NOTE TO READERS: This blog entry is primarily written for those who are familiar with the international, interfaith movement called Initiatives of Change (www.iofc.org). I am the Vice Chairman of the board of IofC-USA. While I hope it is of interest to others, there are probably some references that may not be understood. Please forgive me for assuming this insider knowledge.
I am writing to you from Asia Plateau (www.in.iofc.org), Initiatives of Change-India’s center in Panchgani, a hill station in Maharashtra state. This beautiful place is another gift of Moral Re-Armament to the world. Although the rest of the world now calls it IofC, the Indians still use “MRA” to describe the organization here, which is incorporated under the legal name MRA Trust, with passing references to “Initiatives of Change” on occasion. Although a couple continents away, we should consider how to use this amazing place in some of the work that we are doing in the U.S. Many times I heard folks here say that they would like Asia Plateau to be used more by non-Indians. Truly a spirit exists here, like at Mountain House (www.caux.iofc.org) in Caux, Switzerland, which inspires peace and reconciliation. “This place was the wonderful vision of Rajmohan Gandhi,” said one person who has been with MRA/IofC for decades.
My family has traveled to this place for a long weekend between research interviews I have scheduled with community foundations in Mumbai (where we stayed with Dr. & Mrs. Anand at the MRA home called Kumaran) and Pune, where we will be have tea in the home of Kiran Gandhi (no relationship to the Mahatma or Rajmohan Gandhi), a dedicated member of the MRA Board of Trustees, and his wife Neeru. [NOTE: I am editing this letter back in Delhi and adding a few notes from our wonderful conversation at the Gandhi’s home.] The warm welcome we received in every place is the embodiment of that spirit of hospitality that MRA/IofC has nurtured over the years.
During this monsoon season, Asia Plateau shuts down to conferences, but there remains a small core team of 12 or so, plus the year-round maintenance, kitchen and housekeeping staff. Although the place does not have the usual buzz of conferences, it is more conducive to our family’s “retreat” here and to my sharing deeper dialogue with friends in the fellowship. I may come back later this fall for a conference, depending on my schedule.
I have spent the most time here with Dr. Ravi Rao, the “Resident Trustee” (a volunteer position that is required on the Board of Trustees) and a retired dentist from Bangalore, and our friends the wonderful full-time couple Suresh and Leena Khatri, who we hosted some 13 years ago in our home when we lived in Los Angeles. We have exchanged many ideas about the joys and challenges of India, the work we are engaged in and the network that is IofC.
I wanted to share with you some of the highlights from my conversations and reflections. Although the conversations flowed freely, I have grouped these highlights by themes below.
ENGAGING YOUNG PEOPLE
Like the IofC bodies everywhere, India is thinking seriously about how to engage younger people in the work they do. They have been quite successful in a few programs:
1. Action for Life (www.afl.iofc.org) – the commitment was to do 5 AfL groups in which young people from around the world are trained at Asia Plateau then go out to do work in teams across the broader area. They are considering whether to do another and another beyond that. Over 100 young people have participated in AfL so far, and about 20 are still involved in some form of “life-changing work,” not all under the MRA/IofC umbrella but inspired by the ideas and training they got through AfL. Chris Breitenberg went through AfL and the Khatris, who echoed what we know about Chris’ great communication, presentation and leadership skills, were particularly interested in hearing about his Trustbuilding Leadership program on campuses in the USA.
2. Each year there is a Youth Camp at Asia Plateau with about 150-200 attending. There is a group of young people who are spiritually and relationally connected from regular attendance at these camps. With leadership from one particular young man (a graphic designer in Pune, recently married and with a newborn) a small team from this group is looking to take it to the next level. Unclear how that will look, but the older leaders of MRA are excited about the younger people taking initiative on this.
3. “Young people are not conference goers, but action doers,” said Suresh. They were intrigued by my sharing the plans for the Trust Factor forum in Washington, DC (www.us.iofc.org/trustfactor) in October to include more skills workshops and not just the standard concurrent conference sessions model. The model used for engaging young people in India is “trainings” and not conferences. This is a subtle but important distinction.
STRUCTURE AND GOVERNANCE
When I asked how MRA is managed, Ravi said that “IofC-India is not managed. Each initiative is autonomous. The only coordination goes on here at Panchgani. The rest is informal.” Leena later said, “IofC is getting more structured. Something I hope we don’t lose is the fellowship we share together. We are not just colleagues, but friends.”
