Shopping for cloth can be an adventure
After my ordination I was sent to work in Pakistan, where I spent 18 months studying the Urdu language. When the school judged that I was competent enough to be let loose on the people, the Columban community in their wisdom and wonderful sense of humour appointed me to my mission. I was sent to the southern province of Sindh, where the national language is Sindhi. My work was to be in the tribal apostolate among the Parkri Kholi People and the Punjabi migrants who spoke their respective, distinctive languages, not Urdu. It was a time of frustration, as you can imagine.
It was with some mixed feelings of joy and excitement that I discovered the Mohajir Muslim shopkeepers in the local bazaar, who spoke Urdu as their mother tongue. The Mohajir people are those who migrated from India to Sindh at the time of partition in 1947.
One day I was in the bazaar shopping for some cloth when I was instantly befriended by the owner of a small shop. I was plied with tea and made to sit on a bench as he displayed his wares. He soon extracted from me my name, place of origin, the number of wives and children I didn’t have, and my occupation. This was the big event of the day for him as I was soon to find out. In Pakistan religion is central to everyone’s lives, and is a subject that will always come up in every discussion. For the Sindhi, sharing ones knowledge and experience of God is often more exciting than a cricket test match.
‘Ah!’ he said ‘You are a Christian, you believe in three gods!’
‘No.’ I retorted. ‘There is only one God!’
‘There you are right’. Raising his finger he continued. ‘There is no God but God! But the Holy Koran says that you people believe in three gods. God the Father, God the Son and God Mary.’
As tactfully as my limited Urdu would allow me, I tried to correct this idea. I pointed out that while the Holy Koran does rightly condemn the notion of three gods, Christians in fact believe in only one God as revealed by Our Lord Jesus Christ. This one God we believe has three distinct characters or persons expressed as Father, as Son and as Spirit. Mary became the mother of Jesus, who for us is the Word of God, through the will of God and the power of His Holy Spirit. She was not married to God, nor was Jesus born out of any human action other than the consent of Mary to God’s will.
Now my new friend got a little upset at the notion of Jesus as the Son of God. Quoting the Koran and saying God forbid that God would have a son. He then called for a few of his friends to come and join in the fun with this mad heretic of an Englishman.
Once the formal introductions were over, I found myself confronted by five bearded men. Crowded in the little shop, the men settled on the bench or squatted on the floor. The shopkeeper explained what we had been talking about and what I had said about Jesus. They were very quick to reassure me that they had great respect for Hazraat Isa, (Jesus) but to them he was only a prophet, not God. I quickly realised that not only was I outnumbered, but that I could also expect a long session in that place. I asked someone to read from the Koran to see what it really said about the birth of Jesus. It took some time to find someone who could actually read it and translate into Urdu from the Arabic.
There was some discomfiture when they discovered that what I had said was very similar to what was written. But they insisted that Jesus was only a prophet. While accepting that he was special, they insisted he was only a man and that he had come with a revealed book the Injeel, (Gospel). According to our faith, I explained, a prophet is one who brings a message, but in the case of Jesus, he not only had a message, he is the message, he is the Good News.
I was challenged to explain myself. The temperature was rising, but more drinks were ordered. I struggled to explain, putting all my linguistic skills to the test. I said that Jesus was sent to us to tell us that God loves us all and wants to make us all his children, to live within him for ever. That according to Jesus we have to come to know God as the Father and Jesus as His Son. And that in this knowledge we will have eternal life, living in God and He in us. One of the men spoke up to challenge me. God, he said, is pure Spirit and there is no way we can even begin to come to know Him. How can we know who he is, or what he is like? Agreed, I answered, that is why God in His love and compassion has sent His Word, Jesus Christ.
A short tea break followed, while more reinforcements came, were put in the picture and introduced to me. One of the men, who looked as if he commanded a lot of respect in the area, made a sort of summary of what I had been
saying. Then he looked hard at me and said: ‘You tell us we are to call ourselves children of God. That then would be making ourselves out to be the same as God. And there is no God but God!’ I suddenly thought of the trial of Jesus and began hoping that this wouldn’t have the same conclusion.
I had then what I thought was a little inspiration. I asked the old man what was it that the Muslims call Jesus in the litany of the prophets that they recite most nights. He tugged his beard for a moment or two. I suppose he was trying to figure out what I was getting at. He started to recite the litany quietly, but soon others were adding their voices to the chant. Caught up in the mood and the rhythm of it I almost missed it near the end, but immediately called a halt. I asked them to repeat the verse: ‘Isa Al Salam Rhuh ‘Allah ‘. I asked for a translation and he said ‘ Jesus, the peace and the spirit of God.’
Feeling quite triumphant I asked if God is a pure spirit, and you call Jesus the Spirit of God, what does that make Jesus? There was a long silence and then a lot of muttering under the breath, but no answer. The discussion started again but the subject had been subtly changed. Gradually, one by one, the men made their excuses and asked for permission to leave. The encounter was over for the day.
I made no converts that day, but I hadn’t been crucified either. Stretched in my faith and linguistic skills I had grown a little more in my understanding of my new neighbours and with the aid of numerous cups of tea, I think I had also grown a little more in my understanding of God. Many more discussions of that kind were in store for me.