Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Season's Greetings from Jill and Anthony

Jill and I wish you all the best during this holiday season! This is our second Christmas together as a married couple, and we are delighted to share some highlights of our first year as a married couple. Below is our story, written from Jill's perspective, but with a lot of input from me. The picture above shows Jill and me with our homeless friend Ceasar. We met him last year during a homeless survey. He shared with us his spiritual journey and we were very impressed. When we told him we were getting married, he said, "May the harps of heaven play at your wedding." We invited him to our wedding, and he showed up, and the harps of heaven did indeed play! We are deeply grateful to have friends like Ceasar as we remember the birth of another homeless one, Jesus of Bethlehem.

    Anthony and I have been on an amazing journey this year, both outward and inward. We have not only traveled a lot, we have also worked on healing issues that each of us brought into our marriage. It’s been challenging at times, but worth it. We are growing together as a team, in our love for one another and in our commitment to serving God.
     I’m so proud of Anthony and his peace advocacy. He gives a voice so many of my long-held view that Jesus came as a Prince of Peace to end war and violence. I have come to love and appreciate his Quaker community where everyone has a voice. They truly practice the “priesthood of believers,” consensus decision-making (or as Friends say, “coming to unity in the Spirit”); and they speak out prophetically for “just peacemaking,” like my Baptist friend Prof Glen Stassen of Fuller Seminary (an Evangelical who has had close ties to the Quakers).
One of Anthony’s highpoints of his year was helping me to revise my book on affordable housing. This subject is one he initially knew little about, but now he feels knowledgeable enough to advocate for. Anthony says I have a wonderful gift for empowering people: I even inspired him to speak out about affordable housing at a Pasadena planning commission meeting. He was so well prepared he was asked questions as if he were an expert!

Here are a few other highlights of this year:

January-February: We hosted a four-week Bible Study to look at the biblical roots of Peacemaking. During that time we went to Tucson, AZ, to a Quaker meeting where Anthony spoke on the Christian roots of Quakerism. (His talk will be published in a major Quaker journal in February!)
April: We attended the Palm Sunday Peace Parade, celebrating where we met last year. We walked to the city center, like Jesus going to Jerusalem, with hundreds of families and friends representing a long list of Pasadena Churches. Later in the month, Anthony attended the World Conference of Friends in Kenya, in which over 850 Quakers from around the world took part. Evangelical and liberal Quakers came together and learned that they have many deep affinities, despite differences in theology and worship style. There Anthony facilitated a workshop on “Interfaith Peacemaking” and went to western Kenya to learn more about what Quakers are doing to prevent violence through various training programs, such as Alternatives to Violence, Transformative Mediation, trauma healing, and community organizing. This Peace Testimony unites Quakers worldwide.
May: We went to “Paradise Cove” in Malibu and celebrated the day we became engaged on Anthony’s birthday. Later that month, our friend Zane called, having lost his job and housing. This rather intellectual professor type friend was wondering from home to home without any real roots. He is now house-sitting for us when we travel. I was able to connect him to a small group Bible study with folks related to his own ethic roots (from India, Greek), so he’s feeling more grounded and very enthused about the Bible. Upon reading 1 Cor. 13 he declared, the love this describes is what I’m missing! Pray for Zane embrace that love and find a job.
June: We celebrated finishing the revision of Making Housing Happen. I’m deeply grateful for Anthony’s willingness to generously give of his time for this project. When the book came out we surprised my mom. Mom’s art work has been selected by my publisher for the cover. It’s beautiful! (If you are interested in obtaining a copy go to https://wipfandstock.com/store/Making_Housing_Happen_2nd_Edition_FaithBased_Affordable_Housing_Models or order it through Amazon or your local book store. And check out Mom’s work: (donnashook.com)
June: Our friend Bert Newton also had his book Subversive Wisdom released through my publisher. This book focuses on the Gospel of John. So we invited Bert to lead a four-week discussion group in our home using a Bible study format. It was a wonderful outreach!
July: we ventured north to the annual Quaker gathering at Walker Creek Ranch in rolling golden cattle land an hour north of San Francisco. Anthony arranged for me to help lead an interest group on homelessness and affordable housing. We loved the morning Bible Studies, meeting fascinating folks and staying in a tent!
We continued north visiting supporters and friends, models from my book, Anthony was duly impressed with the Broetje farms (firstfruits.com). We attending Quaker meetings in Seattle, Portland and Sacramento where each meeting had Bible studies that we enjoyed. A goofy: I put on a long flowing blond hair piece and played guitar, Anthony played the recorder and we sang hymns, 60s’ worship and camp songs (of course not in public!). These moments were especially magical at Bakken and at Ben Lomond, a Quaker center in the mountains above Santa Cruz.
Bakken, the home of Ray Bakke (Jill’s doctoral advisor) and his wife Corean, is located in beautiful forests an hour from the Canadian border. There we had the honor of taking Corean to a 50s diner for breakfast. The waitress noted the title of the book that Corean authored (and had just given us for a wedding gift) was about family worship. Noticing a tear in the waitress’s eye, I asked if she liked to worship. She told us she that she not only likes worship, she has “pipes” and sings in the choir, so we asked her to sing for us. Right there she sang “Amazing Grace” with such gusto and spiritual depth that everyone came around, including the cook from the kitchen. We will never forget this moment of spontaneous worship!
August: We had our house painted by a local father/son team. Our 1924s bungalow badly needed both paint and restoration. The process was stressful, but we love the result: beautiful deep brick red, with cream and green trim!
September: We ventured to Minneapolis for the Christian Community Development Conference where I did a workshop on faith-based affordable housing models. Anthony loves attending CCDA. It has opened his eyes to a world of inspiring visionaries, envisioning the world as Christ intended it to be, and giving their lives to realize Christ’s intention. While there I connected with a long-time friend who helped me see that the Hashimoto’s disease that I was diagnosed with last summer could be the culprit for much of my depression, anxiety and muscle pain.
October: I struggled to balance doctor’s appointments to figure out how to feel better, while doing my best to maintain my ongoing community work: connecting with both Pasadena’s and San Gabriel Valley’s homeless and housing networks, involvement with the IMA-interdenominational Alliance, Greater Pasadena Affordable Housing Group (GPAHG), Neighborhood Watch, speaking engagements on to promote the book, recruiting churches for San Gabriel Valley Family Promise (where we have graduated 5 homeless families this year who are now housed and employed!)
November: Anthony grew a beard, which I love! To lift my spirit, Anthony planned a totally fun “fabulous 58th birthday,” which was a reminder of how many wonderful friends I have. That day we took our homeless friend for lunch and Anthony got his hair cut in San Marino by a Swedish Cowboy!
That month I coordinated the GPAHG members to speak before the Planning commission. GPAHG represents congregations and local nonprofits that serve the homeless. I had the joy of helping two young women from the Elizabeth House (a home that protects homeless pregnant women) to write out their stories of how they became homeless—one from domestic violence and the other from a foreclosure. Seeing these women turn their painful journey into an opportunity to bring more affordable housing into our community brought joy to my soul, and also to theirs. They had never spoken in public before, yet had the full attention of each commissioner.
Meanwhile, Anthony went to Washington, DC, for a Quaker lobby day sponsored by the Friends Committee for National Legislation. Over 325 Friends attended a Policy Institute to learn about the issues, and then went to the Congressional offices armed with facts and arguments about why the military budget needs to be cut by a trillion dollars over the next decade, and why programs to help the poor need to be protected.
December: We began helping the Flores family to save their home from foreclosure. Now that my book is out, Anthony is getting back to some of his writing projects that have been on hold. He has been asked to give a workshop on the Quaker theologian Howard Brinton at the national Quaker gathering in Colorado next July. He is also happy to be back at work on his blog laquaker.blogspot.com and other online social networks, like Facebook.
Anthony loves working with various peace groups and nonprofits, like the Christian and Interfaith Relations Committee of Friends General Conference, the Friends World Committee for Consultation, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, and Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace. He is also seeking to deepen his spiritual life through Stillpoint, a program that helps people to become spiritual directors. This is connecting him with other Christians committed to prayer, meditation, and the inward life and providing a good balance to his (hyper) activist life.

