In May, 15 theology students and two professors took a trip to India, visiting multiple religious sites over two and a half weeks. The visits included various Hindu and Buddhist temples, a Muslim shrine and Christian churches. The leader of the trip, Dr. Rob Nash, and a student participant, Bryan Kidd, reflect on their experience.
Kidd: We experienced the unfamiliar. This was different from any experience I've had; I didn't even have anything to compare it to. Stepping into the first temple in Hyderabad, it was unfamiliar, uncomfortable—just different. I became surprised at how quickly those temple experiences became familiar and not as challenging. Even though they were still kind of edgy, I didn't put up a wall every time I went in and was asked to take my shoes off or be faced with different images or rituals. I was okay entering into those spaces and becoming a part of it, not just a viewer.
Nash: It's interesting to me that you identify how it became familiar quickly. As I've gone to temples in India and in America, I forget how strange the experience is for people. What was the strangest experience for you?
K: The Kali temple in Kolkata…the amount of chaos, the money being exchanged outside, the vendors, the [goat] sacrifice with the blood scattered on the stones, and the fight that we witnessed…seeing all of that and not being able to define what was going on because it wasn't my context was strange. I've tried to think back about that experience, but it's hard because it's still uneasy to process.
N: I have to confess, that was even challenging for me. I led us in, and as we were pushing up toward the place where Kali [the deity] resides, I thought we might need to back out because I was unsure of how safe we were, but then you're already halfway in so what are you going to do? You come out on the other side.
K: I'm glad that you didn't make that choice. I think because it was so out of my comfort zone and I survived, I can go back and be alright. After those experiences, I still have a lot of the same beliefs. It didn't automatically change me or cause me to make a different decision. I can experience those things and be okay with who I am, but still learn.
N: That's one hope for the trip, that you become a guide across religions and cultures for the church. In a day in which we have a shrinking globe we really need to model that kind of comfort level. Did you sense anything familiar becoming unfamiliar to you?
K: I grew up in a Southern Christian culture where we think we've got it all figured out, we know what is holy, what is God, what is sacred. But going into these experiences that were so unfamiliar to me and experiencing something that is holy kind of breaks apart my definitions of what is holy or divine or sacred. I'm even struggling with that now; not trying to put the pieces back together, but being okay with the pieces where they are.
N: I'm always reminded of that human hunger for the divine. In a sense, it complicates my Christianity in that people who grow up in another tradition are going to find meaning and purpose out of the tradition that shapes their life. Like you mentioned—growing up, that's all you know, and growing up, that's all they know—so suddenly Christianity becomes for me something a little more unfamiliar that it was before. You know, in a secularized society like we live in, we sometimes neglect or forget the depth of that hunger for the divine. In our culture, you can get away with not even thinking about God for long periods of time. Then you go into a context like India, where the sacred sort of infuses life in many ways with the festivals and temples and the attention to the holy. It reminds me of the depth of that hunger and our need as ministers to pay attention to it. Were there any people who served as good teachers for you?
K: Another student on the trip, Alyssa Aldape, was generous in recognizing my ignorance within that culture and being willing to walk me through my silly questions. Her knowledge of the culture and practical wisdom were invaluable to me.
N: We learn in community. That kind of intense communal learning experience can't be recreated without going together and experiencing together. You learn about being human. You learn about each other and you learn from each other in ways you wouldn't otherwise.