Monday, August 23, 2010

Holy Impatience

J. Barry Vaughn. St. Alban's Episcopal Church. Aug. 22, 2010.

Patience, we are told, is a virtue. And so it is. When a slow driver gets in the fast lane on I 65 and we want to tailgate him or her, then we need to be patient; when the employee at a fast food place (who, after all, is only making minimum wage) gets our order wrong then it’s better to be patient than to yell at him or insist on seeing the manager; and we really need patience our computer malfunctions and we call support and have to press 1 for English and then choose from 1 to 5 for the next level and then between 1 and 9 for the next level and then enter our social security number and our birthday and our mother’s maiden name and the birthdates of our children and so on and so on… If you still have some patience left at the end of a process like that, then I will personally nominate you for sainthood.

I’m especially impatient. You will never convince me that elevators don’t speed up if you press the up or down button more than once. When the electronic voice at the other end of a phone call asks me to state the purpose of my call in a few words, I always ask for a real human being.

But there are times when patience is not a virtue.

In 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led a series of demonstrations in downtown Birmingham. Today his goals seem reasonable, but in 1963 they were considered too much, too soon and too fast. They were deemed dangerous and extreme. King sought the integration of public facilities such as lunch counters, drinking fountains, and rest rooms and insisted that department stores begin to hire black sales clerks. Charles Carpenter, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, and 7 other religious leaders issued a statement asking King to postpone his protest. They had a point and there was some justification for their appeal to King: Birmingham’s newly elected mayor, Albert Boutwell, was a reasonable man and there was reason to think that he would work with Birmingham’s civic leaders and with King to achieve at least some of the goals that King sought. So Carpenter and his colleagues urged King to be patient. After all, he was trying to overturn a system that had been in place for generations. Why couldn’t he wait just a little longer?

One of the things that fascinated me about my freshman year in college was the vast collection of causes that my fellow students were involved in. Now keep in mind that this was way back in 1974 when the earth was cooling. The causes then were somewhat different from the causes today. There would always be a table or two outside the freshman dining hall asking us to sign up for a fast to raise awareness of world hunger. Another would urge us to support the boycott of South African business that upheld the system of apartheid. Another would ask us to sign a petition to eliminate nuclear weapons. A few of my more conservative classmates became disgusted with the daily array of liberal causes they encountered and formed a group called “Students for a perfect world now” and from time to time they would also set up a table outside the dining hall.

But sometimes what seems like wild-eyed idealism in one generation can seem like simple decency in the next generation. We take for granted the goals that King sought in 1963, but Carpenter and Birmingham’s other religious leaders urged him to wait just a little longer. King replied to Carpenter and the other religious leaders in his famous essay, “Letter from Birmingham jail.” And King’s reply took the wind out of Carpenter’s sails.

For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." …. “justice too long delayed is justice denied." We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights.

Several years ago Rabbi Milton Graffman, who also signed the letter to King urging him to wait, came and talked to my students at Samford about why he had counseled King to be patient for a little longer. He was very persuasive. But after Rabbi Graffman left, I asked my students who had been right – King or Graffman. My students were all white, middle class kids, but they all said that King had been right and Graffman had been wrong. They said that if King had waited, things would never have changed.

In today’s gospel reading Jesus encounters a woman who had been crippled for 18 years. He is so moved by her situation that he speaks to her, lays his hands on her, and heals her without even being asked to do so. And when Jesus healed the woman, a leader of the synagogue blew up at him. Much like the religious leaders in Birmingham in 1963 the leader of the synagogue wanted Jesus to wait; he wanted the woman to be patient. After all, she had been crippled for 18 years. Why couldn’t she be patient and wait just a few hours until the end of the Sabbath?

In a way, the leader of the synagogue was correct. Surely it was not asking too much for Jesus to observe the Sabbath code and do no unnecessary work on the holy day. Was it asking too much for the unnamed woman who had suffered for 18 years to suffer for only a few more hours?

Perhaps Dr. King could also have heeded Birmingham’s religious leaders in 1963 and postponed his demonstrations. Surely black people who had waited 300 years for the end of slavery and then waited another century for basic civil rights could wait just a little longer.

But sometimes patience becomes not a virtue but a vice. There comes a time when we have been patient enough; when justice has been delayed too long. Sometimes it is right and good and perhaps even holy to be impatient with injustice, to feel a righteous anger with the evil in the world.

