Requested by Institute that I write this when doing research there – March 21-28, 2003
Introduction. Imagine an unlighted cement stairway five feet wide, just off a busy street in Hyderabad, the capital city of India’s south-central state of Andhra Pradesh. A dark, wooden guardrail is in position to assist downward traffic. Grayish, plastered walls separate a slanted ceiling that suggests a further flight above. After five steps, a landing gives you time to look up beyond the remaining fifteen steps to a glass entrance. Light appears inside that door, along with green branches of several large plants. ‘Stark entrance,’ I muse. But the address outside assures us that staff of the Henry Martyn Institute work inside.
Next, imagine a narrow, less regular, steeper stairway than the first one. A small window space provides a hint of the midday’s intense heat. Without a handrail, I merely follow the woman ahead of me. Raja Rajeswari, officer of the project we are about to visit, has climbed them many times. Faint sounds of conversation drift into the stairway made of bricks, a stairway with turns that initially keep the next, first story out of sight.
So, what might those stairways symbolize, in the context of HMI? Might they suggest movement or stability or common features? Stairways could suggest a path to improvement or a way to deal firmly with the present. Stairways can be either solid or prone to risks. To ascend them early morning might feel easy; to descend them after tough decisions could spell relief. Stairways suggest that staff and visitors, students and activists have known “ups and downs.” Any organization depends on an exit as well as entrance. It thrives on history and vision, on support—of Rupees. and prayer—on plan as well as review.
I had the privilege of observing HMI—staff and space—in Hyderabad for most of a week in March 2003. Although a week is short, a spirit pervades. Not able to observe Conflict Resolution team members in a setting of conflict, I taped several of them on their return from India’s North East region of “opposing sides.” Detailed charts displayed at their desks added to insight. Reading English journals in the library, between interviews, and perusing HMI publications, minutes, and a grant application added flavor. Morning devotions pointed toward the One God. A Christian challenged co-staff to consider God as compass. He noted the Good Samaritan story, calling all to see their tasks that day as “doing good” among needs. The next day a valued Muslim led devotions with a story about villagers, a king, and camels. He concluded with prayer in Telegu. Andreas D’Souza, director of HMI since 1992, has pondered what prayer means in such an interfaith context: “I have come to realize that spirituality has no barriers.”11 My inner response suggests: ‘Something right is going on here.’
Readers deserve to learn about that “something.” That mindset. That heritage. That struggle to define reconciliation. That language study of Arabic, Persian, and Urdu. That effort to counter distrust between religious people. That program to meet educational, medical and income-producing needs in a riot-prone zone. That wisdom from diverse women on a journey. That inner exploring. That man Henry Martyn. That spirit calling for change within continuity. That Conflict Reconciliation team. That library with over twenty thousand volumes. That study of cultures and loyalties as they rub shoulders. And more.
Henry Martyn. Beginning with Henry, the story unfolds. Founders of the original Henry Martyn School chose to name it after a British chaplain (not formally a missionary). Born in 1781 and elected a Fellow of St. John’s after graduating there in 1801, he was ordained four years later. During that year he began to study Urdu (Hindustani). This Anglican Martyn went to India, assigned as chaplain for East India Company personnel. From 1806 to 1812, his authentic love for Muslim people in India multiplied.
Martyn strongly believed that effective communication with nationals depended on his knowing Indian languages. Therefore, he studied Bengali, Persian, and Arabic in addition to the language of many Muslims—Urdu. Further, he learned as much as possible about those with whom he related. He read books like William Carey’s English translation of the Hindu text Ramayana, George Sale’s Preliminary Discourse and his English version of the Qur’an, and Maracci’s Refutatio. En route to his first assignment at Dinapur in the province of Bihar (northwest of Calcutta), a conversation with a Muslim scholar taught him the importance of accurate knowledge about others. Not content to merely debate traditional points, Henry chose to respect religious opponents, to appreciate and credit God with the best in Muslim partners.
Translation work engaged Martyn. After translating the biblical book of Acts into Urdu, he prepared the entire New Testament for publication by early 1809, helped by Indian teachers. By then, he had also started on Arabic and Persian versions of that text. “The translator is always in some measure the theologian.”22 Martyn wrestled with Christian meanings of words and symbols alongside those important to Muslims. With his Urdu translation of the Book of Common Prayer in hand, he regularly led worship in the vernacular with a crowd of poor Indians (not part of his East India Company role). Martyn consumed Muslim literature, especially the work of Persian poets. He started a number of schools and treated Indians with dignity. Like the German Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg, the first Protestant missionary to arrive in South India (1706), he differed from many of his countrymen. He extended equal worth to Indians and recognized Muslim culture and loyalties. In Cawnpore, Martyn’s second placement, he also founded schools and preached to both Indians and Company people.
