December 18 - 26 Kerala, South India
I had met Abraham Karickam at the URI Asia and the Pacific Regional Conference in Bali in 2001. Since then, Abraham was instrumental in helping to organize his own CC, the Cosmic Community Center and in fostering the development other CCs in Kerala. Several years before, Abraham had heard Bishop William Swing speak about the United Religions Initiative when the Bishop addressed a large conference of the Mar Thoma Church. Bishop Swing's description of the URI's vision inspired and matched Abraham's vision. Abraham continues to keep this vision alive locally.
Abraham has served as a professor of Comparative Literature at the Mar Thoma College in Thiruvalla for 22 years. In addition to his teaching work, he is a lay leader in the Mar Thoma Church and has published 15 books. Abraham is also a community leader in his home of Kottarakkara and Karickam, smaller more rural communities south of Thiruvalla.
Abraham had planned a full agenda for us. I was privileged to receive one of the best learning experiences of my life through his efforts. (I was pleased to learn that Kerala is the home of Arundhati Roy, author of the best seller, The God of Small Things.)
On the first day here, we met several faculty and students at the Mar Thoma College and I was asked to offer greetings at the faculty Christmas luncheon. Later, Abraham and I spoke with the very delightful and spiritually alive leader of the entire Mar Thoma Church, the Metropolitan Chrysostom. The three of us spoke for about an hour and shared ideas about many subjects.
In Kottarakkara and Karickam, Abraham generously opened his community to my visit and we met many family and friends. In recent years, Abraham has worked with people locally to establish a successful YMCA network that serves people in need of shelter and offers other community services. Abraham has also developed his own interfaith group, the Cosmic Community Center and offers peace training programs and various other offerings. One great success is that the Cosmic Community Center is able to raise money each year to send one or two young adults for an extended visit with the Taizé community in France. Abraham has close ties with the Taizé community and he hopes one day to create a residential interfaith community that is inspired by the spirit and guidance from Taizé. Taizé was founded early in the 20th century as a Christian community and residence in France and this community is now effectively linked with as worldwide network. Taizé focuses on personal spiritual growth, renewal, meditation, chanting, and reflection in light of Christian teachings.
On December 21 the Cosmic Community Center and the Mar Thoma Dialogue Center co-sponsored a large gathering, An Interfaith Christmas Program. A male choir from the Salvation Army opened the festivities. Over 100 people were in attendance and were very interested to be updated by Abraham about recent local interfaith activities and to hear about the URI. To finish my presentation, I decided to introduce an appreciative interview question and requested that people form pairs and ask each other the question,
Imagine it is 2012, eight years from now and there are good changes in Kerala. The religions have worked together and now people are enjoying the benefits of several years of cooperation and leadership among people of different faith traditions. What is happening? What is different? What important changes have taken place?
I realized that people might be shy to try this kind of interaction because it was a new procedure for them. However, almost all of the people jumped into conversations and a delightful hum rose in the hall. After the interviews, several people came to the microphone to share the highlights. One young man stirred the crowd by proclaiming that he was filled with hope and the promise of a better life here and he went on to describe in detail the positive changes he saw possible. In listening to these impromptu declarations of hope and possibility, I was again moved by the power of appreciative interviews to release the ideas and passions and commitments of so many people. I was happy that I chose to take the risk and offer a break from speech-giving.
The next day, we attended a friend's wedding at the local Seventh Day Adventist Chapel. The Chapel is connected to the school which was founded by American missionaries and it was the school Abraham attended as a boy. It sits on a ridge with a beautiful view of rice fields and coconut palm woodlands. Abraham pointed out that we could see his boyhood home from here and as a boy all he had to do was run across the rice paddy and up the hill to get to school. Several hundred people attended the wedding and all were invited to the community center in Karickam for a sit down meal afterwards (which had to take place in two shifts because of the crowd!). The community center and nearby store are managed by Abraham's good friend and one of the vice presidents of the Cosmic Community Center, Benny Malachi.
Another evening we met Dr. K.C. Mathews, the head of a remarkable social service center, The International Center for Study and Development, which is applying to be- come a CC with the URI. This Center has a strong track record of working with challenging local problems such as elderly care, child labor, aids intervention, and medical needs.
Abraham is well-connected and in one afternoon we visited his friends: Mar Thoma clergy leaders, a Muslim scholar's family, clergy from the Orthodox Serbian Church, and family relatives and friends that seem to appear everywhere. One evening we visited the home of a Hindu man, a Dalit (the untouchable caste), who is a good friend of Abraham's and another vice president of the Cosmic Community Center. His name is Nytyananadan means "forever happy". Many Dalits convert to Christianity here. (This family was preparing to drive 18 hours east this night to participate in a wedding. The bride, his niece, is marrying a member of the 7th Day Adventist Church and they will live in the Tamil Nadu region of India and do missionary work) Religious affiliation changes a person's identity socially and politically in India. As a Christian, a Dalit would no longer be considered officially in the Dalit or untouchable, caste. However, when Dalits become Christian, they are no longer eligible for any government support that is made available to Dalits. It is a Catch 22.
