Interfaith Peace Service 2013:
Breaking Down the Mysteries Between Us: Seeking Peace Through Understanding
Rev. Emmy Lou Belcher, DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church
I was born in the great San Joaquin valley of California, a place where rows of vineyards and orchards bring forth fruit to feed a country. I was born in a small town – it might be called a village in some places as there were about 800 people living there in those days.
People of many ethnic and religious backgrounds had come to this place to work the fertile soil and raise their families. We all recognized the outward differences among us, but those differences were accepted as part of life. People who worked hard were admired or at least accepted no matter their ethnicity. Even in the 1940’s, California was a multicultural place. The people in that small town had even gotten over staring at the turbans worn by the Sikh men. The men were not identified by the fact that they wore a turban. Instead the men were known by their names.
But the people in that small town knew almost nothing about each other’s religious traditions. My family was Christian Protestant: Methodists and Presbyterians. They hung out with the people from their churches, which were the centers of much of community life, other than events held through the schools. And the schools never taught or even showed any recognition of the beliefs of the many traditions among their students. The cultures of school events recognized Christian holidays but no others. Civic meetings often started with a prayer, but always a prayer that ended with “in the name of Jesus.” I don’t remember people ever going to a church other than their own. – maybe for a funeral of a friend of a different religious background. But even that had its boundaries: Christian people did not attend such services in the Sikh or Buddhist meeting houses. It wasn’t that theyhad objections to such places; they were afraid of being out of place among rituals they didn’t know how to do. By far the majority of people were Christians of European origin, and this was regarded by them as the “norm”, as were the customs of white New England origin.
It was a time when even Protestants and Catholics in this country didn’t know much about each other. My Protestant family had no idea of what went on in a Catholic church much less what its particular teachings were. They had a lot of mistaken ideas. The idea of statues and incense made whatever went on in an object of great curiosity to the Protestant children. I would even say that Catholics and Protestants were somewhat afraid of each other. Faith traditions are held tightly by their adherents, often to the detriment of the larger community. And anything that was conceived of as different was troubling, even a mystery to be feared not held in awe.
It is my observation that these people were more ignorant than disapproving. Even though the people had all gone to school and shopped, with each other, they didn’t know anything about their different religions. And ignorance around differences in tightly held beliefs can be a thorn in the function of the wider community – always there but not approached and allowing the majority to control in the civic arena with little regard for minorities. .
I just finished reading a biography of Emily Carr, the Canadian artist who, in the early 1900’s, went into the coastal hinterlands of British Columbia to capture the beauty of the land and the practices of the original inhabitants. Her family and most of their friends regarded her as doing something against God to even pay attention to the traditions of the local tribes who were scoffed at and even prevented by the government from engaging in their own religious and ethnic traditions. Her family could not understand why she would admire the ways of “heathens,” as they called the First Nations. The people Emily visited and even befriended are the people who make totem poles. Most of the old poles were destroyed during the time that Emily Carr lived, and she is well-known for having captured the essence as well as the forms of these ancient expressions in her paintings.
The United States and Canada, except for a few isolated areas, are quite a different place these days. More people of differing faith traditions live in the same community, and we have at least gotten over the Catholic-Protestant wariness of each other. But, still, the bulk of the people in our country are Christians, and few know anything about religions other than the standard Christian types. Our Constitutional declaration about the separation of religion and state allows any faith tradition to flourish, but in most places, its interpretation has kept us from teaching about different religions in our public schools. Even so, I have been a participant in some of the attempts to educate our children about the multi-faiths they live among. It has been an interesting experience. Some of the young people are bristling when a leader of a faith other than their own comes in the room. They expect us to try to convert them – the familiar suspicion when meeting people of different ideas. They react as though we are trying to make them into their own understanding of the world. Indeed, that is part of the history between Christianity and Islam. Historically, conversion has been a sacred duty to these faiths because of beliefs that all who worship differently will not be saved, or their presence is an affront to the God of the faith trying to convert.
