Coming from the Philippines which is a predominantly Christian country, I can truly feel being part of the minority here in Pakistan where most of its population are Muslim. For instance, in the Philippines, we usually celebrate feasts of saints, Christmas and New Year with elaborate decorations and preparations. As early as September, Christmas decorations are already seen in the malls, in the streets and in many homes. Christmas carols are already being played over the radio and on television. Many Filipinos celebrate Christmas from September until January of the following year. Here, however, those are not being practised. I would often remind myself that as a missionary, I may miss a lot of things I had been used to but I need to adjust to the country where I was sent to, and now belong.
As I continue my journey in this side of the world, I can honestly say that it is good to know religions other than my own. I came to realise that despite the diversity of religions, there is always a prevailing human factor that is common: the capacity to love, care and pray for each other. This insight dawned on me during my stay in one of the villages in my parish.
I was in exposure for three weeks in one particular village where we have schools catering to Hindu and Christian students. The area is a hodgepodge of a Christian colony, a Hindu colony and Muslim families. One afternoon, I asked Master Michael, one of the teachers in the village, if he can accompany me in visiting a Mandar (Hindu temple) being erected near our Christian colony. The Mandar we visited is in the centre of the houses of the Hindu families. Master Michael asked permission from one of the families living there. One woman approached us and I asked her if I can get a glimpse of what is inside the Mandar as my curiosity is piqued. She replied, “Brother, this is the house of God. You are very welcome to come in.” Then she opened the door and I saw lots of pictures of their gods and goddess. Then I asked her, “Do you have any statues inside, Auntie?” She replied, “We don’t have those because ours is a poor community. However, what is important is our faith in God.” I responded, “Indeed that is very important.”
After that encounter, a man came and invited us in his house. I found out that he is the father of one of the kindergarten students whom I and Master Michael are teaching. The man offered us cold drinks and asked us to sit on a charpai (bed). He asked me if I am married. He was very much surprised when I replied, “No, Janab” (Sir). He then said, “So, what will happen to you? No one will take care of you!” In my limited Urdu, I explained that being unmarried is part of our life as missionaries in the Catholic Church. What amazed me was what he said,
You know, brother Ji, even though you are not a Hindu or a Parkari, you are very much welcome to visit here in our community. We are family here and I always pray to Bagwaan that they may protect you.
I replied, “Thank you so much, Janab. You are in my prayers, too.” Then we shook each other’s hand.
While walking back to the school where I was staying, Master Michael told me that even though they are Hindu, they live together harmoniously. I told him I am happy that, for the first time in my life, I met a Hindu, who, despite the differences in religion, not only accepted and treated like part of the family but also prays for, too. It was a moving experience for me knowing that I am loved and prayed for, not only by fellow Catholics, but also by people of other religions.
Another unforgettable encounter I had was with a Muslim man. In that same village one evening, the children invited me to go to a farm owned by a Muslim landlord. At that time, the people planted onions. While helping out weeding grasses out and planting onions, I had a great time laughing and sharing stories with the people.
As I passed by the store on my way home, the Christian storekeeper offered cold water and invited me to come in. As I sit outside the store, some men came. One approached me and said “As-salamu alay-kum” (peace be with you) to which I replied, “wa-alay-kum as-salam” (and with you peace). With his greeting, I knew that he is a Muslim.
He said, “I heard from the people that there is a guest in our community so I come to visit you.” I was surprised to hear that, especially coming from someone I do not know. I responded, “Thank you, Janab” with a big smile on my face. Afterwards, we had a conversation about our families. He asked how many siblings I have. I learned that he is married and has five children. He said, “I saw you in my farm today working together with the children. At first, I was surprised to see a Chinese man working in my field and I wonder who this man is. Then, I realized that you are the guest that the people are talking about”. I said, “Yes, that’s me. But I am not Chinese!” He jokingly said, “Please, Brother Ji, don’t work in my field again. I cannot afford to pay you. Besides, you are a guest here.” As we conversed, I felt that we are the same, just two people talking and laughing without thinking that we are of different race and religion.
As I reflected on my experience, I learned that every person is capable of loving and relating with others, no matter what religion or culture they belong to. I feel that we can have fun together, celebrate life together, talk together and pray together as long as we continue to reach out and respect each other.
I started reaching out to the Hindus in that village and the Muslim man started to reach out to me and it turned out well. Despite our diversity, we are united when we love, respect and deal with each other peacefully. I believe these factors are at the core of our being human.
While in that farm, I realised that our differences in religion is like a garden where there are variety of vegetables growing, making it productive. However, despite the differences, the garden remains beautiful and the vegetables bear different fruits because there is God who sustains them. Hindus, Muslims, Christians may have differences in beliefs, but if we respect and love each other, we will be like that garden, beautiful and bearing so much fruit.
For me, the first step is to reach out. I now reach out with greater respect to people belonging to different religions, bearing in mind that they are just like me, capable of loving, caring and respecting others.
As a missionary involved in inter-religious dialogue, I feel that the main ingredient of dialogue is love. As St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said,
Every act of love is a work of peace, no matter how small.
As a Christian, my duty to my fellow human beings is to love without discrimination, just las Jesus has shown us through the Samaritan woman who met him near a well.
Love can build peace and harmony in this broken world we live in. Like God who reached out first to us, my encounter with the Hindu and Muslim communities in that village may just be a simple act but it is full of love and respect. Hopefully, they can build a peaceful relationship among them. I acknowledge that there are limitations and differences in terms of culture and religions but by loving others, we would be united and equal.