“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” If ever there was a time when Dickens’ words ring true for me, they do so this summer. I have spent much of the summer involved in interfaith dialogue in Istanbul, Turkey and in Morocco, as part of two different interfaith conferences and symposia. I reveled in the relationship building and sense of adventure that is so much a part of interfaith engagement, cherishing my encounter with the holy as experienced by my Muslim dialogue partners and hosts. I also watched in horror as violence, much of it fueled by religiously motivated intolerance and hatred, erupted in Iraq, where Christians had to flee for their lives under threat of violence by ISIS, and as the tensions between Israel and Gaza exploded once again into armed conflict. On the one hand, I experienced first hand the reality that it is possible to build bridges of understanding and respect between people of different religious and cultural traditions, even as I watched, yet again, the extent to which religiously motivated violence and intolerance continues to claim the lives of altogether too many innocent men, women and children.
Is interfaith dialogue relevant in a world where religiously motivated violence continues to roil entire geographic and political regions, leaving thousands of people maimed and murdered? Does the global interfaith movement have anything to offer to a world still so captivated by political and often violent approaches to religious, ethnic and cultural difference? I believe the answer to those questions is a resounding Yes. And I believe that all of us who are committed to interfaith dialogue in its broadest expression must be intentional about remaining in relationship and conversation with our dialogue partners of different religious traditions even when our perceptions of and opinions about what is happening in the global trouble spots are widely divergent. We will not become agents of change and peacemaking anywhere in the world, if we cannot create and maintain peace with those who live in our own city, neighborhood, workplace or school. In the midst of conflict and struggle we cannot yield to our instinctual "flight or fight" response. We must honor our interfaith relationships by continuing to trust and to endure the pain of our differences.
Interfaith dialogue is all about building committed relationships, friendships that can endure the tensions of troubled times. It is all about making friends out of strangers. Interfaith encounter is not about debating who is right and who is wrong, who is “in” and who is “out” or who is enlightened and who is backward. Interfaith encounter is about forming relationships with people who have a different worldview, a different religious or spiritual or philosophical approach to our common human experience. Interfaith encounter is about learning the different narratives that inform how our dialogue partners apprehend the world and taking the time and effort to try to look through their lens, even if only briefly. Interfaith dialogue makes it possible to empathize with those who are embroiled in the worst of the conflicts that are erupting around the world. Empathy helps us to remember the humanity of those with whom we disagree and helps to prevent them from becoming “enemies” whom we can justify demonizing and eradicating.
This summer, I enjoyed the gracious hospitality of Muslims in Turkey and in Morocco. I experienced the profound spiritual discipline and the joy that is part of the holy month of Ramadan. I observed prayer in mosques and in homes, I participated in iftar meals in community centers and private homes, I visited holy sites, both Christian and Muslim in both countries. I experienced first hand the reality that Muslims and Christians can and do co-exist respectfully and peacefully in many places in the world, forming deep and abiding relationships of friendship and trust.
I returned from Morocco through Amsterdam, where I visited the Amsterdam museum and saw an exhibit about Dutch converts to Islam and how these communities of Dutch Muslims are impacting that very secular, yet nominally Christian European country. I also visited the Anne Frank house and the Jewish quarter where the history of the Jews in the Netherlands, particularly during the years of Nazi occupation, are described in horrifying detail. I visited “Our Lord in the Attic” church, a Roman Catholic church built on the third floor and attic of a large stately home of a 17th century Dutch merchant at a time in history when Roman Catholic churches were outlawed in the Netherlands and Roman Catholics had to worship secretly in what had become a stridently Protestant nation. I observed with dismay the extent to which the conflict in Israel and Gaza is igniting a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe as people ascribe to all Jews Israel’s political and military actions. I heard many narratives: narratives of pain and persecution, narratives of conquest and defeat, narratives of tolerance and acceptance and cooperation, narratives of war and narratives of peace. Interfaith encounter opens us to all these narratives and asks us to accept that all of these stories are true even where they appear to conflict.
So now I return to Rochester and to the work of interfaith encounter right here in our city and on the University of Rochester campus. We have a lively and committed interfaith community in Rochester. The University of Rochester has an active and growing interfaith student group that includes students from all of our diverse religious communities at the Interfaith Chapel and students who claim no religious affiliation. The Interfaith Chapel is a Cooperation Circle of the United Religions Initiative (URI), a global grass roots network of interfaith organizations committed to building bridges of understanding between and among the world’s religious and philosophical traditions. The purpose of the URI is to promote enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence and to create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings, a purpose that is completely consonant with the mission of the Interfaith Chapel.
I read articles and posts to the URI listserve daily from Cooperation Circles all over the world, including in Israel and Palestine and Baghdad. Grass roots interfaith work is happening right in the midst of these violent conflicts, as local organizations in those troubled regions come together to explore non-violent solutions to their troubles. The stories of interfaith prayer vigils and interfaith activism for peace and non-violence don’t make the mainstream media, but all over the world, including in the places wracked with the most violent conflict, people are working together to try to find peaceful and just solutions and to end the violence. To honor their work, we who are fortunate enough to live in places of relative safety must remain committed to the interfaith work that we are doing here in our own back yard and to continue to strengthen the relationships we have created through those efforts. Global conflicts have local repercussions. Our challenge is to create a local environment that does not replicate the conflict happening on the other side of the world. Violence can spread like a cancer and we must not allow hatred and mistrust and demonizing of the “other” to metastasize to our local community. I am reminded of the words of St. Paul, from my own Christian tradition, that one part of the body cannot say to the other, “I have no need of you.” All the parts must work together in order for the whole to be healthy.
Interfaith work is not always “kum-bah-yah” as this summer’s global violence reminds us yet again. It is hard work to remain faithful to relationships with those who feel differently and strongly about these seemingly irreconcilable conflicts, but that commitment and fidelity to the relationship is the bedrock on which interfaith dialogue is built. By remaining in relationship with one another we make it possible for all of us to be transformed and, if we are creative and open-hearted, perhaps even discover a pathway to peace. The prayer I carry with me this summer is a text from my own Christian tradition – “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”