On this Pluralism Sunday, I am mindful of the dangers of misunderstanding progressive christianity’s celebration of pluralism. Christianity’s sad history of being co-opted by imperial colonialism has left far too many christians living under the delusion that all religions will one day merge into one great world religion. But pluralism is not about giving up the wonders of individual religions nor is it about creating uniformity among religions so as to create one world. Pluralism is the belief that people of different beliefs can coexist, learning from one another, caring for one another, respecting one another, celebrating one another, and hopefully learning to love one another.
Perhaps, the wise prophet Mahatma Gandhi captured the essence of pluralism best, when he said, “I came to the conclusion long ago that all religions were true and that also that all had some error in them, and while I hold by my own religion, I should hold other religions as dear as Hinduism. So, we can only pray, if we were Hindus, not that a Christian should become a Hindu; but our innermost prayer should be that a Hindu should become a better Hindu, and a Christian a better Christian.”
Years ago, when I still languished under the mistaken belief that, God had a master plan to make all the world Christian, my primary responses to people of other faiths were characterized by fear, suspicion, and not very subtle arrogance which came from my belief that I had found the one true faith.
With gratitude and humility, I can now look back upon a relationship with a Hindu woman who embodied Gandhi’s desire that we hold all religions as dear as our own. I was just twenty years old when I met Jiera and although we didn’t know one another for a long time, Jiera managed to challenge me to become a better christian. We were working together at a large, international, department store on Regent Street, in the heart of London. We both worked in the Food Courts were there wasn’t much time for pleasantries. But Jiera never let that stop her from being not only pleasant to unpleasant customers, she went out of her way to be kind. Jiera insist that, “There’s always time for kindness.”
Jiera was my immediate manager; while I supervised a group of eight young women, women much like myself, temporary workers, intending to stay just long enough to earn enough money before resuming our travels. Jiera was in it for the long haul, already a young mother of three beautiful children of her own, she soon became the surrogate Mom to those of us who worked for her. Jiera’s kindness made her easy to love and a joy to obey, as each of us did our best to please her. It didn’t take long for us to become a family, with Jiera chiding us to care for one another.
One morning the store manager gathered us all together in Jiera’s absence to announce that Jiera would not be in to work for a few days because her daughter had been killed in an accident. We were too young to comprehend the magnitude of what we were hearing. Jiera’s beloved eleven-year-old daughter Chhaya had been struck down by a speeding car and died long before Jiera could reach the hospital. None of us knew how to respond. But it didn’t take long for Jiera’s girls to find ourselves standing outside of Jiera’s home waiting our turn to pay our respects.
As we nervously waited on the wet pavement, outside of Jiera’s tiny terrace home, none of us girls knew what to expect. We had been told that we would be most welcome to attend Chhaya’s funeral. So, we had arrived at the appointed hour, at the appointed address. We hadn’t expected a church. We thought perhaps the funeral would be in some sort of temple. But none of us expected to find ourselves at a grieving Jiera’s front door. We whispered to one another about not wanting to intrude and had all but resolved to leave quietly, when the door opened and a man with eyes swollen from many hours of weeping, greeted us with a smile, “Ah, you must be Jiera’s girls. Welcome. Come in. Come in. Jiera will be so pleased to see you.”
I wanted to run. It hadn’t even been 24 hours. One of the other girls, a Muslim had warned us that Jiera was a Hindu and Hindus cremate their dead quickly so as to free their souls for the next life. We were ushered past a small room full of men, into a room containing a painfully small open coffin. The aroma of unfamiliar scents and the proliferation of flower petals provided a surreal framework which protected us from the reality of Jiera’s beloved Chhaya’s face, shrouded in white silk. One by one Jiera greeted us with thanks and after each of our hands had been clasped tightly in hers, she instructed us to go into the kitchen to take some sweet cakes for the journey home.
A week later, Jiera was back on the floor of the Food Court managing her girls. We whispered to one another our surprised admiration for Jiera’s ability to be back at work so soon. I remember someone saying, “her faith will get her through this.” I marveled at such faith.
I remember, late in the afternoon, hearing shouting. It took me a moment to recognize the responses to the shouting were coming from Jiera. Instantly, as if in a single swift military exercise, Jiera and the offensive customer were surrounded by Jiera’s girls. Standing ready to do battle to protect our wounded sister we waited, as if daring the well-dressed man to shout one more word and we’d have him. We needn’t have bothered. As ever Jiera, had matters well in hand as she softly, gently, tenderly, spoke to the man’s anger, urging him to, “be kind. There’s always time for kindness. Just be kind.” Jiera gently admonished the man, and ever so kindly suggested that she understood how difficult it was for him. I was astonished by her compassion as she engaged his anger with kindness.
After he left, we crowded around Jiera, congratulating her on the splendid way she dealt with such an angry, aggressive, offensive fellow and to this day, I can still hear Jiera speaking to me, when I least expect it, “Be kind. Just be kind.” From the deep well which Jiera drew her own kindness, even in her grief, her words continue replenish my own well, like refreshing waters of compassion, helping me, at some of my worst moments, to extend a kindness which I never knew I was capable of.
This week, as the news from Jiera’s beloved India made its way to the screens of my various devices, I couldn’t help remembering Jiera’s commitment to kindness. Faced with the overwhelming suffering and death of our sisters and brothers so far away, it is tempting to run, to shut down my screens, and to shut myself off from the daunting reality of my privilege and the magnitude of the complexities of doing anything to help. I’m sure that many of you know what I’m talking about. What do we do to help? What can we do? Who do we help first? How do we choose? Is the drop in the bucket which we can offer even worth offering? And so, many of us, we pray, some of us trusting that our prayers will reach some higher power, while others of us pray just to relieve ourselves of the pain of feeling helpless. I don’t have the answers. Some tragedies are too horrific to comprehend. Some suffering is more than we can bear to contemplate. Over and over again, this week Jiera’s words have welled up in me, “Be kind. There’s always time for kindness. Just be kind.” I have asked myself; what kindness is up to the task of easing this enormous suffering and while I don’t have the answer, I can tell you that there are answers. Like drops of water, pooling together, one kindness upon another kindness each of us contributing what we can, as we can, as often as we can, will create a tide of kindness to meet the suffering. Be kind. There’s always time for kindness. Just be kind.
Do not worry about the seeming insignificance of your kindness, have faith. Pick something. Just one kindness. Even a small kindness. Or if you are able, do more. Be kinder. Have faith that your kindness will be joined by many more kindnesses. Be kind. Just be kind. There is so much that we can learn from one another, so much to be celebrated in the wisdom and beauty of one another’s religion. One thing remains constant, compassion; the compassion which flows in us and among us, granting us the courage to reach out to offer kindness. May the ONE who is BEYOND, the BEYOND, and BEYOND that Also, stir compassion within you so that you may be kind. Always be kind. So that together, our many kindnesses may flow like a mighty river capable of refreshing all those who thirst for LOVE. Let it be so. Let it be so among us, through us, and beyond us, now and always. Amen.
View the Full Pluralism Sunday Worship Service below