Last week, I was part of working group meeting to develop a new faith leader organization here in Miami. We spent an hour and a half developing a name, a declaration of intent, and beginning steps. I am sure that all of you would have loved to spend an hour and a half, developing a name and a declaration of intent. I guess that is why they call it a working group. I'd like to tell you it was inspirational, transformative, or spiritual, but really, it was just work. During this discussion, one of the Imams mentioned that he wanted to use the word Multifaith in the name of this organization. A Protestant member just wanted to use the word Faith. And I brought up the word Interfaith. I was told that Interfaith has too much baggage to be in the name. "What!" I thought. What kind of baggage does Interfaith have? I thought about this as the group eventually came up with the name Faith Leaders Alliance of Miami, FLAM. I'm choosing to think this is a work in progress.
How do we create a Worldwide Interfaith—I like that word Interfaith—Beloved Community? The United Nations is encouraging faith communities to work toward harmony during World Interfaith Harmony Week. There's that word again. Interfaith is an adjective: relating to or between different religions or members of different religions. Does relating to or between one another carry too much baggage? Multifaith sounds so separate, so stranded, like we faith leaders are just standing around, only talking to other people who share our own faith in a room full of people talking only to other people who share their own faiths, like parallel play. And Faith by itself doesn't necessarily mean spiritual or religious. I guess I feel like Rabbie Yoffie at these things sometimes.
I believe that having people gather from various religious traditions is valuable, but as Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie said, it can be boring.
This is a picture of a meeting of an interfaith group in Naperville. We were deciding on who would be responsible for what date to provide what presentation on what issue of religious significance. In some meetings that I have enjoyed, there was food—oftentimes from different cultures. In some meetings that I have found useful, we gathered together to speak as one voice about an issue. For instance, when I was on the Board of the Inter-Religious Council of Linn County, we wrote letters to the President of the United States, Iowa National and State representatives, and to the mayor and city council. We asked them to consider the needs of the least fortunate and most marginalized when making decisions. There had been some tax cuts for the wealthy that resulted in reduced budgets for food pantries and low-income housing. We offered quotes from our various religious texts and from religious leaders who supported the need for us all to consider those that are less fortunate than ourselves. Hoping our pollical leaders would reflect on these quotes as they made budgetary decision and voted on bills. I did follow up with the mayor, a fiscal conservative, by the way, and he was moved by the letter. And it led to further conversations between us. But many times, the interfaith meetings I attended were about bills, budgets, planning our next meeting, and introducing ourselves to one another, saying what faith community we were part of, and generally checking in.
That's not to say that I didn't care about the people I worked with in these meetings. I made friends with most of them. I got to know them, some of their families, and the generalities of their lives. But I've come to wonder: is this what it takes to create an interfaith—I am just going to keep using that word—beloved community? Making friends with people of other faiths. I will tell you that for some of the interfaith groups I was part, making friends was literally their whole agenda—to be friends with people of other faiths. I was surprised that this was explicitly told to me by the members of the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago during my first meeting—that knowing each other and being friends was the whole purpose of the organization. It seemed so simple, so non-goal oriented. They do also have a Thanksgiving Interfaith Service—
this is a picture of one of those Thanksgiving services in Chicago-- and had held a Peace Service in Millennium Park for a few years. And recently started an annual celebration of interfaith solidarity, inviting people from their various communities to join. Don't get me wrong, I appreciated making these friends, but I wondered if there could be more, should there be more to our gatherings.
So I ask how do we create an interfaith beloved community here in Miami? While we're still in quarantine? And how do we do that Worldwide? I will speak for myself on the matter, but first let me share a few thoughts from Rabbi Yoffie. Rabbi Yoffie wrote: "Why then have I been so involved [in Interfaith groups] for so many years? The reason is that very occasionally, something extraordinary happens: One of these conversations changes me, binds me to my colleagues, advances my understanding of myself and others, and adds texture and depth to my own religious beliefs and convictions." I feel that same way. And I believe that in order to create Interfaith harmony or Interfaith Beloved Community, we—not just this congregation, but people who are committed to an Interfaith Beloved Community-- need to find ways for people of different faiths to have simple fellowship, non-goal oriented friend experiences together, to provide space for friendship and opportunities for something special to happen.
This image is of an interfaith potluck that was held at a church I served. Besides providing this space and time tother, I have wondered what can we can do to prod—yes prod, provoke, stimulate, inspire-- those gathered toward extra-ordinary experiences together.
Rabbi Yoffie—as you can probably tell, I am big fan of his-- has some ideas about this. As he has reflected on what makes it difficult to provide the space for these kinds of experience to develop, he has concluded that people let their fears—fears of change in themselves, fears of other people or their beliefs, fears of conflict—keep them from engaging in authentic dialogue with one another. He wrote:
"In thinking back on the moments [when something special happens], it seems to me that there are three things that make for a “good” dialogue and that turn tiresome interfaith conversations into meaningful religious moments.
First, meaningful dialogue happens when the conversation turns to our religious differences. Platitudes are set aside when, as representatives of our faith traditions, we cease to be embarrassed by the particular; when we put aside the search for the lowest common denominator that most often characterizes — and trivializes — our discussions; [meaningful dialogue can happen]… when we recognize that, absent a clear affirmation of who we are, how we are different and what we truly believe, all our conversations are likely to come to nothing.
