Sikh-born Methodist leader criticizes Christian 'isolationism'
Sikh-born Methodist leader criticizes Christian 'isolationism'

March 26, 2001
News media contact: Tim Tanton·(615)742-5470·Nashville, Tenn.
10-21-33-71BP{144}

By Kathleen LaCamera*

SHEFFIELD, England (UMNS) - The Rev. Inderjit Bhogal describes himself as a disciple of Jesus Christ, with roots in Sikhism.

This year's president of the British Methodist Conference was born into a devout Sikh family in Kenya. By age 10, he was a refugee in Tanzania, and from Africa he and his family immigrated to Britain.

That was 37 years ago. Bhogal currently is the director of the denomination's Urban Theology Unit in Sheffield and a minister in the Sheffield Inner City Ecumenical Mission.

Serving as president of the British Methodist Church is just one more chapter in a life that has been forged literally at the crossroads of where one religious tradition meets another. For Bhogal, interfaith relations are a personal reality and a theological imperative. He believes that 21st century Christians living in a multifaith world need a theology that acknowledges experience of God outside of Christ and outside of the church.

Reflecting on a recent trip to India to trace his spiritual and personal roots, Bhogal told United Methodist News Service that for too long it has been possible for Christians in their ignorance to say there is no experience of God outside Jesus Christ.

"Loyalty to Jesus Christ goes hand in hand with openness to people of other faiths," he explained. "We can no longer make Christian assertions in isolation from other faiths."

Bhogal knows only too well what can happen in a climate of religious intolerance and ignorance. As a teen-ager, he was the only person in his newly adopted town of Dudley, England, who wore a Sikh turban. Other boys regularly knocked it off his head and once even tried to tie him up with it. But during this same period he also experienced the literal sanctuary of a welcoming, non-judgmental Christian community. With no Sikh temple nearby, Bhogal began attending a midweek Bible class at a local Methodist church.

"The knowledge that God was honored in this place made me feel at home," he recalled. "The friendship was welcoming in contrast to the hostility I experienced in school."

It was during a church trip to Scotland that he found himself on his knees making a commitment to serve the church. Struggling with his traditional Sikh family's anxiety and his own spiritual confusion, he came to believe that God had chosen him for ministry in the Christian church instead of the Sikh tradition.

"Jesus' first disciples followed him and were Jews all their lives. Paul, after his Damascus experience, did not cease to be Hebrew. ... So I try to follow Christ within the Sikh culture. I do not describe myself as a former Sikh," he explained.

Last July, Bhogal became the first ever non-white president elected by the British Methodist Conference. As part of his presidential year, he decided to visit the people and places that were part of his "story." It was a journey that took him to India, home to Sikhism and his own ancestral villages.

Initially, Bhogal had imagined a family trip that would give him the chance to introduce his wife, Kathy, and their two children, ages 10 and 12, to their Indian roots. But when the group finally departed on Feb. 16, it included an additional 25 British Methodists who wanted to be part of their president's pilgrimage.

The group first stopped in Delhi for meetings with leaders from the Church of North India and then went on to the Punjab. There, the travelers visited the two villages where Bhogal's parents grew up. When his mother, who is still a practicing Sikh, discovered her son was taking a group from Britain back to her home village, she joined the tour to make sure that she could be there to properly welcome the group.

A highlight of the trip was a visit to Sikhism's most holy site, the Golden Temple in the city of Amritsar, and a first-of-its-kind meeting between a Christian leader and a Sikh "jathedar," Jojinder Singh. This jathedar, or spiritual leader, is considered to be the first among equals of the five jathedars who lead the Sikh community.

During their exchange, Bhogal asked how the jathedar felt about the statement that people could only come to God by Jesus. He reported the Sikh leader said that "as far as Sikhs were concerned, they have access to God, experience of God and knowledge of God, but would not want to deny Christians experience of God." It was a comment that Bhogal and others in the group felt left Christians "with some thinking to do."

The Rev. Keith Reid, assistant secretary of the British Methodist Conference, was part of the tour and said the experience in Amritsar left him with a sense that, despite some disagreements, there had still been great respect for each other's beliefs.

He and laywoman Elaine Robinson were among a handful of people who got up at 2 a.m. with Bhogal to attend a dawn ceremony during which the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, was brought out from its overnight resting place in the Golden Temple. "Certainly you recognize that the Sikhs are a people of a holy book, a people of prayer, pursuing their vision of God," Reid said. "And we Christians are doing the same."

Robinson, who sat with Reid cross-legged in the temple balcony for two hours, said they felt welcomed there as children of God. "Everyone had come to pray and you felt so much a part of it," she added.

While in Amritsar, the group also visited the "langars," or communal kitchens, that are a part of all "gurdwaras" or Sikh temples. Langars serve food, free of charge, to everyone regardless of whether they are Sikhs or not. These kitchens are responsible for serving millions of free meals daily throughout India alone. At these communal meals, there are no chairs, no head table, no knives forks or spoons. There are no special privileges, and everyone eats with their hands.

It is in such places that Bhogal sees common ground between Sikhs and Christians. "Christian tradition is about eating, gathering around... The genius of Jesus was to put food, a meal at the center of his community," he noted. "He said, 'Whenever you meet in my name, have a meal and remember me.' The Sikh gurus also teach first we eat, then we meet."

Bhogal is aware that not everyone in the church shares his enthusiasm for interfaith encounters, admitting some feel such conversations can "dilute" Christian faith. But far from diminishing faith, Bhogal feels these encounters deepen faith and "broaden an individual's horizons in relation to Jesus."

The India trip was not an "official British Methodist visit" but something that Bhogal felt strongly he wanted to do. He personally funded all costs for himself and his family. "I'd like to think I have demonstrated to everyone in the church that this is what we need to do," he said. "Take whatever action is needed to meet those who think different from us and hold conversations."

Robinson believes that Bhogal's challenge is important for all the church. "In raising the questions he does, he is asking people to explore what you believe. Whether you agree with him or not, you're growing in your faith," she said.

During the remaining months of his presidency, Bhogal plans to visit detention centers throughout the United Kingdom where thousands of asylum-seekers are held. He expects to attend the World Methodist Conference in Brighton July 25-31, but at this time has no official leadership role at that meeting.

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*LaCamera is a UMNS correspondent based in England.

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United Methodist News Service
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