Unity of Hilton Head held its second annual Interfaith Harmony service in alignment with Governor Henry McMaster's proclamation of January as South Carolina's Interfaith Harmony Month. Among the faiths celebrated were Bahá’í, Islam, Judaism, Native American, New Thought, and Taoism. Here below 21 slides each of which have a Time Stamp in upper left hand corner if you would like to quickly navigate to that segment of the video which was made from the audio and these slides. Here's the link to the video: Unity of Hilton Head Interfaith Harmony Service.
Last Sunday January 14th the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center of Charleston hosted an event in alignment with the observation of January being South Carolina’s Interfaith Harmony Month. The evening featured presentations from different faiths on Angels and Experiences. The event ran from 4 to 6 PM and offered food and drink for all, I especially enjoyed a dish prepared by our hostess Shaila Shroff’s husband Vijay.
Our Hindu hostess selected and introduced the topic. Later on she shared her considerations of the concept of angels from both a Hindu and physicist’s point of view. The first speaker was Dinesh Sarvate who is a trustee of the Temple and Cultural Center and has had priestly duties there as well. Following was Muskan Singh, a Sikh who sang a beautiful song in what I believe was Punjabi, the language in which most portions of the Guru Granth Sahib (one of their sacred texts) was written in. She was followed by her grandfather Gajindav Singh who had a career as an educator in New York. IPSC’s chair Dr. Adrian Bird spoke next, he also serves as Visiting Professor of Christian history at Union Presbyterian Seminary, Charlotte. Howie Comen a long time interfaith activist and a private detective, shared interesting material from both Judaic and Islamic perspectives. Radhika Pande chanted a lovely prayer for us, and finally Herb Silverman spoke from his perspective as an Atheist, he serves on the Mathematics faculty of College of Charleston.
Adrian and I found the topic interesting in several ways which have resulted in an ongoing email conversation. During his presentation he expressed surprise that in his years of teaching no one had posed a question about angels in his seminary classes. Several of the speakers addressed how we commonly recognize certain kind and caring people as angels. Mr. Silverman shared that he was not expecting to find much agreement with the other speakers and although he disavows supernatural angels he was very comfortable with the notion of natural, human angels. All in all a fascinating and enjoyable evening with a generous and thoughtful group of people. Thank you Shaila.
Today as we celebrate the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King I was moved to make this triptych image to illustrate the spiritual genesis of Dr. Kings Non-Violent philosophy. It is well known that King was deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s successes using nonviolent resistance. King argued that the Gandhian philosophy was ‘‘the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom’’.
What is perhaps not so well known is that Gandhi was deeply influenced by the American writer Henry David Thoreau whose book ‘Walden; or, Life in the Woods’ was required reading when I was a High School student in the 1970’s. Thoreau’s lesser known ‘On Civil Disobedience’ came to Gandhi’s attention while working his first job as a lawyer for an Indian company in South Africa. The ruling white Boers discriminated against all people of color. Gandhi became an outspoken critic of South Africa’s discrimination policies. When the Boer legislature passed a law requiring that all Indians register with the police and be fingerprinted, Gandhi refused to obey the law. He was arrested and jailed. While in jail, Gandhi read the essay “Civil Disobedience” by Thoreau.
Gandhi adopted the term “civil disobedience” to describe his strategy of non-violently refusing to cooperate with injustice, although in later years he preferred the Sanskrit word satyagraha “devotion to truth”. I find it delightfully ironic that an American writer’s work should find its way to Africa and influence a man who changed the history of the Indian sub-continent and then found its way back to America where it continued to be profoundly influential. Today I celebrate all three of these spiritual giants.
On Sunday January the 14th I'll travel to the Midlands, North of Columbia to speak in Newberry, SC . This is my first venue of 2018 and I am in the process of arranging as many talks as I can through October to raise awareness of our work and promote the upcoming Parliament of the World's Religions in Toronto this November. If your congregation or other organization would like me to speak please send an email to email@example.com.
