Thursday, February 25, 2010

To Really Love Your Neighbour

Published in the Fiji Times on Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I often receive emails from my friends who forward me interesting or funny stories, inspirational messages or devotional meditations.

Some I read and forward on to others on my emailing list, some I read and delete and some, to be honest, never make past the inbox and are deleted before reading.

I suppose it is just a case of having a full inbox with little time to be online to read everything, so one just goes straight to the work emails.

As I was clearing my emails, I came across one that told the story of a woman who had died at the age of 98 in 2008.

Irena Sendler had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in the same year but the award went instead to former Clinton vice-president Al Gore for his movie on global warming "An Inconvenient Truth".

I decided to find out more about this woman and why many considered that she not Al Gore should have received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Irena Sendlerowa was a Polish woman who, along with her underground network, rescued 2500 Jewish children in Poland during World War II.

This is not just her story, or the story of the many children that she saved, but also the story of the children who shared her story, firstly with people in their town and then with the rest of the world.

Towards the end of 1999, a rural Kansas teacher encouraged four students to work on a year-long National History Day project which would, among other things, extend the boundaries of the classroom to families in the community, contribute to history learning, teach respect and tolerance, and meet their classroom motto, "He who changes one person, changes the world entire."

Initially only four girls accepted the challenge and decided to enter their project in the National History Day program (although eventually more students were added to the project).

The teacher showed them a short clipping from a March 1994 issue of News and World Report, which said, "Irena Sendler saved 2500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942-43".

He told the girls the article might be a typographical error, since he had not heard of this woman or story.

The students began their research and looked for primary and secondary sources throughout the year.

The result was a play called "Life in a Jar".

They found that Irena was dismissed from Warsaw University for failing to comply with Jewish segregation laws. She was re-admitted one year later.

She started making false documents for Jewish friends when the war started in 1939. Irena was an administrator at the Warsaw Social Work Department during the war. She posed as a nurse in the ghetto from time to time.

She had a network of helpers (25 at one time) who rescued people (adults and children) from the Warsaw Ghetto, made false papers for them and found hiding.

The majority of the rescue work of taking children out of the Warsaw Ghetto was done in the summer of 1942 in a three-month period.

The most famous of the child survivors, Elzbieta Ficowska, was rescued at five months in a carpenter's box.

The first children they took off the streets were the orphans.

The network used dozens of ways to rescue children, including using a dog on a couple of occasions.

The most common route was through the old courthouse.

The underground group, Zegota, was founded in the fall of 1942; she became the head of the children's division and they would eventually find hiding for 2500 children.

The hiding of Jews in Warsaw would take place in Polish homes, convents and orphanages.

Irena's network of rescuers was almost all social workers, consisting of 24 women and one man.

Irena was caught by the Gestapo and put in Pawiak Prison.

She was tortured and had a leg and foot fractured. She had buried some of the names of the children in jars, along with the help of a friend, to reconnect the children to their Jewish families after the war.

The jars were buried under an apple tree, in the friend's back yard.

The flat of the friend was right across from the German barracks. The daughter of her friend, still lives at the residence.

Zegota bribed a guard to have Irena released in the night to a member of the Underground.

She was scheduled to be executed. She remained in hiding throughout the rest of the war. After World War II, she dug up the bottles and began the job of finding the children and trying to find a living parent. The connecting of children to families was very difficult because of the large number of Jewish adults killed at Treblinka and other death camps.

Almost all the parents of the children Irena saved, died at the Treblinka death camp.

When Irena first heard about the project in Kansas, "I was stunned and fascinated; very, very suprised; interested".

In one of Irena's first letters to the girls, she wrote, "My emotion is being shadowed by the fact that no one from the circle of my faithful coworkers, who constantly risked their lives, could live long enough to enjoy all the honours that now are falling upon me.... I can't find the words to thank you, my dear girls.... Before the day you have written the play "Life in a Jar" nobody in my own country and in the whole world cared about my person and my work during the war ..."

Irene Sendler passed away on May 12, 2008. For more information visit the website: Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project (

As you reflect on the heroic actions of this woman at the height of the one of the most evil events in the 20th Century, ask yourself what you would do if people in your community, not people you know and love, but those who are strangers, perhaps of a different race, religion or way of thinking and living, faced persecution, just because they were different from you?

"Love of our God, and love of our neighbour, brings us spiritual joy, and we behold the glory of the Lord our God. That is a deep and glorious spiritual truth, one that we should consider, learn, and keep safe in the depths of our hearts." (Archimandrite Nektarios Serfes)

May the rest of your week be blessed with life, love, peace and the courage to love your neighbour.

