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”.
Toronto--acclaimed the most diverse city in the world by the United Nations and home to six million Canadians—has been chosen as the host city of the 7th Parliament of the World’s Religions, to be convened in November 2018. More than 10,000 people will participate in the 2018 Parliament, which will last for seven days and comprise more than 500 programs, workshops, and dialogues, alongside music, dance, art and photography exhibitions, and related events presented by the world’s religious communities and cultural institutions.
Since the historic 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, modern Parliaments have attracted participants from more than 200 diverse religious, indigenous, and secular beliefs and more than 80 nations to its international gatherings in Chicago (1993), Cape Town (1999), Barcelona (2004), Melbourne (2009), and Salt Lake City (2015). These Parliament events are the world’s oldest, largest, and most inclusive gatherings of the global interfaith movement. As one of the most international, multicultural, and religiously pluralistic cities in the world, Toronto provides a perfect venue for the Parliament of the World’s Religions. More than 140 languages are spoken every day, and at least 47% of Toronto’s population speak a native language other than French or English. Over half were born outside of Canada, representing more than 200 ethnic origins.
The exemplary effort of Canadians—and especially the people of Ontario—to welcome the stranger and immigrant, honor indigenous communities, and protect the earth with its public initiatives provides inspiration for other global cities that desire to build a better world. Parliament Site Selection Committee Chair Andras Corban Arthen says, “Toronto is a place where important conversations are taking place about reconciliation, environmental approaches, and the integration of immigrant populations. A vibrant and wide-reaching interfaith community was a determining factor in answering the question: Why Toronto? Why now?”
In a May 2 press conference and reception at the Toronto City Hall, Parliament of the World’s Religions Executive Director Dr. Larry Greenfield said the 2018 event is an “extraordinary opportunity for people of the globe to engage the crucial issues of our world, such as climate change, poverty, and violence."
Super Saver Registration is coming soon at ParliamentOfReligions.org, including rates exclusive to students and groups.
The above was taken from the Parliament of the World’s Religions press release. I’ll be there! How about you? As I serve as an Ambassador of the Parliament of the World's Religions you will hear early and often the good news as it evolves.
I would like to clarify some terms before starting this somewhat contentious subject. Interfaith is most commonly understood as an open dialogue between different religions/sects/denominations. Interfaith comes in a number of flavors, but most folks involved in this work are looking for commonalities upon which they can base further exploration, I tend to be on the radical fringe of this in that I buy that old perennial philosophy notion that at its roots all religions are one, I’m willing to hold hands with anyone and sing Kumbaya, part of this is an insatiable curiosity and a deeper appreciation of spiritual diversity. I will admit that I do foresee a time when a universal religion is possible. I’ll also admit that I am very possibly wrong on this point, but I wanted to get out of the way the argument against old hippies and dreamers such as myself. To put it succinctly I use the phrase “One God, Many Paths” and am quite willing to believe they are all different paths on the same mountain leading to a single peak. Many who I work with and have deep respect for will admit we are all on ‘a’ path but not on the same mountain, or even the same mountain range for that matter.
Inter-religious work is a more pragmatic approach which recognizes that many of the tensions and misunderstandings in the world have as their cause doctrinal differences between religions. Because this cannot be left out of the dialogue, we must recognize painful histories and difficult relationships between religions, perhaps a prime example is Christianity versus Islam. Those committed to Inter-religious dialogue are seeking to find commonalities that enable dialogue which may result in the kinds of compromises and agreements that will resolve issues that are intense enough to lead to war and the violation of the civil rights of others.
Ecumenical, or Intrafaith work, has more to do with working out the differences in a given religion or faith path that will result in cooperation and potentially even unification. This is a high-level vision held by certain leaders in the Catholic Church and their counterparts in Orthodox Christianity who would like to be rejoined under a common Holy See. To a lesser extent you’ll find these approaches within various sects of Christianity that have split within their own denomination, the various Baptist conventions or Lutheran Synods may be other notable examples.