This event was in alignment with the Governor's proclamation naming January as South Carolina's Interfaith Harmony Month and is our second annual. We focused on getting to know one another and celebrating our diversity, we sat in a very large circle and at a center table and at four corners of the room we had bread from many traditions and olives, dates, figs and such so that at the midpoint of our gathering we could literally break bread. Our keynote speaker was brother Saif Ullah who was born and raised in Beaufort county in a prominent Christian family and whose heart was called by Islam over twenty years ago. As Muslims are rather rare down here it was the first time that many of those gathered had met one, had heard them speak of their faith. There were readings and songs from several faith paths and everyone seemed to have had a fine time.
I traveled up to Columbia to participate in Interfaith Partners of South Carolina's sharing of Governor Henry McMaster’s formal proclamation naming January 2018 “South Carolina Interfaith Harmony Month.” This was a news conference at the State House lobby on Thursday, December 28, 2017, at 10:00 AM. Click HERE to see the video I produced of this 15 minute event, apologies for several technical and logistic shortfalls. This is the fifth year that IPSC has worked with the Governor's office to obtain official endorsement for the importance of interfaith work. There area a number of events around the state specifically aligned with this proclamation, for a listing to help you find one in your area visit this PAGE at the IPSC website. Here is a quote from our chair Dr. Adrian Bird from the press conference which really captures the essence of who we are as IPSC:
"At a time when much of the global and local rhetoric drives the idea that we, as human beings, need ‘protecting’ from one another, Interfaith partners of South Carolina and local chapters across the State instead encourage us to ‘know’ one another, building relationships of trust, helping to overcome walls of ignorance that divide us. IPSC will speak the language of protection if and when religious voices are excluded or prejudice drives destruction. But ultimately it is only in knowing one another that we truly learn to see and relate to each other as dignified human beings."
Interfaith Partner's of South Carolina has produced a beautiful 18 Month Interfaith Calendar featuring information on each of 12 South Carolina religious groups and its important holidays, this calendar will be a great resource for: Teachers • Sunday Schools • Government Agencies • Local Businesses • Community Leaders • Law Enforcement • Nonprofits • Event Planners • and anyone who would like to learn more about the many faith groups in South Carolina!
Created as both a fundraising project as well as an education tool this calendar has both great production values, as it was designed and layed out by a professional graphics designer, and is chock full of information and dates sacred to many faiths. It has been distributed to all 82 of SC's school districts so that our public schools can be mindful of all the holidays of importance to a wide number of religions.
Dr. Barbara Fields, Executive Director of the AGNT (Association for Global New Thought) and who served as Program Director for the first modern Parliament of World Religions in 1993, had this to say about our calendar:
"The entire project is so well executed; I have seen quite a few of these in my career in interreligious dialogue and this is one of the nicest. You should feel proud and so do, I hope, your colleagues on this council. It is clear that healing of religious-based wounds must begin with sharing and mutual understanding and the calendar achieves this in a wonderful way."
Click on the image to visit IPSC's page in order to purchase this calendar.
A week ago today I traveled up to Columbia with Rabbi TZiPi Radonsky for IPSC’s (Interfaith Partners of South Carolina) annual meeting. On the way up we learned that Dr. Will Moreau Goins our Chair, had died of a massive heart attack the previous Friday. Our meeting became an impromptu memorial and celebration of life, he was widely loved. Tzipi's keynote speech was still given and it could not have been more perfect.
The following Tuesday Christina and I traveled up to Columbia again for the final screening in this year's, the 20th annual, Native American Film festival. Will founded and directed this legacy he has left us, and today it remains the only Native American Film Festival in the South-East. Will had recommended in an email that if I could invest just one five hour drive to the festival that we must come on Tuesday. His recommendation meant that we would be at the screening of ‘Rumble: Indians that Rocked the World’ where we would witness a powerful tribute to Dr. Will. On Main Street a candlelight vigil formed around the entrance of the Nickelodeon Theater and it’s marquee said “Rest In Power Dr. Will Goins”.