Martyn’s health declined as his work increased. He returned to Calcutta, after four years, and decided to travel home. Hoping for drier climates en route, he most welcomed stops where he could test his translations with Muslim leaders. He visited Armenian clergy and bishops; he held discussions with mullahs and Sufis in Shiraz. There he also first replied to a defense of Islam. When he was expected to recite the Shahadah (“There is no God but [Allah] and Muhammad is His prophet.”) he calmly countered, despite a lively crowd: “There is no God but God and Jesus is the Son of God.”33 Martyn’s general approach offered Christianity without denouncing Islam. He avoided arrogance around people’s cherished beliefs. He did not claim superiority for his own country. However, to that country he never returned, having died at Tocat in Persia on October 16, 1812. Armenian priests buried him in their graveyard.
Unfortunately, Henry’s legacy was marred with the publishing of his Controversial Tracts more than a decade after his death. Whereas that writing includes anti-Islamic polemic, Martyn doubted the wisdom of argumentation. More to be remembered is his scholarship, mission strategy, and positive attitude toward India’s people and culture. Convinced that “God, not people, wins souls,” he chose to plant seed and let God do with the effort as God willed. He chose not to transplant English culture into Indian soil, and he chose to reveal “the mind that was in Christ Jesus” rather than claim converts. Clinton Bennett names two lessons of Martyn’s mission strategy: to stress the study of language, religion, and culture, and to witness to the Gospel separate from colonial domination. Henry allowed ‘inner truth’ to be shaped by encounter with ‘truth-without.’ For, he had experienced the loyalty felt by others to their inner faith. His “standard of scholarship, commitment to the Gospel, and burning love for Muslim people”44 resonated with those who formed the organization central to this article.
HMI, Early History/Mission. So, what has the organization named after this disciple of God’s been like? A recital of meetings notes the beginnings. The first Conference of Workers in the Muslim World, held in Cairo in 1906, responded to the need for Christian workers to understand Islam. At the 1910 International Missionary Conference held in Edinburgh, Samuel Zwemer appealed to churches to wake up to the “unique character of Christian Muslim relationships.”55 A Conference of Missionaries to Muslims held in Lucknow, India, the next year called for special literature and worker training. An informal prayer fellowship and organization called Missionaries to Muslims League (MML) followed in 1912. The latter provided summer lectures, reading courses (with exams) on Islam, translation of pamphlets into Urdu, new tracts, and News & Notes, a monthly circular that evolved into the Bulletin decades later at HMS. An International Missionary Council of 1921 organized a series of meetings in Muslim countries that led to a 1924 Conference in Jerusalem where for the first time a center for Islamic Studies in India was proposed. The Bareilly Theological Seminary, with John A. Subhan leading, started a Department of Islamic Studies. NCCI (National Christian Council, India) started in 1926, and by January 1930, the Henry Martyn School of Islamic Studies opened in Lahore with L. Bevan Jones as Principal.
The School and mission among Muslims generally had an all-India character. Three women from South India were the first resident students of HMISIS. Within the first five years, thirty resident students (8 Indians, 22 foreign missionaries) completed study programs ranging from one to six months. The School’s objectives—for research, training, and literature—fit within these aims, to: evangelize Muslims throughout the country, enable Christian workers to commend Christ in acceptable ways to Muslims, and provide workers and converts with a centre for prayer, study, planning, and exchange.66 David Lindell notes the NCCI’s plan for HMSIS functions: 1) staff study and research of Islam, in the Indian context; 2) preparation of Christian literature sensitive to and understanding of Muslim feelings while positive in its Christian witness; 3) training of those sent for Christian work among Muslims.77
The School’s personnel, purpose, name, and location have changed. From 1938-40 HMSIS was located in Landour, 1940-62 in Aligarh, 1962-66 in Jabalpur, and 1966-71 in Lucknow. From 1971 to the present, Hyderabad is the ‘home’ of concern for Muslims among Indian churches. During the Aligarh years with Jones as leader, American missionaries became active. Bishop Subhan, an original staff member, continued for thirty years. For three years Miss I. G. West was the only staff member. After 1947 (Independence), Christians who remained in Pakistan were unable to train in India.