· The Board of Trustees of the MRA Trust is 15 in number; seven are permanent and eight are rotating. These people take the legal, financial and policy decisions, but are not necessarily seen as the leaders of the “work” that goes on. They are mostly an older group, the youngest member in his 40s. There is an Executive Committee of three.
· The Advisory Council is a group of 30 which constitutes the wider fellowship of people who come to the annual Trustee meetings at Panchgani. This is an intentional way to make board meetings an opportunity for “spiritual growth” and that all-important nurturing of friendships.
· There is a Coordinating Body, separate from the Trustees, with 12 members each of whom has a portfolio that they coordinate. Examples include trainings, publications, young people’s programs, etc.
SPIRITUALITY AND MRA/IofC
The Indian context is very open to spiritual themes. Religion is everywhere; temples or mosques or churches (and even an occasional synagogue) are on every other street, shrines in every home, and practitioners of every form of spirituality can be found in India. While in Mumbai, Aviva and the girls went to see the famous Blue Synagogue.
Ravi said that a recent survey of Indians showed that 90% believe in some form of “spiritualism” and 50% have some form of practice. So, there is already a ripe-ness for the practice of daily Quiet Time and the insights that come from that. Ravi talked about four levels of “strength” in the Hindu tradition: (1) material or physical; (2) mental or psychological; (3) wisdom or direction; and (4) soul or inner voice. Likewise, the idea of the Four Absolute Standards (Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness and Love) is one that most Indians would accept. “Whether they act on those standards is another question,” said Leena. So, the language used by IofC resonates with people here. And that makes it easier to do the work.
CORPORATE SECTOR SUPPORT
The connections with corporations is the most successful and lucrative part of the work in India. In 1973, a manager at Tata & Sons (the biggest corporation in India at the time) had a thought in a Quiet Time that he should get his company trained by MRA – first the junior managers and factory foremen, later the senior managers. That has evolved and in the past few years, with some intentionality and much providence, has become the key to success of MRA in India. An electric company has sent all its thousands of employees through an MRA-developed training, with top managers coming here to Panchgani and others having workplace sessions. Siemens Corporation has also paid a great deal to have MRA train their employees. This corporate sector support is underwriting the other work of MRA. Ultimately, the corporations see the benefit to having ethical and personally fulfilled employees.
Because of this corporate sector support, MRA in India has been financially self-sustaining for the past 30 years, Suresh told me. The fact that they require no fundraising to support MRA programs, workers or for the operations of Asia Plateau because of the revenue generated from industry trainings is a HUGE burden lifted off IofC here. Kiran Gandhi, a management consultant and executive coach who was behind much of the design and delivery of these trainings, said that training the corporate and public sector employees allows MRA to “take IofC’s message to more people” and that it has a “clearer ROI than other things we offer.”
PUBLIC SECTOR WORK
Of the need for ethics training in the public sector, Ravi said, “Today there is so much demand for MRA. We don’t have to go to them; they are knocking on our door.” He gave the example of the IofC’s Centre for Governance which was the initiative of R.D. Mathur, a long-time MRA full-timer who worked closely with IofC founder Frank Buchman and now lives in Delhi. This Centre is working closely with Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers, both active and retired, and has influenced new policies around ethics in governance. The Centre for Governance hosts conferences for IAS officers here at Panchgani.
Ravi’s wife Jayashee was in Oxford and London visiting their grandchildren when we were in Panchgani. She has led a lot of recent work with women in rural villages. Ravi said, “There’s a lot of wisdom within rural India. But the villages don’t have the courage to stand up against urban India. They do not always have the right values. For instance, political power or castism. If you marry outside your caste, you can be killed. Villagers know this is wrong, but don’t always address it.”
There is a history of much life-changing work that has gone on in villages surrounding Jamshedpur in Bihar state. This is where the Tata Steel factory was located where Kiran used to work and, guided largely by thoughts from his quiet times, he began to build a team that could do work in these villages. He told some great stories about the way God provided inspiration for many in this area. Ravi also mentioned working in these villages as one of the most important times in his spiritual development.