This article is the sole opinion of Rev. J.S. Bhagwan and not that of this newspaper or any organisation that Mr Bhagwan is associated with. Email:


Published in the Fiji Times - Wednesday, 17th February, 2010

This week the Churches of the Pacific mourn one of the leaders of the Ecumenical Movement in the Pacific, the late Archbishop Jabez Bryce of the Anglican Diocese of Polynesia.

The word "ecumenism" has its roots in the Greek word oikumene which means "the whole inhabited earth".

The Christian understanding of of oikumene is of the earth as the household of God. Ecumenism refers to the Church which is the "one Church for the whole world and for all time" (Fr. Louis Brauchemin, in his sermon at the 5th PCC Assembly in Apia, Samoa - 1986).

In its document, Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the World Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches states that term "ecumenical" embraces the quest for Christian unity, common witness in the worldwide task of mission and evangelism, and commitment to diakonia and to the promotion of justice and peace.

Archbishop Bryce was the chairman of the Pacific Conference of Churches from 1976 to 1986, a time when the PCC made significant developments.

In the book, Affirming Our Ecumenical Journey, he noted that during this decade the Roman Catholic Church became a full member of the PCC through the Pacific Bishops' Conference and the PCC had its first lay-person and female general secretary in Lorine Tevi, at a time when feminism and the women's liberation movement were still at an early stage in the Pacific.

This was an era when the PCC began to focus on justice and self-determination issues such as nuclear testing in Moruroa and Bikini, the self determination of French territories, mining consequences in Nauru and New Caledonia and awareness-raising on difficult issue of tourism, multi-national corporations.

I am honoured to have known this servant of God and count myself privileged to have experienced the practical nature of his ecumenism. I first met the then Bishop Bryce through my late Father, Benjamin Bhagwan who was at that time the general secretary of the Fiji Council of Churches.

Later I was to find out that in fact both these men shared the same date of birth.

I remember an occasion during my time as a Bachelor of Divinity student at the Pacific Theological College in the first half of this decade.

During this time my two children were born and baptised in the PTC chapel by an Anglican priest, the Reverend Rosalyn Nokise, in an expression of ecumenism by my wife and I (she, a Catholic and I, a Methodist).

As a result, my family would often attend the mid-week Eucharist celebration (Holy Communion) held by the Anglican community.

On one occasion, Bishop Bryce was in attendance and afterwards had supper with the community. As the Easter long-weekend was approaching he presented an envelope of pocket money to each of the Anglican priests who were my fellow students as an Easter loloma, with a statement that they were to give the envelope to their wives straight away.

Noticing me sitting quietly in the background, he then proceeded to remind everyone that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism was an Anglican priest until the day he died and that Methodists are part of the Anglican family, adding with a big smile, even if they were rebellious prodigal sons.

He approached me, shook my hand, and gave me some pocket money from his own wallet. I was later to find out it was the same amount that my brother students had received.

Bishop Bryce wrote of meeting his wife Tilisi:

"Incidentally, during an ecumenical meeting in Tonga, my eye fell on this woman who came from the Methodist Church and ended up becoming my wife. I am grateful for the ecumenical movement for that!"

When I went to thank him for my "Easter loloma", he said to me, with that wonderful smile still on his face, that ecumenism is not only a movement for the Church but for families too.

The last time I had a conversation with Bishop Bryce was after a public forum on the state and future of the somewhat stagnated ecumenical movement in Fiji.

In the course of our discussion, he reminded me that in the oikumene, the household of God, everyone, including non-Christians are part of the household.

His parting words to me that day were that as a Christian in a pluralistic (multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious) society, the ecumenical dialogue must go hand-in-hand with interfaith dialogue. As a Fiji Islander with blood and marriage ties to almost every ethnic and religious group in this country (the majorities and minorities) it was an affirmation of the inclusiveness of the household of God while at the same time a challenge to go and do likewise in terms of loving one's neighbour.

My heart goes out to his wife Tilisi, and their children Jonathan and Fitaloa, and to the Anglican community in Fiji and Polynesia. I know that I am not alone in praying for God's peace to surround and comfort you.

The many men and women in Fiji, the Pacific and around the world who were challenged and inspired by this man of God are with you in this time of sorrow.

At the same time, in true Pacific style, we are called to celebrate his life, and in acknowledgement of the work he did towards creating unity among the Churches of the Pacific, called to commit ourselves to continuing the legacy that he left behind.