David Emmanuel Singh notes that shifts reveal leadership changes as well as a “needed transformation from being a mere foreign mission to [being a basic] responsibility of the Indian Church.”88 The name change, from School to Institute (Henry Martin Institute of Islamic Studies), reflects a reformulation that occurred in 1960. From then on residential for only short periods of time, the Institute’s teaching staff could move where convenient or needed. According to Ian Douglas, the Institute’s purpose became: “to assist the Church to realize and fulfill its evangelistic obligation to Muslims by fostering among Christians an adequate and sympathetic understanding of Islam.”99 That statement continued for nearly twenty-five years.
Then came a change of focus from Islamic Studies to Interfaith Relations. Within the Indian context, limiting attention to religious minorities—only Muslims and Christians—could not be condoned. However, this change led some Christians in India and elsewhere to question if the organization meant to abandon its original goal of evangelism. One faculty member resigned, suggesting that the Institute is “no longer ‘Christian’ in orientation.”1010 How Christians can become so threatened reveals how near to the surface conflict ‘sits’ among religious people. More will follow about the interplay of dialogue, reconciliation, and living faiths.
Academics. Because research is essential to religious encounter, it has always shaped efforts at HMI. To probe why mistrust exists involves breaking through stereotypes. Why do they begin? What features of prejudice enable them to grow? What false information or simple ignorance helps them thrive? On whom or what sources do people depend—opponents or loyalists? Would Christians trust Muslims to get insight into Christianity primarily from Muslims? If not, why should Christians not expect to learn about Islam primarily from its loyal adherents? Therefore, the study of Urdu (for contemporary Islam), Arabic (for basic sources of the Islamic faith), or Persian (to understand eastern Islamic trends, as in mysticism) will be as essential as direct conversation with Muslims, for understanding Islamic culture and faith.
Rajesh Singh coordinates HMI’s Academic program—course work, publications, and languages. Language courses—basic, elementary, intermediate, and advanced levels—extend for eleven weeks. “Taught by scholars educated both in India and abroad, HMI’s courses provide an opportunity for students to master the art of both writing and speaking.” [brochure] Previously a chemistry teacher, Rajesh arrived at HMI unaware of religious prejudice. Hindus, Muslims and Christians “just were who they were.” As an employee, she values staff diversity and what each contributes. Of thirty members, more than half of them are Muslim and Hindus, a change that D’Souzas intentionally arranged. Rajesh expressed a spirit valued by staff. Although she would never “take on the stance of a person with an exclusive position, she could respect the other’s strength of beliefs.” Both Academic and Praxis programs exist to reduce prejudice and to increase trust.
Principles hold for understanding anyone different from the self. Having arrived at an insight, it needs to be checked and often corrected. That people of one religion vary in practice or emphasis in different countries also needs to be acknowledged. To hear someone speak of Hindu practice in Indonesia might sound unfaithful to a Hindu’s pattern in India where that religion dominates. Learning of Muslim emphasis on law (shari’a) in Egypt might differ from attention to that sacred aspect among India’s faithful Muslims. Christians should have no problem valuing this quality of diversity in light of worship practices descriptive of Roman Catholics in Rome or Pentecostals in Peru. David Lindell, longtime HMI staff, knows that respectful understanding of religious people results from sustained friendship and patient study.
