My first week in the United States was not without its fare share of action and drama. Any new visitor to the US would relish the thought of seeing the sights that have been imprinted in the minds of the rest of the world thanks to American films and television. But I had a slightly off-the-beat experience, an exciting one nonetheless.
So I’m staying at the Co-Cathedral of St Joseph‘s here in the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York. This is also where the Communication Offices of the Diocese are located (hence my presence here). The Rector of the Cathedral, the Rev. Msgr. Kieran Harrington, also happens to be the Vicar of Communications and boy, is he a natural at his job!
So last Wednesday, on a calm and serene afternoon at about 2.30 pm, all hell breaks loose. Sr. Maria Amador, a 49 year-old nun was praying in Church (she was pretty much alone in Church at that time), when a big guy without a shirt on, approached her and began speaking to her. He leaned close to her within breathing distance and said “You guys don’t do anything for the poor” and then menacingly, he added “I’m going to kill you!”
At this, the nun got up and ran for her life, the entire incident being captured on the surveillance cameras set up inside the Church. Now as it turns out I was an eye-witness, since I had stepped into Church at that exact moment when he was talking to her. I was looking for someone else and not finding her, I closed the door and went back. But in the process I did catch a fleeting glimpse of the man talking to someone sitting behind a pillar (the good nun was hidden from my view). It was only later that I realised what I had witnessed. The organist practising upstairs in the choir loft was the only other principle witness.
The Press landed at our door for the next two days, and the poor sister had to recount her ordeal for the cameras many, many times over (though I think she relished the media attention). As for me, the cops took me in as a witness and I had to make many trips to the police station or the precinct to look at mug shots and give a statement. In a fortunate turn of events, they caught the guy the second day, and we were called again to identify him from a line-up.
So all in all, it was a complete NYPD experience. I had a huge opportunity to interact with the detectives and police officers and learn their story. I must say, that the NYPD is extremely professional and courteous. They went out of their way to make us feel comfortable and they were polite, explaining things to us every step of the way. But imagine that, just my fourth day in the US, and I was in a precinct! This incident has increased my respect for the New York Police Department.
Well, it must be said that we were not their regular crowd. One detective said in jest “A priest, two nuns and an organist walk into a precinct…now that’s the beginning of a joke!”
However, all the excitement aside, at first I was a bit bewildered at all the furore this incident created. After all, the guy hadn’t even touched her; he had threatened her verbally and she was safe though a bit shaken. In India, such an incident would not have created even a ripple, forget making the news. We deal with far more gruesome ordeals regularly, like priests being abducted and killed, nuns raped and churches attacked and burnt down. But I guess, that’s another part of the world. I realised that though thankfully nothing serious had happened and sister was safe, a lot worse could have happened. The incident was scary because it could potentially have been much worse. The attacker was obviously not in his complete senses and could have done anything. One blow from him would have hurt the nun tremendously.
There is a far greater sensitivity to such issues here in the US than in many other parts of the world. Such incidents are not ignored but dealt with immediately. I was impressed that the NYPD apprehended the guy in just two days.
Both the US and India are two of the world’s greatest democracies. India has traditionally been the cradle of world religions, but the recent spate of events has tarnished that image and minorities are beginning to feel increasingly unsafe at home. The Constitution protects our right to practice and profess our faith without duress and discrimination. We are a secular country and that should remain the fabric of our society if India is to earn her rightful place at the high table.
I know that the majority of Hindus in India are peaceful and welcoming of other religious traditions. Hinduism can never feel threatened by other religions. However, it is the ultra-right-wing extremist Hinduism that is usurping the national narrative and that is dangerous.
More dangerous is when the government plays into the hands of these elements and passes laws that go against the secular ethos of the constitution. I urge the government to focus on good governance and reign in these extremist elements lest they tear apart the glue that holds Indian society together.
India is not Hindustan. India is Bharat.
Read the news report and watch the video: Man threatens nun in Brooklyn Church