I only knew Will through our work together in IPSC and during the evening was shown the multifaceted gem that he was in the world of Arts and Culture by some who knew and loved him best in these communities. Truly the heart of this tribute was the hauntingly engaged performance of Charly Lowry, a Lumbee Singer/Song writer from North Carolina. “I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye, so I’ll say hello in the afterlife” came from ‘Hometown Hero’, the first song she sang. The Cherokee Memorial video at the end is from Michael Rose, a friend of Will’s and is a song given to him by spirit a few years before.
My video homage to this tribute runs forty minutes. As the footage was shot handheld with my stills camera in less than optimum conditions, I’ve had to try to fashion a silk purse from a pig’s ear and you know how well that works. Still as the content is precious and unrepeatable it seemed worth the effort.
Click on the image to view the video.
I did not come to Unity, the denomination of New Thought religion I identify with, by way of Christianity, I was attracted to the byline “one God many paths”. Although I had been raised in a Christian home I had difficulty with many of the ideas and stories in the Bible from a very early age and left the church of my family by the time I was twelve. Most of the difficulties that I had with the Bible, came from the Old Testament with all of its smoting, vengeance and warfare and most especially with the book of Job. The idea that God could allow such suffering in pursuit of winning a bet with the Devil was mortifying. As I began to explore Unity, which describes itself as a school of “Practical Christianity” I focused on the New Testament, particularly the teachings of our way-shower Jesus. Five years ago I took an SEE (Spiritual Enrichment and Education) course on prayer which used as its text “How to Pray Without Talking To God” by Rev. Linda Martella-Whitsett and decided at that point to pursue becoming an LUT (Licensed Unity Teacher) which involved taking twenty-five, ten hour courses among other requirements. Last year I took the SEE course on the metaphysical interpretation of the Bible and I finished with a much deeper appreciation for this sacred text as well as a higher tolerance for those elements which on a literal level I found abhorrent. Just this past month I completed the last of those twenty-five course with the on the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament.
My teacher and guide in this course on the Hebrew Bible assigned as part of our learning materials a series of YouTube videos on the books of the Hebrew Bible that were simply astounding. In introducing what it was they had in mind doing their work on the Bible Project, the content creators made the point very clearly and reiterated it often, that the Bible forms a single book, a single story with many elements and is filled with a number of literary devices, symbols and teaching techniques. This was an eye-opener for me in that of course I knew that most Bible-based believers would make this claim but these folks backed it up with some very clear analysis. The reason this is so important to me is that through this lens I began to understand something which had perplexed me for a long time in my interfaith work regarding what Muslims would call “the People of the Book”. Certainly we understand that the Bible is shared in part by three religions. The first five books which comprise the Torah are the central Scriptures of the Jewish faith. The rest of the Old Testament is important in part or in whole to most if not all Jews. Part of the difficulty between Jews and Christians has been that the Jews often do not regard the New Testament as an extension of their sacred text. As I understand it some of them do accept Jesus as a prophet while not considering him the Messiah they had long been, and still are looking for.
All of this came into focus again for me while at a presentation by a Muslim on his faith as part of an Interfaith Harmony monthly series at Pastor Jack Bomar’s United Church in Beaufort, SC. I am not enough of an expert on Islam to be able to verify in any way the things he said but I was struck by a claim he made that Islam was not considered a new religion by Muslims, but rather an extension of and a re-focued approach to the Bible as a whole as Scripture. In his understanding the prophet Mohammed was just that, another prophet of God, and he was quick to point out that the Koran mentions Jesus, whom they revere as a Prophet, many more times than it mentions Mohammed himself. In fact Jesus has his own book in the Koran as does Jesus’ mother Mary. He pointed out that in almost all ways Muslims and Christians agree on who Jesus was and is, including that he had a miraculous birth. However as with their Jewish cousins, Muslims do not see Jesus as the Messiah and most specifically they do not see Jesus as God incarnated on earth.
