“As someone who lives in a place of privilege, a Pākeha (colonizer) New Zealander in postgraduate education, it is natural for me to be holistically critical of the societies we compose and the practices we are determined to live (by).” Whether it is assessing the true cost of our food by accounting for the distance it has travelled to make it to our dining tables, the ecological and indigenous impact of clothing, manufacturing and mining companies and their treatment of workers; or the treatment of animals in the cosmetic industry, it is easy to criticize the way we have become so determined to self-determine from our individual standpoints.” Said Benjamin Ong, in his reflection on the global ecological crisis during the Council for World Mission (CWM)’s Face to Face 2018 Programme.

Benjamin is one of ten young theological students from eight countries gathered together from 14 February to 24 March for the CWM’s Building Life Affirming Communities: Face to Face with the Many Poor and Many Faiths in Asia Programme in Hyderabad, India. As one of the CWM’s ways of facilitating a wider global dialogue on theology, spirituality and mission through cross-cultural exchange, the six-week programme tackles pluralism, interfaith relations and economic injustice through three separate but integrated aspects of immersion, reflection and teaching.

Participants with Bishop Gee Varghese Mar Yulios at Henry Martyn Institute (HMI) Community Development Centre

Over the past few years, the CWM has shifted from inter-cultural, missional immersions towards a deeper engagement with socio-political realities around the world – an outcome of CWM’s belief that resistance to Empire is essential to mission.

It is the privileged “who have subdued earth, the biomes, the animals, and the vulnerable to the point of global catastrophe”.  All of humanity are not equally responsible, or equally impacted by the effects of our ecological disaster. The privileged one must seek transformation through the Holy Spirit and submission, not domination, Benjamin continued.

Principal of the host Henry Martyn Institute Rev Dr Packiam Samuel delivered the contextual and situation analysis with his opening topic “Why many poor and many religions in India?”. This was followed by Dr Yugala Rayalu’s lecture on contemporary Indian society and Indian History, focusing on the relevance of interfaith dialogue. The participants also learnt about India’s political system at the national and regional levels in the next lecture.

Reflecting on gender and religion after learning about domestic violence and the dowry crisis in India, fellow participant Chhuan Puia from Myanmar saw similarities in the violation and denial of women’s rights, especially towards the Chin people in his country. His view was that awareness campaigns, creating and implementing legislation are steps towards protecting women’s rights, as is re-reading the Bible without the patriarchal lens. Gender injustice may be prevalent, but the ordination of a woman for the first time in Presbyterian Church of Myanmar’s history this year is an example of “moving towards a more inclusive community in their socio-political, cultural and religious platforms”.

Rev Dr Hans Ucko, an expert on interfaith dialogue from the World Council of Churches spoke on his topic of expertise, in addition to Theology of Religions. Besides this, the participants studied the Bible from the perspective of religious pluralism and reflected on the humanity of biblical characters from a Jewish interpretation of God, Noah, and Abraham.

The group went for a city tour, walking among the people in the city and enjoying a little of Hyderabad. “After all, no theology should be built without being among the people and the reality of life,” said the participants.

There are also live-in experiences, visiting organisations that work among the poor and visits to centres of religious importance, and it is hoped that the immersion would enable theological students to return home with their reflections on both the motivation and method of mission in different parts of the world.