its official symbol.

Across the street from the musum is an archeological site containing the ruins of "stupas" or shrines, commemorating the birthplace of Buddha and site of his first sermon.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

India/Bangladesh pilgrimage #4

Tuesday the group went to Dhaka Univ and to a mosque, but I spent the day with the ass't nuncio, Msgr Mark Kadima, a Kenyan priest. There was a problem with my visa that I had to straighten out with the Indian embassy in order to return to India. It was an enjoyable day because I got to see more of Dhaka at the street level. Mark took me with him to do some shopping and he also found a little shop where they repaired my watch for about 25 cents. (Unfortunately, I promptly broke it again.)

In the afternoon we met with a group of Sufi Muslims. Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam that is very accepting of other faiths. The Sufis believe that God is in all of us. It is also said to be the predominant form of Islam in India.

Abp Marino had us all to dinner again that evening. Other guests included Father Francesco, a missionary in Bangladesh who is very involved with the Sufis. Francesco is from Milan and trained as a pulmonary surgeon before entering the priesthood. Another guest was Brother Guillaume, a member of the Protestant Taize community. A Baptist minister, the Rev. Martin d'Hingan, who is in charge of a mission to lepers, sat across from me. I was seated between Abp Marino and Chairmaine Mendes, the wife of Neo Mendes, a business man in Dhaka.

After dinner Abp Marino thanked us for coming. Then I toasted him for his hospitality. I quoted Methodist theologian Albert Outler, an official observer at the Second Vatican Council. Outler said that if Pope John XXIII had lived a couple of years longer, he and the other observers would have been singing the "Te Deum." I said that if we could spend a few more days with Abp Marino, many in our party would have been singing the "Angelus." But Rabbi Jonathan Miller made the most moving comment. He said that one of the prayers in the Sabbath liturgy thanks God for "giving life to those who lie in the dust," and he said that that was what he had seen the archbishop and the Catholic Church do for the people of Bangladesh -- give life to those who lie in the dust.

Afterward, the archbishop gave us lovely gifts: a medallian commemorating the election of Benedict XVI, a rosary blessed by the pontiff, and a book about Bangladesh.

We got back to the hotel between 10 and 11 but had to be on our way the next morning by 4.45 am to make our flight to Calcutta. As it was, the flight was delayed by several hours, but we were met in Calcutta by representatives of our tour company who took us to the hotel. After lunch we toured the Victoria Museum, an enormous Victorian building that chronicle British rule in India and is a monument to the Queen Empress of India. Anup was our guide our entire time in Calcutta and seemed very pro-British. He said that families still aspire for their children to go to Britain for their education. The British succeeded, he said, because they made an effort to understand Indian culture and accepted it.

After the Victoria Monument we went to the "mother house" of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity. I can't convey how moving that experience was. Mother Teresa's very simple tomb is in a chapel on the ground floor. One floor above it is her room. It contains a small bed, chair, and table. We talked at length with Sister Gertrude, the second nun that Mother Teresa recruited. She was delightful. She had been one of Mother Teresa's students at the Sisters of Loreto school before she founded the Missionaries of Charity. After becoming a nun, Sister Gertrude also trained as a physician and took care of Mother Teresa during her illnesses and was with her when she died. However, the most moving part of that visit was watching the faces of Anup and our other guide, Nagendra. Although both are Hindus, they hung on every word Sr Gertrude said and their faces glowed as they listened. It is abundantly clear that Mother Teresa is just as much a saint to the Hindus as to Catholics and other Christians.

Mother Teresa said, "There is only one God and He is God to all; therefore it is important that everyone is seen as equal before God. I’ve always said we should help a Hindu become a better Hindu, a Muslim become a better Muslim, a Catholic become a better Catholic." She also said, "The fruit of silence is prayer; the fruit of prayer is faith; the fruit of faith is love; the fruit of love is service; the fruit of service is peace."

In the evening I went with Steve Jones, the pastor of Southside Baptist Church, to a mall for dinner with Subir, an Indian pastor who operates an outreach to street children. He and his staff take them from the street and the garbage dumps each morning, give them a bath, teach them, and offer them the chance to learn about the Christian faith.

The next morning we left the hotel around 8 am. Our first stop was Calcutta's enormous flower market. There must be at least 100 stalls selling thousands of flowers. The reason for the market is that flowers are among the principal things offered to the Hindu gods/goddesses and certain flowers are sacred to certain gods. Every home and work place has a shrine to a god that always has fresh flowers in front of it.

Our next stop was the old synagogue. For hundreds of years there was a substantial Jewish population in Calcutta and there were 4 synagogues. Now almost all the Jews have left and the synagogue no longer has services. It is a beautiful building, however, that looks very much like a church on the outside. Inside it has box pews as you would see in an 18th century Anglican church. The thing I liked best, though, was a plaque outside the door commemorating a member of the synagogue who flew with the RAF in WW2, was killed over France, and is buried in France.