Central to study is the library. Jaweed A. M. Khan, one of three librarians at HMI, described the holdings. In addition to a major collection on Islam (especially Sufi resources) and Christianity, strong sections appear on Interreligious Issues, Women’s Studies, Hinduism, Conflict Resolution and Peace, and History. Lindell views the specialized Islamic Studies holdings (over 5,000) as “difficult to equal in India.” Nearly all of the library’s 20,300 volumes have been entered into a computer database; standard Library of Congress subject headings appear. Staff members share the resources with inquirers, including local post-grad scholars and PhD students, notably Telegu speakers. A few rare books appear in a small archival section; polemical books are on reserve for researchers. A local agency binds books. Over two hundred periodicals are shelved, both Indian and foreign. The Journal of the Henry Martyn Institute (formerly, The Bulletin) is published twice a year. It “provides a platform to promote inter-religious understanding . . . writing on reconciliation . . . within an overall framework of peace and justice.”1111
Toward Dialogue/Tension. Research shapes understanding of both religions and organizations. Diane D’Souza, Associate Director of HMI who works with Praxis endeavor, summarized HMI’s change and continuity from 1930-1997.1212 During the first five years, HMI emphasized foreign missionary training. While a staff member questioned in 1940 whether using the word “evangelism” might cause misunderstanding, the “conversion orientation” of HMI did not peak until the late 1950’s. In editorials by Director Ian Douglas in two 1960 issues of The Bulletin, factors of the co-existence of religions emerged. Tensions surrounded extreme views among Christians—from arrogance that refused to recognize other religions to an uncritical temptation to avoid the issue. Douglas tried to quiet doubts about the worthiness of dialogue. He knew that interreligious encounters do not deny the truth of the Gospel; they express loyalty to it. Instead of polemical debates that approach the other as an enemy to defeat, the purpose of dialogue is “to come together [in strength], convinced that God is with both of us.”1313
[Dialogue] represents a shift from confrontation to conversation. It accents the need to listen and learn rather than to declare and dominate. It recognizes the worth and integrity of other people who find their identity and values in cultural terms and patterns that differ from our own. And it reminds us that the Gospel is not our possession but the gift of God that calls us to reconciliation with [God] and with our neighbours in love, trust, openness and freedom.1414
A pamphlet of the late 1960s revealed HMI’s tension: while it moved toward interfaith dialogue, it continued to proselytize, to convert others to Christianity. John A Subhan, chair of the governing board, expressed gratitude in 1972 that the new era of dialogue had replaced the age of endless debates, polemics, and controversy. Understanding between religions looked more promising. In 1978 Director Sam Bhajjan wrote: “Helping a Muslim patient to get treatment in a Christian hospital . . . has more lasting effect than many attempts to convince him of the soundness of Christian theology.”1515 Bhajjan clarified the Institute aims: 1) to lead both Muslims and Christians to greater mutual respect and understanding, 2) to raise questions that will lead both religions toward deeper, renewed spirituality, 3) to enable both religions to accept and meet common practical duties.
Involved with seminars, training institutes, conferences, teaching, and dialogue, HMI needed to ask questions. Do we promote enmity or friendship in society? Does the Church, through prejudiced apologetics or unilateral evangelism actually instill violence?1616 Recently, David Scott (teacher of Religions in Indian seminaries for decades) raised related issues. Since diversity is basic for people, he wonders what is lost in the drive toward monotheism. When sameness or “blurring of boundaries” is the goal, the inclination may be to get rid of those who tolerate ambiguity. That goal leads to violence rather than healthy variety.1717
During 1978, Bhajjan created a special Evaluation Committee to review HMI and to look ahead, keeping in mind India’s pluralistic context. Two facts emerged: 1) HMI’s confusing overall aim for both dialogue and efforts to convert, 2) HMI’s need to strengthen its programs in relation to the Indian Church. Three patterns of proclaiming the Good News appeared: 1) to condemn a listener’s religion, 2) to preach Jesus’ love and forgiveness without scorning a listener’s faith, 3) to live out Jesus’ teachings. Quarreling, however, should no longer describe evangelism. A Liberation Theology model gained support. In that model, the required human and liberating dimensions of both Islam and Christianity would be proclaimed. Each religion could liberate. People loyal to either would bring their liberating features to collaborative work, to address major needs. Such a process reflects profound turning, not traditional conversion.
Regarding the second fact above, the Evaluation Committee called Churches to new sensitivity toward communal/interreligious tension. Fifteen years earlier G. Gispert-Sauch had raised the same call via questions to seminary professors at an HMI seminar. Could not the Church help Hindu and Muslim communities come together? Could not the Church cooperate to form a true pluralism in which each religious community’s integrity was accepted? At a CBCI (Roman Catholic) consultation in 1979, Sister M. Stanislaus also spoke prophetically. Rather than be powerless in the face of riots, the Church should claim a Peace-making role. Perhaps conflict could be curtailed through interfaith meetings, prayer, fasting and courageous acts. Perhaps those sensitized will speak up when one religion offends another.1818
Ministry of Reconciliation. “HMI: A Ministry of Reconciliation” became a working document in 1988. By 1995 the necessary legal work produced a revised Constitution to amend the earlier Memorandum of Association. Aware of a long history of polemic that had caused misunderstanding and distrust between Muslims and Christians, “A Ministry of Reconciliation” looked forward. It promoted interreligious harmony through efforts to put aside prejudice in order to “work together for the common good.”1919
Even so, harmony escaped Hyderabad’s old city in December 1990. In fact, few other Indian cities “perpetually sit on a powder keg.” History shows that violence followed when Hyderabad State became part of the Indian Union in 1948. Major communal clashes occurred during March 1978 and again during September 1984. During the latter, the entire twin cities were placed under curfew. And communal trouble during two days of 1990 left over fifty people dead.2020
To change attitudes takes time. To heal injuries of body or property, ‘replace’ painful memories with a measure of hope, or create mutual trust through reduced fear requires energy. Without working at justice issues, memories linger more painfully. Indelible scars persist. “Every fresh riot fuels anger, hatred, and the desire for revenge,” for violence prompts further violence.2121 Actions prompt reactions. A spiral effect follows. Anyone wishing to help another toward reconciliation needs to probe her or his own inner violent tendency. All need to examine inconsistencies and failures plus private struggles with forgiveness. [And all might learn from reading resources like Sudhir Kakar’s The Colors of Violence.]
