Interfaith Insight - 2022
Permanent link for "Celebrating 3 years in Erie - Katie Gordon update" by Katie Gordon on June 21, 2022
Many of you will remember Katie Gordon, who joined Kaufman Interfaith Institute as program manager following her graduation from Alma College in 2013. In 2017 she went to Harvard Divinity School where she received her Master of Theological Studies in 2019. We invited her to share her current activity in the Interfaith Insight that follows.
As I write this on June 2, 2022, I am marking three years since I first moved into a monastic community in Erie, PA, with the Benedictine Sisters of Erie. In the summer of 2019, I lived at the monastery, and we had many beautiful nights like the one pictured above – with bonfires, friends, and sunsets on Lake Erie. Between the village-like community, natural beauty of this Great Lake, and the spirit-centered rhythm of our days and weeks, this way of life captured my heart and imagination. I’m grateful to still be here, living alongside sisters, oblates (lay associates) and seekers (like me) – all passionate about living lives of compassion, curiosity, and community.
The more I deepen in this tradition, the stronger my conviction grows that the Benedictine monastic way of life has something essential to offer our times. Joan Chittister, a sister in this community and a renowned writer, put it this way in her book, The Monastery of the Heart:
Today, in this time of cataclysmic social upheavals, of global transitions, of technological breakthroughs of unimagined proportions, we must [walk another way]. Old patterns are breaking down; individuals, families, and small groups everywhere … are seeking to shape new ways of living for themselves in the shell of the old.
As a seeker myself with many “spiritual but not religious” and secular friends, I can vouch for this profound longing to walk another way, especially in younger people today. We are increasingly losing trust in systems and institutions, and craving — even co-creating — new ways of being, living, and doing good work together.
In both the stories of ancient monastics and in contemporary society, we are all being invited to see the wisdom in “living otherwise” –– of “walking out and walking on.” It is happening across religious and social systems: People are increasingly opting out, walking away, and divesting their time and resources … and this exodus has the possibility of leading to renewal in our ways of life. The monastic traditions are some of the lineages that hold roadmaps for what it can look like.
Everything I have heard from spiritual leaders across traditions confirms that this shift in religious life is happening everywhere. Our traditions are not isolated from one another or the contexts we exist within; we are all being called to consider how these times are transforming our traditions.
As this profound shift unfolds, I have been inspired by an article by Prior Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., a Catholic priest, musician and author, titled Community as an Ecosystem and Energy. He wrote:
“...one could see a community either as a fortress or as an ecosystem. A fortress is an institution, built on a high, dry place, made of brick and mortar, unchanging. An ecosystem, on the other hand, like wetlands, sees the community as an organic organism that is supple, adaptive, ever-evolving.”
In this, Prior Cyprian invites us to consider our communities and traditions as dynamic ecosystems, in conversation and changing with the world around us. The increasingly complex times we live in necessitate we view our own traditions and communities as complex and evolving as well. Our monastic tradition is well resourced for this with conversatio at the heart of the pathway: a commitment to conversion of life, to changing and growing, each and every day. What changes are your communities or traditions called to embrace, and what spiritual resources exist to support you in the dynamic unfolding into the future?
Katie also wrote on this topic for Interfaith America recently: How ‘Nones’ are Building Spaces with Creativity and Vision
Follow her work via Nuns & Nones, Monasteries of the Heart, the Formation Project, and Being Benedictine.
Feel free to reach out to Katie at [email protected]
Sunset on Lake Erie -- Summer 2022
Recommended Reading: Valarie Kaur on grieving together
During each heartbreaking mass shooting in these last several weeks,
I’ve turned to the same book: Valarie Kaur’s See No Stranger: A
Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love. There’s so much
wisdom in this book on how to move through these ongoing and
accumulating crises, and in particular I was drawn to her wisdom on
how grieving together leads to us fighting for one another. One
powerful excerpt reads:
"What does it look like for a nation to grieve together? I am not talking about routine rituals of grief—singing the national anthem, lowering the flag, firing rifles into the air, or the stilted offerings of ‘thoughts and prayers.’ I am talking about sitting with pain together, modeling how to do that in public view, reflecting quietly on our deepest values, and mourning the dead, all of the dead. It requires acknowledging the ways historically oppressed people continue to suffer—and the ways people with good intentions continue to benefit from that suffering. It requires witnessing the pain of trauma without trying to control or colonize or minimize it—then listening and continuing to listen. Soothing words are not enough, not when trauma has traversed centuries. But if we are present to pain—if we sit together in the rooms of the heart, curtains drawn, and grieve together—we can begin to ask: How do we fight for one another?
