Typically, you go to your weekly service club meeting thinking you’ll have a good meal, enjoy some fellowship and learn something about your community. Almost without exception, it’s a worthwhile investment of your time. It’s not very often, however, that you leave a meeting thinking, “Wow.”
That’s what happened to me last week at Rotary.
“The Rotary Foundation’s Group Study Exchange program is a unique cultural and vocational exchange opportunity for business people and professionals between the ages of 25 and 40 who are in the early stages of their careers,” Rotary’s Web site explains. “The program provides travel grants for teams to exchange visits in paired areas of different countries. For four to six weeks, team members experience the host country’s culture and institutions, observe how their vocations are practiced abroad, develop personal and professional relationships, and exchange ideas.”
A five-member team from India – one Rotarian and four non-Rotarians – are visiting North and Central Texas this spring on such an exchange, and they spent a day in Brown County the Wednesday before Easter. Providing the program at the Brownwood club’s weekly meeting was part of the deal.
In a typical four-week tour, they participate in five full days of vocational visits, 15 to 20 club presentations, 10 to 15 formal visits and social events, two to three days at the district conference, three to four hours per day of cultural and site tours, and three to four hours per day of free time with host families.
The Foundation provides round-trip air fare, and Rotarians in the host area provide meals, lodging and group travel within their district.
After everyone had gone through the buffet, President Mary Irving opening the meeting and hurried through the usual club business and reports in order to preserve as much time as possible for a Power Point presentation and narration by our guests from India. A board meeting was set for the next week, other guests were welcomed and announcements were made. One member said he would be out-of-town for treatment after an early diagnosis of cancer, but he was optimistic. Then, it was time for the program.
Each member of the team from India spoke for three or four minutes while showing photos of their families and hometowns. They touched on India’s government and economy, its multitude of languages and dialects, numerous religions, its arts and education, and the amazing acceptance of that religious diversity. Indeed, that latter point was underscored by the fact that two members of the team were Christians, two were Hindus and one was Buddhist.
I struggled to understand the pronunciation of their names, which to me were tongue-twisters indeed. I was not alone, because each of them had simplified their multisyllabic formal names with English-easy monikers. Sellandi Palanichamy Radhakrishnan became “Radha,” Ramesh Sridevi became “Sri.” and so on. The only member of the group with a name with which I didn’t have to struggle was Bagavandoss Sampath, a young man whose middle name happened to be “Benjamin.” He was sitting across from me at the lunch table, so I was able to learn more about his experience in industry and as a university professor in his specialty – computer science and engineering.
The program wrapped up, and it was fascinating to learn what we did glean from this small glimpse of India. As foreign as Texas must have looked to them, as different as India appears to us, we as people have a lot in common. Each spoke of the positive experiences they were having in the United States, and each mentioned how much they miss their families back home. You realize what we share when you sit down together and talk one-on-one.
Too soon, the hour had passed, and the group study exchange had a full afternoon planned touring different Brownwood locations… and Rotarians had their days planned as well. But wait, one of the guests from India said before they sat down after singing India’s national anthem – in a language none of them speaks. The Rotarian who was going to the hospital later that week was mentioned by name, and she asked that everyone pause in silence to pray in their own way for his return to health.
The room quickly became still. Forgive me, but during those moments I had to sneak a peak. And yes, right here in Brownwood, Texas, I witnessed Christians, Hindus and Buddhists all praying for the same medical miracle.
Later that day, after an e-mail with a request for the same person went out over our church’s e-mail prayer chain, I responded with what had happened during lunch. “There’s a message somewhere,” I concluded, not yet knowing exactly how to define it.
A week later, I’m still sorting it out. But I’m leaning toward the notion that in a world where religion too often tends to divide us – and even send people to war against each other – it’s a sad commentary when your reaction to seeing different faiths work in unison is “Wow.”
Gene Deason is editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Friday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.