Catalyst Radio: the interfaith movement in West Michigan

Here’s an interview I did on Catalyst Radio, of the Grand Rapid Community Media Center’s radio station WYCE, where I shared stories from my interfaith work in West Michigan.

Listen to the show here. 


Coming together, welcoming all: Interfaith gathering of healing, hope

This article originally appeared in The Rapidian.

Every year in Grand Rapids, our interfaith community gathers at Thanksgiving time in a spirit of expressing gratitude and unity through our diversity. While a secular holiday, each tradition brings a rich perspective to the theme, which this year is “Coming Together: Welcoming All.”

In the last few years especially, there has been an increased urgency in the need for this space to come together, across our differences, to listen to each other, learn from one another, and heal our divisions.

Last year, our Interfaith Thanksgiving Celebration was planned in the midst of a season where terrorism, violence and extremism were dominating the headlines, and subsequently Islamophobia and xenophobia spiked. This year, our gathering falls weeks after the U.S. presidential election, a campaign cycle which left our communities rife with discrimination and hate crimes, the highest amount since 9/11, according to reports.

Again, just like last year, our gathering is happening in the context of a depressing reality where communities are continuously divided across lines based on ideology and identity. And unfortunately, one of these lines of division that is often drawn is based on religious identity and affiliation.

But the beauty of interfaith engagement – and particularly events such as the Thanksgiving Celebration – is that religion can instead be used as a force to unite communities and create belonging. This is done not by watering down our distinctions and looking for our lowest common denominator similarity, but is accomplished by delving deep into our varied traditions and enriching ourselves by celebrating our diverse traditions and beliefs.

In this “thick dialogue,” as we call it, we gather authentically and whole-fully, listening to the various ways we express one common idea. And in the process, we learn from one another and we heal the divisions that we are told exist between our traditions and communities.

With this year’s Interfaith Thanksgiving theme, the audience will hear songs, reflections, and prayers expressing why various religious, spiritual, and secular communities in Grand Rapids continuously come together, year after year, to promote collective dialogue and action.

Faye Richardson-Green, executive director of Partners for a Racism-Free Community, will share what this looks like in her anti-racism work. Children’s choirs from the Grand Rapids Buddhist Temple & Zen Center as well as the local Baha’i Community will sing songs of finding peace and unity. Recitations of the Qur’an, the Islamic holy text, will echo in the sanctuary from our local Imams, Muslim faith leaders. Jewish, atheist, and Hindu community members will share reflections on gratitude and inclusion. Psalms and chants from our Christian brothers and sisters will show the hope and joy we can find in coming together.

In a city like Grand Rapids, where faith and religiosity are strong cultural forces for community-building and philanthropy, we need to use this potential for good by promoting authentic dialogue rooted in deep values.

In a city like Grand Rapids, which is rich in often overlooked diversity of houses of worship – including mosques, temples, synagogues, and secular gathering spaces – we need to represent the thickness of our traditions while using it in ways to build togetherness and unity.

In a city like Grand Rapids, where we are small enough to be interconnected in a variety of ways, we need to meet our neighbors and prove the possibility of coming together to promote the common good.

To be a part of this effort and conversation, we warmly invite you to join our interfaith community for a night of reflection and celebration. By creating a space that promotes respect and understanding amidst our diversity, we aim to be the healing power that is needed during this challenging political moment. Walking away from a night of coming together and welcoming all will allow each one of us to be our own ripple of hope and sign of unity for each of our communities moving forward.

Overcoming Othering and Promoting Belonging in this Political Moment

This piece also appeared in the Kaufman Institute Interfaith Insight on Tuesday, Nov. 15 and the Grand Rapids Press, Muskegon Chronicle, Kalamazoo Gazette, and Jackson Citizen-Patriot on Nov. 17.

