Greetings of love and peace.
I awoke this morning in the Gurudwara Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha in Birmingham eagerly anticipating a day that I had no idea would end with me sitting in front of a television in the Coventry home of my dear friend and colleague, Deepak Naik, watching the outpouring of jubilation, with measured amounts of caution, at the resignation of Hosni Mubarak and an unprecedented wind of liberty blowing through Egypt, igniting the hopes of people all over the world.
After waking up and slipping into the white kirta “pajamas” Babaji had given me the night before, I went downstairs to the prayer room where there was continuous chanting from the Sikh holy book and eternal guru, the Guru Granth Sahib, as a steady stream of women and men, young and old, came to say their morning prayers and then went about their day. I sat in deep prayer for over an hour – recalling my family and URI colleagues all over the world, especially where there is a troubled situation, and especially the people of Egypt.
I finished my time of prayer refreshed and energized, then went into the langar (communal kitchen) and had a breakfast of curry, chapattis and chai. Not long after I finished breakfast, my dear friend and colleague Josef Boehle appeared and we had some time to catch up. As we were talking, Babaji arrived and we joined him in his office, where I had a second breakfast before being led on a tour of the impressive complex of buildings and programs that include and emanate from the gurudwara.
We began with an unexpected visit to the room where the gurudwara’s revered founder, Sant Baba Puran Singh, also referred to with a mix of respect and affeaction as Babaji, spent his final months. The room is kept exactly as it was when the founding Babaji passed away as a shrine to this person regarded as a saint by those he served and led. Babaji said he is the only one who has the key to this room and it is a rare occasion for guests to be invited in. Perhaps someday science will produce a way to measure and an explanation of the energy that builds up in sacred places; but all I can say is that the moment I walked into this room I felt a spiritual energy so powerful it nearly brought me to my knees – an energy similar to that I have felt in great cathedrals where the faithful have offered their prayers for centuries, or in the Well of the Souls beneath the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, or in Brahma Kumari meditation rooms in many parts of the world, or the natural shrines that abound on this glorious Earth, or wherever I have been blessed to be in the presence of faithful people opening their hearts to the Essence that animates and inheres in all life.
Yes, I have felt this energy may times before, but I don’t know that I have ever felt it so powerfully as in our few minutes in Babaji’s room – whether that is because this spiritual energy is particularly strong in that room, or that I was particularly awake at that moment, I don’t know; but I do know that without any warning I was moved to tears at the blessing of the moment – a sense that the Essence of life is a force more powerful than any we can measure, and that opening ourselves unreservedly to that Essence instructs, guides and nourishes us to do our part of the work needed to have this world reflect the will of the Essence.
For the following few hours, Babaji led Josef and me, accompanied by different members of the community, on a tour of the blessed work that flows through the gurudwara and its connected projects. Throngs of faithful women prayerfully, lovingly preparing food for the langar that feeds over 35,000 people a week, all for free and all through volunteer service. The devotion to education evidenced in the nursery school across the street and in programs in the Nishkam Centre, a community center housed in a modern building five years old next to the Gurudwara, that offers a wide range of educational and training opportunities, as well as having a well equipped gym where women and men can workout on alternating days.
In the historic brick houses adjacent to the house housing the nursery school, throngs of men, all volunteers, many skilled craftsmen, work in single-hearted service to completely renovate houses that have gone untended for 70 years, transforming them into the campus of a primary school – the myriad wires of our internet age running alongside ancient floor joists that have been reinforced with new timber obtained, as are so many of the building materials, through the Sikh businesses on the opposite side of the Gurudwara from the Nishkam Centre; some walls bare to the studs, others being finished over new wallboard; and large bay windows transparent to the soft light of an overcast day and opening to a back play area.
And everywhere we went, adults and children calling out with great affection and respect and joy, “Hi, Babaji.” I felt like a surfer riding those waves of joy, of devotion, of selfless service offered to the transcendent through concrete acts as a path to a sense of personal fulfillment far greater than any material possession can ever provide. This is the heart of what religion has to offer individuals, their community of faith and the larger world. An essential function of the interfaith movement is to help make this gift visible and to knit together various expressions of this gift in service to our glorious and wounded world.