Didn’t want to get so bogged down in definitions, but perhaps that was useful to get clear about the issue I’d like to address in this post. Among the concerns of those committed to Inter-religious dialogue is the pursuit of social justice. Nowhere in my own spheres of Interfaith/Inter-religious dialogue work is this clearer than in the work we are doing in the United Interfaith Community Coalition of Beaufort which was organized by Grace Chapel AME’s pastor Rev. Jeannine Smalls in response to the tragedy that took place at the Mother Emanuel Chapel in Charleston, SC. My first connection with UICCB was attending the first annual memorial service at Grace Chapel which was very widely attended by people of all faiths.
The first meeting that I attended of the organization itself had a few ministers from the black community but most of the participants represented the white mainline religions of the city of Beaufort and surrounding communities. I point that out because I believe that some of the black ministers chose not to continue to participate for the very same reason that many more fundamentalist Christian pastors never did participate, and that is the fear that others would try to convert them or that their own faith would be watered down by merely listening to what others from different faiths might have to say. I’ll leave my personal feelings out regarding those who hold these views and focus on what I would like to say to them.
Let me state this very clearly, the deep bigotry and racial hatred that resulted in the heinous murder of those nine individuals has not been washed away by the blood of those innocents, nor the healing gestures of forgiveness made by families and friends. If anything this last election cycle revealed that these feelings are much closer to the surface and are much more widely spread than any of us could’ve imagined who worked so hard in the ‘60s and ‘70s in the cause of civil rights, in the cause of women’s rights and in the prospects of peace. I believe it must be said that faith leaders, the ministers and pastors of our communities, must come together despite all doctrinal differences and declare that these attitudes and behaviors are unacceptable and to work as spiritual leaders to uncover the root causes and to exorcise them in the name of all that is holy.
I would hope that we can agree to disagree about those aspects of our differences which have nothing to do with civil rights and common human decency and that we could come together in a prayerful attitude and accept the mission that all who minister to the souls of others must accept in order to be faithful to their calling. There are some things that call for an assembly of conscience, that demand of us that we stand together and declare our truth. Can I get an Amen?
Rev. Dr. Jack Bomar launched United Church's Interfaith Ministry Fellowship this past Thursday, February 9th with a presentation on Native American Spirituality. He felt it appropriate as we are on land still under the spiritual stewardship of First Nations tribes. Among those presenting was my friend Billy who is in the Lodge (Sweat Lodge, where the Inipe ceremony of purification takes place) that I attend, and in which Pastor Jack recently participated. Pastor Jack's experience reconnected him in a profound way with his roots through his Cherokee grandmother in Tennessee.
This will be followed by monthly presentations. March 9th the Baha'i Faith will be shared by Ms. Veronica Smalls, April 13th will feature a "Freedom Seder" conducted by Rabbi TZiPi Radonsky and in May Rev. Lori Hlaban will speak about Unitarian Universalism. There is much else in the works, to keep up to date please visit United Church's Facebook page.
The title is intended to be provocative and to raise some questions, such as “Why does he like Muslims?”, or “How many Muslims has he met?” or even “Why is he telling us that?” Good questions all. I have been involved in Interfaith work for over forty years and have developed some high level overviews and arguments for the value of Interfaith work, the intrinsic value of individual religions, even an elaborate defense of Swami Vivekananda’s statement in his keynote speech to the first Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893 “We believe all religions are true”. But I’ve been reading Eboo Patel’s book Interfaith Leadership lately and I have come to realize that my natural willingness to defend the rights of Muslims to practice their faith was arrived at slowly after much thought and debate, but my story (a very important word “story”) begins long before any real consideration of these issues, with my experience teaching English as a Second Language to Muslims at Utah State University in the mid-seventies, a point in time where I self-identified as an Atheist. Over the course of four or five years I taught several hundred students from all over the Middle East, Iran and parts of Africa. I found them generally warm, engaging and hospitable. It was twenty years later that I first heard the word “Jihad” even though some of those students were Palestinian or Libyan for instance and had very strong political opinions.