In an article by john a. powell and Stephen Menendian, “The Problem of Othering: Towards Inclusiveness and Belonging,” they propose, “As we transition through political and economic realignments, we also go through a remaking of ourselves.” This shifting in identity – both individual and group – has the danger of further distinguishing and dividing us based on our differences. Whether it is political and ideological values, or ethnic and religious identities, these differences can either lead to a deeper division or a more united diversity.

The desire for separating ourselves from one another makes sense. Human beings have a natural tendency to distinguish groups from one another using categories that include some and separate out others.

But, as powell and Menendian point out, these categorical boundaries do not remain only in our minds and in-groups, but manifest in our actions and thus the world. Categories affect our behavior, inform our decisions, and lead to stereotypes, discrimination and group-based inequalities.

So when it is human nature to construct opposing and othering identities and groups, how can we resist the tendency? During this transformative political time as we are remaking ourselves and defining who is a part of “We the People,” how can we offer inclusive alternatives that honor one another and create a culture of belonging?

While some responses to diversity are segregation, secession and assimilation, powell and Menendian propose that the alternative to these ultimately unproductive strategies is promoting a sense of belonging through expanding the circle of human concern. This goes beyond “tolerating and respecting difference but to ensuring that all people are welcome and feel that they belong in society,” write powell and Menendian, directors of the Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, Berkeley.

One of my interfaith heroes who expanded the circle of human concern is Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, which brought together communities through houses of hospitality. In creating a movement meant to be a revolutionary force to change the social order, Day’s aim was to “try to make that kind of a society in which it is easier for people to be good.”

I would go further to suggest that new, inclusive categories and structures should not only make it easier to be good to one another, but also to see one another’s pain, to feel empathy for one another, and to engage in action on behalf of one another.

As powell and Menendian conclude, “the most important good we distribute to each other in society is membership.” With inclusive categories and structures also come inclusive narratives that support us all. By reframing our individual and group identities in a way that unites rather than divides, we also reject the narratives that pit us against others.

These narratives that divide and create othering have dominated our society for most of history. We must work diligently and collectively to uncover and promote the narratives that seek to unite and create belonging.

Policies and rhetoric have the potential to deny personhood and humanity or to grant full membership and participation in society.

The most important thing for us moving forward – all of us, regardless of political affiliation or religious beliefs – is to ensure that all people are able to fully participate and feel a sense of belonging in our country that is meant for all.

During this presidential campaign season and election, we saw that this expanded circle of human concern and belonging does not exist in our society, at least not yet. In remaking ourselves and our communities in the wake of this political moment, let us take into consideration the poetic words of Edwin Markham:

“He drew a circle that shut me out – heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle and took him in!”

Raimon Panikkar on “hope”

An excerpt from a favorite theologian/philosopher/mystic of mine, Raimon Panikkar. I came across this as I was reflecting on how to find hope in a post-election, Trump era. His ideas of hope not being of the future, but instead of the present, is a life-giving notion I’m trying to live into.

“What our contemporaries most lack is hope. Everybody has faith—in one thing or another. Love, of all sorts, is also present everywhere. We believe in so many ideas and love so many things, but our culture has little hope. Most people drag their feet along without much enthusiasm and need a variety of stimuli to go on living with a certain joy. Existence, for many has become boring, when not a burden. Here we need to dispel a misunderstanding: hope is not of the future. Hope should not be confused with a certain optimism about the future which only betrays a pessimism about the present. Hope is not the expectation of a bright tomorrow. Hope is of the invisible.

Love is more directly related to the first eye, the sensitivity of the senses, although it can soar up to the amor Dei intellectualis (intellectual love of God) of a Spinoza. Faith is closer to the reality opened to the second eye, the intellectual aspect of reality. Hope has a deeper relationship with the third eye, the inner dimension of the real. Hope opens up our vision of this third dimension which has been so undeveloped in recent generations. The shift in meaning in the common use of the word is related to a lack of contemplation and is highly significant: hope has gone from a discovery of a hidden meaning of the present, or of an otherwise invisible aspect of the real, to an expectation of change for the better in the future; from a plunge into the present to a projection into the future. The world in which we live seems to make us believe that the visible and rational universe is the only reality. These lectures aim at communicating an effective hope in the deepest dimension of our world.”

