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.