Interfaith Abroad, Part 1: Private vs Public Life in India

It was evening in Mumbai and the windows to the Jesuit residence on the fifth floor of the Xavier Institute of Engineering were open to let in a cooling breeze. The sun had set and the last monsoon rain of the day had finished. I sat in a small chapel beside three Jesuits contemplating how I, a Presbyterian university chaplain and ordained woman, ended up celebrating the Feast of St. Ignatius in India with three generous and congenial Catholic priests. Through the open window I heard the chiming of several small handbells, a jaunty drumbeat, and the unified song of many voices chanting a familiar tune. Peeping over the window ledge, I looked down into a small, store-front like shrine to Lord Ganesh, where three dozen Indians sang and celebrated, clapping and singing in the glow from candles being passed before the faithful in large, sweeping circles.

Just as the priest beside me raised his voice to lead our opening prayer, the throaty call of the Adhan – Muslim call to prayer – cut across the chiming and clapping. The Jesuit continued, unperturbed by the spiritual cacophony seeping through the open window. In that moment I was held inside an interfaith bubble, where three faiths sang and celebrated, in and around one another. It was wonderful, and weird.
2015-07-23 16.43.25Experiences like praying in the midst of other religious celebrations were a regular part of my month in India. India is a country of great diversity – geographically, linguistically, culturally, and religiously. It’s a favorite for the spiritually-seeking, and in truth is a land full of wonder. But it wasn’t the exotic taste of spices, or the vibrant tapestry of color at every turn, or even the disconcerting disparity between the rich and poor that is evident on every street corner. What challenged me the most during my month in India was the affront to my Western boundaries between public and private life.

We keep tidying things up in America. We have ordered our private lives – our familial interactions,  our interpersonal relationships, our religious and spiritual practices – into the private world. But in India, a country two-thirds the size of the USA but home to more than 1 billion people, there isn’t room for such a division. The public and the private enmesh in a loud ruckus that spills over the strict boundaries of home or temple and into the markets, the parks, and the streets. And I, as a white, Western, Protestant Christian was thrown headlong into this whirling dance of people coming and going, celebrating and mourning, laughing, buying, selling, teaching and living out in public.

students performing a tribal dance for world Indigenous Day
students performing a tribal dance for world Indigenous Day

Driving from Mumbai to Aurangabad, the van I was in passed half a dozen groups of pilgrims, dressed in orange, and carrying an idol to a holy destination. Some also carried long poles with bunches of leaves and a coconut tied to either end. Others sang chants as they walked. But they walked unperturbed along the street, unflinching in the infamous Mumbai traffic. In Nashik, families ritual bathed in the Godavari river, nearly naked in full view of the passing public. Religious song and dance rang through the air – Hindu chants, Muslim Adhan, Christian hymns. Everywhere what I had been taught were strictly private matters were right out there in public.

This doesn’t mean that religious life in India is perfect. Far from it. But it’s a different way of inhabiting religious and spiritual practice. I too often feel the need to apologize for public displays of my religious practice. Religion, I’ve been taught, is only for the private life. Except, any practitioner of a religious, spiritual, or philosophical tradition can tell you that a life immersed in any tradition is one where that tradition spills over our neatly tucked Western edges. My convictions about feeding the hungry, being a peacemaker, and setting the captive free stem from my religious convictions about the message of Jesus. That private religion overflows into my public actions.

Meeting with a women's micro finance group in Talaseri
Meeting a women’s micro finance group

Can we who engage in Interfaith work learn a lesson from India’s vibrant multi-religious landscape? Can we have better public religion? Can we break down the stigmas around the practice of religious and spiritual rituals so that instead of hidden and hushed mysteries they are welcome opportunities for encounter and conversation?  And, can we as neat-and-tucked-away Westerns do a better job of recognizing the ways in which our need to privatize things that make us uncomfortable – like religious and spiritual differences – stifles any real progress at dealing with those differences?

India taught me many lessons. Not because India is a magical land of transformation. But, because India is so utterly different that I was shocked into paying attention to all the little things I so often take for granted. I continue to be grateful for the warm welcome that I received as I was a guest in the colorful, diverse, and complex house that is India.

All images courtesy of the author.

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6 thoughts on “Interfaith Abroad, Part 1: Private vs Public Life in India

  1. Nice piece, Laura – you drew me in. I’ve experienced similar in Nigeria & Sudan with friends & colleagues of different faiths. Thanks

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience, Laura! I’m struck by the similarity in the lessons you drew and a recent session at the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. The session was on student-staff partnership for interfaith organizing on campus but one of the questions was how to engage international students (whom the question asker said sometimes just don’t show up, or perhaps don’t show up ‘on time’).

    How do you build relationships – or organize activities – with this more flexible sense of time and boundaries? How do you do that on a campus?

    1. Becca,
      you bring up a really important question that my team and myself are currently wrestling with. Most of our International Student population are graduate students, and are in different stages of life to undergraduates. But, they offer a complete different voice to the Interfaith table. We try to offer programming that fits their schedules, but the reality is that the needs are greater than our capacity.

      We are trying to create program-specific cohorts that can start with small gatherings or programs which – once they are an expected part of the community’s ebb and flow – can then join with other cohorts for bigger programs. But, out reach is hard, and dismantling the notion that only Catholics are served by the Campus Ministry (I work at a Jesuit University) is a huge barrier.

      What are some of the effective programs you’ve tried on campus? We find holiday celebrations bring people out.

      1. Thank you, Laura, for your helpful response.

        The two approaches you mentioned resonate with stories from other campuses. 1) Relationships: people come out for people. Your idea of program specific cohorts sounds great, given an existing interest/investment in some shared value/activity/idea. 2) At the President’s Challenge in Sept, St. Norbert College Professor, Robert Pyne, and an international student interfaith leader echoed your note about participation around holiday celebrations (of the minority faith) and the radically simple activity of asking the international students if/how they want to engage.

        One approach to the “I didn’t know I was invited!” phenomenon (which also happens a lot with secular/agnostic/atheist/humanist students vis-a-vis interfaith work in general) is a public, explicit invitation. Loyola University Chicago had a “home for all faiths” marketing campaign that included pictures of religiously diverse folks. If that very public, formal approach isn’t the right one, it can be helpful to try to discern where non-Catholics are going for the kind of support you want to provide and extend an invitation in those spaces.

        Thanks again, for sharing your experiences in India, and on campus!

        Becca Hartman-Pickerill

        Campus Stewardship Manager
        Interfaith Youth Core

  3. Finally got around to reading this, boss. This line made me grin:

    “In that moment I was held inside an interfaith bubble, where three faiths sang and celebrated, in and around one another. It was wonderful, and weird.”

    Good work, and I look forward to part two.

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