Our “Kairos” Moment: A Call for Action

This originally appeared as an Interfaith Insight in the Grand Rapids Press on July 31, 2014. 
“Each one of you is needed to reteach the world its own loveliness.” That was the charge to a group of 39 millennial leaders, ages 21 to 35, as we gathered at Union Theological Seminary in New York earlier this month.

Our week of discussing spirituality and social justice culminated in a conversation on the definition of a “kairos” moment. According to the website of the Kairos Institute, a center at Union for religion, rights, and social justice, kairos is “an ancient Greek word for a time when conditions are right for the accomplishment of a crucial action; the opportune and decisive moment; also a moment when the eternal breaks into history.”

I came home considering what West Michigan’s kairos moment is for interfaith relations. What are the conditions we live in, and how do they inform the direction of our community?

As I approach my one-year anniversary of working for the Kaufman Interfaith Institute, a few lessons stick out to me.

  1. We have a desire to get to know our neighbors, especially those who are different from us. Through both formal and informal interfaith dialogues and conversations, I’ve encountered such a sincere curiosity and interest in being a part of a community that consists not just of like-minded individuals, but also those who can teach one another about new ways of viewing life, religion and spirituality.
  2. While we have made significant strides, intolerance still persists. Although we have seen much of the respect and interest I just mentioned, we have also seen there remain issues that divide our communities from one another. Whether it is the current conflicts in the Middle East, or the distrust that lies between religious and non-religious groups, we have yet to achieve a deeper recognition of our shared humanity.
  3. We must recognize the “intersectionality” of interfaith issues. At its core, the interfaith movement is working toward a world where our religious or non-religious identities are all respected. In other words, it is working against religious discrimination and oppression. However, this does not occur in a vacuum, it stands alongside all other forms of oppression. In order to meaningfully combat religious discrimination and oppression, we must do so in a way that recognizes we cannot stand up for some rights while ignoring others.

I view my responsibility in this kairos moment as a call, in the words of Union Seminary theologian Dr. John Thatamanil, to “remind people of the loveliness of the world so that they will attend to the repair of the world.” This kairos moment cannot be tackled by any individual or organization alone. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Whether in spirit or in action, I look forward to the West Michigan community joining us in this exciting and defining moment. Stay tuned to this newsletter, our website, our Facebook page, and always feel free to email us to be a part of where this kairos moment is taking us.

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America’s interwoven story with religious diversity

Since returning home from a Religious Diversity Leadership Workshop, I have been staring at a red, white, and blue bracelet that was a gift to me when I visited a Buddhist temple. I was struck by the symbolism of receiving a bracelet that was not only so patriotic, but coming from a Buddhist nun who had immigrated to the United States from Korea. To me, it celebrated the religious freedom that both she and I share as religious minorities in a pluralistic society, and it commemorated the values that our traditions share with our country.  To me, this small bracelet tells the story of America’s national narrative of religious pluralism.

Pluralism, outlined by Diana Eck at the Pluralism Project of Harvard University, includes four ideas: pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity; it is not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference; it is not relativism, but the encounter of commitments; and finally, it is all based on dialogue.

The book that epitomizes these values is Eboo Patel’s Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America. In it, he writes that his own inspiration for American pluralism comes from a verse in the Qur’an: “We made you different nations and tribes that you may come to know one another better.”

Patel says that our shared sacred ground is rooted in our national history and on-going narrative of pluralism. This history starts with a letter written by President George Washington, when he supported the establishment of the first Jewish synagogue on American soil in Newport, Rhode Island in 1790. The narrative then goes to the first-ever Parliament of the World’s Religions held in Chicago in 1893, a conference meant to create an on-going global dialogue between faiths. Next, our country’s storyof religious pluralism goes to the Civil Rights Era, where Martin Luther King Jr. was not only inspired by his Christian tradition, but also by Gandhi’s Hindu non-violence, by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel love of Hebrew prophets, and by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s belief in peace over war. King didn’t simply embody pluralism personally, but it was happening all around him – the March on Washington was not led by King alone, but also by A. Philip Randolph, a secular humanist.

While we have a history of bridging religious differences through conversation and cooperation, it is not always the case. In our post-9/11 world, negative stereotypes against the “other” have led to misunderstanding, discrimination, and violence. However, as citizens of a nation that consists of a patchwork of diverse traditions and religions, it is our challenge to overcome assumptions and build understanding.

Pluralism is not always easy, but to thrive as a community and as a democracy, it is necessary.  As Fourth of July celebrations commence this weekend, look for the narrative of tolerance, cooperation, and pluralism in your own community.