-Raimon Panikkar, The Rhythm of Being: The Unbroken Trinity, part of the Gifford Lectures

Building a common life after the presidential election

This piece also appeared in the Kaufman Institute Interfaith Insight on Tuesday, Nov. 1 and the Grand Rapids Press, Muskegon Chronicle, Kalamazoo Gazette, and Jackson Herald on Nov. 3.

These past few weeks, as we have come closer to the end of an election campaign cycle that has proved ugly and divisive, I have become increasingly focused not on Nov. 8, but instead on Nov. 9 and beyond. This campaign has deepened divides among Americans, and this social reality will not disappear once we elect a new president. The concerns that have been raised, the pain that has been made public, will live on and remain necessary to address.

Eboo Patel and Krista Tippett recently addressed this topic — and their visions for where we go from here — at a recent panel I attended that was hosted by Interfaith Youth Core. Held in Chicago, the panel was titled “Diversity, Disagreement, and Democracy: Faith & Politics in an Election Year.”

Patel, founder and director of Interfaith Youth Core, and Tippett, acclaimed radio show and podcast host of “On Being,” brought wisdom and foresight to a challenging question of our time: How do we live together beyond this election?

Because, as we were reminded by Tippett: “If we don’t live together, we don’t live.”

It has become increasingly evident during this campaign cycle that we as Americans and fellow citizens hold many differences. We come from diverse backgrounds, we live out values in conflicting ways, and we hold varied ideologies. Diversity is a fact of America. But how we engage diversity is a choice.

And importantly, as Patel often notes, diversity does not just include differences we like. Diversity also includes the differences we do not like, and the differences that we would rather not engage.

These are the differences that have become most prominent during the presidential election.

But when the differences are so numerous, and the divides so vast, how can we imagine constructing a common life? When compromise is seemingly impossible amid polarized, partisan rhetoric, what hope do we have in creating circumstances for common ground to exist and flourish?

Our panelists, each coming from their own fields of interfaith engagement and journalism, brought two answers to the question of how we can build common ground and a common life: relationships and listening.

Patel reminded us that even when individuals are not able to agree or cooperate on one task or goal, there is possibility of finding another shared goal that people can work on together. The interfaith movement is rich in examples of groups that find certain projects to work together on when they remain in disagreement about other issues. Even while people from varying religious, spiritual and secular traditions have different notions of life and death, they can still find shared interests and build common ground from there.

Tippett then reminded us that political life requires not only advocates, those who seek to further their own issues and goals, but also listeners. Listening, she said, is not just about being quiet and waiting for your turn to speak. Listening is about being present, and hearing the pain or concern of another. By doing so, we enlarge our sense of the world, and deepen our understanding of ourselves and others along the way.

Relationships and listening. This may sound simplistic and idealistic to some, or like a feel-good Band-Aid to a much deeper broken system. But I believe that living out these ideas in practice is something that can truly change our communities and society.

And the reality is that these things already are creating positive change and growth for our country. The stories of people building relationships and cooperation across difference, or using listening and dialogue as a tool for social change, are the ones that I hear weekly on Tippett’s radio program. These stories are the ones that thousands of Interfaith Youth Core students and alumni across the country are promoting through their work that spans disciplines and fields.

Common ground and the common life is already being constructed through relationships and listening, but we do not hear these stories on the evening news. So part of our challenge during and after this presidential election is to not only utilize these approaches, but to pay attention and take this alternative narrative seriously.

Yes, brokenness and hopelessness are real. I see it and feel it, like many others, on a daily basis.

But a common life is still possible, because dialogue and cooperation are also real.

Let us live into this reality together, not as Democrats and Republicans or as conservatives and progressives, but as collaborators toward the common life. Because as Tippett reminded us at the panel, the “together” part of this work is not an option – it is a necessity. We live together, or we don’t live at all.