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Global Vision - Spring 2009

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Q&A with Dr. Nalini Arles

by Laura Kaslow, Communication Specialist

Home Country: India

Current Position: Professor, United Theological College, Bangalore, India

Dr. Arles comes from Bangalore, India, where she teaches in the department of Christian Ministry at United Theological College. She was the first woman to hold the post of dean of the master's studies program, a post she held for three years. In 2007, Dr. Arles was the first Asian woman elected as president of the International Council on Pastoral Care and Counseling.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I am married to Arles, who has a Ph.D from Aberdeen University and teach[es] missiology. I have two boys; one is in London and the other is in Indianapolis, [where they] are [both] pursuing their studies.

I received a bachelor's degree at Mysore University in India, a master's degree at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

I belong to the Church of South India, Karntaka Central Diocese.

I was one of the founding members of the Association of Theologically Trained Women in India, and served as its vice president and president for a term [each].

You are currently a professor at United Theological College in Bangalore, India. Talk a bit your role there.

I joined United Theological College in 1994 and was made a professor in 2002. I teach in the Department of Christian Ministry, [where I] have held the post of department chair several times. I was made dean of the master's studies program. We have three deans - one each for the doctoral, graduate and master's [degree] programs. This was the first time a woman held that post. I held it for three years.

For several years, I have been the coordinator of United Theological College Counseling Training Center (UTC-CTC), which offers a diploma course in counseling for secular students. [It is an] experimental, module-based course and a modified form of CPE [which involves] secular students and theological students [receiving] hands-on experience from specialists in different rehab centers.

Can you share some background about UTC?

UTC was established in 1910, the same year as the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh. [It] is an ecumenical college [that belongs to] a union of churches and does not prescribe to a particular denomination.

UTC has a staff of 24, most of whom have been educated abroad. Many of my colleagues have served the church in various capacities in the World Council of Churches, World Alliance and Reformed Churches [and at] theological colleges in the United States, Europe and other parts of the globe. We have between 350 and 400 students enrolled.

UTC, located in Bangalore, is affiliated with Serampore University near Calcutta, a secular university.

I am proud to teach at UTC because it is known for excellence and academic rigor. Notably, Dalit theology was an offshoot of UTC, as well as dialogue. The whole concept of dialogue was born at UTC. I am proud of my rich heritage.

Talk about your home city, Bangalore, India.
Bangalore, originally the "Garden City of India," has now become the science and computer capital, also known as [the] "Silicon Valley" [of India]. [Bangalore is home to] eight million people of all religions, [who] speak many languages. It is a cosmopolitan English-speaking city. At the same time, one cannot overlook the abject poverty experienced in many [of the] slums [in Bangalore], where people are denied the basic necessities.

The largest teaching and training hospital for mental health [in India], the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Surgery is located [in Bangalore]. There are more than 600 churches and 60 Bible colleges in Bangalore.
What is your main area of research?

One of the things I am working with now is publishing my Ph.D.

Being a Dalit [the "untouchable" caste in India], a woman and specialized in pastoral care and counseling, I have focused my research on the "psyche of  Dalits" and compared some of their behavior, lifestyle and coping patterns with African-American communities, [where I] have found a lot of similarities.  For example, the music of both the communities [is] rich in meaning. [However, they are] now both popularized and invade the dominant culture, but [are also] unfortunately commercialized.

Liberation of Dalits means [the] liberation of humankind from all oppressive forces of caste, class and economy. I am interested in viewing this issue moving forward.

What are your areas of specialty?

I am specialized in pastoral care and counseling. Being trained in this area, [I am] interested in the paradigm shift of moving away from dealing with interpersonal and intrapersonal problems to addressing the effects of the larger systems on individuals. [I am also interested in] moving away from the traditional approach of dealing with individuals, to community or context and applying pastoral care to the socioeconomic and political context of India.

Being a Dalit, I am interested in Dalit theology, as well as in the re-reading of scriptures from a subaltern or a post-colonial perspective. [Additionally], I am interested in dialogue. It is important to understand diverse cultures.

What groups/organizations are you involved with?

I am involved with the Society for Intercultural Pastoral Care and Counseling (SIPCC), an organization in Germany. [Until] last year, I attended their conference and served on their executive committee. [The organization] aims at bringing people across the globe [together] with Europeans for education, interaction and mutual sharing of intervention and prevention methods.  In 2007, I was the first Asian woman elected as the president of SIPCC.

I am also involved in NGO's (non-governmental organizations) working for the rights of women, and I train their staff in counseling. I am also involved in teaching and training programs. There is a great need for counselors, lecturers and CPE trainers in India. A place to look for opportunity to serve [is] in India.

What does it mean to be a Christian in India?

To be a Christian is easy except in a few pockets of resistance, where there has been persecution. In India, religion is not personal, it is public. You can talk about it openly. It is common to talk about your faith with your neighbors. We are used to tolerance and sacrifice. Religion is a way of life. In our understanding of spirituality, there is no sacred and secular.
Tell me about the different religious festivals you celebrate.

We know by the bells which religious festival is occurring. We accept [this] as a part of life. Even funerals are public, but each [religion has] their own songs or signs or symbols.

UTC celebrates most of the festivals [that are either] regional [and/or] religious in nature.

In the worship at UTC, we reflect theologically and at times invite [an address from] Hindus and Muslims, and follow it by a common meal. The worship is colorful using traditional dance, music and culture. This is all arranged by students, and faculty belonging to regional groups.

Festival is a sharing concept. Festivals in India [include the] sharing and giving away [of] food and gifts of money. We do not concentrate on individual gifts.  [At] Christmas, [we] give gifts to other communities, such as neighbors, non-Christian colleagues and friends.

The house will be filled with people the whole day for various meals. Generous gifts of money and clothes are given to those who hold positions like janitors, gardeners, and the poor, etc. Home is not a private property where others are excluded, but a place of celebration and joy.

What will you teach while at Luther?

At Luther they've asked me to teach two courses: "The Surviving Majority: Ministry with Older Women" and "Cross-Cultural Gerontology: Aging Around the World."

I look forward to teaching and exploring the problems of the elderly and how their needs are met, particularly in this context. Along with loneliness and [the] psycho-social abuse in nursing homes [that] one hears [about], there are also substantial success stories of resistance. I am interested in learning how the church responds to this.  I look forward to seeing the U.S. context, to learn from this context [and] to challenge them [to think in terms of] the community-based care [system] in the Asian context, where [the elderly are] looked [at] as people of wisdom and experience and are treated with respect.
More than teaching, my mission [while at Luther] is to network with people. More and more we hear of homogenization of cultures, one currency, one world, one economy. However, I can't agree with "one culture."  Having McDonald's and KFC, Pizza Hut and jeans in India doesn't indicate one culture.  [There is a] need [for the diverse learning] about the uniqueness of [one's] own culture, yet [while being a] critic of [one's] own culture. [There is also a need to be] willing to adopt, [while] keeping the larger goal in mind-- to work for [the] values of justice, equality and peace.

My mission is to strengthen our work together. This is one of my concerns -- to work together, to share knowledge and resources in classroom situations. [I hope to] work together to challenge cultural imperialism, unearth oral traditions and challenge cultural encapsulation. My interest in coming abroad is not teaching one course, in one place, in one area, but how best we can educate, cooperate and work together as friends.

For more information visit United Theological College