Emily Carr was a pioneer in the culture that is more common among us now – the ability to accept and to understand the faith of another in both its rational essence and its beauty of expression. And to respect without fearing the pressure of conversion. Although some of the statements some people have made about me have been less than respectful. But we all get that in various forms. I regard it as part of the process of coming to understanding, of breaking down the mysteries between us as we seek to live in peace with each other – as we seek to become a fruitful nation of many cultures and faiths working together. As Yo Yo Ma, the cellist who has worked with musical forms of many cultures, has said:
“Our cultural strength has always been derived from our diversity of understanding and experience.”
(from the internet source “Best Quotes.”)
In the 1800’s, some influential Americans began to get curious about the deepest understandings of other faiths. Emerson and Thoreau, for instance, both read the Bagavid Gita and it greatly influenced their development of the Transcendentalist movement in New England and the American Midwest. In 1893, the Columbian Exposition in Chicago bought many world cultures into the gaze of the public, and the first World Parliament of Religions was held congruently, taking advantage of the presence of people coming to the Exposition. These two events were heavily endorsed by associations whose purpose was world peace. The Parliament brought together for the first time representatives of Asian and European based religions for an intentional dialogue. They knew that such a dialogue needed to be based in understanding of each other’s traditions.
Among those who captivated the American public were Anagarika Dharmapula of the Theravada Buddhist movement, the Jain preacher, Virchand Ghandi, and the charismatic Hindu representative Swami Vivekananda. The participation of these religious figures at the Parliament made them global figures, able to spread understanding of their traditions to many peoples. And they did attract followers among Americans who then established some of the seedling congregations of followers here. It was Vivekananda who first introduced the Yoga tradition to Americans. Now, we have Yoga centers in most American communities. Many of them are committed to Yoga as both physical and spiritual practice. The first time the Baha’i religion was mentioned to the broader American public was at the Parliament. They have been active participants in all the parliaments since then.
I had a marvelous experience when I was working in Detroit at our church which is in the area of the city near Wayne State University. One day I looked out the window to the porch of the front door and saw three saffron-robed men talking to each other. They waved at me, and I went to open the door for them. They wanted to just be in the church where one of their leaders had visited in the 1890’s, after the World Parliament of Religions. They explained that the Unitarian Minister had invited their leader, Swami Vivekananda, to visit his church and meet with the congregation. They felt the building still held the good feelings of this visit.
I needed to explain to them that this was not the building their leader had visited. At that time, the Unitarian Church was further south in a building that it out-grew, so it joined with the Universalist congregation in this building. I mentioned that the congregation in this building was the descendent of the congregation their leader had visited. Perhaps that is why the feelings were still strong here. I directed them to the original building. They had someone with them who could take them there. And I thanked them for seeking us out. We bowed to each other in the Namaste greeting, and they swept out of view.
It was more than the exotic that Americans were looking for in these faith traditions presented at the Parliament. It was the expansion of world views. That is why the Unitarian minister had invited Swami Vivekananda to visit in Detroit. Again, from Yo Yo Ma,
“When we enlarge our view of the world, we deepen our understanding of our own lives."
And Swami Vivekananda said during his American tour:
"I do not come to convert you to a new belief. I want you to keep your own belief; I want to make the Methodist a better Methodist; the Presbyterian a better Presbyterian; the Unitarian a better Unitarian. I want to teach you to live the truth, to reveal the light within your own soul.”
(Gupta, Raj Kumar (1986), The Great Encounter: A Study of Indo-American Literary and Cultural Relations, Delhi: Abhinav Publications. As quoted and footnoted in Wikipedia entry, “Swami Vivekananda”),
It is this deepening that is one of the goals of a program we have in my faith tradition, Unitarian Universalism, to teach our children about other faith traditions. The other goal comes from two concerns. One is that our children are living in a multi-faith nation. If the schools don’t teach them understanding of other religions, then we will. It is through understanding of each other that we can create a peaceful nation where the fruits of dialogue can enrich us beyond current knowing. It is also our goal to teach our children to be respectful of other traditions, and the only way to do that is to have them understand. Then they will be without fear in their interactions with people of other faiths. Then we can see each other as people of goodwill, and even as friends. Maya Angelou, the poet, wrote:
“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try [to] understand each other, we may even become friends.” (ibid)
In Naperville and surrounding communities, we don’t even have to travel in order to come into contact with each other. We are all right here, being neighbors, living our days beside each other. We trade with each other. We take care of each other as doctors, nurses, social workers, people who run welcoming hotels. We are intricately involved with each other. And our various faith traditions as well as ethnic traditions make this community more interesting. Some of you have even come to my church to help teach our children in this program: I think of Tabassum Haleem and Bernie Newman. There are many more than I know because the leaders of the class make the arrangements for presenters and for the visits which follow to the speakers’ religious centers.