We thank God for our friends, family and supporters who believe in us. This year we have seen anew how helpless we can be, our dependence on God and how interconnected we all are. May we follow the example of our Savior who came as a helpless baby to save the world.

Joy to the World, the Savior has come!

Love, Jill and Anthony

Thursday, December 13, 2012

My Journey as a Quaker Interfaith Peacemaker

This Sunday, Dec 16  I gave a talk on "Quakers and the Interfaith Movement"  sponsored by the Interfaith Study Group, at the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. When I arrived, I realized that my printer had run out of paper and I didn't have the last ten pages of my talk. So I "winged out." I let people ask me questions about Quakerism and they were so eager that every time I answered a question, half a dozen hands flew up, wanting to know more. It was a teacher's dream!

I was also pleased that Jill was able to share her reflections about Quakerism and about an interfaith program to help homeless families called "Family Promise." I was so happy that Jill and I are working together as a team.... thereby fulfilling our wedding vow that "the Prince of Peace has brought us together for a purpose greater than either of us can imagine..."

Here's a draft of what I intended to say:

I want to thank Betsy Perry for inviting me to speak at this occasion, and I want to thank the Pasadena synagogue for hosting this event. I admire very much Rabbi Grater’s deep commitment to peace and justice work and I know several members of this congregation are active supporters of my wife’s concern, affordable housing, and have gone to City Council meetings to raise this issue. Betsy and I met at All Saints this spring during the series on nonviolent activism, “A Force More Powerful,” led by Rev James Lawson. Betsy is delightful person and has come to my home to take part in discussion groups relating to peacemaking and the bible. I love the work that All Saints is doing, like hosting the MPAC conference—I hope it went well.  If I were not a Quaker, I’d probably be attending All Saints. In fact, when the IRS began hassling All Saints because of George Regas’ controversial sermon on “Who would Jesus vote for,” I became a solidarity member of All Saints.  I am delighted to be able to share with you something about the Quaker approach to interfaith peacemaking.

I’d like to begin by sharing how I became an interfaith Quaker twenty five years ago (not coincidentally, my email address is “interfaithquaker@aol.com). What I mean by an interfaith Quaker is simply a Quaker who is open to the wisdom and religious practices of other religions, but is nonetheless deeply rooted in Quakerism.

I first became a Quaker in Princeton, NJ, my home town, in 1984. I was drawn to Quakerism because I love the Quaker practice of silent, open worship. I also love the Quaker commitment to peace and justice. And I love the Quaker belief that each of us can have direct inward access to God, or Truth, through the Inward Light. This is the Light described as the Logos in the Gospel of John: “the true Light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world.” Quakers believe that the Inward Light is present in everyone, and indeed, in every living creature, since the Gospel of John also says: “Through him (the Light of Christ, the Logos) all things were made, and without him was not made anything that was made.” In other words, the Logos created and is present in every person and in everything—including every religion—to some measure.

I found this Universalist approach very appealing since I have been deeply interested in other faiths ever since having a profound experience of Christ in 1971. I became a seeker and learned much from people of other faiths—Hindus, Buddhists, Bahais—as well as Christian denominations like the Congregationalists and Presbyterians. Soon after attending Princeton Friends Meeting in 1983, I met Quakers who were involved in a magazine called “Fellowship in Prayer,” now called “Sacred Journey.” This magazine was founded in 1949 (the date of my birth) by a missionary named Carl Evans who believed that war would end if people of different faiths prayed together for peace.

Evans was ahead of his time, a pioneer in interfaith peacemaking. Thanks to my Quaker friends Ed Miller and Herymon Mauer, I became editor of “Fellowship in Prayer” magazine and had the opportunity to meet and interview spiritual leaders and teachers from various traditions—Jewish, Sufi, Buddhist, Native American, etc. This was the beginning of my interfaith journey as a Quaker.

Herrymon Maurer, my first Quaker mentor, became interested in Taoism when he went to China to teach in the early 1940s, just before World War II broke out. Herrymon wrote an imaginative biography of Lao Lzu and translated the Tao Teh Ching with a commentary based on quotations from the Bible, the Quaker anti-slavery activist John Woolman, and Martin Buber’s Hassidic tales. Herrymon saw the Tao as a profoundly prophetic work—one that called for social as well as personal transformation. I owe Herrymon a huge debt of gratitude for helping me see the links between Quakerism and Taoism, as well as the universality of the Way.

My other Quaker teachers during this period were Joe and Teresina Havens. Joe was a psychologist and Teresina earned a doctorate in religion from Yale in the 1930s. Her specialty was Buddhism. The Havens were an amazing couple and modeled for me what it meant to be a genuine Quaker. They lived simply and devoted their lives to spirituality and social activism. When they retired, they started a retreat center near Amherst where I often went for spiritual renewal. Teresina believed that Nichiren, a thirteen-century Buddhist monk, had many affinities with Quakers since he strongly opposed war. She was right. Followers of Nichiren formed the Sokka Gakkai branch of Buddhism and became ardent advocates for peace.

In 1986, while I was editor of “Fellowship in Prayer,” I became intrigued by a Korean Zen Buddhist teacher named Soen Sa Nim. I went to live and study in his Zen center in Providence, RI, for nine months. The Quakers of Princeton Meeting were very supportive. When I had the opportunity to lead a group of Tibetan monks on a concert tour in New Jersey, Princeton Meeting warmly welcomed them. My first published article in a Quaker journal described the incredible multi-tonal chanting of these tantric monks and was called “Listening to the Light.” I have subsequently published an article about my experience studying tantric Buddhism with the Dalai Lama.

In 1988 I spent a year at Pendle Hill, a Quaker Center for Study and Contemplation, where I met and courted my wife Kathleen Ross, a Methodist minister. A year later, we were married at Claremont Friends Meeting and began a twenty-year ministry together which I sometimes called a Methodist-Quaker alliance. Kathleen deepened my understanding of liberal Christianity which is very open to dialogue and working with people of diverse faiths. During this time, I saw myself as a Methodist Quaker.

