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  DEVOTIONAL  
 
   
Letter to Metropolitan
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  Most Rev. Dr. Joseph Mar Thoma Metropolitan Most Rev. Dr. Philipose Mar Chrysostom Mar  
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  ARTICLE  
     
  Who is afraid of William Lee?  
  Paranoiac police  
   
  A FEW days before 9/11, my wife and I were guests of the Rev C.A. Varghese of the Epiphany Mar Thoma Church in New York. He asked me whether I could give the sermon on the next Sunday. Though I was not a public speaker and my knowledge of things Biblical was limited, I accepted the invitation. At that time, I did not check what kind of American visa I had and whether I could "preach" or not.

A week earlier, author and veteran journalist David Aikman, who knows Washington like the lines on his palm, took us to the Capitol Hill and the State Department, where we were even allowed to attend the daily briefing by the State Department spokesman. I did not miss the opportunity to ask the spokesman a question. It was the first time my wife attended a Press briefing and that too at the State Department!

She was mightily pleased when I took her picture against the backdrop of the US flag at the Press briefing room. The security officials did not ask us on what basis we wanted to attend the Press briefing when we had only a tourist visa. These memories welled up in my mind when I read reports about the arrest and forced deportation of William A. Lee, Jr., an American evangelist.

Soon after the reports of his arrest in Kochi came, I visited his website to get more details about him. Lee is presently serving the Kingdom of God as Pastor of Daytona Deliverance Church of God in Daytona Beach, Florida. He is a native of Springfield, Massachusetts. He is a 1985 graduate of Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee with a Bachelors of Biblical Studies with an emphasis on Pastoral Ministry. His wife since 1994, Sheila Renee Lee, assists him in all his ministry work, though she is a hair stylist, beauty consultant and jeweler by profession.

An African-American, Lee has travelled extensively and was no stranger to Kerala or Kochi. His website lists Kumbanad in Pathanamthitta district in Kerala, India, as one of the places where he once addressed a Christian convention. He has many firsts to his credit. He is the youngest person of colour to address the Church of God General Assembly. His curriculum-vitae is indeed impressive.

I would have loved to attend his meeting in Kerala, just as I attended American evangelist Billy Graham's associate Akbar Abdul-Haq's meeting at Kottayam in the early seventies. The Kerala Police says Lee would never be allowed to visit India. Why has the state acted so tough against the American evangelist?

It may be a mere coincidence that in January 2003 when Joseph William Cooper, an evangelist from Ohio in the US, was manhandled by the right-wing Hindu forces near Thiruvananthapuram, the Chief Minister of the State was the same Oommen Chandy, who belongs to the Orthodox Syrian Church, which believes that the job of evangelisation was completed by the apostles in the first century itself. Instead of taking severe action against the miscreants, Cooper was deported from the country.

This time Chandy's government took proactive step against Lee. The charge against him was that he addressed a Christian meet at Kochi, organised by a Pentecostal group from Thiruvalla. Nobody had any complaint that Lee spoke against any person or any faith. By all accounts, he spoke about the Kingdom of God. But the police was keen to arrest him. So they found a loophole -- Lee had come on a multiple-entry tourist visa, which did not entitle him to preach the word of God.

I marvelled at the efficiency of the Kerala Police, which has not been able to solve the mystery about the "attack" on a school teacher in Kottarakkara, which rocked the Kerala Assembly a fortnight ago. Again, under what jail rules are a former minister and father of a minister, undergoing one-year imprisonment, allowed to stay in a "five-star" private hospital in the company of his relatives? And for greater comfort, he has a mobile phone to remain "connected"!

Perhaps, the Kerala Police knows the visa rules better than the jail manual. The reports about Lee's arrest were indeed hilarious, to say the least. Lee allegedly escaped when the police descended on the venue of "Musical Splash 2011" at Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium at Kaloor, Kochi. Immediately a "a national-level alert" was given. He allegedly gave the police a slip when they reached his hotel room.

But the police outsmarted him when they tracked him to his "hiding place" using sophisticated mobile phone technology. He was caught and presented before a magistrate who remanded him to custody. But for the intervention of the American Embassy, he would have remained in jail for a long period.

If the Indian Police had shown a fraction of such efficiency in dealing with David Coleman Headley, the Chicago-based Pakistani-American who shuttled between India and Pakistan planning the Mumbai attack of 2008, the lives of 164 people, including Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan, could have been saved. Unlike Headley who may have carried deadly weapons, Lee had only the Bible to clutch at.

As I read about the police raid on Lee, I remembered a passage from "Amma: A Living Saint" by Judith Cornell (Penguin). It's the biography of Mata Amritanandmai, who hails from Vallikkavu in Kollam district in Kerala. The book begins with an incident in New York on July 15, 1999. Two police officers William La Pough and Juan Colon were driving their unmarked patrol car through Central Park at 12:45 am.

They found the park quiet and tranquil. As they passed the Museum of Natural History, they found a large group of shoeless people dressed in white who were congregating outside the Universalist Church on the corner of West Seventy-sixth street. In New York this could only mean one thing: homeless people, so the officers decided to stop.

