“Focus on being ‘face to face’ with engagement spirituality, economic justice, economics of the poor and ecumenism at the grassroots.  You will see this aplenty in India”. This was the challenge posed by Rev. Asir Ebenezer, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches in India and the Chairperson of India Peace Centre to the Face to Face India 2019 (F2F) participants during his keynote address.

Organised by Council for World Mission (CWM) for theology students of its partner churches and hosted by India Peace Centre, the six-week F2F Programme was themed “Building life affirming communities: Face to Face with the many poor and the many faiths in Asia”. It kicked off on 25 February 2019 with an inaugural function at India Peace Centre, Nagpur attended by members of civil society, religious and ideological groups.

Besides outlining the programme objectives, process and methodology, Dr Sudipta Singh, Mission Secretary, Research and Capacity Development at CWM emphasized the importance and implication of such training in the context of the empire.  He encouraged the participants to face the realities as they are, and build perspectives on justice that are resistant to empire. Mr. Kasta Dip, Director of India Peace Centre and programme dean  spoke about the missional challenge and call to justice as the way to peace and how it involves defending justice anywhere and everywhere.

Through workshops, topical sessions, and week-long exposure visits to New Delhi and Bangalore, the participants  from eight countries – South Africa, Malawi, Zambia, Indonesia, Samoa, India, South Korea and Germany – learnt about the diversity of India, its culture and other religions such as Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism. Other topics covered included Understanding Indian Society; the Caste System; Poverty; Questions of Justice and Peace; Ecological Justice as well as Multiple Religion Belongings, coupled with visits to various places of worship in Nagpur.

Subject experts and scholars were on hand to facilitate sessions and conversations included Dr Prince Gajendra Babu, an educationist and sociologist from Chennai; Rev. Dr Vincent Manoharan from the National Council for Dalit Human Rights; Prof. Shrinivas Khandewale, an economist from Nagpur University; Dr John Menachery, Principal of MSS Social Work College; Prof. Meera Baindur, a Hindu philosopher from Manipal University; Dr Faizur Rahman, General Secretary of Moderate Islamic Thoughts; Dr Vikas Jambhulkar from RTM Nagpur University; Rev Dr Allan Pallana from United Theological College; Dr  Tejinder Singh Rawal, a renowned environmentalist and chartered accountant; Dr Yugal Rayalu, a political thinker and Marxist and Mr Nagamitra Akshobhaya, a Buddhist scholar.

The group was also invited to homes of some core group members of the India Peace Centre from different faiths and ideologies, which allowed them to experience the different communities in a unique and practical way.

Face to Face: Bangalore

During a workshop in Bangalore, participants delivered bible study presentations dealing with social issues in their countries and possible solutions guided by the Bible. Organised by CWM in partnership with United Theological College and India Peace Centre, theological educators and research scholars Rev. Dr Allan Palanna, Rev. Dr Dexter Maben, Rev. Dr Rohan Gideon and Rev. Dr Pearly Walter facilitated the process of preparation, presentation and discussions, to advise and help participants develop their Bible Studies.

Through lectures, the group was attuned to the struggles of the LGBTIQ community and gender issues. In addition, they visited partner organizations of India Peace Centre, which included Student Christian Movement of India, Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society and the Board of Theological Education of the Senate of Serampore College.

Face to Face: Delhi

In addition, the “Building Life Affirming Communities: Faiths and Ideologies in Dialogue” seminar was attended by the group, with a session on “Understanding Sikhism” that included perspectives from the Dalits, Christians, Muslims, Adivasi and Hindus. Also in attendance were Magsaysay award recipient Wilson Bezwada, a renowned Dalit activist based in New Delhi; Adv. Irfan Engineer, Director of Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai; Rev. Monodeep Daniel, Dean of St. Stephen College and a priest from Church of North India; Prof. Indira Mukherjee, a promoter of Dalit and tribal arts and cultures; Ms. Ashmeet Kaur Bilkhu from Apne Aap Women Worldwide and Sheeba Aslam Fehmi, a scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Visits to Jama Masjid (a mosque), Bangla Sahib Gurudwara (a Sikh house of worship), and the Lotus Temple, a house of worship for Bahai faith offered participants a visual, practical impression of religions in Nagpur and Bangalore. Another workshop showing diverse perspectives of India dealt with the topic “Unbound Disciples of Unbound Christ in an Indian Context”, and was held at Dharma Jyoti Vidya Peeth in the rural area of Faridabad outside New Delhi.

The end of the programme saw each participant present a paper on “Building Life-affirming Communities” where they applied what they had learnt to their own context, and a valedictory function was held in the campus of National Council of Churches in India on 5th April. Dr Singh delivered the valedictory address to the participants who were now better equipped to build life-affirming communities in their home countries, and Rev. Ebenezer commissioned them to be torchbearers of justice and peace in their struggle against empire.