Monday, November 5, 2012

Intrafaith and interfaith work: planting seeds of reconciliation and peace

I have good news: I now have an "accountability committee" appointed by Orange Grove Meeting to help me discern how to proceed with my interfaith work. I asked for this committee because Pacific Yearly Meeting (along with my monthly and quarterly meeting) have approved minutes of support for my interfaith ministry on behalf of Friends. Now that I have become a regular attender at Orange Grove Meeting in Pasadena, CA, it seemed fitting to have an "accountability committee" from this meeting instead of Santa Monica Meeting.

An "accountability committee" is appointed when a Friend has a concern that is shared by the Yearly Meeting. Its job is to help make sure that the Friend with this concern follows the Spirit faithfully.

I met with my Orange Grove accountability committee for the first time last week. Around six Friends took part and we had a rich and helpful discussion, with thoughtful questions that helped me to gain more clarity about the work I feel called to do.

One of the topics that came up was the relationship between liberal and Evangelical Friends, in other words,  "intrafaith" relations. Since 9/11, I have been led to build bridges among different faith traditions and feel comfortable among Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Mormons, Bahais, etc. In fact, I feel as if I now belong as much to this interfaith "beloved community" as I do to my Quaker family. A few years ago, at a Friends General Conference gathering, I asked the theologian Marcus Borg about the biggest challenge to interfaith dialogue. His answer "spoke to my condition" in a surprising and somewhat unsettling way.

"The biggest challenge," he said, "is not interfaith, but intrafaith dialogue."

Ouch! his words reminded me that I, like many liberal Friends, feel more comfortable having a dialogue with, say, a Muslim than with an Evangelical Quaker. In fact, I hardly ever come into contact with Evangelical Friends!

This seemed wrong, and I felt God nudging me to reach out beyond my comfort zone to my Evangelical brothers and sisters. I asked to be appointed the Pacific Yearly Meeting rep to Friends World Committee for Consultation, the international umbrella group for all branches of Quakers, including Evangelicals who comprise the vast majority of Friends world-wide. FWCC organized the World Conference of Friends that I attended in Kenya. Being part of this gathering of 850 Friends from over 100 Yearly Meetings was life-transforming experience that made me keenly aware of the amazing diversity (as well as the underlying unity) among Friends.

Thanks to my wife Jill, I now have more access to the Evangelical community locally. She helped to set up a lunch date with Bob Webster, the pastor of the Foothills Community Church (which is affiliated with Friends Church Southwest). It turns out we had a lot in common. He spent several years doing ministry in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, around the same time I was involved in Soviet-American book project sponsored by the Quaker US/USSR Committee. We didn't see ourselves a "church planters" but one of our goals was to help establish a Quaker meeting in Moscow. We also shared bibles and our spiritual lives with Russians we met.

Bob took us on a tour of his church and explained how it "died" and how he "resurrected" it around 15 years ago. Today this church is a small, but vibrant multi-racial congregation with around 80 people attending each Sunday. I hope to visit and attend services there someday.

There are of course many profound differences between this church and an unprogrammed meeting like Orange Grove, but I was pleased to discover we have in common a commitment to making decisions by "coming to unity." I look forward to learning more about how this church relates to Friends' theological beliefs as well as practice.

On Friday, I attended Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace and was very impressed by Rev Chloe Bryer, a presenter who came all the way from New York City. Chloe is a young Episcopal priest who is the executive director of the Interfaith Center of New York. Her organization is a lot like the South Coast Interfaith Council and has a large membership of diverse faiths. Here's a description of ICNY from its website:

The Interfaith Center of New York (ICNY) is a nationally-recognized non-profit organization that catalyzes collaborations among hundreds of grassroots and immigrant religious leaders and civic officials (judges, teachers, and social workers) to address New York’s most pressing social problems. Founded in 1997 by the Very Rev. James Parks Morton, former Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, ICNY’s historic partners have included the New York State Unified Court System, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, UJA Federation, The Center for Court Innovation, the Harlem Community Justice Center, CONNECT and the city’s nine Social Work Schools. ICNY works with hundreds of grassroots and immigrant religious leaders from fifteen different faith and ethnic traditions including the Afro-Caribbean, Buddhist, Christian, Confucian, Jain, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Shinto, Sikh, Taoist and Zoroastrian communities of New York City. Our long-term goal is to help New York City become a nationally and internationally-recognized model for mutual understanding and cooperation among faith traditions.