Jesus told the leader of the synagogue that the woman (who had been afflicted for 18 years) had suffered long enough. The end of the Sabbath was only a few hours away, but even that was too long for Jesus. God’s will is for human life to flourish; the Bible calls it abundant life. One of the church fathers said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

We need to be impatient for the sake of justice, for the sake of God. We need to be impatient with hungry and poverty and homelessness. We need to be angry with barriers to the abundant life that God desires for us.

I still smile when I remember the students who started the “Society for a perfect world now”. They had a good point. The evils and injustices of the world cannot be corrected in a single grand gesture. It takes time and hard work and even patience and today’s gains can be wiped out in a moment. We seldom move forward in a straight line and it is usually a matter of two steps forward, then one step backward.

The sorrows and ills of the world are too much for any one of us to cure. There is too much power in the wrong hands and too little in the right hands. But the Good Samaritan was not asked to care for every traveler who had been robbed and beat up and left for dead; he only had to care for the one whom he saw beside the road to Jericho. God does not ask us to feed every hungry child, house every homeless person, comfort every broken heart; God only asks us to use our resources to the best of ability, to respond generously to the needs we know about; God asks us to be faithful, not perfect.

My fellow freshman did not quite get it right. A perfect world now is never possible but a better world is always possible. Let us all commit ourselves to a holy impatience and a righteous anger when we see injustice and cruelty, and let us all re-commit ourselves to making not a perfect world because that is not in the power of humans to accomplish. Rather, let us commit ourselves to the small steps and little improvements that are in our power to do which will create a better world.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

One final post about visiting India and Bangladesh

Here are some random thoughts that I wrote down while I was in India. I hope someone finds them helpful or amusing or something. If you do, please be in touch!

Things to do, not do, or just keep in mind when you visit India and Bangladesh (well, mostly India):

1. There's a big difference between 1rst class and 2nd class train travel in terms of accommodations, cleanliness, food, comfort, etc. Always travel 1rst class. (Also, read what Mark Twain wrote about Indian trains in his "Following the Equator". Is it possible they are still using the same trains?)

2. Take Cipro every day!!

3. If you take Cipro every day, then you can eat a little more adventurously, So eat the samosas made by the vendor just outside the Sri Ramakrishnan monastery in Calcutta. They're wonderful! You can also safely drink the chai on the trains.

4. Visit Varanasi (Benares) if you want to understand Hinduism. And by all means watch the Brahmin priests offer fire to "Mother Ganga" on the banks of the Ganges.

5. But if you do go to Varanasi, be prepared for a strong shock to your sensibilities. Some of it requires a fairly strong stomach.

6. Speaking of strong stomachs, eat at Karim's in Delhi. It's close to the south gate of the Jama Masjid mosque. Try the grilled goat. It's delicious!

7. You can do one or two overnights on India trains, if you go 1rst class and don't try to do them on consecutive nights, but don't try to do four. Also, next time I'd like to try a long 1rst class day trip.

8. Pace yourself. India is huge and you can't see it all in one visit. Decide what you want to see. Also, don't do too much in any single day.

9. The Taj Mahal is gorgeous but the Red Fort is (to me, anyway) more interesting.

10. If I had it to do again, I would spend more time going to see the sites associated with the British rule of India (Lucknow, Simla, and more of Calcutta).

11. I would also like to go to south India and find out more about Indian Christianity.

12. Next time I'll plan better and actually see some of Mumbai.

13. Skip the changing of the guard at Walla Bagh. It's hot and boring (although it tells you a lot about the relationship between Pakistan and India).

14. Speaking of hot, DO NOT travel in July or August. Try to go during late fall or winter.

15. Kingfisher beer is great.

16. Jet Airways is a terrific airline.

17. Hire a local guide. There are things they know and can do for you that you cannot know about or do on your own.

18. Eat at the Crystal restaurant in Amritsar. It was by far the best restaurant we visited. Also, order their Murg Frontier.

19. Make a list of all the odd signs you see, e.g., Guru Nanak Honda, Krishna Used Vehicle Parts, etc.

20. Make a list every day of the unusual things you see, e.g., women in saris riding motorcycles, whole families sharing rickshaws, etc.

