Over the nearly fifteen years I’ve traveled the world as the founding Executive Director of the United Religions Initiative, I’ve had the privilege of being in the presence of many remarkable spiritual leaders – Baha’I, Brahma Kumari, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Indigenous, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Zoroastrian, and many other traditions. Some famous, some largely unknown. Women and men. Young and old. Every color of human skin and a dizzying diversity of languages. Impressive academic education and impressive traditional learning – all deeply wise.
In my time with each of these wisdom keepers, there has inevitably been a moment when language and all distinctions fell away and we found ourselves abiding on the ineffable ground of our essential unity. We are one. We have come from and we return to one source, known by myriad names and by no name. We are one humanity, expressed in glorious diversity.
Given this richness of experience, I thought it would be a challenge to select one spiritual leader to write about. In one way it was, because writing about any of these great and wise people could be inspiring and instructive. But in another way it wasn’t. There is one experience – it lasted only a few hours of the nearly 525,600 hours I’ve been on Earth – that opened my eyes to a profound truth that I continue to cherish and share thirteen years later.
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“If the conversation isn’t about salvation through Jesus Christ, there isn’t anything to talk about.”
Though I was born and raised a Christian and was ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church nearly a quarter-century ago, these aren’t words that I would ever say. But I’ve heard them many times, and they are generally a conversation stopper in interfaith gatherings. They betray an underlying view of this world and the next that leaves no room for other voices.
On my first trip to India in 1998, I experienced a delightful and transformational antidote to this attitude in the person, experience and teaching of a luminous spiritual leader Baba Virsa Singh.
The realities of India were overwhelming. Unimaginable poverty was inescapable. In Mumbai, many sidewalks were lined with straw mats that served as homes for entire families, who cooked and bathed, ate and slept on the sidewalks. This poverty dwelt side by side with an extravagance evident in upscale shops, and lavish, lavish wedding celebrations that took place every night in the elaborate pavilions along the Queen’s Necklace, a shimmering road that curves along a crescent bay of the Arabian Sea.
Also, the spiritual was everywhere, and everywhere part of daily life. The flowering of ashrams, shrines, temples, churches, gurdwaras and mosques, and the streams of pilgrims flowing to them bore witness to the powerful draw of the spirit that manifested both in seemingly rote ritual and in moments of numinosity.
Woven through this spiritually-flavored fabric of poverty and wealth, a fabric that was to my Western senses a riot of color and sound and smell, was a visible expanse of human history. The technology and practices of the 18th and 19th centuries existed side-by-side with those of the 20th. You could be in a cab racing down a winding road and come around a curve to discover a cart pulled by a camel or a water buffalo plodding in front of you.
You could see poor people in rural areas plastering dung pancakes on the sides of trees where they would dry and then be used for fuel; or you could hear a presentation on the latest developments in open-heart surgery in a five star hotel that offered every luxury imaginable.
On top of it all, in the big cities like Mumbai and New Delhi, the air was so polluted that I often felt it would be healthier not to breathe at all.
And so it was that one late morning I found myself being picked up by a taxi at the India International Centre in New Dehli to be taken to meet a Sikh spiritual leader named Baba Virsa Singh. Babaji came from a peasant background, growing up in Sarawan Bodla, a mudbrick village in India’s Punjab State. Though he had no formal education, from his youth he was recognized as having powerful spiritual gifts, including the gift of healing.
By the time I met him, Babaji was a spiritual leader revered all over India. He had founded many farm-based spiritual communities on land that had been environmentally ravaged, but was transformed, followers believed through Babaji's deep spiritual powers, into farms that bore abundant crops and offered a home, spiritual community and human dignity to poor people of all faiths. I was to meet Babaji on one such farm, Gobind Sadan, which means House of God in Punjabi, founded in South Delhi in 1968.
Though Babaji was a Sikh, he welcomed people of all faiths, believing this was fully consistent with the founding impulse of Sikhism, which was to bridge the divisions between Hindus and Muslims; and, most importantly, was consistent with God’s will. Before my visit, he had recently hosted an extraordinary ritual in which Hindu political leaders, who had been encouraging and/or turning a blind eye to the persecution of people of other faiths, took a vow before him to be accountable for the well being of all Indians, regardless of their faith.
The hour-long drive took us through the toxic air of congested Dehli into the outskirts where traffic fell away and shops and shacks gave way to walled farms and narrow lanes. When we finally arrived at Gobin Sadan, I stepped out into the cleanest air I’d breathed since I had arrived in India, and into a palpable serenity as I walked through the gates of the ashram.
