By Aoren Longchar, New Age Islam
22 September, 2014
I am very thankful to God for bringing me to the Henry Martyn Institute (HMI), in Hyderabad, and to become part of the HMI family. The HMI is a centre for interfaith understanding and dialogue. Although it is a Christian-run institution, people from different faith backgrounds—Hindus from different castes and regions, Sunni and Shia Muslims, Catholic and Protestant Christians, and people with no specific religious identity—work and study here. It’s one large interfaith family.
Being at the HMI is a great opportunity for me to receive God’s blessings. I joined the HMI this July. When I reflect on my past few months at the HMI, I am happy to say that I have changed—for the better. My mind is broadening, and I now think of and approach other faiths in a better way. During my past four years of Christian theological journeying in my previous college, I studied about other religions but never got any practical experience of interacting with people of other faiths since everyone around me was Christian. Being at the HMI, I am privileged to live in a multi-religious context, where I can put my learning into practice. I have realized that my earlier thinking was narrow and selfish. I was so focussed on my own identity as a “Christian” that I ignored the existence of my fellow humans from other religions. I was living in a small world, circumscribed by my own beliefs and oblivious of others. Slowly, after coming to the HMI, there has been a change in my attitude. Hopefully, my favourite word “I” will give way to “us” or “we”!
One of the most important things that I learnt from being at the HMI is how there can be a strong bond of unity amidst diversity. I can’t remember anyone from our HMI community asking me which religion I follow or, more appropriately, claim to follow. Here, there is no difference between me being a Christian and someone else being a Muslim or a Hindu. We all gather together in the same prayer hall and worship together in the name of God who created us all. In our community worship, we learn together more about God. Although we are different in terms of our cultural and religious backgrounds, we all have the same desire to be in relationship with God. This helps me to appreciate the honouring of God in the midst of diversity. I am also enriched by insights from other religions that I am gaining here, which helps me be less complacent as a Christian. It enables me to reflect on and develop new understandings of my own faith, and, ultimately, to enhance my faith in God. In the evenings and in the early mornings, around our HMI campus I can hear the call to prayer from mosques and temples. From this I learn about the power of disciplined prayer and surrender to God through the daily acts of devotion that the faithful offer in those places of worship. Listening to these voices from the mosques and temples prompts me to be more mindful about my prayers.
Being at the HMI, I have also learned more about the interdependence of all life, witnessing each member of the HMI engaging in her or his own responsibilities. It has been a valuable learning experience for me to see people who work here being engaged in hard work—especially in the kitchen and the garden. They have taught me dignity of labour. I see them witnessing their faith—whatever it may be—through action and without words. This made me realize that everyone is called to be a witness to her or his faith in whatever profession one may be engaged. Witnessing to one’s own faith need not be limited to words alone. Actions always speak louder than words.
Even though I may remain a Christian for the rest of my life, I now realize that being allied to just one religion over the span of my whole life is not what I see to be the way to go. I have learned many valuable things from people of other faiths here at the HMI. The HMI is a wonderful place to learn how to build bridges, not walls, with followers of other religions. Before coming here, my mind was stagnant and unproductive within my own religion. My egotism as a Christian blossomed but did not bear much fruit as far as relating to people of other faiths is concerned. As they say, you cannot give someone a hug with your arms folded! But now I feel that I am called to belong to everyone, and not to distinguish or bring any distinction between people from different religious backgrounds. As the saying goes, “All religions leads to God”—and so, I will try never to repeat the great mistake of being smugly supremacist again, to blow out another person’s light in order to let my light shine. I am reminded to be willing to serve others without trying to reap my benefits for myself alone.
After coming to the HMI, I’ve realized that interfaith dialogue—or, better put, dialogue between people from different faith backgrounds—is a pressing necessity. It is vital for peaceful human co-existence. In today’s world, it is impossible for adherents of a single religion to live in splendid isolation, ignoring the existence of others. As the world is growing increasingly interdependent, we desperately need dialogue and understanding with people of other faiths and ideologies. It is indispensable for the survival of life on earth. Interfaith dialogue provides us an opportunity to grow by appreciating and learning from the good things in different faiths. It is a must for social healing and harmony.
As I see it, interfaith dialogue should not just be all talk—words, words, words, written and spoken. Close inter-human interaction and relationships must form a core of interfaith dialogue efforts. In this way, it can become a means to help build a constructive environment for members of different faiths to learn and benefit from each other and exchange ideas to solve common problems. It can build awareness around diverse issues and break down walls that breed intolerance and hatred. It can work to identify causes of tensions between people who claim to follow different religions and help solve them. Such dialogue is also a must in order to promote solidarity among all people for social justice and defence of moral values and liberty in the world. People from different backgrounds can express their dialogue not just through discussions in seminar halls but practically, too, by joining hands in order to face and solve problems such as war, global warming or ecology or child labour.
Since faith is such a powerful part of so many people’s lives, to get to know each other well enough we have to make sincere efforts to promote interfaith dialogue. This will help us to open our hearts to each other without any judgment or doubt and without seeking to convert others to one’s own community. At the same time, such dialogue is also a means to bear witness to one’s religious convictions.
Aoren Longchar, from Nagaland, is presently located at the Henry Martyn Institute, Hyderabad, a centre for interfaith understanding.