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.


1 comment:

  1. If you are interested in some new ideas on the interfaith movement and the Trinity, please check out my website at, and give me your thoughts on improving content and presentation.

    My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

    In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

    The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

    1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

    2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or "Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the "body of Christ" (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

    3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

    Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

    * The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

    ** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

    For more details, please see:

    Samuel Stuart Maynes