Afterward we went to the Sri Ramakrishnan monastery. To get there we took a boat across the Ganges. Along the way we were able to get a good view of Calcutta. The monastery is a deeply prayerful place. The main part of it is a meditation hall that is about the size of St. Alban's. The floor has no seating; people just sit and meditate wherever they wish. Ramakrishnan was a Hindu holy man who taught the unity of all religions. His disciple, Swami Vivekenanda, visited the US and spoke at the Chicago Congress of World Religions in 1893. They founded the Vedanta Society, an outreach to the US.

Near the monastery is a huge temple to Kali, the mother goddess. It is as chaotic, noisy, and unprayerful as the monastery is quiet and meditative. Nevertheless, the Indians seem to prefer the temple. It was thronged with people seeking to offer Kali gifts. It seemed to me that this must have been the kind of thing that St. Paul saw when he visited Athens and saw the temple to the "unknown god."

After lunch we visited a Jain temple and we finished the day with a visit to artisans who make larger than life statues of the gods that are used in festivals.

I am writing this in Varanasi (also known as Benares), the holiest of Hindu holy cities. But more about that latter. You might want to know, however, that I'm writing from an open air internet cafe with no air conditioning just around the corner from our very nice hotel and located on a street that is not much better than a dirt road. The contrasts in this country are jaw dropping...

Monday, July 12, 2010

India/Bangladesh pilgrimage #3

Archbishop Marino, the Vatican nuncio or ambassador, entertained us at dinner our first and second nights in Dhaka. The other guests with us the first night included a Kenyan priest, Mark, who is the assistant nuncio and who was previously in Ghana. There were also 2 Bangladeshi priests, James, who teaches at Holy Cross College (we would call it a high school) and Emmanuel, academic dean at the Catholic seminary.

In Bangladesh, a Muslim country, Friday (the Muslim holy day) and Sat are holidays, and Sun is a work day. Sun morning began with mass at 7.30 am. The US ambassador, Jim Moriarty, and his wife, Lauren, regularly attend mass, and we got to meet them briefly.

Our first stop was Holy Cross College. Apparently, it's one of the best schools in Dhaka, and there were many families waiting there to try to get their sons admitted. We met the principal who told us that the school is mostly Muslim. He also said that fees for a student are only about $7 US and that a teacher's salary is about $2000 per year.

We then made stops at the cathedral, a parish church, and the hospice run by mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity. The hospice was quite moving. It's as primitive as possible. There's no air conditioning, just 3 to 4 wards with multiple beds. One ward contains children with severe birth defects.

In the late afternoon we went to the Islamic Foundation, a government-supported institution that trains all the imams (clergy) for the mosques in the country. The director and staff emphatically told us that Islam is a peaceful religion and those who engage in terrorism are not Muslims. When it was founded Bangladesh was officially secular. A subsequent government made Islam the official religion, although the constitution explicitly states that all persons are to be allowed to practice their faith freely. From what I've seen, religious freedom is a reality in Bangladesh. There is considerable interaction among religious leaders and there appears to be no hostility.

In the evening we were again at the nunciature for dinner. The guest of honor was Mohammed Zamir, a member of the Bangladeshi cabinet and former ambassador. Zamir was fascinating. He speaks several languages and has published 13 books, including a book on the teachings of Islam. He is also a published poet. Zamir represents the progressive wing of Islam and a fatwa (religious decree) of death was issued against him for his writings. Nevertheless, he often travels without his bodyguard. He told us that he makes his bodyguards nervous. "What will happen if there's an attempt on your life?" one asked him. He replied, "Well, I may be dead; you will lose your job; but the world will go on."

Monday morning we left at 7.30 am to visit the Diocese of Myminsingh in the countryside. Bishop Puna of Mymeesingh traveled with us. One of our first stops was at a school where the entire student body of at least 100 students was lined up in rows to welcome us. They also sang and danced and presented us with flowers. We went even further into the jungle to visit another school. When we arrived, the priest told us that they had already had 163 snake bites there this year. Such encouragement!

We also met 3 students from the Univ of Notre Dame who are volunteering at the schools for a couple of months. They are part of an organization at UND that supports the schools by staging boxing matches. This year alone they raised $100,000.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

India/Bangladesh Pilgrimage #2

My hotel in Mumbai had a beautiful restaurant on the 18th floor. The restaurant faced southwest and you could just see the harbor in the distance. It's monsoon season and from sundown to sunrise the rain lashed at the glass at a ferocious rate. The food was at least as good as the view; they had buffets at both breakfast and dinner with a variety of Asian and Western foods.