My commitment to interfaith peacemaking began in earnest on 9/11. At that time, like many people, I felt enormous fear and anxiety about where our country and world was headed—so I decided to undergo self-purification through fasting and prayer. To reach out to my Muslim neighbors, I decided to fast during the month of Ramadan and went to visit local mosques. When my Muslim neighbors heard I was fasting and reading the Quran during Ramadan, they were incredibly appreciative—some even invited me to their homes. My heart opened up to them and I became hooked on interfaith peacemaking. I started regularly attending interfaith events and soon found myself on the board of various interfaith organizations—the South Coast Interfaith Council, Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, and the Parliament of the World’s Religions.

I also became a kind of Quaker ambassador to the interfaith community. I wrote a pamphlet called “Islam from a Quaker Perspective” which was published by Wider Quaker Fellowship and circulated around the world. There was even an edition published in German! I began giving talks and workshops about Islam and interfaith peacemaking at various Quaker gatherings. Finally, I was given a letter of support by my Yearly Meeting, affirming that I have a calling to do interfaith ministry.

In 2011, I published a book called “Quakers and the Interfaith Movement,” which was intended as a handbook for Quakers interested in becoming involved in this work. It contains chapters on the Interfaith Movement and Compassionate Listening as well as various theological perspectives by leading Quaker scholars. It describes what Quaker institutions, such as Friends Committee on Legislation and the American Friends Service Committee, are doing to promote interfaith dialogue peacemaking. It has a chapter on Quakers and Muslims, and Quakers and Jews and Israel/Palestine—the most challenging issue for the interfaith movement.

I’d like to share with you with you some of the highlights of my book. But first, a little background about Quaker theology.

One of my favorite quotes is by William Penn, who was a Universalist Christian. Unlike the Catholics, who at that time believed that only Catholics would go to heaven, and unlike the Calvinists, who believed that only Calvinists would go to heaven, William Penn thought that people of good will and good action—whether they were Christian, or Muslim, or Jewish—belonged to “one religion” and were kindred spirits:

“The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious and devout souls everywhere are of one religion and when death has taken off the mask, they will know one another, though the diverse liveries they wore here make them strangers.”

Pacific Yearly Meeting—the branch of Quakers to which I belong—agrees with Penn and affirms that the Inward Light is universal, though not easy to put into words:

“The Inward Light is a universal light given to all men [and women], religious consciousness being basically the same wherever it is found. Our difficulties come when we try to express it. We cannot express; we can only experience God. Therefore, we must always remember tolerance, humility, and tenderness with others whose ways and views may differ from ours.”

My friend and colleague Sallie King, a professor of philosophy and religion at James Madison Univeristy,  makes it clear that just because all people are illuminated by the Inward Light, not all people and religions are alike. We must honor differences as well as commonalities. As Sallie points out:

“This is not to say that all religions are one. The religions are indeed different. While Friends avoid creeds, our Testimonies—Truth, Nonviolence, Equality, Simplicity—are clear and not to be compromised, as is our practice of submitting to the guidance of the Spirit. These give us the guidance we need in our relating to other religions.”

This in a nutshell is the theological basis for Quaker peacemaking. What about its practical application?

As I note in my book, “one of the most Quakerly methods for encouraging interfaith dialogue and understanding is to listen deeply to those of other faiths, without judgmentalism” (p. 24). My teacher and friend Gene Hoffman pioneered in this approach and I had the privilege of editing a book of her writings. I also had the opportunity to go to Israel/Palestine with the Compassionate Listening Project, which was inspired by Gene’s approach and led by brilliant Palestinian and Jewish women. As we visited refugee camps, kibbutzim, and various organizations in Israel/Palestine, we learned how to listen to people who had strongly opposing perspectives. It was a life-transforming experience. I received training in compassionate listening and have shared it in many venues, including at the Parliament of the World’s Religion in Melbourne, Australia,

Closer to home, I have facilitated interfaith cafes that use a compassionate listening approach. Kay Lindahl, founder of the Sacred Listening Center, developed the interfaith café model which has been widely used in many places, including here in Pasadena. In September of this year, I helped organize an interfaith café at Orange Grove Meeting, sponsored by the Parliament of the World’s Religion. Around 30 people showed up. We met in small groups and shared our spiritual experiences by responding to open-ended questions like:  “What does your religion say about peace? How does your religion help you to deal with conflict nonviolently in your family, workplace, and community? How does your religion affect how you take a stand on issues relating to social justice and peace? What do you think is the biggest misperception people have about your reli­gion? How have your views about religion changed over the years, and if so, how and why?”

            These questions have no right or wrong answers and open up dialogue based on experience, not dogma. The beauty of the interfaith café approach is that it creates a safe space where people can talk about their faith and hear about our faiths in a f/Friendly way. This model has become very popular in the Long Beach area, thanks to the South Coast Interfaith Council. I hope that we can have more interfaith cafes here in Pasadena, perhaps right here in this synagogue! Please let me know if you’re interested.

            My book also describes what Quaker organizations are doing to promote interfaith peace and understanding nationally and globally. For example, the Friends Committee for National Legislation, a Quaker lobby started in 1943, called on Friends to become more engaged with the Muslim community and its efforts to promote peace and justice. When conservatives tried to prevent a creation of an Islamic Center in lower Manhattan, FCNL circulated a petition that garnered 8,000 signatures and presented it to Faisal Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan of the Cordoba Center.

            I recently went to Washington, DC, to take part in a Quaker lobby day. 325 Quakers from across the USA gathered in DC to call on our elected officials to reduce the military budget by a trillion dollars over the next decade. We were encouraged to set up meetings with our elected officials in their home offices. I have organized an interfaith delegation to meet with Adam Schiff’s aide here in Pasadena last week. If you’d like to be part of an interfaith delegation to meet with our new Pasadena representative Judy Chu and argue for cuts in the Pentagon budget, please let me know. I’d love your support!

            I serve on the Christian and Interfaith Relations Committee of Friends General Conference, a national Quaker organization. Christian and Interfaith Relations Committee of Friends General Conference, or CIRC, was started so that Friends could have a presence at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893. CIRC sends Quaker representatives to the World and National Council of Churches. I do a lot of interfaith work on behalf of CIRC. They sponsored my trip to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia.

            Among other things, CIRC wrote a response to an historic statement issues by Muslim scholars to Christian scholars called “A Common Word.” This unprecedented Muslim outreach to the Christian community began in October 13, 2007, when 138 Muslim scholars sent out a letter (entitled “A Common Word Between Us and You”) to leaders of the Christian faith, calling for peace and understanding. (Since then, there have been more Muslim signatories, bringing the total to over 300.) These noteworthy signatories represent a broad range of nationalities and theological perspectives. According to its author, Prince Ghazi bin Muhammud of Jordan, this letter represents a “normative Ijma [consensus] by the Ummah’s [Muslim community’s] scholars,” that must be taken seriously by Muslims everywhere.