21. Finally, and most importantly, visit India. I suspect that most western visitors (esp. from the US) think about turning around and going home for the first 2 or 3 days. But if you let go of your expectations and preconceptions and don't expect India to be just like the US, it becomes fascinating.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The words of the prophets in the age of information

J. Barry Vaughn. St. Alban's Episcopal Church, Birmingham, AL. Aug 15, 2010. Proper 15C.

It is often pointed out that we live in the “information age” or that our economy has become an “information economy”. What that means, of course, is that first, we are bombarded with vast amounts of information. This information comes in the form of the spoken and written word, but it also comes in the form of images. It is transmitted via print, radio, television, movies, and the internet. It also means that we are an information economy because more and more people make their livings creating and composing the information that we receive or in creating and maintaining the infrastructure by which the information is transmitted and received.

It seems to me that this information takes at least two primary forms: First and foremost is entertainment. We could literally spend every moment of our lives being entertained. Turn on the radio or television, put a CD on the stereo, pick up a book (yes, there are people who still read), or sign on to the internet. There are sitcoms, dramas, soap operas, comedies, and a million other forms of entertainment. Fortunately, there is still something in the human heart and mind that craves engagement with other creatures of flesh and blood; otherwise, we might starve to death in a semi-hypnotic state in front of our televisions.

The second form of information is information per se. We are also subject to a constant stream of so-called news, journalism, or current events. It seems that we’ve been hearing about the Gulf oil spill for years, not months. Television journalists have interviewed every fisherman and all the restaurant and hotel owners on the Gulf coast. Information also takes the form of emails, memos from the boss, newsletters from the neighborhood watch, your college alumni organization, or Zionist Environmentalists for Peace in Afghanistan.

Philosopher Marshall McLuhan distinguished between “hot” and “cool” forms of information transmission. “Hot” transmission leaves little or nothing to the imagination; “cool” transmission requires fairly intense engagement. I think church, then, is a “cool” form of information exchange. You have to make the effort to get out of bed, shower, dress, get in the car and drive here. You have to sit, stand, or kneel in response to the liturgy. You have to read the service leaflet; respond in the appropriate way at the appropriate time; find the right hymn in the hymnal and so on.

In other words, church is terribly anachronistic. These days most of the information we receive is “hot”; it requires little or no engagement or participation from us. And that is one of the reasons that it is so difficult to persuade people to come to church, especially an Episcopal Church. The church’s “cool” information is hard-pressed to compete with the millions of forms of “hot” information all around us.

Here’s another way to think about it: Not very many years ago the fastest growing city in the U.S. was Las Vegas. What is the principal industry in Las Vegas? Entertainment. My friend John Killinger who taught preaching at Vanderbilt for many years interpreted that fact to mean that the church was losing ground because people were putting a premium on being entertained and the rapid growth of Las Vegas was just a symptom of that phenomenon. Think about it: The local parish church cannot compete with show girls and magicians, much less with Oprah Winfrey and Taylor Lautner of the Twilight movies. And the churches that are successful have adopted a show business format for their worship services. The mega churches have orchestras or at least heavily amplified “praise bands”. They project the lyrics of the “worship songs” on screens in front of the church. (Note that music sung in such churches is never called a hymn; The word “hymn” sounds much too old fashioned.) And in some of these churches the worship leaders’ faces are visible via closed circuit television on screens in every part of the building. No wonder the Episcopal Church is losing members!

But I also have to say that even though these mega-churches have adopted an entertainment format for worship, some of them do a wonderful job of feeding the poor, housing the homeless, and helping people who have lost jobs find new ones. Some of the pastors of these churches are prophetic in the best sense of the word. For the most part, I believe Rick Warren at the Camel Back Community Church in California is one such pastor. But I also believe that many pastors preach “lowest common denominator sermons”. There is one pastor of a mega-church whose face I see multiplied dozens of times whenever I pass the book section at Walmart or Target or any such place. He urges people to live their “best life now” but I wonder what he does with texts such as “take up your cross and follow me.” His youthful, happy face makes me think that he has never suffered, never felt one moment of doubt. If that is so, how can he possibly help lonely, hurting people? But I digress..