On another afternoon, at a gathering of CC members at Abraham's home, Mr. M.C. Varghese from the Vayakkal CC, shared that in his area the CC has bogged down because some Hindu members believe that URI is an American operated organization that is really trying to convert people. I remind him that the principles in the Charter state clearly what the URI is and that there are several highly regarded Hindu leaders in India who are involved in the URI who might be able to help him. We agree that it is a good idea to translate the Charter into Malayalam, the language spoken here. I see how important it is that CC leaders have regular contact with each other and work together to try and meet the needs and share successes. Even if no clear answers are forthcoming, it is imperative for CC members to exchange support and feel connected with one another.
Several young adults are involved in the Cosmic Community Center CC. A few have been trained by Abraham in peacebuilding techniques that Abraham learned from participating in a course at Eastern Mennonite University some years ago. One boy commented that this exposure to peacebuilding training here in Karickam was "the best experience of his life!
In August 2004, the Cosmic Community Center will host its first International Inter-faith Conference on Inter-textuality of the Holy Books. They plan to draw about 50 scholars from around the world to their Dialogue Center at Kottarakkara. Participants will present papers and host discussions about scriptural passages from the holy books of the major faith traditions. The conference will also showcase Abraham's recent book, Concepts of Salvation from the Upanishads, the Kur'an, and the Bible. Dame Meher Master Moos has already reserved a place at the conference!
We were invited to attend a Christmas Eve service at a nearby Mar Thoma Church. The rector and his wife were wonderful leaders and they were excited to have me and Abraham as honored guests for their service. Abraham gave a stirring Christmas sermon that included an explanation about interfaith work and I offered my impressions of Kerala in a Christmas greeting to the people. I loved the service that included: a teen age choir and drummers singing indigenous songs, candelabra on either side of the sanctuary with rainbow colored candles, a wan little Christmas tree with a few lights and balloons, overhead fans whirring, graceful chandeliers glowing, and a full church of men and women and children with eager faces. I noted that even though many children performed skits and songs, there were no flash bulbs or video cameras present. People here do not have an abundance of things. Sitting up front facing this full church of expectant, innocent and bright-eyed smiling people who looked as if there was no other place in the world that they would rather be, made it feel like a very holy night indeed for me.
The following day, the Karickam family (Susan, Abraham's wife, Ann Mary, 18 year old daughter and Aby, 21 year old son) and I headed further south to Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala and then still further south to the southernmost tip of India, Cape Cormrant. At Cape Cormrant we gazed out to the horizon where the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea mingle together. We visited the famed monument to Swami Vivekananda and we saw a recently constructed monument to the famous Tamil poet, Thirvalluvar.
At Vivekananda's monument, we found a special room for meditation. We read there that it was on this very day, Dec. 25, 1892 when Swami Vivekananda came to this spot and meditated. Knowing our interfaith history, we realized that a few months later, Vivekananda would make his historic first visit to Chicago and inaugurate interfaith possibilities in the world by attending the first Parliament of World Religions.
The next day, we returned to Trivandrum and the Karickam family delivered me to the airport for the journey home to California.
A young barrister from Delhi, a seatmate on one of my train rides, had commented that when I arrived in Kerala that I should be prepared to enjoy the "sweet nectar of human innocence" in the people there. He was right.
The challenges in India at this time are staggering. There are over one billion people in India and it is estimated that 17 million people are born each year (the entire population of Australia). There are 24 states in India. There are 17 official languages and 200 actually spoken languages in India. While democracy as an ideal is cherished, most people consider most of the politicians to be corrupt. Air pollution in the cities is high, traffic and population density can be overwhelming, water is getting scarce. In Chennai (Madras) water is only available for two hours in the morning and in the evening. Millions of people live below the poverty line. The caste system and caste consciousness is changing very slowly. Women remain under-educated and the dowry system remains in force. Rights and opportunities for women are far from equitable. Many talented young adults leave south India to work in the United Arab Emirates because cities like Dubai and Bahrain offer much better employment. Access to study and work in the US by citizens of India has been severely curtailed by new immigration/visitation regulations in the USA since September 11.
Religious affiliation offers a significant identity and placement in society here. Families still arrange marriages about 98% of the time. India's history of religious diversity is a primary gift of India. For thousands of years, people of several major faith traditions have lived and practiced their different religions side by side. However, the history in India also points to the use of religions as a source of religious conflict and violence. In the present global climate, the prospect of inter-religious conflict and violence is very likely . The stakes are high in India for interfaith interventions of various kinds to make a positive difference to reduce and stop violence as well as to mobilize people across religions to tackle common social and environmental problems.
For a westerner from a First World country, living conditions are challenging. The shops sell what is needed for survival. Few "extras" are available.
And, given this mountain of challenges, the people impressed me deeply. They are talented, generous, strong, dedicated and willing to create a better world for themselves and for India. Unprecedented levels of cooperation between India (and other Third World countries) and the USA (and other First World countries) must be a major part of the answer that will set right the imbalance between those who have an overload of what is needed for life and those who have such scarcity. I pray that cooperation and relationships of trust and support blossom and multiply among the people of the URI in India and around the world. I pray and hope that URI's growing global community proves to be a relentless beam of light especially in India. I pray that Abraham's vision of creating an interfaith residential community in Kerala modeled after the spiritual integrity of Taizé becomes a reality in the years ahead.
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