On the road with a colleague of Martin Luther King

By Rajmohan Gandhi - Posted on 11 January 2010

I write this in the afternoon (India time) of Sunday 10 January. Dr Otis Moss and Mrs Edwina Moss should be returning to Delhi at about this time after a night in Agra where they saw the Taj Mahal and received its indescribable impact.

Tomorrow, 11 January, is their last day in India. Their flight back to Cleveland, Ohio (via Brussels and Newark), is scheduled to take off from Delhi at 3 a.m. on the 12th. On the 11th he gives a major lecture on the Gandhi-King impact on human rights and civil rights after a meeting with Ambassador Romer of the USA and a luncheon for the Mosses hosted by Dr Karan Singh, MP, who is the president of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), a wing of the Ministry of External Affairs. The Mosses are visiting India as guests of the ICCR, which has put them up in excellent hotels and looked after all their air and surface travel.

That he is a leading member of President Obama's advisory council on faith-based and neighborhood partnerships is an inadequate way of describing Otis Moss, a Georgia sharecropper's son who went to prison for civil rights, was a friend and young colleague of Dr MLK Jr, served for 33 years as pastor of the biggest African-American church in Cleveland, Ohio, and is a wonderfully gifted spiritual leader and orator. His wife Edwina, also from Georgia, served on the staff of Dr MLK Jr., who in fact officiated at her wedding with Otis.

This is the first visit to India for each of them. Forty years ago they were all set to fly to India but an eve-of-travel discovery that Edwina was pregnant with Otis the 3rd came in the way. Four decades later they are on what they have spoken of as a pilgrimage to the land of Gandhi.

After a short night's rest in Mumbai (where they landed on the midnight of 29-30 December), the Mosses spent 4 nights at Asia Plateau, Panchgani, where Dr Moss led a retreat for about 50 persons, many of them in their twenties and thirties. Regions represented by the participants (who were Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Buddhist) included Kashmir, Nagaland, Manipur, other parts of India, and Tibet, Sudan, Iran, Fiji, and Malaysia.

Reflection, prayer, and honest conversations marked the eight Retreat sessions held over a 3-day period. Themes chosen by the gathering were addressed at these sessions, except for the last, which had no title or theme.

Dr Moss led the conversations with the minimum of words, plenty of humour, an abundance of calm, and deep feeling. Among the themes were conflict and its resolution, the struggle for the soul of Islam, India-US relations, the environmental challenge, understanding and coping with terrorism, and learning something about the lives of the Mosses (this was at the opening session).

Contact with mutual knowledge and fellowship leads (Dr Moss said) to community and a better world; contact without fellowship can generate fear, hate and violence. He and Mrs Moss said they felt they were amidst a new family and that the conversations were special. They should be continued elsewhere.

When, he asked, does the night end and daybreak occur? When one can distinguish between a dog and a wolf? No, he answered his question, it takes place when you see in another the eye of a brother or a sister.

Listening to the still small voice, prayer, meditation, forgiveness, nonviolence, inclusiveness, charity that does not demean the receiver -- these were notes that he frequently struck.

Answers to others' questions were given clearly, slowly, warmly, cordially. "I would like to think about that one," he replied, his eyes twinkling, when he was presented with a tricky sentence in Mumbai and asked whether he would endorse it. (This was at a quiet and profound conversation with about 40 people, mostly connected with business.)

In Mumbai he addressed two colleges (including one with a majority of Muslim students), a gathering of about 300 businessmen and professionals, another gathering of activists for corruption-free governance, a book launch at the American Center, and spent a meaningful time with the 40 or so already mentioned. At the end of the meeting at the Muslim-majority college, he remarked on the eagerness for reconciliation that he saw in his Muslim hearers and questioners.

At Panchgani and later in Mumbai, Bangalore, and Delhi, Gandhi, King and Obama were often on Dr Moss's lips. Often he spoke of the men who had brought Gandhi's thinking to King -- Benjamin Mays, Howard Thurman and Mordecai Johnson, all of whom he, Dr Moss, had known and learnt from. King got much from Gandhi; the torch that King carried is now in Obama's hands, he said.

And to different audiences he spoke of the unknown soldiers -- the unrecognized soldiers of often unknown nonviolent armies -- fighting with love for justice and reconciliation in different places.

The press wanted to talk to him in Mumbai and Bangalore (where the Governor of Karnataka, Hans Raj Bhardwaj, received the Mosses), and several people sought (and received) a sentence, thought, blessing or prayer from him. More than once I felt (and said) that it was as if Martin Luther King Jr, from wherever he was, had asked Otis Moss to travel to India and remind Indians of Gandhi.

At Birla House in New Delhi, the place where Gandhi was assassinated, responding to a request from Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee, granddaughter of the Mahatma and vice-chair of the Gandhi Memorial Committee, Dr Moss sang (on 8 January) a Christian hymn dear to Gandhi, "Were You There?" and revealed that his singing is as arresting as his speaking. Replying to another question from Mrs Bhattacharjee, who wanted to know what Mrs Moss liked and did not like about India, Edwina Moss replied that she loved the fact that Indians had been wonderfully warm, welcoming and accepting of her. What she did not like was the poverty and hunger she had seen, and she had been concerned too by the large number of billboards in Mumbai and elsewhere drawing Indians towards greater and greater consumption and accumulation.

New book

In this thought-provoking book, award-winning biographer and historian Rajmohan Gandhi sets the record straight on the founding fathers as well as their great opponent, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Along the way, he answers questions of perennial interest. More