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“I go into the Muslim mosque
and the Jewish synagogue
and the Christian church
and I see one altar.”
Rumi – 13th century Persian Sufi poet
In this turbulent election season when divisive rhetoric threatens to tear the fabric of our nation, The Writers Circle teamed up with Tiferet Journal to host LET ALL VOICES BE HEARD: Writers of Different Faiths Share Their Stories. This literary interfaith dialogue, held on Saturday, October 15, 2016 at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Montclair, New Jersey, was moderated by Linda K. Wertheimer, author of Faith Ed from Beacon Press, with panelists including spiritual teacher and author Ramananda John E. Welshons, novelist and memoirist Nahid Rachlin, and The Reverend John A. Mennell of St. Luke’s Church. The conversation gave listeners and panelists alike a chance to explore how our common humanity can unite us across culture and beliefs, and how our words can have the power to promote understanding, compassion and healing.
Linda K. Wertheimer began working on her book, Faith Ed, after a 2010 news story exploded about a group of Wellesley, MA sixth graders taking a field trip to a mosque in Roxbury, MA. The trip was part of their World Religions study that had been a successful part of the public school’s curriculum for years. But when a video aired with the title “Wellesley, MA Students Learn to Pray to Allah,” the field trip turned into a national controversy.
Wertheimer, a freelance journalist, took the story as an opportunity to explore the issue, asking what are appropriate ways to teach children about religion? She shared a reading from Faith Ed about her own experience growing up as a Jewish girl in rural Ohio where Bible classes were taught in the classroom during the school day. She would get excused from those classes, but that singled her out as the only Jew and led classmates to interrogate her about why she didn’t believe in Jesus. Her peers had little understanding of what being Jewish was given their lack of exposure to other faiths. The classes in school did nothing but fuel stereotypes. When the KKK burned a cross in a black neighbor’s yard, her parents feared retribution if they complained publicly about the school system’s overt promotion of Christianity.
Nahid Rachlin shared her experience as an Iranian at an all-women’s Presbyterian college where she felt completely out of place. She read an excerpt from her memoir, Persian Girls, about the day when she and two other non-white students were asked to “wear native costumes” for Parents’ Day. She had never worn a chador before and didn’t even own one. To her, the chador represented a type of bondage that was offensive to her and did not represent her cultural beliefs or experience. Despite the humiliating request, Nahid tried to comply, getting black fabric and cutting it into shape as best she could. But because they had no exposure to her culture, the students and parents thought that she was wearing a nun’s habit. She despaired that even the administrators and professors at her college didn’t understand that they were perpetuating stereotypes and reinforcing prejudice. She longed to go somewhere in America where she could blend in more.
Ramananda John E. Welshons studied Comparative Religions as an undergraduate and in graduate school, but it was his friendship with his spiritual teacher Ram Dass that lead him on his spiritual path. Ram Dass, who was influential in bringing Hinduism and Buddhism to America and inspired an interest in yoga and meditation that continues to this day, gave John the name Ramananda, meaning “Bliss of God.”
Ramananda John read a passage from One Soul, One Love, One Heart about the challenge of coping with his anger growing up with a father who was a “committed alcoholic.” When his father was dying, Ram Dass impressed upon him the importance of trying to heal, saying “All anger is anger at God. It is as if, through our anger, we are actually saying, ‘If I were God, I would have made the universe better than this.’” He suggested, “Why don’t you see your father as your guru?” The lesson was a kind of yoga of relationships: working to stretch the relationship past our own rigidity. “Relationship is the hardest yoga there is.”
He added that “Namaste” is a common Hindu greeting, the equivalent of “Hi!” and “See ya!” But its true translation is “I honor the light within you.” “I had to try to see my father as the incarnation of that light. And at my mother’s sickbed, when she couldn’t even speak, there was such light in her eyes. But even without words, I realized that I was seeing the part of her that was not going to die.”
The Reverend John A. Mennell read a powerful excerpt from one of his sermons, pointing out the familiar passage from John 14.6: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
“It is so often quoted by Christians,” he said, “but that quote overlooks the beginning of the chapter, “In My Father’s house are many dwelling places.”