Just to be clear, this exchange was meant to be the beginning of a theological conversation that will eventually include Jewish scholars. You can read about this exchange in a book entitled A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor (Eerdman: Grand Rapids, MI, 2010). It is fascinating to see how finely trained theological minds explore the intricacies and complexities of such a seemingly simple statement as: “Love God and love your neighbor.” What is meant by “love”? What is meant by “God”? Or “neighbor”? Do Muslims and Christians mean the same thing by these words?

             CIRC’s response to “A Common Word” called on Christians and Muslims to dialogue together to explore ways to promote peace. I’d love to broaden this discussion to include ALL the religious leaders in Pasadena. How might we cooperate to put into practice the commandment to “love thy neighbor?”

            I currently serve on the board of the local chapter of the Parliament of the World’s Religion and I encourage you to become involved. Last spring at the Sokka Gakkai Center in Santa Monica, the Parliament sponsored a gathering in which teachers from various religious traditions gave instruction on prayer and meditation. This program was called “Seeds of Peace” and we plan to have a similar event in the spring of 2013. I feel we are continuing the work of the Christian missionary Carl Evans, who believed that if people of different faiths prayed for peace, we could end war.

I recently went to Claremont Lincoln University to attend an event sponsored by the Parliament of the World’s Religion called “Educating Religious Leaders for a Multi-Religious World.” As you probably know, Claremont School of Theology has been transformed into the first interfaith seminary in the nation, thanks to a 50 million dollar grant from the Lincoln family. It is now called the Lincoln Claremont University and its mission is to train young people to become Christian pastors, Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams in one institution rather than in several. Claremont Lincoln isn’t interesting in promoting a one-size-fits-all religion. Rather it is committed to nurturing religious leaders who are clear about their own faith and comfortable working and studying together in a multi-religious, pluralistic community. I was pleased to learn that the Provost of the Claremont Lincoln University, a brilliant and prolific theologian by the name of Phil Clayton, currently attends the Claremont Meeting and considers himself a Quaker. I was also pleased that one of the leading professors of Claremont Lincoln University, a Muslim scholar named Najeeba Syed-Miller, studied at Guiford, a Quaker college in North Carolina, with my friend Max Carter, the director of the Quaker studies program. When I told Najeeba I detected Quaker elements in one of her talks, she smiled and told me about her Quaker educational background. I love the fact that people of different faiths are learning from each other how to become better peace makers.

Here in Pasadena, Professor Glen Stassen, an Evangelical Baptist, has been an integral part of a movement called “Just Peacemaking.” He argues that the debate between pacifism and “just war” cannot be resolved, and isn’t particularly helpful. He believes that all Christians, and indeed all people of faith, should do all they can to prevent war.  He was involved in the recent publication of a book entitled “Interfaith Just Peacemaking,” edited by Susan Thisthethwaite. As a Quaker, I am thrilled that people of diverse faiths agree that “war is not the answer.” Did I mention that Glen Stassen went to a Quaker school and has on the door of his office an FCNL sticker that reads “War is not the answer.” Isn’t it marvelous when peace makers work together and learn from each other?

I’d like to close by discussing the final two chapters of my book: one relating the Quakers and Islam, the other relating to Quakers and Israel/Palestine.

The chapter on Islam contains not only my pamphlet but also excepts from the translation of the Quran by Michael Sells, a Quaker professor of Arabic studies who used to teach at Haverford and now teaches at the University of Chicago. I highly recommend his book

The chapter on Israel/Palestine deals with the thorny issue of how we can create a just peace in this troubled region nonviolently. It contains an essay by a Quaker of Jewish background who went to Israel/Palestine with the Compassionate Listening project. It also has an essay by Guiford College professor Max Carter, Najeeba Syed-Miller’s teacher, who frequently takes students from Guilford to Ramallah, where a Quaker school was established over a hundred years ago. This school has trained many leaders in the Palestinian community who have acquired many Quaker values while still preserving their identity as Muslims. This chapter also describes the work that the AFSC is doing to encourage young Palestinian leaders to work for justice nonviolently.

Interfaith work in the Middle East can be very difficult, and it isn’t always easy here at home. My Jewish friend Ruth Broyde Sharone has written a lively memoir about her interfaith reconciliation work called “Minefields and Miracles: Why God and Allah Need to Talk.” She recounts many inspiring stories of interfaith cooperation, and also of painful misunderstandings.

We may not agree on theology, and we all have very different religious practices, but we can agree that we are called to “love our neighbors.” This is the heart and the essence of the Torah, the Gospel, and the Quran—and most other faiths have a similar teachings.

 The three major Christian organizations—the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID), the World Council of Churches (WCC) an ,the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA)—met during a period of five years to discuss how Christians could witness to their faith in a multi-religious world. I highly recommend downloading and reading this historic document, which was published in 2011, since it is the first time that Catholics, mainstream Protestants and Evangelicals have agreed on guidelines for interfaith dialogue and cooperation within the context of Christian witness. Among other things, this document encourages Christians to engage in respectful interreligious dialogue, to build relationships of trust with those of other faiths, to reject violence, to speak truthfully about other faiths, to refrain from all forms of material “allurements” to gain converts, to work for freedom of freedom, and to cooperate with people of other faiths for the common good.

I think we can all agree it’s important to cooperate with people of other faiths for the common good. That’s why I want to lift up a relatively new interfaith service organization that has come to the San Gabriel area. It’s called Family Promise and it’s part of a nation-wide network that has helped thousands of homeless families to become housed. My wife Jill does recruitment for this interfaith organization, and I’d like to invite her to say a few words about it. See  http://web.fpsgv.org/

            My wife and I met last spring at a Peace Parade here in Pasadena, and we were married last fall after a whirlwind courtship. I proposed to Jil after only three weeks. I guess it’s what my Jewish Friends call beshert, meeting your soul mate: we just knew God had brought us together.

Jill and I come from very different backgrounds. She is an Evangelical Chistian and I am a liberal Quaker, but we agree on deeply held values—like peace and justice, helping the poor, and loving our neighbors. And we have discovered you don’t need to agree with someone’s theology to love them and work with them and have a wonderful relationship.

When we got married, we invited people of diverse faiths to be part of our wedding party. Muslims, Jews, Evangelicals, liberals, conservatives people of color, the affluent, the homeless, and even a stranger from China who happened to be in town and wanted to see an American wedding—all came to our wedding and were welcome.

“Love God and love your neighbor as yourself” is a commandment we need to take seriously and embrace wholeheartedly. It’s part of our DNA as well as our religious heritage. What the interfaith movement calls us to do is to love ALL our neighbors, no matter what their race, religion or ethnic background. It isn’t always easy, but it’s worth it!




