Key Shapers of My Be-ing from Living in India

Presented at my Iowa Mennonite School (Now named Hillcrest Academy) 55th Class Reunion – 8/21/2011

John and I first lived in India from 1962-65, as Overseas Mission Associates with Mennonite Board of Missions. We taught at Woodstock School, an international Christian school with 500 students located in north India, within the foothills of the Himalayas. Having met when Goshen College students, we had our first anniversary in India. Our decision to go to India was likely the wisest that we have made in fifty years. Experience through seven return trips to India has continued to shape our cross-cultural instincts, our India/South Asian friendships, and our abundance of curry cooking. My vegetable garden and John’s skill with curry recipes prompts the fact that our freezer holds dozens of jars of curries most of the time. Stop in, and we’ll prove it.

I in no way wish to suggest that a person must have international experience. But for me, it has been a profound privilege; an incentive for research, teaching, and writing; a recurring reminder that plurality and difference are good; a key shaper of how I live my Christian faith. Because of the intense encounter with religions in India, plus having observed my mother prepare weekly to teach women’s Sunday School classes, I was drawn to faith questions not posed by Paul T. in our high school Bible Doctrines class. Reading books about Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism while riding third-class trains; observing distinct, sacred rituals with flame or water; talking with the One God when worshiping with Sikh friends in their gurdwara has led me to conviction that religion intrigues and blesses. Hear several examples.

On entering a state emporium in Delhi to purchase a tablecloth, I paused. On prominent display were large symbols of three major religions. The multiple arms and legs of a brass, Hindu god form stood posed to ‘offer’ support for varied needs. A rotund Buddha form made of heavy metal sat poised in contemplation. And a wooden, inlaid portrayal of the Lord’s Supper hung boldly—the Jesus figure linking a common meal with personal covenant. En route to choosing a table cover—to see color and shape, touch woven threads, and ponder an artist’s craft —I stopped, there being no choice. In India where much of life exudes Spirit, where the spiritual and practical provide context for each other, this experience drew my attention. Intent to select a cloth to enjoy with spiced curries, I pondered faith. Spiritual and human be-ing intersected. Not present to cast judgment, symbols affirmed Ultimate Reality. God cares for all peoples.

During a summer 1967 trip to India when John taught Indian high school math teachers through U.S. AID, we shared weekly restaurant meals with Institute teaching staff. Conversation often turned to religion as chunks of cheese melted in the warm minestrone soup. A Hindu math professor and I discussed how my faith in a personal relationship with God differed from his concept of “seeing and being seen by God”—darshan. We valued the difference and mutually learned from the other’s integrity. At the final staff meeting, a Muslim professor gave me a gift: Muhammad Asad’s Islam at the Crossroads. I felt honored. The book describes a Christian’s shift of loyalty to Islam. Through that experience of being gently ‘evangelized’ by a person convinced of his ‘better way,’ I felt neither defensive nor offended. I trusted the One God to receive and engage both of us on our chosen spiritual journey. [Multifaith Musing: Essays and Exchanges, 85]

John and I were grateful that our parents supported our going to India when young. We sent one cable gram back on arrival. It did not express our surprise on seeing the crude airport of a nation’s capital city, cooking fires of village life en route into Delhi, or our first encounters with a mango or a plate of skinny tanduri chicken. We sent blue weekly airforms home—long before computers and e-mail. Taking two weeks each way, the answer to a question arrived a month later. John settled in to teaching “new” math with basically good Woodstock high school students, And, during the first year, I taught high school girls’ phys. ed. along with being ‘matron’ for the 7th-8th grade girls’ dorm. How they turned to each other to solve problems amazed me. I truly valued being ‘substitute mother’ to nearly 30 of them, whether with hikes or Saturday walks to the bazaar, informal devotions before sleeping in bunk beds in rows, reading aloud To Kill a Mockingbird, or preparing to act out Scrooge of “The Christmas Carol.” Without separate kitchens, we ate all meals in a staff dining hall—single women outnumbering the rest—two eggs and hot cereal with each breakfast, curry lunches, and a broth soup before British style dinners, always served by bearers. With English the medium of instruction, our exposure to Hindi, one of sixteen major languages in India, came informally.

Travel in India amounts to adventure, whether with “near misses” in an already dented bus, embarking on a major train system amidst crowded stations, 3-wheelers, taxi, or truck, and bike or human-powered rickshaws. Arriving during vacation in Dhamtari to visit missionaries, with John walking alongside our luggage and me in a rickshaw, I imagined what Mary might have felt on their flight into Egypt. Never during our first three years did we take domestic flights except into Nepal, on a DC-3 when even passengers were weighed, in order to assure power enough to rise above mountain peaks.

