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Interfaith Collaboration in India Inspires Texas Collegians

How Relationships Engender Peace

Interfaith Collaboration in India Inspires Texas Collegians

by Mark Waters

I was touched when, across the language barrier, he asked for a photo with our group. Our McMurry University team was working on a Habitat for Humanity project in India. Our job was to help paint two mostly completed houses. The professional painter – who asked for the photo – was Muslim. It was Ramadan. His constant smile never gave way to the thirst and hunger he must have felt in the intense Delhi heat, heat that got the best of me a time or two. He patiently guided our collegiate team as we did our best to follow his instructions.

A group of McMurry University students gather in prayer as they prepare to leave for India. – Photo: Abilene Reporter-News, Thomas Metthe

A group of McMurry University students gather in prayer as they prepare to leave for India. – Photo: Abilene Reporter-News, Thomas Metthe

The photo request touched me because it affirmed connections made across religious, cultural, and linguistic lines. Though the painter was Muslim, the homes on which we worked belonged to Hindu families. Our team was comprised of young Christians – and one old guy, me – with an interest in and openness to interfaith relationships. Several of the Habitat interns were Sikh. They made it a point to invite me to visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Definitely on my bucket list!

“I went to India to teach and convert. I never dreamed that I would learn so much; that I would have my own heart converted.”

I departed on this fourth trip to India in five years with great anticipation. As a professor of religion, I thrive in witnessing the acceleration of student growth – and my own – when exposed to different cultures, religions, and worldviews. Sheltered students from parochial West Texas fall in love with cultures, religions, and people who are new to them. A student on my second India trip said, in effect, “I went to India to teach and convert. I never dreamed that I would learn so much; that I would have my own heart converted.”

This year’s trip was special because we were going to a new location, St. Stephen’s Hospital in Delhi. We also wanted to develop a relationship with St. Stephen’s College there. Although our trip was partly intended to educate, we wanted to serve as well. Thus, while learning about St. Stephen’s Hospital and College and about religions represented at the sacred sites we visited, we participated in the Habitat project.

High-level Interfaith Service

St. Stephen’s Hospital is known for their community outreach and provision of preventative health care to the poorest of the poor in disadvantaged communities in Delhi. With vast populations of people who live on less than $5 a day (many less than $2 a day), inpatient care for all who need it is daunting if not impossible. Consequently, St. Stephen’s has chosen to reach out through a community center with preventative care and health-maintenance programs. My point in this context is that they provide these services with an interfaith staff to a diverse, interfaith community.

St. Stephen’s Hospital’s Community Health Centre, Delhi, India – Photo: wikimapia

St. Stephen’s Hospital’s Community Health Centre, Delhi, India – Photo: wikimapia

Likewise, St. Stephen’s College is decidedly interfaith. Though they have made a conscious and perfectly valid decision to maintain their Christian identity – through daily chapel services for instance – 90 percent of their faculty and much of their student body represent the many diverse faiths of India. They carry out their mission, peacefully and effectively, in an interfaith environment. “Effective” is an understatement. They are a highly selective, intensely academic, institution with 400 students accepted out of every 24,000 applicants.

Eboo Patel and the Interfaith Youth Core are well known for building interfaith relationships through shared values and shared service. These shared values and the resulting shared service are both an occasion for and a result of what Ashutosh Varshney calls “quotidian and associational relationships.” In his book Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India, Varshney cites extensive, longitudinal research supporting the notion that these relationships create peaceful environments.

McMurry students with the Indian interns they joined on the Habitat for Humanity team in Delhi – Photo: McMurry University

McMurry students with the Indian interns they joined on the Habitat for Humanity team in Delhi – Photo: McMurry University

Varshney’s approach to research is novel and interesting. Many researchers are inclined to look at religiously inspired violence and ask questions about the causes of conflict and violence. Varshney, on the other hand, observes that while there are geographic pockets of religious conflict and violence in India, most of India’s religiously diverse population lives together in peace. Thus he raised the question: What are the variables in the vast majority of India’s population and diverse regions that make for peace?

He found that peaceful areas are characterized by quotidian (daily, informal) and associational (formal) relationships and acquaintances across lines of religious difference. St. Stephen’s Hospital, St. Stephen’s College, and Habitat India are defined by such relationships. Medical personnel, community center workers, faculty, Habitat employees and volunteers, and service recipients build relationships rooted in shared values and service. These acquaintances and relationships also happen to be interfaith. I note “acquaintances” because it is entirely likely that we will never again see some of the people we met in India, the Muslim painter for example. But the impression has nonetheless been made and it is an impression that breaks prejudice and contributes to peace.

Back Home in Texas

Now home from India, we are learning how to build interfaith relationships on our own campus. For much of the history of McMurry University and Abilene, Texas the religious “other” was someone of a different Christian denomination. Things are changing, even in West Texas! McMurry had 30 students from Saudi Arabia last spring, as well as students from China, Nepal, and elsewhere. I was delighted to stand in the campus Starbucks coffee line last spring next to students speaking Chinese and near a woman wearing a hijab. This may not seem like a big deal to readers from large metropolitan areas. In Abilene, Texas, believe me, it is a big deal. This fall, we anticipate 50 Saudi students. We provide a prayer room for them, and we are working on creating a more adequate sacred space for their devotion.

A prerequisite for quotidian and associational interfaith relationships to help create peaceful environments is the opportunity for such relationships. The opportunity did not exist in the past for many in the somewhat isolated confines of West Texas. Religious diversity meant there were a few Catholics mixed in with Baptists, Churches of Christ, and Methodists. Things have changed. The Abilene Interfaith Council that began with three dreamers in 1999 is now thriving. And every student at McMurry University now has the opportunity for direct contact, in the classroom and in informal settings, with people of different religious identities.

I love taking students to India and will continue to do so. Now, however, some of the diversity of India is on our own campus. I am grateful and hopeful. We have direct access to some of the things that make for peace.