Saturday, December 8, 2012

"What are you waiting for?" -- Reflection on Advent

[I wrote this reflection a long time ago with Quakers in mind, but other Christians may also find themselves to be "seekers forever, finders never." This Christmas I realize that the best gift we can give ourselves, and others, is to be fully present--present to our feelings, present to our hopes and dreams, and present to the spirit that created and inspires us. This is a gift we must be willing to receive from the Holy Presence in which we live and breathe and have our being. It is pure grace.]

This is the time of Advent, the time in which Christians wait for and reflect upon the coming of Christ. For Friends, every meeting for worship could be considered a time of advent since we consider worship "waiting upon the Lord." In the past, Friends waited upon the Lord with a real expectation that the Lord would actually arrive. Now many Friends are apt to wait simply for the sake of waiting. We are willing to settle for "peace and quiet" instead of joy and bliss.

 Pleasaunce Holton makes fun of this kind of Quaker seeker in the song, "Doubting Quakers." Its refrain is:

 "We're all in search of God, We're good a silent seeking,
Seekers forever, Finders never."

Samuel Beckett mocks the perpetual seeker in his play, Waiting for Godot. In this play, two tramps await the arrival of a mysterious personage named Godot who is supposed to give their lives meaning and purpose. The tramps have convinced themselves that when Godot finally arrives, their lives won't seem boring and empty any longer. This being a modern play, Godot never comes, nor would it make much difference if he did. Beckett makes it clear that, as long as you are waiting for someone else to come and give your life meaning and purpose, your life cannot possibly be meaningful. At best, waiting for a savior postpones our encounter with the pain and emptiness of existence. Waiting gives us something to hope for, something to think about, something to write sermons and plays about, but ultimately it is only a distraction from the terrible tedium of the present moment.

Godot became a classic of our time because many of us feel, or have felt, like Beckett's anti-heroes. We would embrace any illusion rather than look within ourselves and face the reality of the present moment. When tomorrow comes and I find the perfect mate or the perfect job or the perfect religion, or when Jesus comes back and makes the world perfect, I will finally have a life.

Most of us don't really believe this dream, but at least it is better than having no dream at all. So we go on like the man described by Dr. Johnson who persuaded himself that when spring came, he would finally be happy. Of course, when spring actually did arrive, this man was usually disappointed, but for the other three seasons of the year, he was in fact happy. Dr. Johnson says that this is the most happiness that any of us can expect. As Alexander Pope, wrote: "Hope springs eternal in the human breast,/Man never is, but always [is going] to be blessed."

Unfortunately, those who expect to be blessed in the future, or cling to blessing from the past, never have a life in the present. As the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland explained , "We have jam every other day. Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today."

What does it matter if Christ came yesterday, or will come again tomorrow? All that matters is Christ today! Today, this very moment, is the only time that is real. If Christ is real, Christ must come at this very moment, must meet us here and now.
Fox criticized those who believed that the Holy Spirit inspired early Christians, but no longer inspire us today. According to fundamentalists, we are fallen creatures who must rely on scriptural insights that God provided in the past. For these Bible-centered Christians, the Advent of Christ is an historical event that took place two thousand years, once and for all. Fox countered by asserting that unless you live according to the Spirit in which the scriptures were written, you will not be able to understand them. Furthermore, the Spirit continues to live and work within us, inspiring new insights and understandings.

The second block to experiencing the Light within us is the belief that Christ will come again in the future. There's nothing wrong with imagining a future where Christ will be fully revealed to all, where the world will be more just and more spiritually enlightened than it is at the present. However, there is a danger in pinning so much hope on the future that we ignore the present. In this sense, dreaming of a "world without war" is as bad as dreaming of heaven after death. Such dreaming can blind us to the genuine peace and heavenly moments that God gives us right now. God's kingdom is not like an amusement park in which we have to wait and wait in line for a ride. God is fully present in every moment. Therefore, every moment can be an experience of divine bliss, a foretaste of the perfect society in which all will be guided by the Light.

Jesus talked about Christ's second coming, but that wasn't the most important or most shocking part of Jesus' message. Jews believed, and many still believe, that sometime in the future the Messiah will come. What actually shocked Jesus's listeners was his assertion that the Kingdom of God had actually arrived. "The kingdom of God is within you," Jesus insisted. "The day of Lord has come."

Here in this moment, as we go about our daily tasks, washing dishes, minding the kids, taking out the garbage, smelling the roses, making love, sharing joys and grief with our friends and loved ones---here is where we must look for the advent of Christ. If we are ever going to be enlightened by Christ, we must recognize that His Light is right here under our noses, as real as our heartbeat and our breathing.

As we breathe in, we are receiving the holy spirit of life. As we breathe out, that spirit goes forth from us into the world. Breathe in, breathe out, the spirit of Christ--this is what Paul meant when he said we can pray continually. Breathe in and breathe out the holy spirit of life: that is the way to be continually aware of Christ's advent.

An ancient hymn by the German mystic Mechtild of Magdenburg refers to God as "unresting, unhasting, and silent as light....." How beautifully this describes the way that God comes to us during a time of meditation and prayer. "Silent as light"--just like the dawn slowly emerging out of darkness.

However, if you have ever waited for the dawn, you know that its arrival is anything but silent. As soon as the first glimmerings of light appear, birds go wild and start singing out with joyous exuberance, as if to say, "A new day is born! What a miracle!" In a similar way, those who have experienced the silent coming of Christ's Light cannot help singing out with joy and praise.

Perhaps this is where Friends need to pay more attention. We are "good at silent seeking," but not very good at joyful noises. "Silence can be a drug," says Pleasaunce Holton, "when we ought to be speaking." True, it is hard to speak about the "immortal, invisible God only wise,/in light inaccessible hid from our eyes." Words fail us, even the words of the greatest poet. Writing about his mystical vision of God, Dante apologized at the end of the Paradiso:
"What then I saw is more than tongue can say.
Our human speech is dark before the vision.
The ravished memory swoons and falls away."

Yet if we have glimpsed even the merest glimmering of God's eternal Light, how can we keep from speaking or singing?

The friends of a mystical Sufi poet once taunted him: "You say that the wonder of God is inexpressible, yet you write poem after poem about God. Why do you bother?" The poet responded simply, "Why does a bird sing?"

According to the Bible story, the shepherds and wise men came to Bethlehem and offered whatever they had to the Christ child. The wise men offered rich gifts; the shepherds offered their silent awe. I offer these words to the Christ child within each of us. May each of us experience the coming of the Christ within our hearts and may we share our joy and wonder with others, in the spirit of love.

(This was written in 1994, but seems timeless and relevant today.)