I must confess that as a young hippie I was exposed to a lot of born-again Christians and their very clear-cut and dogmatic view of the world, particularly their notion of being “saved”. I found it deeply offensive. Fast-forward a number of years to where I am now, as a Truth Unity student, and also heavily involved in the interfaith movement. Through some life circumstance as well as my efforts to reach out I am now breaking bread with and trying to reach common ground, with my fundamentalist Christian brethren (correct choice of word in that this is primarily through a Men’s breakfast group). I’ve always seen fundamentalism as a reactionary movement, partly driven by fear and partly seen as a radical solution to the problem of evil we see in the world today.
One of the very great gifts I have received in this SEE course on the Hebrew Bible, particularly in reading the books of the prophets, is to see that this is a very old trend. Throughout the entire history of the sacred text we call the Bible there have been those who would see that the culture they were living in had divorced itself from the spiritual principles which it was taught and that the consequence of this split would inevitably be some kind of a disaster as punishment for these sins. As a side note Unity emphasizes the Latin root of the word “sin” as an archery term meaning merely “to miss the mark” and does not encourage people to fear bolts of lightning from an angry god for such transgressions.
The Old Testament prophets pointed out three ways in which “wickedness” was manifest, firstly the worship of false gods, and this included Mammon, my understanding of which was a God to whom you would appeal for money and power. Secondly was the abuse and exploitation of the poor, and thirdly the descent into unbridled sensuality including such things as drunkenness, and debauchery and the indulgence in feasts of rich and exotic foods, etc. All of these things lead humankind away from its spiritual roots, and as always there are consequences for losing sight of our true source and nature. After calling out the people on the ways in which they had moved away from their God they generally continued their prophecy with often very explicit out-picturings of the catastrophes coming, such things as being conquered by Babylon or plagues of disease and vermin. Seeing this so clearly in the Old Testament has helped me to understand the fundamentalist Christian in a way that’s not just dismissively seeing them as reactionaries, bound by fear, but in fact part of a long lineage of the visionaries and doomsayers who see themselves as continuing this tradition. This is related in a way to the Christian understanding of the New Testament being a continuation of the story of God’s relation with humankind in history.
This line of understanding I think is crucial in coming to grips with fundamentalist Islam. I want to be quick to note that the vast majority of the two billion Muslims that inhabit this earth are peaceful, have a desire to be good in the sight of God and to serve their fellow man. But just as fundamentalist Jews were behind the crucifixion of Jesus, and fundamentalist Christians were behind the Spanish Inquisition and the genocide of nine-tenths of the population of the New World, Islamic fundamentalists are capable of great violence in their quest to purify the world. Their mission is to deal with evil and violence in the world, no matter how paradoxical their methods may seem. Among the things that the prophets were concerned with was with the breaking of the covenants with their God and with the use of lying and cheating as means of amassing wealth and control. In just this way fundamentalist Islam sees Christianity as being a very hypocritical and evil outworking of the principles in “the Book”.
Many people do not know that on the opening page of the official ISIS website is mention of the Sykes-Picot agreement, a secret treaty entered into by France and Great Britain in 1916 to divide up all of the Islamic former territories of Turkey between themselves. The most explicit avowed goal of ISIS is to overturn Sykes-Picot. This crucial fact is something I never see mentioned in western media when talking about radical Islamic terroism. Anyone who has seen Peter O’Toole’s great film Lawrence of Arabia knows that this Colonel T. E. Lawrence had been charged by the British government to build an insurrection army to defeat the Turks (which he did most successfully) and that he had been authorized by his government to assure the Arabs that they would be rewarded with home rule in their various lands. From ISIS and Al Qaeda's perspectives, and even from those of non-radicalized Muslims, this great betrayal was clearly a ruse to gain control of and to exploit the peoples of these lands. Certainly the extraction and export of petroleum for almost the sole benefit of the West confirmed their darkest fears.