Andreas D’Souza notes2222 that Muslims and Christians in India are generally friendly. Both are minorities. But each misunderstands the other. Often ignorant of Muslim beliefs and practices, many Christians carry prejudices toward them. Similarly, Muslims distrust Christians, for real and imagined reasons. At one point, HMI selected a few Muslims and Christians for a series of meetings. Separate gatherings showed agreement regarding causes for their conflict and ideas for follow-up, joint action. But those directly involved chose not to meet for mediation. D’Souza then realized that “reconciliation could not happen unless both parties in conflict are willing to be open to the possibility of healing.”2323
Violence. With the 1990 surge of violence between Hindus and Muslims in Hyderabad, HMI’s thinking about dialogue and reconciliation took a new, practical direction. HMI mobilized an interfaith team to assist riot victims. They distributed rice and biscuits to veiled women and hungry children. They listened to agonizing stories. They called a meeting in the religiously divided community of Sultan Shahi, where not long before they had organized the Aman-Shanti Forum. Aman is the Urdu word and Shanti the Sanskrit word for peace. Three hundred Hindus and Muslims ate together. But their hurts ‘balked,’ too deep and fresh to move toward forgiveness. Forgiveness requires a long process of inner transformation. A process that honors unhealed wounds prone to explode. Yet a process that counters spiteful revenge. “Mending a broken relationship with God seems much easier than restoring broken trust in the immediate aftermath of a riot,” D’Souza suggests.2424
Whereas HMS had barely been affected by the excessive turmoil during India’s freedom struggle (1947), the 1990 ‘watershed’ experience reinforced HMI’s commitment to a “ministry of reconciliation.” That ministry found women keeping watch in Sultan Shahi for trouble-makers who might enter the region to cause fear and disrupt, especially following Muslim prayers on Friday noon. That ministry involved peace marches or human chains of peace as well as further study and further training. That commitment led to community development effort, building stronger ties between Hindus and Muslims, birthing a mediation center—with training of third-party people like pastors, teachers, police officers or lay people—and exploring further the meaning of reconciliation.2525
Current HMI Director Andreas D’Souza wrote about the repetition of revenge within Indian history.2626 He notes a recent example, the Feb. 2002 carnage in the state of Gujarat. When Hindu volunteers were returning from Ayodhya, fifty-eight were burned to death in a train car. [Ayodhya was the site where a mosque, presumed to be located on a site holy to Hindus, was destroyed a decade ago, followed by revenge in major cities.] Within two months’ time, revenge in Gujarat took its toll: 2,000 Muslims killed, 10,000 shops or factories owned by Muslims gutted, 150,000 people made homeless, and 230 mosques or shrines razed to the ground. Unnumbered bodies of women also became a battlefield. 2727
D’Souza asked tough questions: “What would God, ‘the Most Compassionate and Compassion Giver’ (to use Quranic language) do in such situations of suffering?” How might Christians, in faith, help restore fractured relationships? How will Indian citizens deal with the politics of an ideology (Hindutva) that nudged the freedom of such destruction? And D’Souza sought a solution through reconciliation. The term suggests that after a time of friendship (between individuals, groups, or nations), alienation occurred. To reconcile (re-conciliate) means that friendship is restored, the problem remedied (perhaps). People at an HMI workshop in Orissa in 1997 defined reconciliation: “In the context of existing oppression in India, we understand reconciliation as a process of struggle of the people to bring together estranged persons leading towards transformed relationships and structures based on justice.” [D’Souza offers alternative wording for “existing oppression”: existing communal/caste/class-based violence].2828
Theology of Relationships. Relationships are vital to this endeavor; D’Souza describes what a theology of relationship entails.2929 The point is not to unify belief but that all people fully commit themselves to an “openness to building relationships” wherever a break exists. An anecdote from Rabbi Heschel illustrates the approach. On ‘getting up’ in the morning, God gathers the angels and asks: “Where does my creation need mending today?” A theology of relationship also asks, ‘What connection or bond needs to be restored in our world?’ Where does pain exist, why, and what can rectify the situation? Starting with experience, the next move is reflection, followed by further experience. To illustrate the steps: Freedom—boundaries imposed—reflection—freedom (restored or redefined).
