. . . through every land, by every tongue . . .

Living into the Pilgrimage to Pakistan

Earlier I described the nature of pilgrimage as I have grown to understand this spiritual passage and some of the thinking that was involved in preparing for a pilgrimage to Pakistan. In a few words, I will attempt to describe some impressions and delightful twists and turns in my two weeks in October 2015.

The first impression of Pakistan involved my arrival at the airport in Karachi and the three-hour trip to Hyderabad in the evening. I was met by my hosts Rev. Saleem Iqbal, pastor-in-charge at St. Philips Church in Hyderabad (a Church of Pakistan Congregation – a union church of Anglicans, Methodists, and Congregational Churches), and Rev. Samuel George, son of the founding pastor of the Philadelphia Pentecostal Churches of Pakistan, from Karachi. In many places in the world, the respect afforded a guest begins at the airport and I certainly was treated graciously. Rev. Iqbal and a driver took me on to Hyderabad.


As indicated earlier, security was a major concern not only of my institution, but also of my hosts. The SMU Risk Management personnel stressed being low-key and staying under the radar in travel. When traveling cross-culturally, one often misses specific cues as to what is happening and when it will happen. You are always trying to read between the lines in figuring out what you are supposed to do and when you are to do it. I may have missed the discussion, but was a bit surprised when our car was stopped about thirty minutes from Hyderabad by a Toyota pickup truck with guys in the back with rather large rifles. My host did not seemed to be alarmed, but it was dark and it took me awhile to spot the lettering on the truck – POLICE. Based on my stereotype of news coverage of the Middle East where one sees Toyota pickup trucks with guys in the back with large rifles who are labeled as terrorists, I must say that I was not entirely convinced at first. Evidently this was a pre-arranged meeting point that was the result of a police request to accompany an American into the city for the sake of security. It was not exactly the “under-the-radar” approach that had been stressed in Dallas, however. For the next thirty minutes, I had a feeling that all of Hyderabad knew that an American was arriving.

The last I will speak of security is that it was always a concern of our gracious hosts. My colleague Emily Brink and I were usually in the back seat of cars with curtains or shades drawn so that we could not be seen. Unlike any other place I have been, at no point did I venture out on my own to explore – just not a good idea here.

Theological and ecclesial diversity characterized this pilgrimage. In addition to hearing the Muslim call to prayer five times each day, sometimes from competing mosques in the same neighborhood, I found myself preaching and teaching at a worship and music conference for the Church of Pakistan in Hyderabad, preaching at revivals with the Philadelphia Pentecostal Churches of Pakistan in Karachi (including participating in my first healing service!), teaching at another worship and music conference for the Presbyterian Church in Gujranwala, and participating at an interfaith gathering in Lahore! For someone with an ecumenical yearning, it doesn’t get much better than that!

Punjabi Psalms

What ties all of these groups together? It would appear that psalm singing is at the heart of most Christian worship in Pakistan. Indeed, it seems that Pakistani Christians take the practice of psalm singing as seriously as most Christians anywhere on the earth, save monastic traditions! How is that for blowing a stereotype?! It all goes back to January 1882 when a committee was formed by the United Presbyterian Mission to prepare a metrical translation of the Psalms into Urdu that could be sung to Western melodies. The three on the committee included one Pakistani, Imam-ud-Din Shahbaz (c. 1844-1921). The initial project of translating all 150 psalms into Western meters was finished in October 1891.

Before this project was completed, however, there was a move to form a separate committee to prepare a parallel volume in Punjabi. Missionary Robert Stewart noted in 1899, “Less cultured of our people like native meters and native airs better than those of occidental origin, and it was found necessary to prepare a version of the bhajan form, and that too in the Punjabi tongue—the language which they love most and know best.” Bhajans are devotional songs for worship in Pakistan and India. Unlike the earlier project, the Punjabi Psalms were sung to indigenous tunes. For many Pakistani Christians, they were closer to the hearts of the people.

The central figure of this second committee using Punjabi was Imam-ud-Din Shahbaz who translated each psalm into a poetic versified form. The texts were composed first and bhajan-style melodies were chosen later. Imam-ud-Din was the product of Church Missionary Society (CMS) missionaries. He was a pivotal figure in Pakistani Christian history as a poet, teacher, theologian, pastor, and translator. His pen name was Shahbaz or “eagle.” He was ordained by the United Presbyterian Church and served as pastor of First United Presbyterian Church in Sialkot from 1886-1906. After 1906 he resigned his pastorate to pursue his translation work fulltime. A fuller account of the Punjabi Psalms and Shahbaz can be found at http://www.internationalbulletin.org/issues/2014-01/2014-01-036-sadiq.html.

For me, it was fascinating to see the Punjabi Psalms playing such a significant role in all styles of worship throughout this experience. Some were performed with traditional instruments while others were presented in a hybrid style combining western guitars and keyboards with traditional intricately tuned tabla drums (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQ_BJNFGmTg) and harmonium (See a demonstration at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EJ8FzBj2Jbg – yes, it seems to be a cousin to the accordion!).

Our last evening in Pakistan culminated with a rare Christian-Muslim (Sufi) dialogue in Lahore. Also present were Hindus and other groups. The evening was tied together by a shared tradition of psalm singing and interfaith witnesses. The following video is a recording of Psalm 1 in the Punjabi traditional bhajan style beginning with a freer improvisatory section performed by a soloist supported only by the harmonium. Then, at the appropriate point, the tabla player joins in the music providing a firm and lively beat. Though this rendition is more soloistic in nature, the best known Punjabi Psalms are congregational.

An interesting and significant subtext of this performance is that the tablas are played by a woman! She was the only woman I saw playing the tablas, and evidently one of the few in the country – and she was a Christian. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Oq7zkMki6k.

My contribution to the evening was rather modest. When called upon to lead a song at the last minute, I decided to add to the interfaith diversity by singing the Jewish folksong “Hine ma tov,” a setting of Psalm 133:1: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in peace! (NIRV).

The Pilgrimage is not finished .  .  . 

Though teaching and researching in Asia at the moment, I am still on the Pakistan pilgrimage in many ways. On January 20, Taliban fighters killed more than 21 people at Bacha Khan University in northwest Pakistan. (See: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2016/01/20/pakistan-university-attack/79046258/). Because of this, the Gujranwala Presbyterian Seminary (GTS), where I spent several delightful days with the students, is facing a crisis. My friend and fellow traveller Emily Brink at Calvin College reports: “Following the recent attack at a university in another part of Pakistan, the government this past week requested an update of security at GTS or face almost immediate closure. The upgrade would include placing barbed wire coils on top of the wall that already surrounds the campus, and many more stipulations, requiring money they do not have. Please pray for our brothers and sisters there, that the seminary may remain open while they gather funds.” (See http://www.theoutreachfoundation.org/gujranwala-theological-seminary/). Just as one embarks on a pilgrimage long before leaving, the pilgrimage continues long after returning home.

Photo: Women worshiping at Church of Pakistan congregation where I preached. In many congregations, women and young children sit on one side of the sanctuary and men on the other side.