Monday, July 26, 2010
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
Saturday, July 24, 2010
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
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
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
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
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
Sunday, July 04, 2010
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:
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.’”