Thursday, December 6, 2012

An Hawai'an Perspective on Pearl Harbor

“A day that will live in infamy,” that’s what President Roosevelt called the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; and on December 7, Americans mourn the 2,402 lives lost on this infamous day. Like the events of 9/11, Pearl Harbor was a turning point for America, and the world. Some people of faith felt our violent response was justified—in a fallen world, we must fight evil with evil—while others questioned whether the evils of war can ever create the kind of peace we all yearn for.
To understand the significance of these fateful days that changed world history, I think we need to look more deeply and try to see these events through other lenses, not simply through the lens of American exceptionalism.
My wife and I had an unusual view of Pearl Harbor during our honeymoon, which happened to begin on Sept 11. We were taken on a tour of Pearl Harbor and given a Hawai'ian perspective by an American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) staff person. The AFSC was founded by Quakers during World War I to provide alternative service opportunities for conscientious objectors; and in 1947 it was given the Nobel Peace Prize. When we went to a hillside overlooking the harbor, we were told that this scenic location was once the bread basket of Oahu. The Hawai'ians had created fish ponds out of coral so that little fish swam in, grew large and were not able to swim out. They were harvested sustainably for many centuries and the land, water and people lived in harmony and flourished. You can still see the remains of these fishponds.
Today Pearl Harbor is no longer a place where you can safely fish. It is so polluted with toxic waste from the US military it has been designated a Superfund site. For over sixty years, the land and residents of Hawai'i have endured tremendous toxic pollution exposure from military use and munitions training in the islands. The 2004 Defense Environmental Restoration Program report to Congress listed 798 military contamination sites at 108 installations in Hawai'i, 96 of which were contaminated with unexploded ordnance, seven of the military contamination sites were considered "Superfund" sites. These sites have not been cleaned up.
This is the ongoing legacy of US military occupation. Nearly 25% of the Hawai'ian islands are used for military purposes.
In addition to Pearl Harbor, we were taken to the palace of the last Queen of Hawai'i, Liliuokalani. In this lavish palace we saw how the Hawai'ian people had created a highly advanced culture, technologically superior in many ways to that of the US and Europe, with indoor toilets, electricity and even telephones before they were installed in the White House or Buckingham Palace. Yet the Hawai'ians were treated as a “lesser breed,” conquered and annexed against their will by the Americans to be used as a fueling station so that the American Empire could expand and have access to and control Chinese and Japanese markets.
Viewed from this perspective, the attack on Pearl Harbor was one foreign imperial power attacking another on land that belonged to neither. The day that Americans took the land of Hawai'i from its people was also a "day of infamy."
The longer we stayed in Hawaii, the more we came to appreciate the beautiful, rich culture of the Hawai'ian people. We also came to appreciate why many Hawaiians yearn for their lost sovereignty and why we haoles (whites) are viewed with mixed feelings.
I believe the best way to honor those who died at Parlor Harbor is to restore this and other sacred places to its original owners and to clean up the mess our military has left behind here and elsewhere on the Hawai'ian islands, the jewels of the Pacific. Let us remember not only the American dead, but the also Hawai'ians—countless generations who would weep to see how their islands have been ravaged by war makers. Let us pray and work for the day when the land and the people of Hawai'i are free from the disease of militarism. ALOHA!

After 43 years, the AFSC Hawai'i Area Program is now Hawai'i Peace and Justice, an independent non-profit organization committed to education and nonviolent action to grow peace, grow youth and grow solidarity in Hawai'i and beyond.
To contact Hawai'i Peace and Justice visit: hawaiipeaceandjustice.org

See also

Hawaii: Head of the Tentacled Beast

By Jon Letman, October 18, 2012
Foreign Policy in Focus
Fresh from hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Honolulu last autumn, U.S. President Barack Obama recently told members of the Australian Parliament that America’s defense posture across the Asia-Pacific would be “more broadly distributed…more flexible—with new capabilities to ensure that our forces can operate freely.”
The announcement of America’s “Asia-Pacific pivot” by its first Hawaiia-born president was highly fitting, since the Hawaiian Islands are at the piko (“navel” in Hawaiian) of this vast region.
A less flattering metaphor for Hawaii’s role in the Pacific is what Maui educator and native Hawaiian activist Kaleikoa Kaeo has called a giant octopus whose tentacles reach across the ocean clutching Japan, Okinawa, South Korea, Jeju island, Guam—and, at times, the Philippines, American Samoa, Wake Island, Bikini Atoll, and Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Island. See http://www.fpif.org/articles/hawaii_head_of_the_tentacled_beast

Friday, November 30, 2012

How to become part of the interfaith movement

This is a talk I gave on Sunday, Dec 2, at Manhattan Beach Community Church in which I offer practical tips on how to become involved with interfaith, and also a vision of what the interfaith movement means in today's world. I was joined by my wife Jill, who spoke about Family Promise, an interfaith network to help homelesss families; and by Melissa and Shaun, a homeless couple who are dear friends of mine and attended an interfaih banquet in Redondo Beach they described as "like being in heaven." My talk was warmly received and I really enjoyed the people of this church...

Thank you for inviting me to this church to share about the interfaith movement on the first Sunday of Advent, a time when we celebrate the coming of Christ, the Word of God manifested in human form. Christ came to free us from all the barriers that stand between us and God, and between us and our fellow human beings. He came to show us the way of love, the way of peace and justice and inner well-being that Jews call shalom. My work as a Quaker peace activist has been deeply influenced by the teachings of Christ, and by the Quaker belief that there is “that of God”—the Inward Light—in everyone.

I am here today because of an interfaith event sponsored by the International Institute of Toleration in Carson during Ramadan, a time when Muslims celebrate the coming of God’s Word manifested in the Quran. This is also a joyful time, a time when Muslim feel God has shown us his boundless mercy and love through this revelation. This is where I met Martha Cromlett and other members of this congregation. At this event Christians, Muslims and Jews along with other people of faith gathered to talk about how to make this world a better place.

The International Institute of Tolerance was founded by a remarkable Muslim couple, Imam Ashraf Carrim and his wife Athia, who are passionately committed to peace and to social betterment. Their organization is not only engaged in creating understanding, it is also involved in helping the homeless and other humanitarian work both locally and globally. I got to know the Carims when I joined the Board of Directors of the South Coast Interfaith Council around ten years ago.

SCIC was founded in the 1950s to bring together Christians of different denominations; in 2006, it became an interfaith organization that brings together people of diverse religious backgrounds. Today SCIC has as its executive director a young Muslim woman named Milia Islam-Majeed. Milia is a Harvard-educated young woman with a passion for interfaith who has earned national recognition for her work here in the South Bay.

I love to share stories like these because they are signs of hope in a world that the media often portrays as hopeless. Despite what Fox news says, Bob Dylan was right, the times they are a-changin’ and sometimes even for the better. Muslims, Jews, Christians, Bahai, Buddhists, Jains, and Native Americans are coming together, despite or perhaps because of the 9/11 attack. We are working together to create a vibrant multi-cultural, multi-religious community that reflects what is best about America and about our various faith traditions. We sometimes encounter opposition, especially around election time, when some politicians fan the fires of prejudice to garner votes. There is also entrenched prejudice towards those who are seen as “different.” For example, when a mosque in Lomita wanted to build a social hall, some of the neighbors complained and tried to block it, but the interfaith community rallied around in support. When my friend Shakeel Syed became the first Muslim president of the LA interfaith council, he stood in support of an Orthodox Jewish school that neighbors objected to; and he also went to the City Council to speak out against scheduling the LA Marathon on a Sunday morning, when it disrupts attendance at some Christian churches. These small, but meaningful acts of solidarity are what have helped to weave together the fabric of a healthy interreligious community here in Los Angeles.