He shared personal experience with the issue of assumptions about people’s practices in faith, in particular as related to clothing. As an Episcopal priest, he is married and has children, but dresses like a Catholic priest. He went on to describe the uncomfortable experience of receiving looks from other passengers while riding on the subway with his young son sitting on his lap. He pointed out the challenge of ignorance to other cultures and traditions, even Christian ones, that are represented by our stereotypes.
Linda then focused the discussion. “What is the universal message: John’s sermon, Ramananda John’s story about his mother and father, Nahid’s sense of humiliation? What can be done to expose people who think their way is the right way and are fearful of faiths they don’t know, and don’t want their kids to learn about? How do we talk about our differences?”
Rev. John Mennell said, “’Be not afraid’ is written in the Bible over and over. Building oneself up by putting others down is ugly and it’s an ugly approach to religion. Holy people who are comfortable in their beliefs have a calm center, not a sense of fear. The Ten Commandments predate Genesis, as does the Golden Rule, which exists in different versions across virtually all religions. If I made a spreadsheet of all the world religions, 95% of our beliefs would be the same. Yet we kill each other over the 5% that’s different. We need to honor our differences while acknowledging our similarities.”
Ramananda John agreed. “We seek commonality in human experience through our spiritual experience of God.” Then he peaked his fingers. “Think of God as a triangle: God is the top of the triangle, and we and each person we encounter are the other bottom points. We are all one in relationship to God, sharing different life experiences. When I do couples counseling, I often ask the struggling couples, ‘What is it that you most love about each other?’ It helps refocus them on Love. Love is God. We need to honor our differences.”
Linda talked about the clear need to do more to teach about religion in schools. “I’ve met high school students who don’t realize that Catholics are Christians or that Jews begin the Sabbath on Friday nights.”
Nahid agreed. “Girls at my college thought that Jews had tails or horns.” And even her more sophisticated New School students in New York today once assumed that a violent man in a story one student was writing “must be a Muslim.”
“The danger is not to oversimplify,” Linda said. “They drew Venn diagrams of the three monotheistic religions with the Wellesley 6th graders. But the fear is also that we over-equalize the different faiths when we focus on their similarities.”
Rev. John Mennell agreed. “Some education is too basic, but otherwise we end up with illiteracy about religion. Many people don’t understand their own traditions. There have been quizzes given to see how well people know their own traditions. Christians have performed the worst, while Mormons, Jews and Atheists have done the best on basic knowledge.
“Religion is used as a proxy for power. It allows us to categorize people in a way that condemns and disempowers them. And there’s the fear of getting wrong what we can never get right. Trying to describe God as seen through religion is inherently self-limiting.”
Linda asked, “The question is how to address the systemic issue that is creating Islamophobia. How do you break away from religions concepts to the real motivation behind hatred and fear?”
Nahid added, “The Shiite in Iran – some are more liberal and others are more orthodox. Yet they’re fighting over more trivial aspects of belief. The ideal goals are the same. Jews and Muslims traditions of foods are the same, there are so many more similarities. The trivial things are the arguments.”
Ramananda John added, “That’s why I eventually moved away from being an academic. Academics tend to spend much of their time and energy arguing over issues that are essentially inconsequential – and often focus on what makes us different rather than what makes us similar. I think it is vitally important to teach students in public institutions about religions other than their own as a way of increasing understanding and cultivating acceptance of people who don’t think like ‘me’ or look like ‘me’. But that can only be done effectively in a ‘neutral’ environment – in which every tradition is honored and there is no ‘official’ religion guiding our culture or our government. The concept of separation of church and state is one of the foundations of our democracy. It is what gives us each the freedom to practice in whatever tradition we choose without being challenged or segregated by our government or our fellow citizens.”
Linda asked, “But do we go deep enough? What about the different beliefs about what happens at death? What about political issues? Are we sugar-coating when we don’t get into these questions? And how do we deal with lessons that reinforce stereotypes? We need to get beyond the basic facts into the deeper layers.”
Nahid agreed. “These are complex issues, even with beliefs within a single family. Religion should be taught in schools like literature, like a style of life, not arguing the details.”
Rev. John Mennell noted, “It’s a bit like writing. Everyone takes English in school, but not everyone is a writer. It takes time and practice to reach that level. It’s the same with religion.”
When it comes to writing, Nahid said, “Our life experiences – our messages come through. I don’t write to teach lessons. I write to let the work and experiences come out. Even fiction – the messages come from your experiences.”