D’Souza notes examples from diverse religions. Within Hindu belief, an avatar or form of God descends to attend to creation in pain. Muslims affirm that God desires to love and be loved. For Jews and in turn Christians, one creation account depicts God’s distress when the first woman and man hide from, or thereby try to cut off their relationship with, God. Since God is relational, building relationships will be central to doing theology. To better understand the Ultimate’s breadth of being. To see or feel a portion of what God does and is. By contrast, presuming that only one religion is absolute places limits on God. So, a theology of relationship knows that God knows and relates with people of living faiths in diverse ways. And it credits God wherever God transforms human ties. Wherever barriers dismantle. Wherever a person sees God in a neighbor. Wherever wholeness comes around more fully.3030
Praxis and Academics. HMI activities find expression in Praxis and Academics. Praxis includes Conflict Resolution through Mediation. In that process, training helps people with both analytical and practical skills. They move toward greater awareness of themselves as well as positive approaches to problems. They examine features that cause conflict—fear, prejudice, ideas that misrepresent a person or group, or feeling powerless. HMI offers workshops in basic mediation and a two-week, intensive course on Conflict Resolution and Peace-building. For such training, students explore details about a community—its history of discontent, religious differences, and active organizations, for example. Academics provide certificate, diploma and post-graduate programs in Islamic Studies and Interfaith Relations and Hinduism and Interfaith Relations. Summer courses and workshops also recur. In addition to available language study, HMI provides links for PhD and Master of Theology programs.3131
A theological framework (or grounding through disciplined learning) moves one toward God and the neighbor. And action-oriented programs challenge people of all living faiths to work together to transform or restore both structures and relationships that oppress. For the past ten years such has been the goal of HMI. Most religions share a belief in the One God (though names and forms vary). Dialogue helps to clarify what is common and where the Wisdom of difference exists. Many theologies can exist; they need not converge into one. For, as people join to alter what oppresses, they transcend boundaries and find direction and meaning for life. They [We] relate to God and to matters of faith while relating with each other.3232
Responding to those who question the present vision of the Institute, Andreas knows that staff members are ‘evangelists’ in a broad sense. For indeed, to bring hope to the oppressed or to remove barriers of skin or caste, or to heal long-term hatred and scars from deep wounds IS to share the Good News. To pursue basic justice work enriches the meaning and commitment of traditional views of evangelism. As they pattern ministry on Jesus’ practice, HMI staff reveal God and God’s Realm. That ministry invites violators to turn from cruel actions and attitudes. It welcomes (shares Good News with) disadvantaged people in society. It truly witnesses to Jesus who always commends the One God of salvation. And it leaves to God’s Wisdom just how God might offer wholeness. So, HMI’s history moved: “from preparation for proselytic evangelism, to engagement in dialogue, to active involvement in the practical work of reconciliation.” At HMI, “Ministry of Reconciliation” is a particular orientation “which gives meaning and context to Christian presence and action amidst the challenges of today’s pluralistic society.”3333
Women’s Journey. Praxis components of HMI’s program deserve further introduction. Homera Ansari described for me the Women’s Journey projects. Several journeys have taken place since 1998, the first with four women from India and four from Canada. Diane D’Souza served as an active listener and coordinator. The word journey suggests the methodology practiced. Later, a team of eight, English-speaking, diverse women from contexts of inter-religious or inter-ethnic conflict traveled together—first in India and after several months in Kenya. They not only met the stresses of travel; they learned to know each other—their differences of religion, caste, region and more. They located and processed women’s experience of conflict. With local groups, they explored the “goals, gains, and limits of wide, multi-religious involvement on women’s issues.” They brought women’s perspectives to issues through the “talking circle,” a Native method used to reach consensus and gain wisdom.3434
“Where are the women when negotiations transpire? How might Iraqi women approach George Bush’s ‘shock and awe’ threats? What strategies do women ‘by nature’ use when they approach conflict,” Homera asked. One example occurred when the Journey group met a District officer in Kenya: they gained confidence through a Power beyond human beings when they first prayed with the officer. With women often being shunted to the margins or being prime victims of conflict, how do they assess causes? And how might they, distinct from men, resolve the issues that surface? The team ‘journeyed’ through issues of armed conflict over land rights, tribal refugee issues across borders, and distinct gods of upper class and Dalit people. Eye-opening realities shocked the participants.
