Sunday, July 12, 2009

Rejoicing with Interfaith Friends

"This is the day the Lord has made/Let us rejoice and be glad in it."

This phrase, which Kathleen and I sang daily over the past year, describes this day to a "t." The picture on the left shows me rejoicing with some of my dear interfaith friends from the South Coast Interfaith Council: Roni Love (a Jewish SCIC board member), Rini Ghosh (Vedantist, Pres. of SCIC), Milia Islam-Majeed (Muslim Exec. Dir. of SCIC), and Khalil Momand (Muslim, facilitator of the Interfaith Cafes). I'll say more about this interfaith cafe later.

In the morning I went to the Grace Presbyterian Church in Long Beach, where I attended the worship service. I was favorably impressed with the vitality of this beautiful church: twenty or so youth were blessed/"commissioned" as they sat out on a mission project, the music was great, and the preaching by Rev. Stephen Wirth very inspiring. It also helped that I sat next to a friendly elderly woman named Jane who gave the church rave reviews.

I recalled my graduate school days in Princeton, NJ, when I attended Nassau Presbyterian Church. The preaching was stellar but the atmosphere was--how can I put it nicely?--a bit on the chilly side. We lived up to the phrase, the "frozen chosen." The Presbyterians here in Long Beach were quite warm and friendly. Because the church was air-conditioned, I joked that they were the "air-conditioned chosen."

The pastor and others saw embarassingly nice things about Quakers when I told them of my religious affiliation. Everyone made me feel very welcome. The social hall where I spoke was packed with thirty or forty people who seemed very interested in what I had to say about Interfaith Peacemaking and the discussion was quite lively.

Sharon Shohfi, the woman who invited me to speak, told me that she and her husband spent a year in Israel/Palestine. She was quite knowledgeable about the region and very receptive to what I had to share. I felt I was among kindred spirits and am looking forward to next week's presentation about a "Nuclear Free World."

I had lunch with a bright, enthusiastic young interfaith website designer named Zach Perlman who is working on a project called "Monks Without Borders," a kind of online interfaith museum (see

Then we went off to an interfaith cafe at Bixby Knolls Christian Church in Long Beach. This social hall was packed with forty or fifty attendees from an amazing diversity of faiths: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Vedantist/Hindu, Sufi, and of course one Quaker.

Interfaith cafes are quite simple. People sit around a table with a set of open-ended questions and some guidelines on "etiquette" (speak from personal experience, don't debate or try to convert, listen from the heart, be open to new insights).

We considered the following questions:

First hour: Who Are You? What religion are you and why? Do you see any difference between organized religion and personal faith/spirituality? Do all religions teach the same basic truths or are there significant differences? What do you think is the biggest misperception people have about your reli­gion?

Second hour: What was your biggest misconception about other religions? How have your views about religion changed over the years, and why? Is it possible to separate religion from politics? How does your religion affect how you take a stand on issues relating to social justice and peace?

I sat at a table with a retired Methodist pastor (my dear friend Bill Miller), a Unitarian, a Palestinian Muslim, a Sufi Muslim, a traditional Muslim woman who wore a hijab. (The other two Muslim women did not wear a head scarf and would be impossible to identify as being Muslim.) It was interesting to hear the views of three months who differed so much in appearance and viewpoint, proving (as if it needed to be proved) that Muslims are as diverse as any those in any other religious group.

We had a lively discussion on a variety of topics ranging from stereotypes about our religious faith to same-sex marriage. We even made up a question of our own (proposed by our traditional Muslim friend): How do we know that a religion is "true"?

After a time of sharing with and learning from each other, we felt very uplifted. As we were about to leave, my Sufi friends from the MTO Sufi group posed for a picture and I was allowed to join them.

"Can I be part of the picture even though I'm not a Sufi?" I asked.

"You're more of a Sufi than I am," replied a young Sufi woman very graciously (proving that she is indeed a Sufi).

Thank you, God, for this special day and for these special friends!

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