Second, inter-religious exchanges become compelling when my colleagues and partners give expression to their religious passions. I am drawn in when they share with me their deepest beliefs and strangest customs, no matter how radically "other" they are from my own. And the sharing of religious passions should lead to passionate debate, in which we struggle with the really hard questions: What happens when conflicting beliefs lead to conflicting interests? What do we do about those areas where differences cannot be bridged and must be dealt with?
Third, inter-religious dialogue truly touches us when we can discuss what we all know to be true but what we rarely say: that, in some ways at least, we all believe in the exceptionalism of our own traditions. We all tend toward the conviction that there are some elements of our religious beliefs and practices that stand above and apart from what other religions offer, and it is liberating when we are able to acknowledge this and then explain why we think that way, without apology but open to the honest reactions of those around us."
So, how do the dialogues you have had with people of various faith traditions go? What would change if we had dialogues like that at UU Maimi with each other? Sharing our different beliefs—without the fear that some belief—your beliefs-- might not be accepted? What if we took a risk and shared our spiritual passions, and the exceptionalism of what we believe, while being civil, respectful, loving, compassionate with one another? What a challenge. And how rewarding. What if being radically welcoming wasn't just for guests in our congregation? What, if you, all of you, could feel radically welcomed?
When we speak authentically, with an open heart and an open mind, I believe so much more is possible. I try to see every relationship as an opportunity for this kind of dialogue. And for the most part I have found these conversations lead to rich, deep, long-lasting connections with people I would not normally have had relationships with.
On the tenth anniversary of 9-11, I was the president of the Inter-Religious Council of Linn County. As a council, we decided that we wanted to hold a service for the whole county in the Minor League Baseball Stadium. The team is the Kernels, as in kernels of corn. We talked with the police and fire departments both of which were part of the yearly observance by the city. We asked the stadium manager if they would let us use the stadium. We asked the city and county government officials to be part of it. And we asked all the faith communities to join us on that Sunday afternoon. And we started planning the program, calling it Remembrance, Reflection, Reconciliation. Well over 1,000 people attended in the open-air stadium. During the service a piece of the twin towers was donated to the city with much ceremony, and bells were tolled for those lost on 9/11. An evangelical preacher spoke on Remembrance; sharing his experience of the day—the sadness, shock, trauma-- and the meaning of that experience he carries with him. He spoke of how the experience strengthened his belief in our country and what we were capable of enduring when we support one another. Then an episcopal minister shared some of her Reflections over the past ten years of the experience—including the wars that were started over this attack on the twin towers. And we ended with a 16 year old Islamic girl who spoke on Reconciliation. She told us of the prejudice she had experienced and still experiences due to 9/11. She spoke about the support she had gotten from various people in the city, not just from the Islamic community. She spoke of her hope for a future without prejudice and fear. She was amazing. We ended the service by bringing everyone out of the stands onto the field, forming a big circle, holding hands. And a Zen Buddhist monk offered her blessing and we sang a hymn together. Many of us were moved to tears by the service and there were a few—because there are always a few--who complained about what the Islamic girl said—perhaps not ready to move on from the fear and hurt of 9/11 just yet. It is these kinds of interfaith experiences, with honesty, passion, authenticity that offer people the opportunity of transformation, the opportunity to create interfaith beloved community. Even the complainers, or maybe especially the complainers.
Some final thoughts. I believe whole-heartedly that working with people whose faith tradition is other than my own is worthwhile, especially something impactful, something that makes a difference. It can be an opportunity for interfaith beloved community to ignite, but only if we can be authentic with one another. I'll tell you a story. When working with Black Evangelical Leaders on mentoring black youth in Chicago, at one of their breakfast meetings—
this image is one of those meeting--a woman preached that sex was only sanctioned by god if it was between a man and a woman. I was unwilling to give up on the work we were doing, but I had to talk with these black faith leaders about the impact this had on our Unitarian Universalist Social Justice members who were also at the breakfast—some of whom were LGBTQ--in order to be authentic with them, even though it was a risk, in order for our relationships to grow deeper, and our work together to continue in good faith.
I believe that I must live into my interfaith relationships, being present when I am needed for my interfaith siblings—like the time an elderly Sikh in Naperville, Illinois was nearly beat to death and we all—people of many faiths-- came together at the Naperville Islamic Center to speak from our hearts and our faiths about this tragedy and our need for solidarity.
I talked to his son before getting up to read:
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.
This was written by theologian Martin Niemoller, an anti-Nazi Lutheran pastor.
So, I am willing to attend boring interfaith meetings, grinding out the details and framework of our future Faith Leaders Alliance of Miami in the hope of creating an interfaith beloved community, in the hope of experiences of authenticity and connection with my interfaith siblings, and in the hope of offering opportunities for transformative interfaith experiences. I attend interfaith gatherings to the work that is needed to be done and for those rare extraordinary moments, that add texture and depth to my own religious beliefs and convictions as well as offering opportunities for others to add texture and depth to their beliefs and convictions. I invite you into this interfaith work, to join interfaith gathering, and while you are there, be open the opportunities they offer for transformation and beloved community. Namaste, Shalom, Blessed be, Amen.