GVSU Interfaith lecture encourages civility

GVL/Bo Anderson

Padma Kuppa

GVL/Bo Anderson Padma Kuppa

Ryan Jarvi

People ranting and raving about their belief systems is nothing new. Many students have probably heard about individuals not fitting the mold of an ideology and facing the impending doom of an eternal sentencing to a place of punishment.

Some students may have even interacted with this ranting person hoping to reach some rational resolution of religious or ideological differences. Chances are the dialogue between both sides grew heated and spiraled out of control into a whirlwind of wild accusations and personal attacks.

This was not the scene at Grand Valley State University’s 2013 Rabbi Philip Sigal Memorial Lecture, as speakers from separate faiths engaged in civil conversation and open religious dialogue.

The event, which was sponsored by the Interfaith Dialogue Association and the Kaufman Interfaith Institute at GVSU, attracted a small audience to Loosemore Auditorium Monday night.

Padma Kuppa, a Hindu and interfaith activist from Troy, Mich., spoke of religious freedom and pluralism, while Rev. Paul Kortenhoven, a man with several degrees and even more years of missionary work, spoke from the Christian point of view.

Fred Stella, president of the IDA, said the event was a success as both speakers came with an understanding of pluralism and similar positions on the unethical practices of proselytization.

“Padma does not condemn all people who are missionaries, only those who engage in deceptive and unethical practices,” Stella said. “Paul comes to the table agreeing with Padma, that ethical practices are extremely important. His story of how he engaged Muslim and animist citizens in Africa indicate his appreciation for pluralism.”

Kuppa, who is a columnist for Patheos.com, co-founded the Troy-area Interfaith Group and has worked with WISDOM (Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue and Outreach in Detroit). Four years ago she also became an executive councilmember of the Hindu American Foundation where she works on interfaith issues and became interested in predatory proselytization.

Kuppa told the audience her parents currently live in India and she visits them frequently. “One of the things I see every time I go back is a proliferation of churches, and the church planting that’s happening and the people who are approached to be converted,” she said.

She told of a watchman who lives in the same building as her parents who had an older daughter with medical issues. To receive medical assistance they were asked to convert to Christianity, Kuppa said, offering one example of predatory proselytization—the unethical methods used to attract converts.

Kortenhoven has been a Christian his whole life and spent 15 years with his wife and family in Sierra Leone doing missionary work. He has three degrees from Calvin College and Seminary, including a master’s in divinity, and has taught in the Chicago public school system, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

“I’ve never proselytized in my life,” Kortenhoven said. “I was a missionary for over 35 years in Nigeria, in the United States and Sierra Leone, and never once did I ever attempt to force anybody to believe anything other than what they believed already.”

Kuppa hopes to write and publish a report with all the research she has done on predatory proselytization and pluralism.

“I use the power of the pen,” Kuppa said of her efforts to raise interfaith awareness.

She hopes the report could be used when the U.S. government sets public policy, or if the United Nations ever revises article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

The article should also mention the right to retain one’s religion, Kuppa said.

“Just as religious freedom is a human right, we also believe that to retain one’s religion, and to be free from aggressive and predatory proselytization is also a human right,” she said. “Not only are you free to change your religion, but you’re also free to retain your religion and be free from people taking advantage of the imbalance of power.”

Imbalances of power are important factors in predatory proselytization, Kuppa said.

“What happens if I’m economically poor or emotionally vulnerable?” she asked during her lecture. “What about when there’s that imbalance of power, (and) suffering and I am approached. Am I free, really free, to retain my religion?”

Kuppa said she gets nervous when speaking opposite of someone with many degrees, and even though she considers herself well-read, she’s just a minivan mom.

“I’m a minivan mom who became an activist to make society better for her children,” she said. “To believe in the American dream, not just the economic aspect of it, but what it really means to be with the core democratic values. I think that’s the strength of my conviction and that’s what carries me.”

Though he doesn’t call himself a pluralist, Kortenhoven understands pluralism exists in our society and thinks we should enjoy it.

“I think Padma did an excellent job and that we should understand our pluralistic society better than we do, but that doesn’t mean we have to change our own belief systems,” he said. “We have to get along—conflict serves no purpose in our society.”

Stella said one mission of the IDA is to advance the understanding of religions and ideologies by study, dialogue and sharing about religious experiences.

“I think that it was a much more civilized dialogue between those two than to get somebody who just railed against all missionaries, and a missionary who came to say that all people who don’t listen to him are going to hell,” Stella said. “That would have been the opposite of what we had tonight and it would have been a dismal failure—there would have been no dialogue. Hopefully people on either side learned something.”

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