During a later stint in India, with flights more common for us, we were headed south along the east coast between Calcutta and Chennai (formerly Madras) when smoke rolled from overhead luggage bins. As crew members opened all the bins, passengers became unduly quiet while waiting for word from the pilot about an aborted, abrupt landing. I recall wondering if that would be my final flight. Then to mind came scattered words of a song not sung for decades, perhaps since high school—”. . . and peace attend thee all through the night. . . guardian angels . . . send thee.” Writing to Mother about the incident, I asked if she could locate the entire song, and, sure enough, she took the query to her good friend Alta Keiser and soon they found the Welch gem. Whereas at times a bus driver might stop at a Hindu temple to pray for safety, I with calmness, perhaps from having lived in a funeral home, depend on the Divine to either select my “time to go” or provide further worthy tasks to do.

Writing while in or about India has been an avocation for me. When John and I were house parents with a dorm of 8th-12th grade boys at Kodaikanal International School in south India, our daughters were in grades 9 and 11. My English and biblical skills combined to write script and lyrics for a musical titled “Naomi and Ruth: from Death to Life.” A teacher colleague composed music for the fourteen lyrics and within a few weeks, upper elementary students—Christian, Buddist, Muslim, and Hindu—learned and performed “Come, Walk Along” through to “God is Present.”

In 1988 I was glad to join a Fulbright study tour titled “Women, the Family and Social Change in India.” Then, on receiving a C. Henry Smith Peace Lectureship for Goshen and Bluffton Colleges, I wrote a Pinchpenny Press booklet titled Strength, Struggle and Solidarity: India’s Women. It reflects learning about women from professional women in six major cities, materials read, interviews with key Christian women leaders, and responses to a questionnaire that I created. The chapter titled “Strands of the Sacred” begins: “What is the connection between seeing my mother kneel in prayer before going to bed at night in Iowa and seeing women bow in devotion doing puja (Hindu prayer ritual) in India? That question has intrigued me for some time. Deciding who-what-where the One God is absorbs most people, villager and swami (religious teacher).

The 1997 Mennonite World Conference was held in Calcutta, India. John attended, staying nights with Sikh friends. Since I was then working on my DMin degree—titled Dialogues to Foster Interreligious Understanding—I created a booklet of eight imagined dialogues to be read by a sampling of Mennonites attending MWC. Those readers completed a two-page evaluation form, results of which appear in my DMin thesis. My hope was for “Mennonites to grow in openness to and understanding of those who differ from us yet share commonalities. I hope through information to invite readers to be more intentional or careful toward people who believe in God, also in unique ways.” Some of this material was later revised and included in my recent book. My study program also included creating a 20-minute video titled “Holy Respect, No Less.” Because of interest in global women, I also edited and self-published two books during the later 1990s: To See Each Other’s Good (21 chapters) and Rooted and Branching: Women Worldwide (16 chapters).

When staff members at a Lutheran seminary—Gurukul Theological College—in Chennai in 1998, John assisted administrative staff, and I joined the “Mission, Ecumenism, and Dialogue” and “Women’s Studies” departments. One project that shaped my be-ing was study of Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg before preaching on Gurukul Mission Sunday at two CSI churches. Church of South India formed in 1947—the year of India’s Independence. Ecumenical at heart, it combined Anglican, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Methodist folk. Ziegenbalg, the first Protestant missionary to India, arrived in 1706.

A skillful writer and translator loyal to the Good News, he learned the common people’s language. He also learned from sermons and grammars written by Roman Catholics de Nobili (early 1600s) and Henriques, in India the century before him. He credited the living piety of those now called Hindu people, learned the complex nature of their Bhakti (devotional) religion, and credited their effort to reach God. [Multifaith Musing: Essays and Exchanges, 87]

Also at Gurukul, I co-edited with Indian Abraham Athyal, chair of my department, Mission Today Challenges and Concerns. The book focused three themes: “Church in God’s Mission,” “The Multi-faith Context,” and “Spirituality for Mission.”

Personal attention to missioning efforts has grown as a result of living in India. While a three-year service assignment was right to accept, I cringe now on realizing how little we knew about India, about world religions and poverty, let alone broader worldviews and crossing cultures, when we left in 1962 on that 7-stop flight in a 707 airplane headed for Hindustan. At Woodstock, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Mennonites had the largest numbers of students enrolled. Ecumenical worship became ever-important to me. Part of winter vacations were always spent with missionary families, Mennonite and others. In addition to staff colleagues like Anglo-Indian Diana, I learned from women named Fyrne, Ramoth, Thelma, and Esther. I’ve not forgotten Fyrne’s response to my asking about presenting the Christian faith in the context of dominant Hinduism. She said something like: “Affirm Jesus the Christ or live his principles, but let God do the ‘work’ of engaging the person. God welcomes with openness.” A decade later I was a member of the Mennonite Board of Missions, for five of the eight years chairing the Overseas Committee. To engage missioners who ever-crossed-cultures was informative. During a return trip to India plus while returning then to the U.S. through Europe, I visited twenty-five MBM workers on location.