America’s greatest social movements—for civil rights, immigrants’ rights, women’s rights, union organizing, queer and trans rights, farmworkers’ rights, indigenous sovereignty, and black lives—were rooted in the solidarity that came from shared grieving. First people grieved together. Then they organized together. Often, they sang and celebrated together. ‘We sang our grief to clean the air of turbulent spirits,’ writes poet Joy Harjo. This is not the dominant narrative of American history, but, if you look closely, you can see many stories of solidarity. In response to great violence or injustice, there are people who rush to bury the dead, cut down the lynching noose, or attend the memorials to say: Not in my name. When people who have no obvious reason to love each other come together to grieve, they can give birth to new relationships, even revolutions.”
These have been several weeks of pain and deep division in our society, heightened by mass shootings and hundreds of protest marches, radically different interpretations of the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol and Congress, and, here in our own community, a traffic stop and homicide and the subsequent charge of murder by a police officer.
In that context of cultural dissonance, I looked up the Merriam-Webster definition of “unity.” The first listing is “Unity is the quality or state of not being multiple: ONENESS.” A second listing is “Unity is a condition of harmony: ACCORD.”
The first seems to me to be an aspirational goal, a “quality,” as it says, of complete agreement among whatever multiple parts there might be in a situation or event or group, a uniformity that does not leave much room for various facets or interpretations. It’s an ideal — pure, ambitious, desirable — and as a practical matter, unattainable.
On the other hand, the second meaning, “accord,” gives me hope, for it is about action; about how we respond to that situation or event or group. “A condition of harmony” allows for, even promotes, respecting diverse opinions while pursuing understanding, consensus and mutual action.
I think the latter shows clearly how an interfaith approach empowers our ability to bring a positive response to a painful, difficult or otherwise debilitating situation.
For such it is in our society today with gun violence. In whatever way we approach it, our U.S. reality of 400 million guns for 330 million people is related to both an incredible number of deaths and deep, painful, disagreement about the “what, whether, why, who, when” questions about both guns and people. Say “gun control” and the arguments start.
The Kaufman Interfaith Institute’s goal is harmony among differences and not uniformity. The interfaith approach is to gather people in a variety of ways around a range of issues in an arena that empowers both individual expression and group understanding.
People from many cultures, reflecting the religious and ethnic diversity of our community, have found each other across the “political polarization” divide, says Kaufman Associate Director Kyle Kooyers. “Faith communities can play a vital role in healing that divisiveness,” he asserts. While Kaufman steers clear of advocating direct political action, the very fact it continues to address social problems through a faith lens inevitably touches on politics.
“Anything where you’re engaging in people’s lived experience or life together as part of a city, that is a political conversation,” Kooyers says. “It’s just not partisan.”
The key to keeping the discussion nonpartisan, non-argumentative, nonjudgmental — and ultimately nonviolent — is to “change the culture,” as professor and author Eddie Glaude Jr. suggested in a TV commentary last Friday, moving toward “looking out for each other” rather than being stuck, selfishly demanding “Take away guns” or “Don’t take away my gun.”
What happens to the tone, and, ultimately, to the culture, if we
shift from the vocabulary of “gun control” to “gun safety,” as was
also suggested by a number of activists over these last few days?
Of course, it is a political issue. But the “safety” language pulls us beyond politics into a mutual interest that can free us up to move forward into preventative action; the latest tentative steps are being taken in the current congressional legislative approach. Even in the presence of so many guns and intense feelings on one side or the other, we all are interested and invested in the careful use, generally, of implements and machines and rules and, certainly, in the specific safety of each other, of our children and the next generations.
It used to be that there was great antipathy, even violence, even in our West Michigan community, around whether Catholics and Protestants could associate with each other — many of us remember the restrictions from our parents and leaders on both sides of that divide. But the language of faith, over the years, intentionally prompted by individuals and leaders with a “harmony” vision, brought about “unity” without “controlling” the response. It is a mutual faith-willingness to find ways to cooperate and act together in the public square regarding a whole list of religious, racial, poverty and other social issues.
