Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Humanity vs Personality

Published in The Fiji Times: Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan, Wednesday 30th June, 2010

Some time ago I was asked to give some advice to a person who had come to Fiji to do some voluntary work.

This person had some rather large hopes and plans on what they wished to achieve during their one year stint in Fiji.

The only advice I could give was that in Fiji, as in most of the Pacific, a person would most likely find themselves spending eight-five percent of their time building relationships and fifteen percent of the time getting the work done.

The point for this particular volunteer was that one can get more done through cooperation than coercion.

I was not sure whether my thought was worth the proverbial penny (or in our case 5cents) to the newcomer at the time.

However the point I was making is a well known yet rarely articulated truth for many of us.

Relationships and issues cannot be dealt with in isolation. The extent we can collaborate with, share with and struggle together with someone on an issue is usually based not on the importance of the issue but the strength and nature of the relationship we have with that person.

Often the message, regardless how important or true, is rejected because of the relationship we have with the messenger.

In Fiji, with a myriad of levels of relationship, this could appear to the outsider to make things very complicated.

At the one end of the spectrum you could find people with different ideologies having quite strong disagreements which would put them on opposite sides of the table. v

Then you could find the same people sitting around a tanoa together at a function because they are from the same province, island, school or family.

In Fiji we have a habit of building relationships which I believe is one of the most endearing qualities about us. When we meet someone we often try and find something in common with that person - where they are from (kaivata, naita, tauvu), who they are related to (I believe it is quite possible to be related to half of the 800,000 plus population of Fiji while being married to someone who is related to the other half!), where you were brought up, right to which team you support in the Soccer World Cup.

A complete stranger, even from half a world away can become part of the family (perhaps extended) or a good friend in a matter of minutes.

What is it within us that drives us to forge bonds to build relationships with one another?

Perhaps it is true that we simply like to be friendly. Or maybe it is that we define ourselves, our identity in terms of our relationship with others. Perhaps it makes good business sense.

I am of the view that somewhere deep inside, our soul yearns to join with other fragments of the divine image.

What we share about ourselves is part of a process that helps us learn about others.

The more we learn about each other, the more we begin to realise that as we peel back the layers and look deep down within, we are all the same - the same needs, the same hopes, the same fears.

What is different is the way we articulate or express our needs, hopes and fears.

It is that difference in expression that has been manipulated in the past so that instead of seeing beyond our differences, we focus on those differences and ignore the commonalities.

This week I have been discussing with the final-year diploma students at Davuilevu Theological College, the inherent human dignity that each man, woman and child has.

The course I am facilitating for them (titled Christian Men and Women in Church and Society) includes discussion on and the Church's response to issues of gender discrimination, violence, violence against women, as well as HIV and AIDS.

This week we are discussing the issues of power and control and human rights within issue of domestic violence (based on an excellent course-book prepared by WEAVERS: Women in Theological Education of the South Pacific Association of Theological Schools, who incidentally have a course book on the Church and HIV and AIDS).

The basis of understanding (and teaching) human rights from a Christian perspective lies in the story of creation.

When God created humanity, they were meant to be free and equal in dignity and rights, "So God created humankind in His/Her image, in the image of God He/She created them; male and female He/She created them." (Genesis 1:27 - from WEAVERS VAW Course Book).

The deepest roots of human rights are found in the biblical conception of life.

According to Max Stackhouse, while the words "human rights" do not, to be sure, appear in the Bible, the themes that provide the basis of human rights do.

The Bible speaks about God's concern for people's rights (Job 36:5-6; Psalm 82:3-4; Proverbs 31:4-5,8-9; Ecclesiastes 5-8; Isaiah 10:1-2; Jeremiah 5:27-28; Lamentations 3:35; and Exodus 21:9-10).

All these point to that fact that we are to respect and value each other's humanity rather than personality.

It means treating others with respect regardless of your opinions about their race, gender, status or beliefs. It is recognising that every man is someone's son, brother, father and every woman is someone's daughter, sister, mother.

When we do this, we are able to have a right relationship with each other.

When we have a right relationship with each other, we are able to build partnerships based on trust, equality and mutual accountability and a common vision for a peaceful and just society.

May the rest of your week be blessed with simplicity, serenity and spontaneity and the desire to have a right relationship with those you encounter.

