It was about six o’clock in the evening and I didn't have much time left before the sun set on my first and only day in Agra – home of the Taj Mahal. I decided it best to walk into town and see what I can see, so I wandered around near aimlessly for the better part of an hour. A hostel/restaurant with a yellow sign boasting a "Taj" view caught my eye, so I walked up the narrow stairs to the third floor to ask for a menu. The place was deserted. And dusty. And it looked like no one had been inside for years, so I made for a quick retreat. Before I could get down the stairs, though, a man with a fantastic mustache and a sweaty undershirt ran up to me and asked, out of breath, "Sir, would you like to eat at the restaurant." I reluctantly said yes and he walked me back up the stairs to the roof. He guided me up to the top of a yellow concrete water tower, and I asked for a menu.
"Sorry, sir, but no menu," he said.
Instead he handed me a chair and a big stick. "Sit, sit," he said, and then he handed me the stick.
"What's the stick for," I said.
And he replied off-handedly, "Oh, to fight the monkey."
The potential for monkey battle conveyed, my host left me to a beautiful view of the Taj Mahal as a gentle rain began to fall and the sun began set behind my back.
Most travelers that I met in my summer in India have at least one monkey story, so I thought I would begin my small contribution with mine. I came to India not as a tourist, however, but on the Greeley International Internship Grant; a summer program designed for Harvard Divinity Students who want to do international interfaith work. I worked primarily with an organization called The Daya Center for Peace in Hyderabad, India – an organization which trains children, youth, and adults in the art of peaceful conflict resolution and peace building practices.
Aside from being exposed to monkeys for the first time, my summer in India afforded me an opportunity to do real, substantive, interfaith work for the first time in my life. I have been shaking my head in fervent agreement with my fellow progressives who stress the need for interfaith dialog and interfaith social action since college, but never before had I had the opportunity to be immersed in a truly interfaith culture.
India has felt the sting of interfaith conflict for countless decades, but Daya (which means compassion in Sanskrit) believes that a world without violent conflict is possible. Daya doesn't preach the antiquated interfaith credo that "all religions are the same," because they're not. Instead we work to educate children about how to exist fruitfully and compassionately amidst the vast differences.
If you'd like more information about The Daya Center for Peace, or would like to know how you can help them create a world free from violent conflict, please visit:
Zach Kerzee is a Master of Divinity Student at Harvard Divinity School from Abilene, Texas.