Roundtable Session I: What does faith mean?
February 17, 10 a.m.:
All sessions were held in Gobind Sadan’s auditorium. Some 75 people attended the roundtable sessions. The moderator for the first session, Mary Pat Fisher, author of numerous college textbooks on world religions, began the session by asking for five minutes of silence, with prayers for the success of the seminar, for the sake of the suffering world. She then began the presentations with her own story of meeting Baba Virsa Singh and then discovering at Gobind Sadan that great energy and serendipity flows into one’s work when that work is done selflessly for the sake of others. She described her conviction that God is real, and that God is doing everything. Faith, she concluded, is entirely practical, for with God’s blessings, ordinary people can do great things for the world.
The purpose of the first session was to draw forth varying definitions of faith, in practical settings. Presenters for the session were Dr. Surjit Kaur Jolly, Principal of Shama Prasad Mukerjee College, Delhi University, Reverend Bob Hanson, former Executive Director of the Central New York Interreligious Council and Lutheran Christian minister from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA, Reverend Charles White, Founder and First President of the North American Interfaith Network, Reverend Donna Young, United Methodist Christian minister from Port Byron, new York, USA. Gurcharan Kaur, manager of Gobind Sadan, Delhi, and Joginder Kaur, a sevadar of Gobind Sadan for decades and hospital chaplain in Syracuse, New York, USA.
Dr. Jolly described the change in the atmosphere of her university because she and some of her colleagues were meditating—the growing peacefulness and harmony among the staff and students. She spoke of faith in a “Force that is behind you, even when you are absolutely shattered and tattered.”
Reverend Bob Hanson said that he had been an ordained Christian minister for 37 years but also does Buddhist practices and lived in Japan for 14 years. He described his work in Cape Town, South Africa’s Sixth District, where a conscious attempt at inter-religious community life had been destroyed by the apartheid government, and spoke of the burning of Gobind Sadan’s interfaith temple in Syracuse, New York, as a hate crime after September 11th. “For me,” he said, “faith involvesjustice, peace, and freedom. I am very clear that in the religious traditions of the world, we are all called to respect our differences.”
Reverend Charles White said that he did not know his own mother and father and had grown up in a foster home for 70 children. For him, faith developed in human relationships with people other than family members. He grew up going to Christian church, but there he was taught that faith meant believing in a particular way. He told them, “You don’t understand.”
Reverend Donna Young said that when she was 61 years old, after many years of her serving as a teacher to underprivileged people, God spoke to her and told her to go to a seminary and train to be a minister. She said that for her, “Faith means trust and listening, plus knowing that goes deep inside you that gives me courage in times of crisis. It gave me the courage to face the death of my daughter, and to tell people how much I love God. Without God’s presence in my life, I don’t know what I would do. In the hospital, faith gives people the courage to deal with very difficult situations. Faith is a door that allows me to step into a deeper relationship with God.”
The down-to-earth dimensions of faith were described by Gurcharan Kaur and Joginder Kaur, who spoke of how Gobind Sadan’s Delhi community had been developed starting in 1968 on a previously barren wasteland with no trees or water. “At that time,” said Joginder Kaur, “there were no houses here, only bushes and trees for miles. It was a very lonely place. My family was worried for my life, so they all tried to convince me to leave. To develop the fields, we pulled thorns with our hands till they bled, but there was no pain. We lived in the dirt, we ate in the dirt. We had to go to the next farm even to get water. But we never got sick. God’s power is so powerful here. When you are working for a mission, you don’t feel discomforts at all.” Mrs. Joginder Kaur laid stress on the soothing power of faith and how it helps mankind to overcome its misery and difficulty.
In the ensuing discussion, these personal definitions of faith were brought to bear on the issue of how to educate children. Dr. Surjit Kaur Jolly pointed to the goal of developing strong values: “Within a certain time frame, what can we provide as an ambiance, an environment for the children? Children raised with faith are a different kind of children. They do not go astray. They are solid, they have a support system.”
Dr. Raj Wadhwa, former Principal of Vivekananda College, Delhi University, pointed out that it is important to distinguish religious faith from the blind fundamentalist faith that leads to suicidal missions to destroy the world.
The question was raised of whether faith needs to be based on the experience of miracles. Although some presenters had spoken of miracles they had personally experienced that bolstered their faith, others said that faith need not be miracle-based. Reverend Charles White observed that it is necessary to distinguish between having faith and the traditional religious forms that faith may take. “Faith is a genuine human experience that everyone can have,” he said. “Babaji’s message is very important: That all prophets come from one place.” Reverend Bob Hanson said, “The transformational events in our lives can be looked on as miracles, but they are not magic. They are the beginning of something new.” Reverend Hanson said that East and West should listen to each other and that faith is love, faith is giving. Speaking on behalf of the younger generation, student Malissa Bergner from the USA said, “We use the word ‘belief’ rather than faith in working with children. They have it naturally, but when they are older they want something tangible as proof.”
Swaranjit Singh, President of the Institute, said that faith can be strong to the point of sacrificing one’s life. Dr. Hillel Levine, Professor of Sociology and Religion at Boston University who is a Jewish rabbi and also Director of International Institute for mediation and Historical Conciliation, said, “For me as Jew, faith is a struggle. My God did not respond to suffering. There are many conflicts based on faith, many places that God has not reached. Maybe we can bring faith to the secular world, not as a great comfort but as a struggle.”
Galina Ermolina, a teacher in Novozibirsk, Russia, spoke of the experience of growing up under communism. “During the last 70 years, the people of the world thought there was no faith under communism. But as Baba Virsa Singh says, ‘Who says that faith lives only in the churches?’ It is in human beings, in the heart, and should be spread among human beings the world over through good deeds and messages.”
Dr. Veena Sharma, former Head of Swahili Service, India Excternal Services Division of All-India Radio and now Chairperson of Pragya Foundation, expanded the definition of faith to a cosmic perspective. “The way the universe is structured itself inspires faith. The sun rises, the moon rises, we put a seed in the ground and it sprouts. We are only to be simple, trusting human beings to experience the grace of God.”
Ralph Singh, first President of Gobind Sadan, USA, said, “A miracle is simply God’s nature. Faith is to be able to recognize God’s presence and to listen to it. The prophets are those who could hear the voice of God and share it with those who could not hear God’s words, those who amidst the darkness could hear that voice of Truth and struggle, to share it in the midst of darkness. That in itself is a miracle—that we ourselves can take a stand for truth, that faith becomes a force in society. When we understand that there is an authority for truth, a Power behind the universe, then faith becomes a force that can and does change the world.”