Mary Pat Fisher, a scholar of comparative religion who had left her life in Connecticut six years earlier to follow Babaji and live at Gobin Sadan, welcomed me and proved to be a delightful host and enjoyable companion. She told me some of the history of Gobin Sadan and Baba Virsa Singh and fed me lunch in their communal kitchen, which I’d come to appreciate as an extraordinary Sikh practice when, the day before I’d been the guest at the Bangla Sahib Gurdwara in Dehli, founded on the site where the 8th Sikh Guru had died of smallpox, where volunteers daily fed 25,000 people of all faiths and all economic stations, for free.
After lunch, Mary Pat walked me all over this incredibly peaceful farm. We visited three different sites where fires burn 24 hours a day, and 24 hours a day people read from the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. As we walked through the lush fields, she recounted stories of the miraculous effect Babaji's presence had on agriculture and how his growing system of farms on environmentally reclaimed land were providing homes and a future for many impoverished Indians of diverse religions.
At one point, we passed through the tiny cubicle where she slept and that housed all her earthly possessions and I noticed on her bookshelf Marcus Borg’s book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. When I told her how important that book had been to me, she started out of the room and asked me to follow because there was something special she wanted to show me.
We walked on dusty paths through fields lush with that season’s crops, dodging cow dung that would later be collected for fuel. We reached a weathered barn and turned to walk along a stone fence. Mary Pat stopped at a gate that led us into a beautiful enclosed garden. On the far side of the garden was a statue of Jesus, arms opened wide to embrace all who came to him.
As we stood in front of the statue, Mary Pat explained, This is where Jesus appeared to Babaji. It was such a powerful experience that Gobind Sadan had this statue made to commemorate their meeting. Christmas is a major celebration each year at Gobin Sadan. She continued, Babaji and Jesus still meet and talk.
To an American Christian, even one who felt he carried an open heart and an open mind, it was startling, humbling, challenging and inspiring to see Jesus so accepted and honored in a Sikh ashram. It was even more startling and inspiring to imagine an ongoing relationship between Jesus and Babaji that would be the envy of Christians around the world. As I stood in what was clearly a holy shrine, a thought formed – Nobody owns the sacred dimension of life, and, it seems, Christians do not own Jesus.
That experience, that thought, have come back to me again and again over the years; and I have shared them again and again, often in sermons on Sunday mornings in Christian churches. When I think of that part of history and present of Christianity that chronicles endless divisions, power struggles and violence done in Jesus’ name, and compare those with the hearftul respect and veneration given Jesus by Baba Virsa Singh, I feel simultaneously shamed, challenged and inspired.
If I had never met Babaji and had only had the privilege of visiting that garden at Gobind Sadan, his impact on my life and work would have been immeasurable. Fortunately, I did have the privilege of meeting him in person.
Near the end of my visit to Gobind Sadan, I was taken for an audience with Babaji. He sat on a white couch, dressed in white from the top of his turban to the hem of his robe, with a long white beard and an expansive smile. I felt instantly that I was in the presence of a holy, humble, light-filled person who could see into the depth of my being at a glance.
Through a translator, he spoke for a timeless time, explaining his understanding of God, our source, as pure love; and of God’s call to us to offer love, light, and service to the world. As he finished, he told me again that God’s essence is love – boundless, overflowing love.
All God asks of God’s children, he told me, is that they come to God for love. The reservoir of God’s love is so vast that if all God’s children came to God at the same moment and in an instant received all the love they could ever want or need from God, it would be as if a tiny bird took a sip out of the ocean. As I prepared to leave at the end of our timeless time together, Babaji admonished me to make sure I laughed enough. Then he gave me his blessing.
I often recall my visit to Gobin Sadan with gratitude and wonder. I remember that no one owns God and that Christians don’t own Jesus. I believe that if our hearts and minds are open, we can meet together in God’s unfathomable love. In that love we can work together to make our world a better place for all, until it is our time to journey from this world to the next. Babaji made that journey near the end of 2007. He left his body on Christmas Eve, a fitting time to be born into the next world and to be reunited with an old friend, whose arms were no doubt opened wide to embrace a good and faithful servant of the Light.
This essay was published in My Neighbor's Faith, eds. Peace, Rose and Mobley, Orbis Books, 2012 -- http://www.orbisbooks.com/my-neighbors-faith.html