Can we — will we — be able to do so with gun violence? Can we start with “gun safety”? And can we — will we — people of faith, join the cause?
Permanent link for "Power in their passion: the impact of teenage interfaith leaders" by Kyle Kooyers & Zahabia Ahmed-Usmani on May 24, 2022
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from three years of
doing interfaith youth programming, it is this – when you invite a
group of young leaders to work together to change their community for
the better, even if you anticipate greatness, you’ll still be amazed
As the Kaufman Interfaith Institute has leaned into our focus on the Next Generation, we wanted to create a next step for emerging student leaders who had participated in Day Camp or had attended some of our family focused programming. We really do believe that middle and high school students are the future of interfaith cooperation and their leadership offers the world a rich perspective and energy.
Atif was a tenth grader in Holland, Michigan when he first participated in the inaugural youth programming offered by Kaufman Interfaith Institute. Of his experience Atif said, “As a Muslim youth in a predominantly White, Christian community I have faced discrimination and misunderstanding about who I am, my whole life. Kaufman programs have given me a place where I belong, in community with friends of every religion or no religion at all.”
Mackenzie, a senior in Jenison, Michigan, reflected on her participation with profound eloquence stating, “I have found beauty and truth within many traditions different from my own. It has been so valuable to grow alongside individuals who are driven towards creating oneness instead of sameness.”
Drawing upon our experience working with college-age interfaith leaders on area campuses and with the support of the Wege Foundation and Interfaith America, we set out to create a leadership development program that gave a younger demographic a platform to shape the next chapter of the interfaith movement in West Michigan and guide the work of the Kaufman Institute. The result: the Kaufman Interfaith Leadership Scholars Program.
Having just completed our third year of the program, the Leadership Scholars meet every other Sunday during the school year to connect with their peers, from different faiths and worldviews, who want to work together to make our world a better place. During our time together, teens receive mentorship and training on implicit bias, power and privilege, intersectional identities, being an ally and influencer as well as foundational tools of presentation, professional speaking and storytelling. The projects and the work are driven by the young leaders themselves as they look to create grass-roots community impact.
Emma, a Jewish sophomore in Jenison, Michigan, says of the program, “Scholars has given me a community of amazing people who understand what it’s like to be a minority or outsider in your community. Our wonderful leaders, along with all of my peers at interfaith scholars, have fostered an environment where I feel safe asking questions and learning. They have taught me that although my experiences are different and the holidays I celebrate might seem strange, my voice and thoughts are powerful and relevant, and they can make real, tangible change in the world.”
The Scholars have done a variety of impactful programs in the past, from technology and hygiene drives to addressing Eurocentrism in the classroom curricula. This year’s Leadership Scholars wanted to do a project that focused on environmental racism and shared perspectives from different religious, spiritual and secular backgrounds that speak to why caring for the earth is important. Having learned from an Ottawa County naturalist that invasive species are one of the biggest threats to our West Michigan environment and that many of the parks accessible to communities of color are disproportionately impacted, our Scholars set out to see how they could help.
As the Scholars explored the impact of invasive species, they found that garlic mustard was a particular problem, depleting the soil of nutrients and leaving an "oil-spill-like” mark on the land it inhabits unless it is removed. This vivid imagery and the need for accessible nature spaces for our community led the Scholars to seek out a garlic mustard clean-up at Aman Park, which has some of the most abundant variety and quantity of indigenous wild flowers in West Michigan. Unfortunately, the park is being invaded by garlic mustard.
In partnership with the City of Grand Rapids and Friends of Grand Rapids Parks the Scholars recruited peers and community members to assist with the clean-up efforts. The Scholars wanted to leave a lasting impact so they also built boot cleaning stations to be installed at Aman Park and other GR parks. These stations will prevent the spread of invasive species outside of the park. The students also compiled videos of multi-faith perspectives on this topic and shared them on Kaufman's YouTube channel.