I want to suggest that something is missing from the “hot” information all around us, and Jeremiah puts his finger squarely on the issue: “I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, "I have dreamed, I have dreamed!" How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back-- those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart? They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal. Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully.” The information age is marvelous at transmitting entertainment and facts, but it has no place for the prophetic word. In other words, the information age tells us what we want to hear but not what we need to hear; it fills our eyes and ears with dreams but not with anything that really challenges us.

Imagine NBC or Fox or HBO announcing a new series: “The Last Prophet Standing” or “The Prophet Files” or “Meet the Prophets”. And every week Jeremiah or Ezekiel or Isaiah or someone like them would spend 30 minutes or an hour lambasting us for neglect of the poor or propping up military dictatorships or just our own personal shallow spirituality and failure to cultivate a deep relationship with God. Before you could say “Nielsen rating” it would be cancelled.

So that is part of the reason that it is so difficult to get people to go to church. Every week someone reads aloud words such as these of Jeremiah: “I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name….” Or these words of Jesus: “"I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled…. Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” And I make an effort to apply these words to our lives today. And the culture says, “No thanks; I think I’d rather watch re-runs of Law and Order.”

We (and I really mean all of us, myself included) would rather listen to easy words, smooth words. We don’t want to hear what the prophets have to say. We don’t want our dreams troubled. We prefer “hot” information to “cool” information.

Now, it would be easy for me to stop there. It would be easy for me to deliver a diatribe against a culture that does not have a place for the hard and challenging words of the prophets. But I think there is a word especially for St. Alban’s in today’s readings. I want to challenge you, me, and all of us to listen for the hard words that God might have to say to us.

One of the ways that you can tell the true prophets from the false ones is that the true ones always challenge us. They will invariably tell us the things that we do not want to hear. Perhaps I have not said enough about St. Alban’s and its future. Perhaps I should more frequently talk about the hard choices we need to make to be faithful. If I have failed in that, I ask God’s forgiveness and yours. St. Alban’s and just about every Episcopal Church I know faces a very rocky road. We are all going to have to work very hard to get people in the pews. We have to remember that the church has both a front door and a back door, and we have to make sure that more people are coming in the front door than are going out the back door.

If we are faithful and St. Alban’s grows and changes, here are some of the things that will happen:

  • There will be conflict
  • Households will be divided
  • Children and their parents will be alienated from one another
  • Some people will even leave the church

Of course, some of that will happen even if we do not grow and change. In other words, there is healthy conflict and unhealthy conflict. How can know the difference?

If our conflict is healthy, if it occurs because we are trying to do God’s will, here is what will also happen:

  • God will strengthen us
  • Jesus will be with us
  • Our light will shine so brightly that people will be drawn here

I am not bold enough to say that any of this is the “word of the Lord,” but I think it might be God’s word to St. Alban’s right now. However, we will only know that if we try it and find it difficult and challenging but ultimately life-giving.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

What does the Lord require?

J. Barry Vaughn. Aug 8, 2010

Someone once said that if the people of India are the most religious people in the world and Swedes are the most secular people in the world, then America is a country of Indians run by Swedes. I’m not sure whether or not that’s true, but I’m pretty sure that India is the world’s most religious country. As I’ve said, there are millions of gods and goddesses; there are probably even more temples in India than there are Baptist churches in Alabama; and every home, office, and public space has a shrine in it.

In Calcutta we visited two Hindu holy places. The first was the Sri Ramakrishnan monastery. It is a beautiful, peaceful, prayerful place. The meditation hall is set in a beautifully landscaped garden. It is well back from the street so traffic noises do not interfere with meditation. The meditation hall itself is spacious and airy. When I was there, there were perhaps 50 people meditating. People simply sat down on the floor wherever there was space. It was very appealing, and I suspect that the rest of the group felt as I did that it would be nice to stay for a while and pray or meditate.

Just down the street from the monastery was a very large temple dedicated to Kali, the mother goddess and wife of Shiva. The contrast could not have been greater. The temple was noisy, crowded, dirty, smelly. There were hundreds of people lined up, waiting to give their pujas or offerings to the priest to place before Kali. They were seeking the goddess’s help for employment or healing or whatever. After a person got to the head of the line, they handed their gift to the priest, and then exited on the other side of the temple. Except for waiting in line, the entire transaction took less than a minute.