* Rev. J.S. Bhagwan is a member of the Faculty at Davuilevu Theological College and the Associate Minister of Dudley Methodist Circuit in Suva. This article is the sole opinion of Rev. J.S. Bhagwan and not of this newspaper or any organisation that he is affiliated with.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Looking through a 'human' lens

Published in The Fiji Times - Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagan, Thursday, June 24, 2010

Last Thursday's Fiji Times (17/6/10) carried an article by Felix Chaudry, titled, "Surprise visit moves hearts in village."

The article reported on about a visit by the Divisional Superintendent of the Indian Division - Rev. William Lucas, along with some youth leaders of the Division to Navala Village in Ba.

Navala, is a national heritage village, and is prominently featured in many tourism campaigns due to the picturesque thatched bure that are home to 127 families.

Twelve of these bure were destroyed by a fire in May this year. The article was of note as Chaudry had described the village as a "Catholic stronghold" and the visit was by Methodists who brought almost a "van-load of supplies and education assistance," with them.

This is a story of one part of the Body of Christ feeling the pain of another part.

On hearing of the plight of the Navala Villagers, the Indian Division Youth Coordinator, Fesitoka Mosese had contacted all the youth leaders in the 11 Circuits of the Indian Division and asked them to bring with them whatever they could for relief assistance when the youth of the Indian Division met for their annual rally in Ba (June 11-14, 2010).

Mr Mosese felt that by doing this the young men and women of the Indian Division would participate in practical Christianity.

Both he and Rev. Lucas shared with me how overwhelmed they were by the enthusiastic response of the youths.

As a result of the supplies collected the original plan to take all the youth leaders to Navala to handover the supplies and a small donation to assist the children with their schooling had to be modified as the supplies filled "Qase's" van.

Over 250 young people from Lautoka, Ba, Nadi, Sigatoka, Vision College, Navua, Suva, Nausori, Labasa and even Taveuni of different ethnicities came together for the 2010 Indian Division Annual Youth Rally, with the theme, "The Year of Double Portion."

From the response of the Navala villagers, this theme was realised even before the rally ended.

The youth rally also consisted sessions on HIV and AIDS, contemporary worship, mission and comparative religion and ecumenism, the search for visible unity among the churches as well as spiritual and social activities.

Perhaps the best lesson for the youth, the Indian Division leaders and the people of Navala was that we are part of a community - as Christians, as Fiji Islanders, as human beings.

As fellow human beings who share this planet, and locally for us, who share this country, we need to be constantly mindful of each other's situation.

In other words, we need to be able to, as a peace-builder said to me recently, "put ourselves in the shoes of others."

This means looking at things from a different perspective than we are used to.

This may be uncomfortable at first, but as we get used to the different lenses we wear, we find that once we strip away our ideological differences and the other trappings of culture and society we have the same needs, the same fears, the same longings.

The "Roman Catholic" people of Navala and the "Indian Methodists" encounter a fortnight ago gives us a glimpse of what happens when we put aside denominationalism (or religious differences for that matter) and realise that we all belong in the "household of God."

As our community and religious leaders continue to struggle with finding a way forward amidst their own fears and preconceptions, this simple encounter and act of compassion heralds the work towards unity taking place at the grass-roots level.

Recently I found myself reflecting on the "golden rule of ethics" (not to be confused with the rule of economics that "he who has the gold makes the rule).

The Golden Rule for right relations, 'Love your neighbour as yourself' or 'Do as you would be done by', is to be found in some form in all religions and spiritual traditions.

Here are six examples I found in a document titled, "A culture of peace: Women, faith and reconciliation"

* Do not treat others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful (The Buddha, Udana-Varga 5.18)

* In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you (Jesus Christ, Matthew 7:12)

* This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you (Mahabharata 5:1517)

* Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself (The Prophet Muhammad, Hadith)

* What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour (Hillel,Talmud, Shabbath 31a)

* Regard your neighbour's gain as your own gain and your neighbour's loss as your own loss (T'ai Shang Kan Ying P'ien, 213-218)

May the rest of your week be blessed with light, love, peace and the vision needed to see the other as yourself.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Many special gifts

Published in The Fiji Times "Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan", Wednesday, June 16, 2010

As I was glancing through Morven Sidal's "Hannah Dudley Hamari Maa", I came across a passage about the establishment of Dilkusha Girls' Home. According to the book, Dilkusha was established out of the 1904 Indian Synod meeting and based on the fact that both Hannah Dudley and Miss Burton, the sister of Reverend John Burton (first minister appointed to the Fiji Indian Circuit) were looking after orphans Dudley in Toorak, Suva and Burton in Davuilevu, Nausori.