Suresh and Leena, Kiran and Neeru, and two of the Gandhi’s three daughters, are all heading to the far northeast Indian state of Nagaland in a couple weeks. They will visit an extraordinary Naga leader named Niketu Iralu, who is also an MRA Trustee. His work bringing reconciliation to a civil war in that region has many won awards. I asked what the agenda was for their trip. Suresh answered that they had the thought that they would simply go and be with Niketu and his wife Christine, seeing what the needs of the people were, taking quiet times with them and determining actions based on guidance.
Of the northeastern region of India, Kiran said that “mainland Indians don’t appreciate the culture and people of the tribal areas.” The goal of their visit, he said, was to “build bridges and better relationships” between Indians and the Naga people. Niketu and Christine will set up meetings. Ultimately the hope is “integration so that the tribals are feeling one with India.” Adding, “Historical hurts are there.”
Suresh provocatively said about IofC’s global work, “We’ve gotten too stuck on reconciliation and trust. We need more focus on justice – like corruption and poverty.” Kiran also mentioned “economic disparity” as a major problem in India and added “corruption is a major problem too.” This issue of corruption is particularly important in India right now with many, many people mentioning it and especially young people wanting to do something. There is federal legislation being crafted against corruption and a Gandhian activist named Anna Hazare threatening a hunger strike if it is not passed.
Ravi thought that globally the IofC had a need for more structure and was getting it “only in the last 6 years,” referring to the International Council and other structural innovations. He has been part of the team working on drafting the new Preamble for IofC. He also thought that a more coordinated global initiative might make the world-work more effective. Two thoughts he shared on this were (1) Peace in the Middle East – “If we can help solve that problem, it would bring peace to the world, and maybe even solve the problem of Islamic fundamentalism”; and (2) Inspiring more individual action at the local level – “Everyone could subscribe to a global plan but carry on with local work.”
Kiran echoed Ravi’s first thought when I invited him to share what he thought the IofC – USA team should focus on. He was cautious, stating that he had not spent much time nor thought much about the issues in my country. Then, after a long closed-eyed silence, he shared this thought: “I think the cause that would make a difference if addressed would be the relationship with the Muslim world. India has something to offer the U.S. We basically have good relations with Islam in India. A turning point was the 2002 tragedy in Gujarat,” he said referring to the communal riots that took place in that state after Muslims were blamed for an arson attack on a train carrying Hindu activists and political leaders from the Hindustan BJP party used heated anti-Islamic rhetoric to sweep to election victory. “Now relations between Hindus and Muslims have improved.”
I gently challenged Kiran with what I saw after the recent Mumbai bombings – allegedly by an indigenous terrorist group called the Indian Mujahadeen – as a rise of tensions. He observed that there could have been much greater retaliation against Muslims after the recent attacks, as well as the ones in Mumbai in 2008. “Those were meant to provoke. But Muslim leaders in India courageously said that killing innocents was not jihad and was against the Koran. Also, Muslim women in India have a strong voice.” He then suggested that the IofC-USA team think about inviting Indian Muslims (he had a Bombay professor and his wife in mind) to America to provide an example of Muslims integrated with Hindus and speaking out against violence.
WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM INDIA
“India has more to offer the developed countries, especially from this place,” Suresh said of Asia Plateau. This echoed a theme that others had mentioned: Asia Plateau in Panchgani being a gathering place for the world. For a long time, India has seen the West either as a donor or as a colonizer, but now India is in a position to give more to the West. Suresh thought that India could help Americans to think more critically about materialism asking us to consider at a deeper level, “What really satisfies humans?”
Ravi said, “My great fear for India is that we’ll get swept away by consumerism. Suddenly, the urban middle class is earning so much by Indian standards. When traditional society and families were stronger, people found it easier to make the right choices.”
The issue that many raised of offering trainings as the source of MRA’s self-sufficiency really resonates with me. “IofC has something very unique to offer the corporate world. We just need to put it together in ways that make sense for the corporate sector,” opined Kiran. He went on to contrast the IofC center in Caux which is primarily “a conference center” with Asia Plateau which is primarily “a training center” and therefore “gets better support.”
The key difference in the work of IofC in India is that they have this wonderful conference center at Panchgani that is the gathering place for the team, the nation and the world. Of course, that may have been true for the USA in the heyday of the MRA center on Mackinac Island in Michigan. But that is far from our reality today. Still, the work of IofC in India is exemplary in so many other ways. I hope we can take seriously their invitation to have us learn from them.