What was the impact? Friends of Grand Rapids Parks reported that the Scholar’s clean-up day was the largest group of volunteers they had ever had – pulling a total of 10 industrial sized garbage bags worth of garlic mustard AND installing 6 boot cleaning stations at 3 Grand Rapids area parks. Clearly there is power in their passion.
During his time with Kaufman, Vishnu, a Junior in Grand Rapids
shares, “Being an Interfaith Scholar has helped me improve my
leadership skills, learn about the different religions represented
within my community, and understand the intricate socio-political
issues that plague our society today.”
“The lessons I have learned about systemic racism, inequity, and religious discrimination have impacted the speeches I deliver and the arguments I advance during Speech and Debate competitions. This program has helped me build the skills I need to become a better leader, as well as enabled me with the resources needed to help my community.”
Even though our Scholars year has come to an end, as we look to the summer months, we are excited to once again offer our Youth Interfaith Service Day Camps! If you know of a middle or high school student who would be interested in exploring world of interfaith leadership through visiting sacred sites and building community through service, we encourage you to check out our Day Camp website. June 13-17 will be an “Intro to Interfaith & Cross-Cultural Understanding.” June 20-24 will be a “Justice and Equity Immersion.” Registration closes soon and scholarships are still available!
Recognizing that the youth in our communities and congregations are our future, when it comes to interfaith cooperation and creating positive change, we need to welcome them around the leadership table as well. They too have a part in dismantling bias, assumptions, fear, and hate so our schools and communities may become places where everyone is valued, respected, and loved. They offer us immense wisdom, vision, and hope as together we shape how Kaufman and the West Michigan interfaith movement will look well into the future!
Permanent link for "Do we criticize or do we build to make things better?" by Doug Kindschi on May 17, 2022
In a guest essay published in The New York Times this past weekend,
Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, now known
as Interfaith America, relates a lesson he learned nearly 30 years ago
as a university student. It is a powerful lesson for us all today.
Patel first heard the term “white supremacy” in an introductory sociology course while an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois. He had the image of men wearing white hoods and burning crosses. But the professor continued describing the “assumption that from clothes to language to aesthetic preferences to family structure — for white people are normal, and the patterns associated with people of color are inferior.” But then Patel realized that she was describing his entire life, from his embarrassment about his grandmother from India and how she cooked, dressed, to even the fact that she lived with his family. While such structures were much more challenging for Black, Native Americans, and Latinos, they could also impact persons like himself from South Asia.
He recalled a presentation his father gave at a conference of Asian businesspeople where he was asked why he purchased a Subway store rather than an independent shop. His response was, “Which white people do you know are going to buy sandwiches from a brown guy born in India named Sadruddin? A recognizable franchise covers your dark skin and ethnic name. It helps you hide.”
As Patel continued his studies he learned about how racism permeated everything, and he became committed to doing all he could to fight against such patterns in the structures of our society. In his final semester at the university he did an independent study with an African-American female professor of theater and education. The professor and some of her graduate students had written a play dealing with children’s experience of oppression. In a talk-back session following the play, Patel was eager demonstrate what he had learned in his independent study and was the first person to respond.
He recounts how his professor smiled in anticipation of his comment. Remembering his response, he writes, “I used a tone dripping with scorn. I targeted a scene in the play where a child retreats to his own room after a fight with a parent. In front of the entire audience, I declared my professor and her graduate students guilty of racism and classism for writing a character who had his own room. ‘What about all the families where kids don’t have their own rooms? Or the Black and brown families that don’t have houses? Don’t you realize that your play is only further oppressing them?’”
He had hoped the professor would be proud of him, but was shocked by her email response, “Her students, she wrote, had worked so hard on the play and were deeply hurt by my comments. She was hurt, too. Why hadn’t I offered constructive suggestions, she wondered. She closed with this: Since you were disappointed with the play that these students wrote, you should try your hand at creating something better. It is always harder to create than it is to criticize.”
Patel reflected on his experience and realized the important lesson he had been taught, writing, “My professor was teaching me that devoting yourself to seeing the bad in everything means that you ignore the good and you absolve yourself of responsibility for building things that are better.” He realized that he didn’t want to be the critic, he wanted to build to make things better; he “wanted to be the person putting something on the stage.”