I had a strongly negative reaction to the temple. The monastery had been serene and spiritual; the temple seemed just the opposite. And then I had an insight: I realized that what I had seen at the temple was probably much like St. Paul saw in the first century. When Paul visited Corinth or Ephesus, he would have seen people bringing offerings to the temples of Apollo or Zeus or Diana and giving them to the priests, who then would kill and sacrifice the animal or throw the incense on the altar.

This sort of religion is about a transaction. You offer the god or goddess flowers or incense or money or a sacrificial animal or some combination of these things in the hope that the god or goddess will then get you a job or heal you or your loved one or allow you to conceive and bear a child. In Paul’s world there was one additional aspect to religion: you had to keep making sacrifices to the gods to avert their anger. On almost every page of Homer’s Odyssey there are references to the importance of averting the anger of the gods; it was one of the most important parts of Greek religion.

Now, with that in mind, look again at today’s reading from Isaiah:

Hear the word of the LORD,

Listen to the teaching of our God,

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?

says the LORD;

I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams…

I do not delight in the blood of bulls…

…who asked this from your hand?

…bringing offerings is futile;

incense is an abomination to me.

…I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.

…even though you make many prayers,

I will not listen;

your hands are full of blood.

It is almost unimaginable that a priest of Diana or Kali would ever say, “Bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.” Bringing offerings and burning incense is mostly what the worship of Diana was all about it and worshiping Kali is still about but it is not what the worship of Israel’s God is about. The prophets tell us that Israel’s God has a different set of priorities. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, does not desire burnt offerings, the blood of bulls, and incense. Isaiah tells us that Israel’s God wants us to

cease to do evil

learn to do good;

seek justice,

rescue the oppressed,

defend the orphan,

plead for the widow.

It seems obvious to us: The worship of God and living an ethical life are inseparable but it was a new idea when Isaiah wrote these words in the 8th century BC. It signaled a revolution in religious understanding. Israel’s prophets called for a radical reorientation of Israel’s religion. Ritual and sacrifice were to become secondary and justice and righteousness were to become primary. Or to use Isaiah’s words again, “I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals have become a burden to me… but cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow… “

The Protestant Reformers sometimes used the phrase negotium cum Deo – “business with God.” All of us have business with God and God has business with us, but the kind of business we have with God is not a commercial transaction. This was the great insight of Israel’s prophets. Our business with God is the kind of business a child has with her parent, not the kind of business that a customer has with a sales clerk. Or to borrow Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s great paradigm, we relate to God as a “Thou”, a person, not as an “It”, a thing. We do not make our offerings to God in an effort to bribe God into giving us what we want. The very idea is absurd.

Doesn’t it follow, then, that our worship of God should consist primarily of living ethical lives? Why don’t we dispense with the vestments and hymns and even communion and just help Habitat for Humanity build houses for the poor? But that’s not quite right, either.

One of my colleagues during the India trip made a striking observation when he noted that all the religions we encountered – Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Christians – used beads in some way. He was right; the Catholic rosary is only one example of the use of beads, but Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and Sikhs also use beads as a way of focusing the mind and heart in prayer and meditation.

However, I think there is something more significant about the use of beads. I think their significance is that they are tangible, something that can be touched.

Unlike the angels, humans are not pure spirit. We are a compound, an alloy. We are amphibious. We are part spirit, part matter. We live in both the world of the spirit and the world of the flesh. We need something tangible to anchor our spiritual lives, and the beads that Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Roman Catholics hold in their hands are signs of this.

At the heart of the Christian faith is the belief that in Jesus of Nazareth God became tangible. In Jesus, God became something we can touch and see and taste and smell and hear. And every Sunday Christ becomes tangible again as we bless and break and share the bread and wine that he gave his disciples so long ago.

Anglicans are right to “worship God in the beauty of holiness.” Isaiah does notn condemn ritual per se; he condemns ritual that is divorced from justice. He condemns our worship only if it serves to make us forget the oppressed, the widow, and the orphan. We need ritual because we are human and we need the sights and sounds of worship to awaken, encourage, and inspire us once again to “do justice and love mercy”. We need worship to remind us that the God who became tangible in Jesus of Nazareth makes common cause with the oppressed, the widow, and the orphan, and when we touch those whom the world despises, we are touching Christ himself.

Sunday, August 01, 2010


J. Barry Vaughn. St. Alban's Episcopal Church. Aug. 1, 2010.

Thank you for the incredible opportunity to visit India. I know that Ryland and Mary took good care of you while I was away, but I could not have been away so long with your patience and understanding, and I am grateful.