As the orphans in Dudley's care were growing in number and Burton's was deteriorating, it was decided that an orphanage be erected at Davuilevu and Hannah Dudley become the matron of, "The Dudley Orphanage for Indian Children." It is suggested that the decision to move Dudley out to Davuilevu was the catalyst to her departure in July, 1905 for India, from where she returned in 1908 and served until 1913.
The legacy of Hannah Dudley's love and care for children and that of Miss Burton and other Methodist Mission Sisters and ministers, has continued over the past 100 years. The names of the self-sacrificing "mothers" of the "Happy Heart" (an English translation of Dilkusha) are not only engraved on their memorial plaque, but are also inscribed on each of the "girls" who found not only a refuge, but more importantly a loving environment - a family - at the home and other such homes for children around Fiji. The current matron, Deaconess Olovia Nataniela, has continued this legacy, serving with a happy heart as she searches for a suitable successor. That it is a difficult search to find someone who is like-hearted, only serves as a reminder of the need for love by many of God's children.

Early this year Deaconess Olovia asked me to help her design a special thank you gift for one of the Home's many benefactors. The gift needed to be special because it was expressing gratitude for an equally special gift. If you visit the Home you will see the gift as soon as you arrive. It is the Dilkusha Children's Hall. The hall was a gift from Raj Manohan on behalf of the Manohan Foundation for Humanity.

The humility of both the giver and receiver in this story demonstrated that the church leaders present at the handing over and opening of the hall expressed the thought of naming the hall either the Manohan Hall or the Olovia Nataniela Hall, both those named declined. Hence the name Dilkusha Children's Hall. The name claims the legacy of the hundreds perhaps thousands of women (and some men) who found peace and love in the Dilkusha Home.

This coming Saturday afternoon, those at the Home will have a little prayer meeting to give thanks for the donation of the year-old hall. That is the way of the "Happy Heart". To give thanks and hold in their heart the many people who love and share what they have with the home.

Deaconess Olovia always says to me how blessed they are at the home. Although the Home is part of Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma's, with oversight of the Church's Indian Division and Department of Christian Citizenship and Social Services, and supported by many civil society organisations and funding agencies, it is the small demonstrations of support that continue to encourage those who work there.

They receive a lot of support from church members, especially during Dilkusha Week which usually falls during September every year. However, it is the support by those not from the Methodist Church and, even more, those who are not of the Christian faith, that continues to remind the Home staff of the importance of the work they do not just in providing a shelter but making a loving home for those who may otherwise never experience it.

In his letter of thanks to Mr Manohan for the gift of the Dilkusha Children's Hall, the president of the Methodist Church in Fiji wrote:

"In the close to 100 years that the Home has been in existence, this is possible the largest gift that anyone has given to them. Your love for the home is an example of Christ's love for us and your most kind gift is a legacy for future supporters of the Home as well as a fulfilment of a dream for the Home."

When those who have committed their lives to serving Christ experience that same love, even from someone who does not profess the same faith as them, it is an affirmation of the good that can be achieved through deep and honest love. In a world where often kindness is seen as weakness, the gift of love is a source of empowerment greater than the gift itself.

To all of you, of whatever walk of life, who continue to help those less fortunate, to share in the struggles of the oppressed, and to be a source of blessing to others - thank you on behalf of those you have helped, those whose names you do not know and who, perhaps because of your humility may not know your name.

May the rest of your week be blessed with simplicity, serenity and spontaneity and the courage to act with compassion to all you encounter.

* Reverend JS Bhagwan is a member of the Faculty at Davuilevu Theological College and the Associate Minister of Dudley Methodist Circuit in Suva.

This article is the sole opinion of Mr J.S. Bhagwan and not of this newspaper or any organisation that he is affiliated with.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Life's Journey

Published in The Fiji Times 9th June 2010 (Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan)

I always find birthdays more than just a time to celebrate the completion of another year on planet earth. While I enjoy the excitement in the build-up, the fuss and of course the presents (not as much as my children who expect presents on all birthdays not just their own), I prefer to see this time as my personal new year.