I am convinced that when historians look back on the first decade of the 21st century, which has been the best of times, as well as the worst of times, for people of faith, our era will be compared to the convivenciain Muslim Spain, when Christians, Jews and Muslims lived together and created a golden age comparable to the Renaissance in Europe.

I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture. There were religious bigots in Muslim Spain, just as they are in the US today. And there were periods of repression followed by times of harmony. But as Maria Rosa Menocal demonstrates in her beautiful, haunting book, Ornament of the World, Muslim Spain had a glorious multi-religious culture. And so does Los Angeles, with interfaith events happening nearly every week, and a new interfaith seminary opening up in nearby Claremont, about which I’ll say more later.

I’d like to talk about three aspects of the interfaith movement—building understanding through dialogue and cooperation, working together for justice and peace, and deepening our spiritual awareness. I also want to suggest ways you can become involved in this work.

The first goal of the interfaith movement is to foster a community where people of different faith traditions respect each other, engage in constructive dialogue, and cooperate on projects that benefit those in need. The South Coast Interfaith Council has been a model of such ecumenical and interfaith cooperation for over half a century. It has brought together people of different theological and religious perspectives and helped them to provide much needed services to the community. Dozens of nonprofits have been formed under the umbrella of SCIC. It also organizes interfaith musical events, panel discussions, and religious events like its annual Martin Luther King day celebration. During the summer it organizes interfaith cafes at various venues throughout the Bay Bay area. As a Quaker, I especially like the interfaith café model because it is participatory and provides a safe space for people to talk about their religious beliefs. If you haven’t been to an interfaith café, I encourage you to try it. Maybe you could even host one here in your church!

I am reminded of an old saying that “theology divides, service unites.” Sadly, theology and dogma can be divisive and painful. We can become so attached to our beliefs that we feel threatened when anyone challenges them. This attachment to dogma has led to schisms, persecutions, and broken relationships. It has also led to violence, terrorism and religious wars. My Jewish film-maker friend Ruth Sharone has written a lively and engaging memoir about her interfaith work with the provocative title: Minefields and Miracles. Those of us who engage interfaith work soon realize we must tread very carefully to avoid painful misunderstandings due to religious and cultural differences.

That’s why it’s important to create a safe space where people can share their religious beliefs without feeling threatened or attacked, where people can listen to each other compassionately. Kay Lindahl and my teacher Gene Hoffman created guidelines and practices to help people listen to each other from the heart. The basic premise of compassionate or sacred listening is that we don’t have to agree with the other person’s beliefs; we just need to listen to each other with an open heart and mind. We in turn are given an opportunity to share what we believe and to receive the gift of compassionate listening. Such discussions can help bring people together and enable us to better “love our neighbor,” as Jesus and the prophets command us to do.

Three major Christian organizations—the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID), the World Council of Churches (WCC) an ,the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA)—met during a period of five years to discuss how Christians could witness to their faith in a multi-religious world. I highly recommend downloading and reading this historic document, which was published in 2011, since it is the first time that Catholics, mainstream Protestants and Evangelicals have agreed on guidelines for interfaith dialogue and cooperation within the context of Christian witness. Among other things, this document encourages Christians to engage in respectful interreligious dialogue, to build relationships of trust with those of other faiths, to reject violence, to speak truthfully about other faiths, to refrain from all forms of material “allurements” to gain converts, to work for freedom of freedom, and to cooperate with people of other faiths for the common good.

Cooperating with people of other faiths for the common good is an essential part of our Christian witness. That’s why I want to lift up a new interfaith service organization that has come to your area. It’s called Family Promise of the South Bay and it’s part of a nation-wide network that has helped thousands of homeless families to become housed. I am familiar with this organization because we have a Family Promise network in the San Gabriel valley and it’s doing an outstanding job. Family Promise recruits churches, mosques, synagogues, and other congregations to provide a place for two or three homeless families to stay for a week and then rotate to another place. Members of host congregations get to know the families and often feel deeply connected to them. During the day these families are given counseling and other help to help them become employed and housed. This program is does more than simply provide a meal or a handout, it helps families to get back on their feet. Ad as you no doubt realize, the homeless problem is huge, far beyond the resources of any one church or religion. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Association, in 2011 there were 51,340 homeless in Los Angeles. And the numbers for the South Bay are just as bad, according to the LAHSA. In the South Bay there were 6,788 homeless in 2011. That was a 25% increase since 2009. 5,133 of those were single adults and 1,543 were family units (members). Twelve of the homeless were unaccompanied youth under the age of 18. People of different faiths need to address the needs of these marginalized poor. According to the Book of Acts, among early Christians there were no poor people since those who owned homes or had wealth sold them to share with those in need (see Act 4: 34). I realize this seems radical and very few pastors preach on this text or encourage their congregations to follow this example, but I think we can agree that all religious traditions urge us to do everything we can to eliminate poverty. And all religions agree we must“love our neighbors.” These are the fundamentals of faith.

For this reason, I encourage you to consider supporting interfaith organizations like Family Promise of South Bay.

This brings us to the second goal of the interfaith movement: promoting justice and peace. Right after 9/11, a group of religious leaders from the LA area came together to seek an alternative to government’s vindictive and violent response to this act of terrorism. Such notables as Rev George Regas, Imam Siddiqui, Rabbi Berman, and Rev James Lawson began meeting with a growing number of religious leaders every Friday morning. They called themselves Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, ICUJP. Their slogan was: “Religious Communities Must Stop Blessing War and Violence.” They have been meeting ever since, and ICUJP has become one of the most prophetic voices for peace and justice in the region, and indeed the nation.

I’ve been a Quaker peace activist for over 25 years and my personal response after 9/11 was to fast during the month of Ramadan to reach out to my Muslim neighbors in solidarity and love. My efforts were so warmly received by the Muslim community that I have fasted every Ramadan since then, and plan to continue to fast until there is peace in Israel/Palestine. I also wrote a pamphlet entitled “Islam from a Quaker Perspective,” which has been translated into German and circulated among dozens of nations around the world. My decision to fast during Ramadan is what led me to become part of the interfaith movement and to join ICUJP.

I love ICUJP because it consists of some of the most committed peace activists in the LA area—Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and people of conscience who don’t profess any religious faith, but share our commitment to peacemaking. ICUJP organizes events to educate people about issues such as the cost of war and the evils of torture and drones, and has stood firmly against our invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, during the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, ICUJP staged a vigil in which fourteen of its members, including myself, were arrested in front of the Federal Building in downtown LA. Going to jail with my friends from ICUJP was one of the spiritual highpoints of my life.

You may recall that in the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus describes a time of war, pestilence, earthquakes and other disasters and foretells the second Coming of Christ in glory. And what are Christians doing during this time? They aren’t fighting with physical weapons; they are speaking out prophetically, testifying to shalom, the peace of God, and getting arrested and thrown into prison. That, to me, is what it means to be a prophetic witness for the God’s Kingdom.