Late in his life, Mark Twain undertook a round the world lecture tour that included several weeks in India. He described India in these words: “…the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence… of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a hundred nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history…”

I think, though, he underestimated the number of gods and goddesses. According to our guides, India has anywhere from 30 million to 300 million deities.

I read that the letters in the word “India” stand for “I’ll never do it again.” I suspect that a great many Western tourists feel that way when they arrive. But I also suspect that a lot of people change their minds after they have spent some time there.

To one degree or another, I imagine many of you are asking the question, Why did I go to India and Bangladesh? And what did I learn there?

First, let me tell you why I did NOT know go to India and Bangladesh and what I did NOT do there.

I did not go to India and Bangladesh because I believe that all religions are the same and all spiritual paths lead to the same place. Both statements are manifestly untrue.

On the contrary, religions are unique expressions of the universal quest for meaning, to make sense of life, to find God or whatever name you give to ultimate reality.

And there are as many spiritual paths as there are people on earth. Most spiritual paths are good and wholesome; some are not.

I also did not go to India and Bangladesh because I believe that we should try to convert people of other faiths to our faith. Make no mistake: I believe that Christianity is unique. I believe that God is fully and perfectly revealed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

But Jesus no where tells us to convert people. Instead, he tells us to teach and make disciples and to baptize. Those are things that do not happen in a moment. They happen over a long period of time. You have to win someone’s confidence as they come to know you as a person of faith and integrity. And it is only when you have done that that you can begin to share the Christian faith with them and they can begin to find out if they want to be a Christian.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey once said that there is a difference between proselytization and proclamation. Christians are called to proclaim the good news of God in Christ, not to proselytize. Proselytizing reduces the other person to an object, a statistic and is often manipulative. But proclaiming the good news respects the other person, and proclaiming is less about words and more about deeds.

We have an obligation to proclaim the good news, not to proselytize people of other faiths.

So why did I go to Bangladesh and India and what did I learn there?

First, I went because we are living in a small world that is becoming smaller.

One of the pastors on our trip told us that his ten year old granddaughter who attends a school in Huntsville has three friends who are Hindu and will no longer eat “cow.” If not now, then soon, most of us will know someone – a friend, a co-worker, a neighbor, and perhaps even an in-law – who is Muslim. And it is entirely likely that we may also know someone who is Hindu or Buddhist. That is demographically inevitable.

What is not demographically inevitable is that we will reach out to people of other faiths in love and understanding unless we have prepared ourselves in advance with some knowledge of their faith.

We did not have to go to India and Bangladesh to get to know about the Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Sikh faiths. We could have learned all about them by reading books, by taking classes, and by meeting and talking with Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Sikhs in this country. But we all know that there is a huge difference between knowing about something or someone and really knowing that thing or that person.

When someone new moves into the neighborhood, what do you do? Do you wait for them to come and knock on your door and invite you over for dinner? Sometimes that happens. But more often than not (especially in the South) we walk across the street or next door with a loaf of bread or an apple pie and say, “Hi, I’m Barry, I’m Ann, I’m Ryland, I’m Mary… welcome to the neighborhood. Where are you from?”

My fellow clergy and I crossed the global street. We knocked on the doors of Hindus and Muslims, Sikhs and Buddhists and told them that we wanted to get to know them, to hear their story, to find out how they prayed, learn how they experienced God, and we also told them a little of our own story.

And we took them a gift. We took with us ten copies of Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. It was my idea. It seemed appropriate not only because Lee is an Alabama novelist and this year is the 50th anniversary of the novel’s publication but also because of the book’s message of tolerance and understanding and respect and the obligation to confront prejudice and ignorance and bigotry.

On our first Sunday in Bangladesh we spent more than an hour with the director of the state-supported Islamic Foundation and members of his staff. My impression of them is that they are not terribly well-educated apart from their knowledge of the Quran and Islamic traditions. But they were willing to give us their time, to share their views with us, and to listen to us. They also repeatedly insisted that any Muslim leader in Bangladesh who advocates violence will be removed from his position. And we were talking with the people who had the power to make this happen because the Islamic Foundation in Dhaka trains all the clergy for all the mosques in that country.