This is a lesson for us all, especially in these days of mass shootings, racial violence, and toxic polarization in our politics as well as permeating social media. As the political campaigns ramp up, it is so much easier to go negative and disparage the opposition rather than offer solutions. In social media, hate talk gets transmitted and gets more followers than constructive ideas.
Promoting fear is easier that building to make things better. Can we find leaders who don’t build on fear but present a vision? Can each of us resist the impulse to simply complain and criticize? Can we build to make things better?
This past week, our director, P. Douglas Kindschi, was recognized by
the Grand Valley University Foundation for his commitment to
philanthropy, service and the university. Doug received the Arend D.
Lubbers Award, which recognizes longtime faculty and staff members for
service to the university and community. During his 45-year career at
Grand Valley, Kindschi has helped build the foundation of the
university’s STEM programs.
Doug was appointed as founding director of the Kaufman Interfaith Institute in 2010 and has led dynamic community-wide programming such as our 2012 Year of Interfaith Understanding, 2015 Year of Interfaith Service, 2018 Year of Interfaith Friendship, and the 2021 Year of Interfaith Healing - along with numerous dialogues, conferences, and initiatives to promote interfaith understanding and acceptance. He continues to direct the work of the Insitute as we look to the future of interfaith cooperation.
Congratulations to Doug for receiving this honor!
Permanent link for "A spring grand awakening for an interfaith town square" by David Baak on May 3, 2022
A few days ago, I received the latest issue of WEAREGR with news from
the City of Grand Rapids, the Public Library, the Parks and Recreation
Program and the Grand Rapids Public Schools, along with an encouraging
message from our city manager, Mark Washington. This issue contained a
remarkable amount of information about all sorts of activities and
possibilities for everyone, the calendar begins with May events:
“Summertime Sparks Our Grand Awakening.”
After a long COVID and cold winter – even April was one of the coolest, cloudiest on record – we look for some good news. After months of isolation of one kind or another, we are gathering again, kind of like bears lumbering out of hibernation. And, most seriously, after weeks of anxiety because of war, global economic uncertainty, and local violence, we long more than ever for stability and healing. Indeed, a perfect opportunity for a “grand awakening.”
Summer prompts crowds at festivals and concerts and competitions in streets and parks and venues all over the community. So, how will we do with each other this summer? How will we get along, after we have been so long limited? Will we be able to talk with, to listen to — to hear — and to help each other?
One of my favorite images of the Kaufman Interfaith Institute is that of a “town square.” Not physical, of course, but facilitative – a colleague describes it as “not on the map but in the hearts of a community and its citizens – to which they go to share and honor the deepest roots of their moral grounding and the highest ideals of their beliefs.” And “interfaith dialogue,” in its various forms, is our “language.”
Calder Plaza hosts festivals and artists and Rosa Parks Circle welcomes everyone from musicians to protestors. These spaces provide a place for any and all of us to enter, to interact, to mix, to leave, to re-enter and to engage again with friends, family and strangers in a mutually supportive arena that, at its best, produces or enriches our community relationships.
Like these physical, neutral and nurturing spaces, Kaufman Institute provides a supportive framework for us to address some of the difficult issues that are also a part of our lives, along with our recreation and play. The Kaufman “town square” is not political, but it is a non-partisan arena where we can explore political questions. The “space” is not sectarian, but it embraces the exploration of the faith of each of us, however different those beliefs are one from another. This “place” is not judgmental, but it helps us to pursue truth within the context of our various faiths, which encourage us to live with dignity, hospitality, and humility as we seek justice for us all.
Sometimes there are protestors on either side of the street and we have all seen individuals moving from one group across to the other, trying to facilitate understanding and conversation. Most of us have walked through the festival art tent in silence looking at the paintings; we have also observed small groups chattering in interpretive delight and critique. We know it is possible to get beyond the solitary or the noise; sometimes we need a nurturing place or maybe a gentle nudge.
The Kaufman town square is not alone, of course. In every neighborhood there are places where we gather and interact. Particularly in these last couple of weeks, the streets of downtown have similarly functioned. As the city manager said: “For two weekends in a row, we hosted events where people with very different political ideologies gathered and co-existed peacefully in our community …. (and) we saw what America could be if people with differing views had the liberty to express them in a safe way.” The challenge for all of us is to keep the dialogue healthy and helpful and continuing, regardless of points of view, or who has the view, or how firmly it is held.