A two-day, final meeting in Hyderabad of a hundred women included regional leaders from peace organizations. Travelers from the innovative project reflected critically on personal experience, on their own cultural and religious contexts. They brought a feminist orientation to human rights and social justice. Learning was conveyed through imagery—spirals, triangles, and weaving. Terms used included verbs and nouns: capacity-building, networking, creating awareness, and collective voice, advocacy, quiet diplomacy, peace structures, a new “we,” and trauma counseling. They noted that western meaning for a term like solidarity might not be adequate for their contexts of great diversity.
Action-oriented dialogue starts with accepting difference as a good feature, as something to celebrate. Homera offered simple logic: “If I can accept your differences, why do you not accept mine?” To work further at acceptance, another Journey involved a facilitator plus eight women of different tribes and an indigenous community from Manipur in North East India. Traveling through tribal areas, they reflected on tensions and alienation. They “explored new methods of bringing about peace and created new avenues for inter-personal relationship and dialogues.”3535
Community Development. Community development also reflects praxis. Jahan Ara and Raja Rajeswari, Project Officers, help people feel comfortable around each other despite their history of tension, often due to religious differences. Jahan explained: “The training program helps people to say, ‘We have this in common; let’s protect ourselves by protecting others.’” Learning includes re-defining another, expecting the other to wish you well rather than presume negative judgments. It promotes caring for the other, a readiness to meet needs. Living as separate Hindu and Muslim communities within close proximity calls each to find a common reality while valuing distinctions.
Children can serve as a bridge, as at the Aman-Shanti Centre, opened in 1996. Sitting on the floor mat, each at a blue or white plastic stool-desk, the equal number of Hindu and Muslim primary school children write in their notebooks, recite “Welcome, madam!” and the ABCs, or join to sing enthusiastic songs. Their artwork hangs on the walls. Their smiles and open hands invite friendship. Eager to learn, their learning goes beyond what comes from pencil or crayon or chalk on the single black board. For, they learn to play and celebrate together on the building roof or terrace, barely conscious that their families live in opposite directions from the street below.
The building is multi-purpose. On the ground floor, a woman doctor and nurse consult with local patients and dispense basic medicines to meet immediate needs. During a recent six-month period, over a thousand patients received care. As needed, patients are referred to an area hospital. In another section, tailoring, knitting, and mehndi (henna dye) designing takes form, again with an equal number of Muslim and Hindu young women circling the tables. All with neat, black hair, half of the women have their hair covered. While talking about daily activities, upcoming festivals or Ramadan rituals, they create detailed designs for painting on hands or feet. They hand-sew useful garments. For products done well, each person receives a certificate at the end of eight months. Simultaneously, for building trust and rapport between religious communities, the reward is greater security for all.
In 2000 the Shankernagar Centre became available to women in a lower-class area, known for caste problems. Here, women create products such as candles to improve their income. Their sewing efforts show more advanced skills. Raja’s good rapport with both the Hindu and Muslim managers shows through. She asks why fewer women are present for tailoring (less than the forenoon 18, another 18 to gather in the afternoon). Several could not attend because the city water tank was to arrive at their house that morning and someone needed to receive their limited supply. My conclusion after these visits to Community Development projects is: “Clearly, HMI brings together practical work with inter faith issues and peace building.”3636
Conflict Resolution. HMI’s Conflict Resolution Programme began in 1995. Efforts focus: peace initiatives; walking with communities, organizations, or individuals to shape strategies; facilitating processes; and nurturing skills through workshops and mentoring. A fine brochure details the Programme mission, services, ways to assist, and important partnerships. And an informative web site clarifies “Frequently Asked Questions.”3737 HMI works within conflict-prone areas as well as situations of prevention—locally, with organizations (like the YWCA in Chennai or Mennonite Central Committee in Kolkata), and in sections of India like Kashmir or Nagaland in the North East. While team members include directors Andreas and Diane D’Souza and associate facilitators Najma Sanai and Arshia Ayub, Ramesh Prakashvelu, coordinator, and Hamidah Hudda, a facilitator, shared on tape from their experience.