I was raised in the Mormon community of Bountiful, UT and attended that church until I was maybe twelve. The Latter Day Saints (LDS) as the Mormons are formally known, feel a strong kinship with the Jewish people, some going so far as to refer to themselves as “the other Chosen People”. Although I left the LDS faith while quite young I still had strong sympathies for the Jews and for the state of Israel. Because our community in Bountiful was so homogeneous I wasn’t really exposed to religious bigotry until I was in basic training in the military. One poor kid came down with a bad summer cold and as it turns out he was Jewish. It wasn’t long before I heard such phrases as “don't catch the Jew Germ” and other slurs. My natural response was to come to Bernard's aid and, as I had no arguments or positions to defend, I chose being his pal as a defense. I had him teach me Hava Nagila which I’d vaguely remembered from Fiddler on the Roof. We sang it at the top of our lungs… I’m not sure this really helped except I never heard “Jew Germ” again.
Fast forward to my years at Utah State and to the "Hub" where we gathered to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. Surprisingly the most boisterous, laughing tables were occupied by Middle Easterners, which made me feel comfortable and drew me in enough to allow me to begin asking questions about the volatility and warfare in that region. I soon came to realize that things were much more complicated than I originally believed. We had a lot of political discussions, but also I heard a great many personal stories which made for deeper connections. I really was quite taken by the cultural warmth and hospitality of these primarily Arabic speaking Semitic peoples. I say that in contrast to the large presence of Iranians, or Persians as they generally called themselves, who were also Muslim, but Caucasian for the most part, and many were quick to remind you of that. The national/cultural presence of these Farsi speaking folks was not as lighthearted or welcoming, they sat by themselves for the most part, somewhat more distant and reserved. Although when I began to teach I made good friends among them as well. It turned out they had plenty of reasons to be cautious as they fell into two strong factions, the loyalists to the Shaw of Iran and the revolutionary forces which eventually toppled the Peacock Throne.
So back to the questions I intended to spark. I’ve known hundreds of Muslims, made many friends and have participated in weddings and other celebrations, and yes, "broke bread" with them and I stand by my claim that I’ve never met a Muslim that I didn’t like. Since they are just people, like many another, I count myself lucky in who I have met. Certainly I’ve read of Muslims who have committed atrocities and I’m pretty sure that friendship would not have been possible with them, for same may be said for partisans in Northern Ireland or guerrilla army members of FARC in Columbia, just to point toward a couple other troubled places. My liking the Muslims that I’ve known also probably has very little to do with their religion. When I think of Muslims my mind doesn’t instantly go the troubles, to religious tensions and ideological chasms, but rather to specific people I came to know and like. For that I count myself lucky as well. Perhaps this is true in large measure because we shared and listened to each other’s stories and made human connections. Eboo Patel has challenged me deeply in almost everything I’ve read of his and I’m grateful that he has, because it has inevitably grounded me in my existence as just one man with his own unique history and stance, thereby allowing me to operate as an advocate of Interfaith Harmony in a more authentic and effective manner one-on-one. Mr. Patel has made me more sensitive to a number of subtler issues, but especially he has reminded me that in conversations it comes down to you and me, to your story and mine.
To hate Muslims is as ridiculous and immature a stance as to hate Republicans or Democrats. Certainly long lists of points of disagreement are readily at hand, but no single point is in fact an article of faith for everyone who adopts a label, sports a bumper sticker, or wears a baseball cap with a logo. And in the case of hating Muslims, in any number cases it’s like hating Frenchmen, any element of being French may very well be an accident of birth, that is, one happened to be born in Marseilles or Paris and not a crucial aspect of their identity. That one is born in Egypt or Indonesia (the most populous Islamic nation) is similarly an accident of birth. The tightness with which one holds to the tenets of their faith is as variable as the human experience. Even to the devout, the particular ranking of these tenets also vary widely. Best to come at anyone with the understanding that they came to be in front of you by way of paths that you have no idea of. The more willing you are to hear their story and to share your own, the more likely it is that you will hear one another on religious and ideological issues.
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