Understanding is not easy. It is not about one Parliament of Religion or one class in a school or religious institution. It is also about stopping immediately the unacceptable behavior of someone who tries to burn the Koran, for instance. It is about continuous education. It is about speaking up when someone you are with has maligned someone else because of his or her religion. My prayer for today echoes the words of Helen Keller who said:
I do not want the peace which passeth understanding. I want the understanding which bringeth peace.
( From the internet site Best Quotes )
I see great possibilities in the generations that follow me. My children and their friends have grown up in a more diverse society. This society where persons of traditions other than Christianity are a much larger proportion is not one of mere tolerance but one of acceptance of “the other”, whether that ”other” is racial, cultural, or religious. My children and their friends are interested in the ways that people express their largest views of existence. And they don’t feel threatened by those differences.
One phenomenon in the United States that may be influencing this tolerance is the growing number of people who say in questionnaires that they belong to no religion. To sociologists of religion, they are called the nones – n-o-n-e-s, not n-u-n-s – because in a list of religions, they check the box labeled “none.” At the same time, they often express great spiritual interests, getting comfort from diverse resources. A poll from the Pew Research Center, which studies religion in America, indicated that this number is up from 16 percent in 2005 to 20% in this year’s poll. It’s the fastest growing sector in the religious scene of the United States. Thus I feel it is an important sector of our nation to include in the process of understanding each other. This is a service of prayers for peace, and some assume that this means non-religious people should not be represented. But I have found that often the thoughts of peace that come from their lips are what many of us would call prayers - their hopes, their expectations of themselves to exist in right relationship with others. And most of them sincerely want to be recognized within the bowl holding many types of people that is this nation’s strongpoint. It is not a melting pot where we all become the same. It is a bowl that holds many models of being human, of expressing religion, of caring for each other, all working for a peaceful relationship with each other, all strengthening each other’s understanding as Vivekananda expressed over 100 years ago.
Sometimes I get tired just thinking of what this takes – the commitment to peace and understanding among each other; the willingness to represent ourselves and yet not push ourselves on others; the willingness to accept cultural, spiritual, and religious differences even though those practices may strike a sore spot within us; the work it takes to create a service such as this year after year. I am reminded of a story about Carolyn McDade, a member of my faith tradition. She has been an ardent worker for civil rights and peace from the 1960’s through today. She is a musician who has written many beautiful songs about the power of caring for each other and getting to understand each other and of building a world of peace.
One night she arrived home weary to the bone. It had been a frustrating day, one of many challenges to what she held dear. She didn’t even take off her coat but slumped on her piano bench and wondered whether she had the strength to continue this work. She found her fingers moving over the keys, and caught a tune running through her head – a new tune. With increasing energy as the tune formed, she filled out the melody and found chords to support it. Then she added words that expressed what she had felt. The resulting song is called “Spirit of Life.” It is the most popular hymn in the Unitarian Universalist collections of songs and hymns. And in my travels I have heard it sung by Catholic Sisters Religious and choirs of other traditions. Tonight, four people from my congregation, the DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church, will sing it for you. (Kelley and Becky Trombly-Freytag, Jo Linsley, and Art Freedman. )
I offer it to you as my call to the work we all do together in our wider community to make life better for all people and to deepen our own faith traditions so that they shine like stars, guiding us to an age of true fellowship with each other. I offer it as our prayer for peace within and peace without on this day of interfaith gathering for peace.
Spirit of Life, come unto me
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea,
Move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold me close, wings set me free.
Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.
In whatever form you worship, may the Spirit of Life be with you in the year to come, and may we all turn to each other with respect in creating the future of our common community..