They were told about the hugging saint from Kerala who was hugging people in the Universalist Church. Curious, the policemen decided to look inside. They stepped into a mass of people jammed into a church too small to hold them. "Once inside, they heard the melodious and joyful sounds of sacred South Indian chants -- chants composed by Amma herself".

Among them was a New York Times reporter Corey Kilgannon "with hopes of getting a story". He saw the "two policemen, in full uniform, wearing nine-millimeter guns and bulletproof vests and badges climbing the altar towards Amma". New York at that time was being led by "Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a Catholic school-bred Republican politician who gained a reputation for cracking down on anything resembling deviant behaviour, and giving broad license to the police to be the same way".

Recalled the New York Times reporter: "My heart raced as I wondered if New York's Finest were actually going to handcuff the 'Hugging Saint'. Had the year's most bizarre news story suddenly fallen into my lap?" But the officers never reached for the cuffs. Instead, they kneeled down before Amma who "pulled the burly officers to her chest and whispered her blessings into their ears".

The reporter went to the policemen to get a quote for his story. No, it was not their first brush with spirituality. "Officer La Pough met Mother Teresa during a New York visit, and Officer Colon guarded the Pope in 1995". If Kochi's Assistant Commissioner Sunil Jacob and Inspector P.S. Shiju, who arrested Lee, were in New York, they would have asked Amma to show her visa and whether it permitted her to hold a midnight hugging session.

A few years later, I visited Amma's headquarters at Vallikavu and I was astonished to find many white-skinned foreigners taking part in a construction work. I did not find any policemen asking them whether their visa permitted them to work. Apple's co-founder Steve Jobs spent a few months in India during the formative period of his life. He was a spiritual seeker, though he had a tourist visa.

No, my argument is not that the thousands of foreigners who visit India for religious purposes should be deported just because they have a tourist visa. Everybody knows that it is easy to procure a tourist visa, than any other visa. That is why Lee had obtained such a visa. The Maramon Convention is more than a century old. It attracts speakers from all corners of the world. Of course, the Mar Thoma Church, which organises the convention, is resourceful enough to manage whatever visas are necessary for them. The organisers of Lee's programme might not have been that resourceful.

One question arises: Can the Indian police be asked to shadow all the tourists and check whether they violate the visa rules? Would heavens have fallen if Lee had spoken at the musical programme in Kochi? Would it not have been better for the Kochi policemen, like their New York counterpart, to sit and listen to him, rather than arrest him?

Do they realise what impression they have formed on the Americans by the arrest of Lee? Do they know what Swami Vivekananda had told an audience at the Opera House at Detroit in the US one evening in 1894? He said, "We want missionaries of Christ. Let such come to India by the hundreds and thousands. Bring Christ's life to us and let it permeate the very core of society. Let him be preached in every village and corner of India". (Boston Evening Transcript, April 5, 1894).

I checked the report as contained in the Collected Works of Swami Vivekananda and I found that it did not mention the Swami telling them not to come on tourist visas. The Swami would not be turning in his grave over the conduct of the Kerala Police because after seeing the rampant practice of "untouchability" and "unseeability" in Kerala, he had called the state a "lunatic asylum".

India was not always like that. E. Stanley Jones, the great American missionary, who was a friend of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who set up Sat Tal Ashram in Uttarakhand and who wrote the book "Mahatma Gandhi: An Interpretation" in 1963 mentions an incident in his book "Christ of the Indian Road".

Jones had gone for a series of religious meetings in Benares. Let me quote Jones: "We were amazed and delighted to find that the president of the university (Benares Hindu University) graciously consented to become chairman of one of our meetings. There were large crowds each night. At the close of the meeting one night the students of the university came and asked me to come over to speak at the university. I was surprised beyond measure and said, "My brothers, you don't want me over there?"
"Oh yes, we do," they replied.
"But I pressed a little further: "Do your professors know about it?"
"Yes", they said, "they want you to come".
"But", I still persisted, "what do you want me to speak about?" One of them answered and said, "If you don't mind, we would like you to speak about Christ". Another said, "we would like you to speak especially about the cross!"

When Jones went to the university, he was introduced to the audience by the Hindu chairman, a professor in these words: "I have been attending the public meetings but I have not been interested in the speaker as much as I have been interested in the person concerning whom he has been speaking. Young men, no such personality as that of Jesus has ever appeared in human history. He is the greatest character that has ever been in our world. Now today is a Hindu festival and we can begin the festival in no better way than to hear again about this person".

The professor spoke in the heart of Hindu orthodoxy and yet nobody even murmured. Fortunately for Stanley Jones, Oommen Chandy's police was not there. Otherwise, they would have checked his visa, sent him to jail and forcibly deported him without any of the newspapers raising its voice against the paranoiac behaviour. (Courtesy: Indian Currents)
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The writer can be reached at ajphilip@gmail.com
 
  By  A.J. Philip  
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