The second day I was in Mumbai I walked across the street to a mall where there was a large food court that included a McDonald's. Someone told me that in India the McDonaldses offered a good vegetarian burger (in a country where the cow is sacred, you can't have a regular hamburger), so I had to try it. They were right. By the way, the McDonalds was located between Subway and KFC. Do you think we can teach our minimum wage employees to speak Hindi as well as those in India speak English?

Across from the food court was a a bookstore. It had several shelves of fiction and a small history section but the largest section appeared to be business and management. India's economic future seems promising.

The India rupee is worth only a little more than the Italian lira, so you end up with a pile of change. The exhange rate is about 45Rs per dollar. I'm carrying my wallet and passport around with me in a "fanny pack." All things considered, this seems to be a good idea but it also feels as though there's a flashing neon sign over my fanny pack, saying "Look! Here's Barry's money and passport!"

Security is amazingly tight at the airport and hotel. Both have barricades in front of them to prevent attacks involving vehicles. To entern the hotel one has to pass through a metal detector and send one's belongings through an x-ray machine.

I am now in Dhaka, having flown here at 8 am this morning. I left the hotel at 6.15 am and rode thru relatively empty streets to the airport. However, I got a better sense of the poverty and overcrowding than on my way in. From the hotel to the airport the streets are lined with the most primitive dwellings. Frankly, such poverty is terrifying to me.

At the airport I met up with 3 more members of my group who flew in from the US last night: Ed Hurley, pastor of South Highlands Presbyterian, Ray Dunmyer, pastor of St. Thomas' Catholic Church in Montevallo, and Bob Hurst, pastor of United Church in Huntsville. Archbishop Joseph Marino, a Birmingham native who is papal nuncio in Dhaka, met us at the airport, facilitated our passage thru customs, and had his driver take us to our hotel. We will see the rest of our party tonight at dinner at the archbishop's residence.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

First report from India/Bangladesh pilgrimage

Heathrow Airport. Wed., July 7, 2010.

Time is starting to slip away. I left Atlanta Hartsfield last night at 11 pm, flew about 8 hours to London Heathrow and arrived around noon GMT. I had an 8 hour layover in London and now it is almost 8 pm. I'm waiting for a 9.25 pm departure on Jet Airways. Then I fly about 8 hours to Mumbai where it is 10 hours later. Imagine the "word problem" in math class: "If Barry wants to go to India and flies thru London, what time will it be when he has dinner 2 days later?"
After arriving at Heathrow I slept for 3-4 hours at a little hotel in the airport. My room was about the size of one of my walk-in closets but was clean and comfortable. I also had a shower. It cost 37 pounds and was worth every pence.
It feels great being back in the UK. I really miss it. I always think about moving here permanently when I visit. I think one thing that holds me back is the fact that Britons no longer dream and dare really big things (eg, the Indian railway system which they built in the 19th century). I think WW1 knocked the wind out of them and they've never quite recovered (although they rallied admirably in WW2). Americans are still capable of big things (eg, the moon missions) and the world today needs bold and determined dreamers.
Last night I felt rather melancholy as I waited for my flight in Atlanta. I realized that I am reluctant to do things that frighten me. I would like to re-capture some of the "derring do" I had 20-30 years ago.
I enjoyed watching the other people in the Heathrow departure lounge. They are the Empire in microcosm. When I sat down there were a young man and young woman sitting behind me speaking a language I did not recognize. However he was clearly "chatting up" the young lady. You don't need to know the language to know what he was saying! To my left was a group of young English "lads." They were dressed somewhat roughly but their accents gave them away. They were not from East London (Cockney) or Liverpool/Leeds (think "The Full Monty"). Instead, their accents were Home Counties (around London) or Cotswolds. They were just slumming.
My flight to Mumbai was aboard Jet Airways, an Indian airline. The plane was beautiful and the service was impeccable. It's the way flying used to be. I greeted the flight attendant at the door of the plane with the traditional Sanskrit greeting "Namaste" (roughly, "I honor the light within you"). She flashed me a bright smile and responded with the traditional gesture - bowing with hands joined in front of her heart. I slept for 3-4 hours during the 8 hour flight and was awakened by a child's piercing shriek. There were several children in my area of the plane and most were well-behaved but there was one child who wailed constantly. He or she would have made Linda Blair's character in "The Exorcist" look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.
I arrived in Mumbai (Chatrapati Shivaji International, to be exact). It appears to be a work in progress. In fact, it seems to have been in progress for about 25 years, judging from the age of some of its incomplete sections. As I rode in a taxi to the Mumbai Westin I thought that India appears to be everything I've always heard it to be -- poor, crowded, beautiful, and complex. Two very poor people - one very young and one very old - asked for money as the taxi stopped at lights. I did as I had been told and ignored them but it was painful.
More soon...