Most of you who read the Interfaith Inform and the Insight know the many “rooms” where Kaufman provides this “town square”— they are usually linked at the bottom of this column and on the website — some 200 opportunities each year! And, many of you have participated in events where the dialogue vocabulary and protocols are practiced and people’s lives are enriched. The conversations are the heart and soul of civil dialogue that, as we always hope, informs the way we treat each other out in our community — active listening; a commitment to “self-definition” and respect for each person articulating their own position; being open to what Doug Kindschi has often reminded us is a “holy envy” — a willingness, with appreciation, to see in the other’s view a reflection of our own. That’s the language, vocabulary, and supportive framework that Kaufman brings to its town square.
For this summer’s “Grand Awakening,” we here at Kaufman will be experimenting with the content, form, and frequency of this column. I invite, even urge, you to let us know what you think of … well, whatever it is you find in this conversation space, including your suggestions for events, speakers, participants, book group books, or activities. Hit the return email and send us a line or two to help us all increase the value of this town square.
The Kaufman mission is always interfaith relationships. And, in our increasingly polarized culture, what we learn here from and with each other has many applications out there that can help us all.
Permanent link for "Current violence and remembered atrocities, bring us to tears" by Doug Kindschi on April 26, 2022
These continue to be challenging days in Grand Rapids and in our world.
The shooting of Patrick Lyoya by a police officer in Grand Rapids has brought to our city the long history of racial profiling and use of excessive force against Black persons. In this case it was a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who after 11 years in a refugee camp finally came to the United States for freedom and safety.
His killing has brought days of protest in our city and beyond, as well as national and international attention. His funeral last Friday was held at Renaissance Church of God in Christ, with its pastor, Bishop Dennis McMurray, presiding. Lyoya’s special religious commitment and how he found community through his faith were noted. Lyoya’s death shocked his parents, siblings, and two young children, along with the Congolese community.
In Ukraine this past Sunday, the Eastern Orthodox celebrated Easter. But for those under attack it is also a day of mourning for the thousands who have been killed by the invading armies seeking to destroy this free country.
This coming week is also a reminder of past atrocities with the Jewish community’s observance of Yom Hashoah or the Holocaust Remembrance Day. It corresponds to the 27th day of Nisan in the Hebrew lunar calendar and thus varies from year to year, as does Passover. Two decades ago the United Nations designated January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1945, as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
As a music lover, I recently became aware of Alma Rosé, one of Europe’s greatest and least known musicians. She was born into a musical family with a father who led the Vienna Philharmonic and founded the Rosé Quartet, famous throughout Austria. Her mother was the younger sister of the great composer Gustav Mahler.
Alma Rosé founded a women’s orchestra in Vienna and was a master violinist who toured throughout Europe in the 1930s and 40s. While Mahler converted from Judaism to Christianity in order to preserve his life and career as a conductor, Rosé tried to blend in with the Christian culture. As Nazism became rampant and Jews were fleeing, Rosé chose to remain and tour throughout Europe. In 1943 she was arrested in France and later that year sent to Auschwitz.
Musicians with talent were often used to entertain German guards and Nazi leaders who took a kind of perverse pleasure since they actually had control over whether they would live or die. Rosé’s talent gave her a place in the women’s orchestra and soon she became its leader. She saw this as an opportunity not only to save her own life but that of others who were a part of the orchestra’s success.
Very few of her players were professional musicians but Alma realized that the only way they could survive was by playing music at a high standard. She began recruiting new players and having lengthy rehearsals. She placed special emphasis on hiring Jewish women for the orchestra as a way to save their lives in the camp. After a lifetime of denying her Jewishness, Alma now embraced her fellow Jews and worked feverishly to save their lives.
Realizing that being a part of the orchestra saved lives, she created many positions for even those who were less talented by giving them jobs as assistants and score copiers, thereby expanding the size of the orchestra’s operation. She died unexpectedly by unreported cause at age 38 in April 1944, prior to the liberation of the Auschwitz camp later that year.
Reviewing the atrocities of the past and grieving the unnecessary deaths in our own community as well as around the world drew me to the latest editorial in a recent issue of Christian Century titled, “A Gift of Tears.” Peter Marty tells of a visit to the Room with Four Thousand Shoes at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The room includes a sign reading, “We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses."
