I just returned from Rochester, NY where I attended the first Interfaith Understanding Conference sponsored by Nazareth College, a private college started by Roman Catholic nuns. The conference began on Sunday and ended today (Tuesday) at noon. During those 48 hours, we heard many speakers, attended numerous quality workshops and talked with so many people who were different from us that our collective heads are still spinning.
Here is a brief look back at this conference:
Our opening speaker was Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun from Erie, PA. She talked about women in her church and her Roman Catholic upbringing and heritage and her calling to help women religious find their paths. Sr. Joan has been a guiding light for women – both Catholic and non-Catholic, Christian and non-Christian – for almost 50 years.
Following Sr Joan, Dr. Eboo Patel, a Muslim leader and founder of Interfaith Youth Corps (ifyc.org) told the story that forced him to choose life as a visible Muslim: His parents and grandparents provided care to women who suffered abuse in their Muslim homes the same way American women suffer abuse in their own homes. His family helped hundreds of such women and when Eboo asked why, his grandmother said that this caring is how a Muslim acts. This grandmotherly philosophy made Eboo Patel determine, at 22, that if he was to be a good Muslim he had work to do in this world – work of caring for the least of these (Christians, does "caring for the least of these" sound familiar?).
Finally, this morning, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield showed us how – as he phrases it – you do not have to be wrong for me to be right. Using humor, he told of a cabbie, Christian, who started putting questions to the Rabbi – like: so, why don’t you believe in Jesus? The response: Jesus was a wonderful man, full of good things to say – just not the man he, the Rabbi, thinks of as Savior. It was Rabbi Hirschfield who wrote the book reminding us that just because I am right does not mean that you are wrong. We can all be right.
In breakout sessions, Muslim students (proudly wearing head scarves) led us through discussions on peace. Catholic women showed us how individual stories can tell who we are, without making the listener defensive. Multi-cultural panels addressed difference and sameness of God (or G_D, or for a Muslim: “Allah, Blessed be His Holy Name” as well as Buddhist and Hindu sacred beliefs). Some Episcopal women showed us a new way of labyrinth meditation; in yet another session, we re-learned the lasting work of Martin Luther King and Gandhi.
Whose God? Yours, and yours and yours and mine -- we just get to the divine in different ways. As our world shrinks, we need to know more about the various paths so that we can converse and not be so fearful of losing our core that we stop listening. If our beliefs have staying power, our conversations solidify our world and make peace a reality instead of a dream.