Many of those Islamic fundamentalist Imams see themselves as legitimate heirs to the tradition of the prophets of the Old Testament. Not only are they quick to point out the iniquities (in most cases the very same iniquities of those of Old Testament times) but to prophesy the inevitable outcome of the “wickedness” of the West. Beyond the grievances I’ve outlined is the outrage of the more conservative members of these cultures when confronted with the Western values that are portrayed in motion pictures and in advertisements for consumer products. This includes the blatant sexuality, the gratuitous violence, the un-tempered extravagances of the very wealthy, and in the clear, unmistakable exploitation of the poor and of the land, the Earth itself, for the profit of the very few. I have no doubt that this understanding they have of the continuity of the story of the peoples of “the Book” could go a long way towards fostering understanding between one another. It could be the basis of much needed dialogue amongst these peoples, who between them (Christian, Muslim and Jew) comprise nearly two-thirds of all the believers alive today on earth.
With my opening paragraph confession about my reservations and reluctance to invest time in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, it might seem as logical, perhaps inevitable that this class on the Hebrew Bible ended up being my last SEE course, and certainly that is a factor. But I have come to believe in the Divine manifesting in my life through perfect timing. I am deeply grateful that it was my last class in this course of study. Even as recently as a week before I heard that young man speak with such conviction about his Islamic faith, I would not have been ready for the great gifts that have come to me through this study. The term “The Peoples of the Book” came from the Prophet Mohammed and was used in part to justify special treatment, exclusion from taxes for one, not afforded to the Pagans which were a majority in these lands at that time. My hope and prayer is that this understanding may become a basis for defusing the great dangers that radicalized monotheists pose for our shared world.
Here is a brief report on the Unified Interfaith Community Coalition of Beaufort (UICC) launch of our Spiritual Reconstruction. Most of you know that the Reconstruction Era National Monument in South Carolina was created by President Obama last January in recognition of The Reconstruction era 1861-1898. This is described on the federal website as "the historic period in which the United States grappled with the question of how to integrate millions of newly freed African Americans into social, political, economic, and labor systems, was a time of significant transformation. The people, places, and events in Beaufort County, South Carolina, reflect on the most important issues of this tumultuous time period." As I recall it was at a UICC meeting that Rev. Jack Bomar suggested the idea of a Spiritual Reconstruction which immediately resonated with Rev. Smalls and the rest of us and culminated in this spectacular launch this past weekend.
My first experience with the UICC was at their candlelight Memorial service for the Mother Emanuel Nine who were assassinated in June 2015. This memorial service held at Grace Chapel AME in June 2016 was a powerfully moving event whose focus was on a candlelight service. Nine faith representatives lit candles and said a prayer one for each of the victims. For more detailed information about that event see my blog entry. I immediately began my involvement with this organization, founded by AME Grace Chapel’s Rev. Jeannine Smalls, and which contains a fine representation of various faith traditions in the Beaufort area. Among the faiths represented in the core group are Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Unitarians, Jews, Episcopalians, the Baha’i faith and New Thought. These individuals have collaborated together and organized a number of significant events this past year culminating in this year’s candlelight service. The service was held in the spacious and newly dedicated new Grace Chapel this past Friday. There were nearly two dozen ministers, rabbis and other spiritual leaders in attendance, including the President of the Beaufort County Ministerial Alliance Rev. Arthur Cummings. The keynote speaker was the Right Rev. Samuel L. Green Sr., presiding Prelate 7th Episcopal District, South Carolina whose jurisdiction includes Charleston’s Emmanuel Church. Our host and worship leader was Rev. Smalls and the welcome was given by Rev. Dr. Jack Bomar, pastor of United Church. Rev. Jack had taken the lead in organizing this event and our Day of Unity which followed on Saturday. This work was of many hands but other subcommittee leaders who also took part in the ceremony and deserve special mention include Rabbi TZiPi Radonsky and Mrs. Barbara Laurie. The sanctuary was packed, the mood was solemn and yet there was an atmosphere of hope and solidarity. Below you will find an image of the program which lists all of the presenters. As a part of the Unity Movement it made my heart sing that the service was closed with James Dillet Freeman’s prayer for protection, which was taken to the moon on the first landing by an Apollo astronaut.