Doing research and study interests me—whether a biblical text or world religions. Living in India, I learned of the Henry Martyn Institute, located now in Hyderabad. In 2003 I spent a week there simply learning of its history and motivation. Based on that interest, I was asked to write an article that appeared in the Studies in Interreligious Dialogue journal. During the 2009-10 academic year our daughter, husband, and grandson lived in Grenoble, France. After spending two weeks with them, John and I spent a week in England, two days of which I enjoyed further research in the Henry Martyn Centre in Cambridge. My article about this British, East India Company chaplain who arrived in India in 1806 is in process. In less than six years Martyn translated the New Testament (and more) into Urdu, Arabic, and Persian as he, with respect, engaged Muslims in India and Persia.

After a second two-week visit in France with family, we spent a week in Scotland. There, I enjoyed a couple days researching the World Missionary Conference held in Edinburgh June 14-23, 1910. While 1200 Protestant delegates, most from Britain and North America, engaged discussions, five thousand attended the opening session. Mennonite administrators J. S. Shoemaker and J. S. Hartzler attended WMC on their way to visit India. Of eight Commissions, my study focused on number IV—“The Missionary Message in Relation to Non-Christian Religions.” I examined attitudes of missioners toward Hinduism in India; other religions discussed were Animistic (tribal), Chinese, Japanese, and Islam. Gaining information about the event for my article published in the Mennonite journal Mission Focus, and learning most from Scotsman A. G. Hogg then located in Chennai, I valued reading copies of some of the 180 original responses of mission people to eleven questions. Questions included: What hindrances (moral, intellectual, social) to full acceptance of Christianity exist where you work? and What attitude should a Christian preacher/professor/follower take toward the religion prominent in your area? To the latter were responses such as:

Respect and reverence, never attack, another’s ancestral religion. Teach to construct, not destruct or misrepresent others. . . . You do not understand your own religion if you know nothing of other faiths . . . avoid assuming that your own beliefs are ultimate truth. . . Be well trained in fundamentals of others’ faiths. . .

When in India, we had the privilege of attending interfaith events in several cities. In Bangalore, we joined seminary students for a gathering that stretched my respect for difference. In Chennai, our close friend Sarah included us with several groups—in a home setting and a public hall. With the latter, each month’s event focused on a distinct feature, like light. There, a representative from different religions explained how light enables their practice of worship. While I am a committed Christian, I firmly believe in being open to crediting and learning from people of other living faiths. We can hardly afford not to know about Islam today. For me, Hinduism is too complex to fully comprehend. As with most religions, expressions of it vary among people loyal to it. Having deep friendship with people committed to Hinduism and Sikhism, I choose not to judge their religious be-ing. They too honor my being Christian.

Hear an excerpt from early in my 2010 book Multifaith Musing: Essays and Exchanges.

On starting to write this Introduction, my phone rang. A friend from India, visiting his son in Texas, greeted, ‘Hello, Dorothy; this is Pawate!’ Our friendship as staff at a south Indian international school included his and Manju’s being Hindu. . . Two weeks earlier, John and I attended a Hindu wedding in Virginia, staying the nights with another young Hindu couple. They invited us to join the blessing ritual with a priest for their new home—our Sunday worship. . . [Two years ago] a special Sikh friend never responded following lung transplant surgery. We joined others to honor her through sacred acts of love at the hospital, gurdwara, and crematorium. How enriched friendships and musings can be when marked by Divine religions. [1, in Multifaith Musing . . . ]

To be faithful to the One God, who I best know through the activism of Jesus, is task enough. We need not think that Christianity supersedes Judaism; “Judaism remains chosen to tell others about God’s inclusive Kin-dom. . . Jews long for a coming Messiah and Christians look toward a Second Coming. I wonder if we might partner together in looking, if they approve.” [29] My bias affirms coming to terms with religious plurality. Jesus’ radical inclusion of those who differed from his being Jewish recurs in Gospel stories. Recall his radical endorsement of Samaritans in several accounts. Or, consider how Peter needed to accept Cornelius’ faith, how even Jesus needed to accept the Syrophonecian woman’s religious integrity. [Time permitting read segments of seminary students, from pp. 70 and 72.]

I conclude with a quote from Mennonite theologian Gordon Kaufman whose recent death is our loss. This statement reflects how living in India has shaped my total be-ing.

Only as we find ways of stepping back from . . . features of our traditions (both religious and secular) that wall us off from others, can we hope to come into genuine understanding of and community with them. Building such community with others, it seems to me, is the most profound religious necessity of our time. [89]