Deepak Naik joined us just in time to make a short drive to an enormous facility – land and commercial buildings that are mostly cavernous open spaces that could be transformed into almost any sort of facility you chose – Babji recently purchased in spite of considerable opposition because he felt it could be the future site of a high school and possibly a college he believes are necessary to serve the young people and the larger community. He told me that he had received very clear spiritual direction to purchase this facility and that it was an essential part of his vision for the next fifty years!
After taking our leave of Babaji, Deepak and I drove to a large Hindu temple where Deepak had worked for three years. Though the temple was closed we were blessed with a delicious lunch and an opportunity to talk about all manner of possibilities for the future of URI. We left the temple and drove to Coventry, where Deepak and his family live.
As we arrived in Coventry, we stopped to visit the Coventry Cathedral, which is observing the 70th anniversary of the blitz of Nazi bombing that destroyed much of the center city, including the cathedral, the ruins of which stand next to the magnificent new cathedral as a stark reminder of the human capacity for destruction. I found myself thinking of the ruins in verdant peace park in Hiroshima that stand as a stark reminder of the unimaginable destruction there, and gave thanks for the visionaries in both places who realized somehow that it was important to preserve a visible reminder of destruction, knowing that in time these scenes of devastation would be returned to normal life, making it all too easy to forget; and in forgetting, all too easy to repeat the devastation.
Coventry Cathedral is a place I could visit weekly and never exhaust the prayerful introspection it inspires. The most arresting moment of our visit was provided by an installation by the artist Roy Ray commemorating the 70th anniversary. Where Their Footsteps Left No Trace is a series of five panels focusing “on examples for which a single name is synonymous with the mass destruction of innocent lives by the corrupt use of science and technology. The five names – Auschwitz; Dresden; Coventry; Hiroshima; Ground Zero. Ray intends to create many other panels for a series he calls Evilution. If these panels represent humanity’s shadow, and scream with a profound pain that can easily lead you into despair; I imagine a companion set of panels dedicated to instances of the heroic action inspired by deep values to preserve and ennoble life. One way for me to understand the importance of the interfaith movement and URI is to see our capacity to create countless new instances of heroic actions, large and small, that not only build better communities but minimize the proliferation of evilution.
Not long after we arrived at Deepak’s home we found ourselves sitting rapt in front of the television watching unbridled jubilation erupting in Tahrir Square in Cairo as the Egyptians celebrated their liberation, after, as one person expressed it, 9,000 years of not having our own voice. Knowing what a challenge it can be to sustain a sense of unity and shared purpose as we chart a visionary and practical course into URI’s future, it can be easy to let the Egyptian jubilation be drowned in the awareness of how daunting a task of nation building faces the people of Egypt; and certainly the news people on television were doing their best to make the dimensions of that challenge as vivid and menacing as possible. The cautions are important and will be needed in the exhilarating and challenging days ahead; but for now, let the euphoria at freedom be enough.
We pried ourselves away from the TV to go to Legacy House, the home of Minorities of Europe, an organization Deepak co-founded and a URI CC. There we spent a spirited two hours in conversation with a diverse group of mostly younger adults. The question that started the conversation came to me from Charles from Cameroon – Do you believe a free and just world is possible? I had to acknowledge that is it often difficult to nearly impossible to see it, but that I did believe such a world was possible and that it was our responsibility, with God’s help, to dream and act that world into being. That, I said, is why I have given my life for nearly fifteen years to help to build URI. It was interesting how many times over our nearly two hours together we came back to this point – a free, just world can seem impossible; but we need to dream of the impossible and then work to make it possible.
In the midst of so many challenges in our world and in URI, that is the spirit I carry with me as I head back across the Atlantic to San Francisco and the URI office. May our bold dreams sustain us in the challenging, enlivening, transforming work of living into URI’s purpose.