Today is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. As I prepared my sermon for tonight's Ash Wednesday Service at Dudley Memorial Church (7pm, corner of Amy Street and Toorak Road - All Welcome) I reflected on the significance and challenges Christians face during the Lenten period. Our theme in Dudley for Ash Wednesday is "Sincerity or Hypocrisy?"

My humble plea to the leaders of the churches in Fiji is to place on the altar of Christian Unity, whatever personal issues that are holding us back from allowing God to manifest the prayer of the Christ that all may be one, in order that the world may believe (John 17:21). Only if we are willing to love our brothers and sisters, can we ever hope to love our neighbour. That is the test of our sincerity in our commitment to be one church for the whole world and for all time.

May the rest of your week be blessed with light, love, peace and the spirit of brother and sisterhood.

* This article is the sole opinion of Reverend J.S. Bhagwan and not that of this newspaper or any organisation that Mr Bhagwan is associated with.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Miniority Report

Published as "Different Colours" in The Fiji Times Wednesday, February 10, 2010

THE word "minority" is often used to describe a "small group of people within a community or country, differing from the main population in race, religion, language or political persuasion, (Oxford Dictionary of English).

We in Fiji are familiar with this particular understanding of the term "minority". I have heard pleas and calls for the support of the minorities from the Indian community, the communities of Rotuma, Rabi, Kioa and the descendants of black-birded Solomon Islanders.

In this sense, I suppose I come under the term minority in a number of contexts. First, I am classified ethnically as Indian (academically as Indo-Fijian) and in the past this meant that my father's name would often follow my name.

Raised in a household of equality, it often concerned me that my mother's name was left out, even though through her I was electorally registered as a General Voter. Second, I am a Christian and while the majority of the population is of the Christian faith, Indian Christians are a minority.

As a member of the Indian Division of the Methodist Church I am in a further minority among Indian Christians in Fiji.

Yet I believe that often we have created two boxes around the word "minority". The first box contains the literal understanding of the term minority based on the above definition. This box excludes minorities in terms of representation in decision-making, the acceptance or perhaps emergence (as in coming out but not yet accepted) of sexual minorities, and the slow (perhaps too slow) recognition of persons with disabilities and living with HIV, the elderly and children as equal members of society, albeit with special needs.

It seems that as a society, it is only the exceptionally strong social conscience or those who have experienced a profound encounter with these minorities that give them the respect and dignity that they deserve as human beings as well as understanding that their particular circumstance demands compassion (not pity) and solidarity (not finger-pointing). At the same time it bemuses me how in a society where women are in equal proportion (more or less) with men in terms of population, we still find women struggling for gender equality.

That 50 (or thereabouts) per cent of the population still is economically, socially and politically a minority is a shameful thing in country whose major religions preach equality of the individual in the eyes of the divine.

I have supported over the years, both in terms of advocacy and with my own vote, the move to have a greater participation of women in decision-making in parliament and I know I am not alone, even though I may be in a minority.

Then there is the other kind of box which limits our understanding of and our positive response to minorities. These minorities are those whose who swim against the tide of popular thought and behaviour. This includes those who dress differently, have eclectic tastes and use unorthodox methods in their work –– be it in the secular, academic or religious field.

Rejected, abused and opposed, many of them play important roles in the evolution of society which is only appreciated when reflected on years later.

There are also those minorities who "rock the boat" and challenge the accepted norms of practice and question decisions based on tradition rather than good judgement and ethical reflection. They also face opposition, rejection and victimisation when they try to change a mindset, even when the point they are making is valid.

A teacher who raises the issue of corporal punishment or a discriminatory dress code is transferred by a principal who would rather not be challenged by issues which in fact are already policies within the education system or have been practiced in the past.

I am not for one moment suggesting that one man or one woman cannot make a difference.

History, our own as well as that of the planet is full of examples, both good and bad, where indeed this has been the case. What I am asking you to consider is that there are many men and women who could be agents for good, yet who find themselves a minority.

We are challenged to open ourselves up to the possibilities for positive change, even if they may sound different to popular positions. As the saying goes, "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men (and women) to do nothing".

As a Christian servant, I am constantly challenged to leave the ninety-nine and look for the one, in my ministry and in my life. That "one" is the minority. It is the person with HIV looking for compassion in his or her village. It is the gay man or woman looking for love from his or her family and friends.

It is the disabled athlete looking for the same level of sponsorship as that of an able-bodied person. It is every man, woman and child who ever voiced their concern with a wrong decision or action but was ignored.

A family, a community, a nation is only truly united when there is a space where everyone is recognised and respected for who they are and what they think regardless of how challenging or ridiculous it may be.