ICUJP has partnered with other prophetic interfaith groups, like the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, and held anti-torture event at synagogues, mosques, and churches. When Obama was first elected to be president, ICUJP organized a series of visits to a dozen Congressional offices here in LA, calling for an end to US-sponsored torture. Our efforts have not yet been successful—torture, alas! is still being practiced by our government—but we haven’t given up. Remember it took many decades to make slavery illegal, and to gain for women and blacks the right to vote. Those of us in the interfaith peace movement are committed for the long haul. We will never give up the struggle for justice and peace.

Another interfaith justice organization here in the LA area is CLUE, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice. They began a decade ago as a coalition of religious activists concerned about the living wage and have worked tirelessly ever since to promote the rights of low-income workers, like janitors and hotel workers.

If you are concerned about peace and justice, I encourage you to get involved with groups like these. It isn’t hard. To get involved with ICUJP, all you have to do is show up on Friday morning at 7 AM at the Emmanuel Presbyterian Church on Wilshire Boulevard. We have great speakers and great discussions every week, and we also engage in meaningful actions that demonstrate our commitment to making a world free of war and injustice. And we have free coffee and bagels!

In closing, I’d like to provide a global perspective on this work and to focus on the spiritual dimension. Much of what I shared with you is local since that’s the best entry point to the interfaith movement. But it’s important to keep in mind that what we are doing locally is also happening all around the world, though much of this work goes unreported in the media.

The interfaith movement has a long history and many believe its modern form began at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. At this global gathering, religious leaders from around the world gathered for they called a Parliament of the World’s Religions. This was a watershed moment, the first time when Eastern and Western religious leaders and teachers met on a more or less equal basis to share their beliefs and insights. Among them was Swami Vivekanda, an Indian guru who electrified the gathering when he gave his prophetic testimony. I say“prophetic” because he spoke on September 11, 1893, and his words still ring true. He said:

“The present convention, which is one of the most august assemblies ever held, is in itself a vindication, a declaration to the world of the wonderful doctrine preached in the Gita: "Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me." Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.”

A hundred years after this convention, followers of Vivekanda organized another Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago and it was a huge success. Over 8,000 people from all over the world, from many diverse religions, gathered to celebrate, discuss and explore how religious traditions can work together on the critical issues which confront the world. The Dalai Lama was a keynote speaker, and the great Catholic theologian Hans Kung summed up the purpose of the interfaith movement with these simple, but powerful words:

There can be no peace in the world without peace among the religions.

There can be no peace among religions without a common ethic.

There can be no common ethic without dialogue.

What Hans Kung meant is that religions may differ about beliefs, but we can agree on ethical values and practices, like ending war, disease and poverty, and showing each other mutual respect and compassion. We need to gather together both locally and globally to explore ways we can work together to make this a better world.

The Parliament of the World’s Religion has met every five years since 1993 at major cities, like Durban, South Africa; Barcelona, Spain; and most recently Melbourne, Australia. I had the privilege of going to the Parliament gathering in Melbourne in 2010 and it was a life-transforming experience. Imagine spending a week with 7,000 of the world’s most dynamic spiritual and religious leaders, with over 600 workshops on how to make peace, end poverty, and promote understanding.

I currently serve on the board of the local chapter of the Parliament which focuses mainly on spiritual matters. For example, last spring at the Sokka Gakkai Center in Santa Monica, the Parliament sponsored a gathering in which teachers from various religious traditions gave instruction on prayer and meditation. This program was called “Seeds of Peace” and we plan to have a similar event in the spring of 2013. Some might not feel comfortable learning about prayer from those of other faiths, but others, including many prominent Christians, feel we can learn much from such encounters. In fact, there has been a long and rich tradition of Christian contemplatives learning and sharing with contemplatives of other faiths. For example, Bede Griffith, a Catholic priest who went to India and adopted many Indian contemplative practices, felt he had become a better Christian by studying the spirituality of the Hindus. It didn’t water down his Catholic faith, but deepened it. Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk, was not only deeply involved in social justice and peace work, he also traveled to the East to engage in dialogue with Buddhist and Hindu contemplatives. Like many modern Quakers, I learned much about meditation through Zen Buddhism. I have also deepened my spiritual life through encounters with my brothers and sisters in the Parliament who have helped me to appreciate the many dimensions of prayer and meditation. The Quaker theologian Douglas Steere called these kinds of indepth spiritual encounters “mutual irradiation.”

The Parliament sponsored an interfaith gathering in Gualalajara, Mexico, in August of this year. Over 800 people took part, most of them from Latin America. A delegation of around ten Los Angeleos attended and came back with glowing reports.

A Hebrew proverb affirms, “Without a vision the people perish.” Our world is desperately in need of a vision, a vision of hope and new possibilities. Much of what we read and hear about religion in the news is negative, and that’s why many young people are turned off and say they are “spiritual, but not religious.”

It is my hope that the interfaith movement can change that kind of thinking among the young by offering a new vision of religion based on love and genuine dialogue. That’s why I am excited that the Claremont School of Theology has been transformed into the first interfaith seminary in the nation, thanks to a 50 million dollar grant from the Lincoln family. It is now called the Lincoln Claremont University and its mission is to train young people to become Christian pastors, Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams in one institution rather than in several. Claremont Lincoln isn’t interesting in promoting a one-size-fits-all religion. Rather it is committed to nurturing religious leaders who are clear about their own faith and comfortable working and studying together in a multi-religious, pluralistic community. Over a hundred such young leaders went to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 2010, thanks to a grant from the Pew foundation. I am excited thinking about the next generation of religious leaders having this foundational experience.

I recently asked Glen Stassen, a progressive evangelical professor of religion and ethics at Fuller Seminary, what he thought of Claremont Lincoln University and he gave a generally positive response. He felt that being engaged in interreligious dialogue and study might help progressive Christians to gain a clearer understanding and articulation of their theology. I have found this to be true in my case. Thanks to my conversations with Muslims, and more recently, with Evangelicals, I have a clearer understanding of my liberal Quaker faith as well as a more appreciate understanding of other faiths and of conservative Christians.

The interfaith movement provides us with a vision of a world where people of diverse faiths work together in harmony, even if we don’t agree on theology. I will never forget the words of Rick Warren, when he was the keynote speaker at a convention of Muslims in Long Beach just after Obama was elected president in 2008. Some conservative Christians stood outside the Convention Center in protest, with signs saying: “Islam is of the devil” and “Muslims are going to hell.” But Rick Warren had a different message. With great feeling, he proclaimed these memorable words:

“I love Muslims, and I love Jews. I love gays, and I love straights. I love Democrats, and I love Republicans. Because Jesus Christ commands me to love.”

Warren went on to say that Christians and Muslims need to work together in places like Africa to end poverty and disease. I would add we also need to work together here in our own neighborhoods. I hope that each of us will do our best, with God’s help, to heed the great commandment to love our neighbor, especially if our neighbor seems strange and hard to love.