People from India’s North East region often attend HMI’s annual workshop on “Peace building & Conflict Resolution Skills,” for practical reasons. Conflict persists since India’s Independence when the state of Nagaland declared that India had no legitimate control over it. While three groups have fought against India’s militia, three positions exist—India’s, the state government’s, and that of underground groups. Two major underground factions continue the struggle to free Nagaland. Other groups try to stop the armed conflict between those factions. Naga people are primarily Christian. Since some might willingly kill their own brothers, the Church could carry a crucial peace-making role.
Made up of thirty to forty tribes, Naga people are spread over different North East states. (A less than effective division of the region by the British caused the current problems.) Now, the Naga voices wish to come under one administration. Nagas wish to gather their common identity from different states—states that are not asking for separation from India—to form a unity. At the same time, only three of the fifteen underground groups of the state of Manipur wish for separation from India. Manipur residents—mostly either aboriginal or a group from West Bengal—also know tensions within. Not many are Christian. With a smaller land area but with value for the pluralist nature of their thirty-some different communities, Manipur people wish to preserve their distinctions, separate from Nagaland.
HMI, involved in Nagaland since 2000, knows that an outside organization cannot always be present. But the Nagas trust HMI, perceiving it as unbiased and not intent to “bring its own agenda.” That HMI perceives how western mediation—led by a professional—fails to best serve India’s North East is also helpful. Further, it wants more than “extreme voices” to speak. Therefore, the approach has been to discover the people who can mobilize others, who will always be present. Women fill that gap. Often active in the church, respected women will less likely be harmed by men. As Hamidah states, “Women understand fairness. They quickly perceive emotions. They often work to make peace within the family.”
In addition to sorting out issues, the task involves finding people who are committed to work for their people. Ramesh pursues peace facilitators—those who can lead workshops and will intervene when conflicts or tensions emerge. From efforts over two years in multi-ethnic, multi-community workshops, twenty peace facilitators have been secured. Ramesh believes that “trained people are more skilled to listen to all perspectives.” He knows that “working for peace itself is a political act.” Once trained, people will then lead workshops in their own communities. They, in turn, discover more diverse voices willing to deal with difficult situations in different regions. To enable such leadership, HMI recently received a grant to “Develop a Core Group of Peace Facilitators for Conflict-Affected States of the Indian Subcontinent.”
A teacher, Hamidah came to HMI five years ago to study Islam. She found the program to be “very good.” She valued the interactive method used in her own training. She sees similar principles of patience and introspection, whether working to build peace in the family, workplace, or national setting. Women often provide leadership within her Shiite community (7-8,000 in Hyderabad). An activist trainer, she can both explain Islam and interfaith issues in the North East and manage anger in nonviolent ways. More conscious of inner experience than before helps her with sensitivity toward others who struggle.
Conclusion. Not all aspects of or people involved with Praxis and Academics at the Henry Martyn Institute – International Centre for Research, Interfaith Relations and Reconciliation received attention in this article. The new campus under construction on the city’s edge will provide added space for student training. There, the Aman Shanti Nilayam hostel, with lodging and meals, is available to NGOs (non-government organizations) and church groups for their own seminars and retreats too. A domed, Interfaith Prayer Hall will be accessible through two entrances set to the north-south axis. People of all faiths will be welcome for meditation and prayer.
Hopefully, readers believe anew that interfaith relations depend on solid effort. Both students and staff learn through diverse workshops. Good changes have transpired through the nearly seventy-five-year history of HMI. Academics and Praxis belong together. Differences or boundaries, being good, need not cause conflict, but . . . India’s (and any) multi-religious context can produce barriers. Relationships will need mending. Therefore, people committed to resolve conflicts and restore friendship—with God and neighbors—are needed.
God’s mission continues to call! “Our biggest task,” the D’Souzas write is, “to be vessels through which God can act.” Committed to act non-violently, the task of reconciling involves the “sincere search for truth.” And that search calls us to diverse actions: to know about the larger context, to practice disciplined listening through dialogue, and to take the profound risks of standing for peace.3838 Bold to affirm that faith matters, being faithful finds expression: through journeys that enable understanding and language study that offers insight into culture. Tension, anger, pain, atrocities and stereotypes exist. Just as surely, stairways appear. Stairways that differ. Stairways that lead—in and out. May HMI’s vision and energy continue to meet on and beyond the cement and bricks of stairways.
[I was fortunate to return to HMI a few years later, to observe their new location, staff, and vision including for a expanded library].