Last week I had the opportunity to "go to the mountain top" and take some time to reflect on my life's journey. In the cosmic order of things, I was blessed to spend time with men and women who were representing (as I was) member churches of the Pacific Conference of Churches in an ecumenical formation program organised and facilitated by the PCC and World Council of Churches.

The search for visible unity among churches in a region that is predominantly Christian is more than a divine directive (in John 17, Jesus prays that just as He and His Father are one, His disciples, and by extension, all followers will also be one), it is in my opinion key to peace and stability within the many communities who live in the largest ocean in the world.

The original vision of the ecumenical pioneers of the Pacific such as Reverend Setareki Tuilovoni of Fiji, Reverend Dr Sione 'Amanaki Havea, Reverend Vavai Toma was of a spiritual movement; confessing the Bible and theological reflection and enlightenment as its foundation but also one that engaged in the issues affecting God's people in the Pacific, in its day (the late 1960s and 1970s) independence movements and the issue of nuclear testing.

As we listened to the deep sharing by presenters at last week's seminar, Lorini Tevi the first woman and lay person to steer the canoe of the Pacific Conference of Churches and Reverend Akuila Yabaki of the Citizen's Constitutional Forum (an ecumenical pioneer in his own right) as well as those of leaders from the United Church in Papua New Guinea, Evangelical Church of New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands, there was some consensus that to achieve the vision of these pioneers and to fully own the ecumenical movement in Oceania, we need to reclaim this Pacific understanding of ecumenism.

By the end of our time of sharing and learning we began to discuss what the direction of any future search for visible church unity may look like. We began by recognising that this type of sharing and learning for men and women, adults, youth and children as well as the elders of the community, clergy and lay people remains an core part of the mission of the church.

Our unity in walking together, working together, praying together and speaking with one prophetic voice is how we share the peace of God throughout our region by acting justly, being compassionate and walking humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). Faced with the challenge of climate change, and the various issues (environmental, social, political etc) as a result of continuous emphasis on development we are called as the church to accompany our people in the struggle for oceans of peace and rivers of righteousness (Amos 5:24) as we seek to identify and articulate the nature of development that we envision for the Pacific; and engage with regional issues.

The search for visible unity is not the search for uniformity but of unity in diversity. It is about recognising and understanding and even celebrating the different way we express our spirituality but also celebrating that which we have in common. Just as those who struggle for peace in communities broken by conflict and injustice understand that cheap peace will never be a lasting peace; so too as churches seek to heal broken relationships (over decades and centuries), there is an understanding that there is no cheap unity.

As I travelled to Suva on Saturday evening, I listened to the artist Seal, singing Sam Cook's "Change is Gonna Come":

"Then I go to my brother and I say, "Brother, help me please"

But he winds up knocking me back down on my knees

There've been times that I've thought I couldn't last for long

But now I think I'm able to carry on

It's been a long time coming

But I know a change is gonna come"

As I reflected on the state of Christian unity in Fiji, with the Fiji Council of Churches torn apart by mistrust and divided loyalties, and the Assembly of Christian Churches in Fiji reduced to a shadow of itself (having been used for political gain in the last decade) the Body of Christ in my own homeland cries out for healing.

How can we hope for religious tolerance and acceptance when we who profess to having been called to the "ministry of reconciliation" (2 Corinthians 5:11-6:2) are not willing to reconcile amongst ourselves?

Let's not treat the terms "peace" and "unity" merely as concepts that we like to preach about and wave like banners at a rugby match before discarding them if we lose the game. Peace is costly, unity is costly.

It costs us our pride, our arrogance and our assumption that we alone are the gatekeepers of truth and righteousness. Yet within each one of us, perhaps buried deeply, lies the yearning for community. All you who pray for peace, for unity, for healing are called to be agents of the change that we cry out for.

May the rest of your week be blessed with the revelation that each one of us is a child of God and belongs in the household of God.

* Reverend JS Bhagwan is a member of the Faculty at Davuilevu Theological College and the associate minister of Dudley Methodist Circuit in Suva. This article is the sole opinion of Mr Bhagwan and not of this newspaper or any organisation that he is affiliated with.