The following day Rev. Shannon Mullen’s St. John’s Lutheran Church hosted our Day of Unity which ran from ten in the morning until two in the afternoon and included entertainment, snacks and a very generous lunch. This “Celebration of Spiritual Reconstruction” included Penn Center director Rodell Lawrence, a very promising report on gains made in the Beaufort County School District by guidance director Mrs. Geraldine Henderson and a fine testimonial by Ms. Jordan Johnson, she is a graduate of Whale Branch Early College High School (WBECHS). The event’s theme was “Telling the Truth: the joys, challenges, fears and hopes of living in Beaufort County in 2017”. In alignment with this theme the core of this day of unity was on going breakout sessions by all the participants in which they identified those joys and challenges and discussed them, later on they made collaborative collages to illustrate their common understanding. Not formally speaking, but very present and involved with the dialogue and activities was Mayor Billy Keyserling. I believe this was a very effective means of starting and or furthering the mission of UICC in bringing the community together to grapple with the issues of social justice founded in our common faith of humanity and the spiritual resources that our diverse members bring to our vision and efforts.
All of the above was of course important to report and you can see that the good work that Rev. Smalls set in motion is gaining strength and momentum. But before I finish with what I have to say today I need to talk about a few issues and concerns that have come to mind since the weekend. On Monday one of our members, Westley Byrne, shared with our group a profound article from the Post and Courier dated June 17th and written by Jennifer Berry Hawes. In it she addresses the day-to-day realities for the congregants and pastor of Emanuel AME church. Of prayerful concern for me since that tragic day June 17th, 2015 was of course healing for the hearts of all those concerned and for our wider community who must still grapple with the enormous stain of racism and hatred. But in her article Ms. Hawes paints in fine detail the challenges and pains dealt with on a daily basis by the Rev. Eric S.C. Manning who has served as Emanuel's pastor for nearly a year now. The pastor’s every day choices are colored by such issues as the use and treatment of the Fellowship Hall which takes up most of one floor and is of course the site where the murders took place. It is regularly used for various purposes, but of course some people are very uncomfortable and perhaps not even able to be in that room where the bullet holes remain in the walls. The pastor’s decisions are very difficult with a congregation where there are many opinions on what should be done with them. Some strongly advocate preserving them as an important part of Emmanuel’s history. This history in many ways began with the execution of Denmark Vesey who led plans for a massive slave rebellion in 1822, scheduled to launch at midnight on June 16th. The mob that hanged him and 34 others then torched the original Emanuel, forcing her members to worship underground for many years.
After the Civil War Emanuel was rebuilt on Calhoun Street and over the years has hosted such civil rights icons as Booker T. Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. There are those who very much would like to have the holes repaired and the social hall redecorated so that they can move on and enjoy the social functions which help knit a community together in the only room that they have which is suitable for large gatherings such as potlucks. Besides these internal matters there is the burden or perhaps the responsibility to deal with the influx of visitors coming from all across the country and indeed around the world, people of the likes of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Ms. Hawes quotes Rev. Manning in a sentiment that touched my heart "I did not want worship service to continue to be a spectator sport," he said. "Some people may not agree with me, and I understand that. But my job is to protect worship." Not long ago U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn joined former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley in Emanuel's sanctuary to discuss the myth of a "post-racial America." This is a discussion that needs to be had across the breadth of this land and it is this soul-searching and recognition of our social realities that has the potential of making America “Great Again”.
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