We all signed a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird and gave it to the director, and he seemed genuinely touched. So I hope that in years to come the director of the Islamic Foundation in Bangladesh will remember that a group of American religious leaders came to listen and talk with him and gave him a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird.

All across Bangladesh and northern India we met and talked with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs, and we asked most of them, “How do you experience God?” And they gave us different answers. Some answers we could understand and made sense to us; some did not make sense to us. Some times the differences of language and culture made it hard to understand. Sometimes the gap between their religion and ours was just too wide to cross.

Although I believe that no two religions are alike and not all spiritual paths go to the same place, we asked them about their experience of God because we also believe that there is wisdom in all the great spiritual systems and that God can be sought and found by any person.

Here’s an illustration: In Calcutta we went to the Mother House of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. While there we met and talked with Sister Gertrude, the second nun that Mother Teresa recruited. Two Hindu men were serving as our guides in Calcutta and I watched them closely and noticed that their faces were truly glowing as they listened to Sister Gertrude talk about Mother Teresa.

Something similar happened in Delhi. Our guide there was a Muslim named Ali. Ali took us to the house where Gandhi was living at the time of his assassination in 1948. Ali told the story of Gandhi’s struggle to lead India to independence and then his efforts to end the terrible violence that followed the partition of India into separate Hindu and Muslim states. Then he told us of Gandhi’s death. As he did so, it became clear to me that even though Ali was a Muslim, he regarded Gandhi as not just a political leader but also as a holy man.

What I learned from those experiences is that there can be a kind of holiness in any person, regardless of religion, who devotes his or her life to prayer and service. And that people of all religions are capable of recognizing and responding to that holiness.

But the most important thing I learned in Bangladesh and India has to do with the Christian faith.

On our second day in Bangladesh Archbishoph Joseph Marino, a Birmingham native who serves as the Vatican nuncio or ambassador to that country took us out into the Diocese of Mymensingh in the jungle north of Dhaka. We saw two schools run by the Catholic church . The first one was quite large. At least a couple of hundred students gathered in a field to greet us, applauding us as we walked into an open sided hall. They gave us flowers, and danced, and sang.

Afterward, we went even farther into the jungle to a small school. But there they also gave us flowers and danced and sang.

The majority of students in these schools are Muslims, not Christians, but the Muslims respect the Christians and their faith. They have reason to respect the Christians because the Christians have built schools that educate Muslim and Christian alike. The Christians help provide health care and build houses. And above all the Muslims respect the Christians because the Christians respect the Muslims and do not try to convert them.

I learned that a lot can be accomplished with a very small investment. It costs these students no more than $7 a month to attend these schools. Teachers receive only about $200 a month.

These schools educate the people who are going to lead Bangladesh. The prime minister herself is a Muslim but attended a Christian school, and she has a deep respect for the Catholic church. When Archbishop Marino was going to Rome, she said to him, “Ask the pope to give me his blessing.” And when she went to Rome, she requested and received a private audience with the pope, and there is a photograph of the prime minister’s meeting with the pope in Abp Marino’s living room.

What I learned in Bangladesh is that we can change the world with the application of a little energy and a little money and we are doing it in Bangladesh but we are not doing it in enough places. The United States is a great country, full of generous people, and we are more than willing to lend our military aid to countries that are at risk. These are all good things. But as a percentage of our GDP, the U.S. gives less foreign aid to the developing world than any other country. We can do more and we can do better.

I want people of other faiths to know Christians because of their commitment to education and health care and support of human rights. I want them to respect us because we respect them. And I believe that by doing these things we can transform the world.

I want to conclude with the traditional Indian greeting that can mean either hello or good bye. Shailesh, our guide in Banares was a Brahmin priest, and he taught it to us.

First, you join your hands palm to palm; then raise them to your forehead; and then lower them to your heart. One hand represents me and the other represents you. It is a way of saying, “I have you in my head and my heart.” While doing this, one says, “Namaste”, which means, “I honor the divine light within you.”

We went to Bangladesh and India to say namaste, to tell the people we met that we have them in our heads and our hearts and that we honor the light that is in them, whether they are Hindus or Muslims or Buddhists or Sikhs or Jews or Christian. We made no judgements about who has more or less of this divine light, because that is not a judgment for mere mortals to make; that is a judgment for God to make.