By Rev Dr. Serene Jones
As we welcome one of our largest recent classes to Union, I am very excited to share some of the lessons we learned this summer when several members of the Union Theological Seminary community joined me for a two-week trip to India, as part of our five-year International Connections Initiative. The initiative is designed to refresh and expand Union’s academic ties to theological schools around the world.
On the journey, I was joined by Dr. John Thatamanil, Associate Professor of Theology and World Religions; Andrea C. White, Associate Professor of Theology and Culture; Rev. Winnie Varghese, Union Alum and Priest and Director of Justice and Reconciliation, Trinity Church, Wall Street; and Rev. Dr. Rev. Richard Landers, Senior Director of Special Initiatives.
During our time in India, we explored creative scholarly work on interreligious engagement, gender-based and sexual violence, India’s ecology and environmental movements, and Dalit liberation theology from Indian scholars and activists, and institutions that support them. The Dalits are members of the lowest social group in the Hindu caste system and have faced centuries of discrimination and violence from members of higher castes.
It was an ambitious four-city tour – New Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, and Madurai – that gave us an excellent opportunity to build relationships and grow our partnership with faculty and students from many of the most significant ministries, and educational and religious organizations in India.
The team spent the largest portion of its time at Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary (TTS) in Madurai. The faculty and students received us warmly and met with us to explore their curriculum that emphasized social movement building. TTS serves diverse communities of Hindus, Muslims, and Christians; though a Christian seminary, it’s focus and teachings in the community are not exclusively Christian. As a result, their priority is on facilitating an interfaith dialogue and providing India’s most vulnerable individuals and families with the services that they need and the justice they deserve. By volunteering in the local community, students learn to contextualize their academic knowledge. In New Delhi, we had the opportunity to meet Nivedita Menon, an inspirational speaker who is involved in a wide range of political and social movements. Nivedita is a professor of political thought at Jawaharlal Nehru University and is an accomplished writer who helps bring awareness to gender politics and many of the social justice issues impacting India.
Other highlights from the trip included a visit to Visthar: A Non-Formal Academy of Justice and Peace in Bangalore, which has a campus designed as an eco-sanctuary for traditional seed preservation, biodiversity conservation, and environmental education. We also visited the United Theological College, also in Bangalore, which has long-standing connections with Union through its excellent Ph.D. program, and Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Madras Christian College, both in Chennai.
We were thrilled to learn that we have 25 alumni in India and that Union has a special connection to many because of the time M. M. Thomas, India’s most famous theologian, spent on our campus as a visiting professor.
India is a growing nation, claiming the second largest population in the world at 1.3 billion. Its truly dazzling levels of cultural, linguistic, and religious diversity make it one of the world’s most remarkable examples of parliamentary democracy. However, extreme poverty, patriarchal culture, extremist Hindu nationalism, and large-scale political corruption present numerous roadblocks to healthy communities. We left optimistic, nevertheless, about India’s future because everyone we met was working on a wide span of social justice concerns and they are accomplishing extraordinary things.
I am thankful for the strengthened relationships that we have built with the seminary deans, faculty, students, activists, and community leaders whom we met during our India trip. I am hopeful that we will see both a steady flow of students and professors from India coming to Union in the years ahead, and a lively flow of Union students and faculty who travel to study and teach in this amazing country.