Sunday, July 04, 2010

We hold these truths...

J. Barry Vaughn. St. Alban's Episcopal Church, Birmingham, Alabama. July 4, 2010.

“We hold these truths to be self evident…” They are not the first words of the Declaration of Independence, but they are perhaps the best known. The truths that Jefferson thought to be self evident, of course, were that “all men are created equal” and are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” namely, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Between the 18th century and the present there has been a great reversal. In 1776 it was “self evident” to virtually everyone that there was a Creator, but the idea that political and civil rights were innate to human nature was a novel idea, far from universal, and even considered dangerous by many. Today most countries at least pay lip service to the idea of human rights, but the idea that there is a Creator is far less “self evident” than it was in Jefferson’s day.

Although “we hold these truths” may be the best known words of the Declaration, it is the words of the final sentence that always move me close to the point of tears: “… for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

“…our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” They were solemn words then, and they are solemn words now. But in 1776 they were more than just words. Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Adams, and the rest of the signers committed high treason when they voted to adopt the Declaration of Independence on this day in 1776 and signed it in the days following. Their votes and their signatures made them rebels against the greatest military power of the 18th century, and there was every reason to expect that they would fail and that Britain would prevail in the war that was certain to come.

But they succeeded and in succeeding they transformed themselves. On July 4, 1776, they were rebels against their rightful sovereign, George III, but when Adams and Franklin signed the Treaty of Paris in 1784 they became patriots, no longer subjects of a crown but citizens of a new republic – the United States of America.

The words “patriot” and “patriotism” are troublesome. They are troublesome for Christians because we have divided loyalties. On the one hand, in his letter to the Romans Paul tells us to be subject to the “governing authorities” because they have been “instituted by God.” On the other hand, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that we are citizens of a “better country”, a “heavenly” one, a city “whose architect and builder is God.”

One of the reasons that “patriot” and “patriotism” are troublesome is that some confuse the United States and this “heavenly city” of which the Letter to the Hebrews speaks. From the beginning of our history some have believed that America has a divine mission. John Winthrop implied as much in his sermon to the Massachusetts Bay pilgrims in 1630 when he said, “Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when hee shall make us a prayse and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, "the Lord make it like that of New England." For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us.” In the 19th century the idea that the U.S. had a special, divine mission became the idea of “manifest destiny” and was used to justify some terrible injustices, such as the mass resettlement of Native Americans or sometimes even their massacre. But that is not what Winthrop intended. For him, God’s blessing upon America was conditional. We shall be that “city upon a hill,” he said, if we “delight in each other; make each other's conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labour and suffer together…” But if we do not do those things, Winthrop said, then we will be “a story and a by word” throughout the world.

I think no one understood this better than President Abraham Lincoln. On the eve of his inauguration in 1861 Lincoln referred to the United States as God’s “almost chosen people.” I think the “almost” refers back to Winthrop’s idea that God’s blessing upon America is conditional, and in 1861 no one knew better than Lincoln that one of the conditions was the elimination of slavery.

“Patriot” and “patriotism” may be troublesome, but I believe they are good words, and I consider myself to be a patriot. Patriotism is out of favor with many on the left and with many within the Episcopal Church, in particular, because it can be easily abused. To many, patriotism implies an uncritical support of their country. It implies a kind of idolatry that puts country in place of God. But it need not be so.

I believe that the New Testament advocates a sober and clear-eyed patriotism. In other words, we have an obligation to support our country and its elected officials, even though we know that it is provisional and finite, and that our ultimate loyalty is to the Kingdom of God.

The American experiment is unique, not perfect. One of the things that makes the American experiment unique is our capacity for change, development, and self-criticism. When Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal,” he not only meant men, not women, he also meant white men who owned a certain amount of property. But Jefferson’s words took on a life of their own. “Men” became “men and women;” “white” became “black and white;” and “property” became “rich and poor.” And our understanding of those words is still evolving.

At its best, the United States aspires to be a “city upon a hill”, but we are an earthly realm, beautiful but flawed and imperfect. Or in the words that Wellesley College professor Katherine Lee Bates wrote:

America! America!

God mend thine ev'ry flaw,

Confirm thy soul in self-control,

Thy liberty in law!

But my patriotism is even better expressed by Abraham Lincoln’s friend, Carl Schurz, a Union general during the Civil War and later a U.S. Senator. Schurz said, “I trust that the American people will prove themselves … too wise not to detect the false pride or the dangerous ambitions or the selfish schemes which so often hide themselves under that deceptive cry of mock patriotism: ‘Our country, right or wrong!’ They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: ‘Our country—when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.’”