May the rest of your week be blessed with light, love, peace and the sense of being a equal member of the human race.

This article is the sole opinion of Reverend J.S. Bhagwan and not that of the newspaper or any organisation that Mr Bhagwan is associated with.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Breaking walls

Published in The Fiji Times, Wednesday 3rd February, 2010

When I was a little boy, growing up in Lautoka, my family stayed in a government quarters. Quarters #78 at Verona Street was opposite Ground Number One in Churchill Park.

This naturally made Churchill Park, and the creek that ran alongside it, part of my extended backyard.

While my father took on responsibilities within the park, as member then president of the Lautoka Football Association and the Lautoka Rugby Union or Sugar Festival Association, I contented myself with running up and down the length of the field, often with a kite in hand, imagining myself stepping in the footprints of the legends of rugby and soccer and perhaps setting my own footprints of the stars of the future.

In the corner of the park was an old train engine that I would play on for hours. I knew every nook and cranny of Churchill Park Ground Number One.

I even knew the security guards who would let me in when I was not content to sit on the roof of the house to watch the game, boxing match or concert that was taking place.

If the guard did not know the cheeky little boy from across the road and refused to let me in the gate, then I also knew every hole in the fence to the park as well.

The fences around Quarters #78 were just four lines of wire that formed the borders between our house and the road, the creek and the other government quarters on two sides.

You either crawled under (if small enough), or climbed over (if tall enough).

Hedges and respect of each neighbours need for privacy made our spaces sacred. My children have been fortunate in that for their formative years of childhood, they have lived in urban communities that do not have fences or walls around each house.

About a year ago, I was sitting on the veranda of my neighbour and senior minister's house one evening when my children came across to see me for the mandatory pre-bedtime hug.

The talatala qase commented to me that he was surprised to see the children not afraid of the dark and coming over.

My response was that they were brought up in urban villages and had not developed a sense of boundaries.

Of course, as parents we have had to teach them about respecting the boundaries of personal and residential space. At the same time it is interesting to watch their interaction with those who set such rigid boundaries in their lives that they neither allow any positivity to flow in or negativity to flow out.

Fences and walls are a defensive measure, to keep out what we consider dangerous or a threat. There is a gate through which people enter and exit.

It is not uncommon in this day and age to find gates locked not only when the owner is out but when the owner is inside as well.

Just as castles, walled villages and towns had guards who challenged visitors with a "Who goes there?" or "Friend or foe" these days those who can afford it have security guards outside their homes to ask the same question or an intercom system next to an automatic gate.

Walls and fences are also designed to keep people in, for their protection or the protection of others.

In days gone by, around a walled castle, fort or village would be a ditch or a moat of water with a single bridge leading to the gated entrance.

Boundaries are important for many people.

However, boundaries are like fences, you can stand at a fence and still communicate with the person on the other side until you are invited over or the fence is removed.

The thing about walls is that sometimes we build them out of a fear or a perception of a threat that is based on a lack of awareness or knowledge. We build up walls to keep out ideas, people and things that are new and strange to us.

Often we use the statement that these defensive measures are a natural part of humanity.

Watching my own and other children, I suggest the opposite; that in fact we are born trusting and open and we are conditioned to be suspicious of the new and different.

In many cases there is good reason to be so. With violence, rape, robbery an unfortunate phenomenon in our society, we teach our children to not talk to strangers.

But along with that comes the concept of not talking to, or even shunning those who are also different, physically, ethnically, culturally, socially and sadly today, spiritually.

We perpetuate the building walls of protection and build walls to keep out anything that threatens the status quo.

These walls extend deep into our psyche and high into our spirituality. Not content to build walls we now box ourselves in, closing ourselves off from anything different to the norm, the convention or culture that we are used to.

That is why we often find ourselves challenged when we are called on to think outside the box.

The time has well passed for us to remove the blocks that prevent our personal growth and development, and that of our communities.

In a sermon this past Sunday, a preacher called on the congregation to remove the walls that separate and build bridges that unite.

We need to call on the gatekeepers that guard the entrances to our societies, and as gatekeepers to our own souls to look beyond the appearance of a foe and recognise the potential friend.

When you shine a light on a box, the light will always shine through the holes and gaps, illuminating the darkness within. The force of love, positivity and truth will eventually surround the walls of fear, negativity and deception and cause them to tremble and collapse.

Let us brick, by brick, take down the walls and transform them into stepping stones and bridges.

"God is love. Perfect love casts out fear... and hatred. God's love breaks down walls that exclude and divide."