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A Theology of International Engagement
General Assembly 2009 Event 4014
Sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Office of International Resources. Moderator: Rev. Eric Cherry; Speakers: Bishop Ferenc Balint Benczedi, Rev. H. Helpme Mohrmen, Rev. Yasutaka Watanabe.
The Rev. Eric Cherry introduced the workshop and the participants. Bishop Ferenc Balint Benczedi is the bishop of the Transylvanian Unitarian Church. The Reverend H. Helpme Mohrman is the General Secretary of the Unitarian Union of North East India, also known as the Khasi Unitarian Union. The Reverend Yasakuta Watanabe is the Chairman of Rissho Kosei-kai.
The objective of the workshop was to explore the theological depths of international engagement. This is important because:
- we are religious communities;
- theology informs our choices;
- through reflection, we grow, and so
- we become better partners.
As guidance, the three panelists were asked to address five categories:
- Our calling—what brings us to international engagement
- Spiritual beliefs
- Risk and resiliency—disappointments and mistakes
- The Promised Land—where we are trying to get to
Bishop Balint Benczedi described how the Unitarian Church in Transylvania is grounded in Christianity. They accept Jesus as a prophet and teacher, and their relationships are grounded in Jesus' Golden Rule.
They honor diversity. This comes from respect, as well as a long history of being subjected to oppression—they have had to deal with intolerance in Romania. Nevertheless, they believe every encounter is an opportunity for spiritual enrichment.
Since the 16th century, during the reign of King John Sigismund, Transylvania was the Promised Land for heretics fleeing from religious oppression. Since then, Transylvanian Unitarians have had a long history of international engagement with, for example, Poland, the Netherlands, England and, most recently, the United States.
There are risks. Failures happen, often because of culture shock or expectations that are too high. If possible, visitors should be open to new experiences. This, together with the Golden Rule, will help everyone recover from failure.
They believe paradise is within us and among us. It is physical, and it is also a state of mind and heart. With hope, love, and right relations, we find our own paradise. We can offer the Promised Land to each other if we take responsibility for each other. If so, the Promised Land is in our hearts.
The Rev. Helpme Mohrmen described how the Khasi Unitarian Church is derived from Christianity and also from Khasi traditions. The people of the Khasi Hills have a different language and a different culture from the surrounding regions of India and Bangladesh. (The Khasi religious tradition was neither Hindu nor Muslim. It was based on a belief in one formless living god, called UBlei.)
They live by three basic principles:
- Live cautiously and know God; have right relationship with the Creator.
- Know and respect both sides of your clan; have right relationships with your extended family.
- Earn righteousness by having right relationships with society.
The Khasi people have a different culture and their own way of doing things, which can lead to misunderstandings. Despite these misunderstandings, Mohrmen emphasized, right relationships enrich both sides.
The Khasi churches would like to work with and find partner churches in the U.S. Mohrmen is especially appreciative of his present work with the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax, VA.
Right relationships, if grounded in understanding, are beneficial to all, Mohrmen said. To illustrate this point, he told an ancient story. When the Parsi people were driven out of Iran into India, their High Priest approached a Rajah and asked if they could settle in his land. The Rajah called for a glass of milk filled to the brim to indicate the land was already full and there was no room for more people. In response, the High Priest called for some sugar and sprinkled the sugar onto the milk to indicate: we will enrich your land just as I have enriched this milk.
Chairman Watanabe began with an appreciation of his relationship with present and past UUA presidents, and also for the organizing committee who had facilitated his visit.
He said the question can be asked this way: what is the doctrinal foundation for theological international engagement? He said the foundations are:
- our commonality and friendship since 1968 with UUA presidents;
- the foundation of our international engagement;
- our way of international dialogue as an example of international engagement.
The whole of mankind is one family before God or the Buddha, Watanabe believes. The mission is to create such a human family. To do so, we need to recognize the Buddha in each of us. This is the way of peace.
All humans are truly of the Buddha and the Buddha is in each of us.
All are equal. For example, consider the parable of the plants. Even plants can become buddhas. The rain goes to each plant according to its nature and kind. All living things in different ways can receive. This affirms the value of diversity.
Are big flowers superior to small flowers? Similarly, humans are not superior to other beings. This means humans must coexist with all other beings.
Diversity is important. All religions are fundamentally from the same root. The aim of all religions is the same. This is why we need international dialogue:
- Dialogue allows us to know others and ourselves.
- Reflecting on ourselves encourages us to rise to a new level.
- In doing so, we become aware of common barriers.
- Dialogue builds trust.
- Dialogue brings about concrete action.
One life of love and compassion means we all live by God and the Buddha. We want to help everyone.
Consider this parable: the paths separate at the foot of the mountain, but they all look at the same moon at the summit. This means all religions have the same root, and also the same goal.
Forty years of dialogue have built trust. We seek to cement our dialogue and our common agenda.
A participant asked whether theological differences are a hindrance.
Mohrmen responded with the story of Hajjom Kissor Singh, who rebelled from Presbyterianism and founded the Khasi Unitarian Church. "We are based on freedom, tolerance, and love. God is our father and our mother. God is spirit. So it is not a hindrance."
Bishop Balint Benczedi responded that "Religion is above theology. We look for what is common."
Another participant asked: "How have we benefited from each other?"
Cherry asked for a show of hands from those who have benefited from international exchanges. Almost every hand was raised. Participants provided the following examples.
There were enriching exchanges of ideas in both directions between Emerson and Channing and the Transylvanian Church.
The Rev. Abhi Janamanchi of the Unitarian Universalists (UUs) of Clearwater, FL, said his congregation will be enriched by hosting an intern from Rissho Kosei-kai.
A participant described how his exchanges of ideas with UUs have made him a better Buddhist.
Another enthusiastically told the group: "We hosted a Partner Church visit. It was full of theological diversity and it was a mind-expanding experience."
A final comment summarized the spirit of international engagement: physical presence is important because a lot of the engagement does not happen with words; it happens by listening to hymns, watching people, sharing hospitality and food, and with hugs, embraces, and smiles.
Reported by Mike McNaughton; edited by Bill Lewis.