Chloe gave a powerful and insightful talk about the work she does; and afterwards, I had the privilege of having coffee with her and Shakeel Syed, the executive director of the Shura Council of Southern California (and a very dear friend of mine). It was encouraging to hear how these two dynamic religious leaders are working in their local communities to bring about interreligious understanding and cooperation.

On Sunday, I took place in a planning meeting for the local chapter of the Parliament of the World's Religions.  We met at St John's Cathedral, where Rev. Gwynne Guibord organizes interfaith events on a regular basis. On Sunday there was a talk on Christianity and politics by a noted theologian named Dr.Amy-Jill Levine. I had to miss this talk because I was clerking the Peace Committee gathering at our Quarterly Meeting retreat, but I was happy to be part of the Parliament group's planning process. We are diverse group of gifted people with a very small budget, and huge dreams. I have travelled with them all the way to Australia and back, and also have been on an equally adventurous spiritual journey with them. They have enriched my life in many ways, and I love them dearly.

I feel incredibly blessed to part of a dynamic and vibrant interfaith community here in Los Angeles. Sometimes I feel as if we are reliving the "convivencia," the period in Muslim Spain when Muslims, Christians and Jews created an interreligious culture that helped jumpstart what we call the Renaissance. I hope cities like Los Angeles and New York will bring about another Renaissance--a spiritual rebirth that will overcome religious prejudice, political oppression, and other forms of justice and bring about the kind of world that God intends and we all yearn for--a world of peace, justice, and hope for all.

My hope and prayer is that my Quaker Friends will increasingly come to appreciate this burgeoning spiritual movement and become more active in it. My leading is to plant seeds of interfaith peacemaking through my travels, my writings, and my blog.

Speaking of which, I was pleased to receive this letter from an Australian Friend active in interfaith work. Three years ago, I attended the Parliament of the World's Religion gathering in Melbourne and gave talks about the interfaith movement at Quaker meetings in Melbourne, Canberra, and Sydney, and also at Australian Yearly Meeting in Adelaide. I passed through Ballarat and visited a Friend there. Brigid's letter was not only very encouraging, it also brought back fond memories of the wonderful Friends I encountered during my travels in Australia.

Dear LA Quaker,

Thank you for a good report. I have been following your blog for quite a long while now. I have been living in Ballarat, Victoria, Australia since March (previously I lived in Melbourne)and am a member of Ballarat Meeting.

I write particularly with regard to your interfaith interest. I just wanted to let you know about interfaith stuff with which I am involved. As of last Sunday night, I am President of GreenFaith Australia which is an interfaith environment organisation based in Melbourne established in 2008. I was a founding member of GFA and on its original board. We are currently in discussions with ARRCC (Australian Religious Response to Climate Change) which is based in Sydney with the purpose of working more closely together. I am also a member of Ballarat Interfaith Network and WIN Foundation (Women's Interfaith Network). Next Sunday in Melbourne there is an Interfaith Conference for interfaith networks.

I don't know what is happening in other states of Australia but in Victoria interfaith networks are springing up in local government areas under the auspices of Town, City and Shire Councils. Some networks predate the involvement of local government. Some are quite recent.

There are now moves in Melbourne, under the auspices of the Faith Community Councils of Victoria which continues the work here in Melbourne of the Parliament of the Worlds Religions, to form the networks in Melbourne into regional networks which is an interesting development. In addition interfaith networks continue to move more widely into regional areas of the state.

The other two organisations of which I am a part have no connection with the local government stimulus and came into being quite separately.

Interfaith organisations do not, as a generality, have large numbers but they do have substantial community reach. Interfaith work in our context is not only a spiritual work but a peace work. Victoria has always received large numbers of migrants and refugees who bring with them their religious beliefs and practices. Interfaith networks, along with multicultural organisations which - in the main - are also local government based, are seen to be assisting old Australians and recent Australians in understanding each other. The networks are also vehicles which demonstrate how we can be respectful of each other's beliefs.

In Friendship,

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