Marty saw a lone woman sitting there sobbing. As he observed her, he also teared up “in the presence of all those shoes. Those baby shoes!” He then writes of the tears of Jesus in the presence of Mary who was grieving the death of her brother Lazarus.
He continues with the observation that humans are the “only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be.” Tears, he writes, “put us in touch with essential things that we know to be dear or wrong. And those things have a way of taking up residence in our hearts, often drawing us inadvertently closer to God. Giving ourselves permission to cry is valuable.”
In our current situation and as we remember our history, perhaps our tears are the only response we can make. As Marty writes, “tears remain a biological gift from God.”
Permanent link for "Taking responsibility for what we know is wrong" by Doug Kindschi on April 19, 2022
“As we as a community sit with the pain, the trauma, the questions, the anger of the police shooting of Patrick Lyoya, these holy seasons and sacred occasions ought to draw us into that reality and the work that lies before us and within us.”
These words from my colleague, Kyle Kooyers, were shared last Friday on our monthly radio segment on the Morning Show with Shelley Irwin at WGVU-FM. We noted the coincidence of the religious observances of Passover, Holy Week, and Ramadan, as well as many religious holidays from other traditions that were all occurring this month.
How do we in the midst of these holy days make sense of this tragic killing of an immigrant to our community at the hands of a policeman?
Patrick’s father, Peter Lyoya, brought his family here in 2014 as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He said through an interpreter, “We came from Africa, and I knew that here in America we came for peace, we came for protection. (But) there was no safety here for Patrick.”
While at Passover we celebrate freedom, and Christians celebrate life overcoming death, there is no life for Patrick; neither is there freedom from the fear his family, his parents, siblings and two young children (ages 2 and 3 months) must now live.
Kooyers further reflected, “Cries for accountability have gone unheard for years. Even as we cry out for justice, even as we push for reform within police and criminal justice systems here in Grand Rapids. Those of us like me who hold privileged identities especially have work to do – I have to come alongside of our neighbors of color to demand and pursue systemic change.
“Every day I have the opportunity, the choice, the privilege to be a Pharaoh who refuses to hear the cries of the people and refuses to set them free,” he continued. “Every day I have the opportunity, the choice, the privilege to be a Pilate who questions ‘what is truth’ when it is lying on the ground in the person in front of him. OR I can actively work alongside of those who are continually subject to violence that together we might move towards liberation.”
Less than two years ago our nation and the world struggled to deal with the horrific killing of George Floyd by the knee of a policeman in Minneapolis. In an Interfaith Insight I asked if in the midst of racism and protest one could find hope. Jim Wallis, longtime advocate of racial justice and founder of the evangelical journal Sojourners, found hope. He wrote, “In my lifetime, I have never seen more white people involved in the deep and growing movement to address systemic racism, structural injustice on many fronts, and, specifically, the violent policing and killing of black people.”
Then Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms called for a “monumental shift” in order to “signal to our country that it is time to heal.” She added, “I am so inspired when I see protesters across this country and see police kneeling with protesters across the country because they are saying to each other, 'I hear you, I feel you, and I want something better for our country too.'"
These questions have now come home to Grand Rapids. Can we address and bring healing to the structural racism in our own community? Can we find hope in the midst of tragedy? Can we be responsible?
We cannot hide from the truth taught by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” We may not be guilty of the death of Patrick Lyoya or of George Floyd’s murder, but we are all responsible for systems that perpetuate racism, tolerate abuse of authority, and for our failure to act on our religious and ethical imperatives to love justice and mercy for all.
These are troubling times in our nation, our world, and our community. The war crimes in Ukraine, our divided nation, and the work to do here in Grand Rapids, are challenges ahead. In the middle of religious celebrations, we dare not forget the task ahead, as we take responsibility for working together to correct what we know is wrong.
This month of April brings us an unusual coincidence of many religious holidays that does not happen that often. This is primarily because of the different calendars that are used by the various traditions. Jews and Muslims use a lunar calendar (but not the same one) based on the phases of the moon where each month is about 28 days, while the Christians use a solar calendar (but not the same one for both Western and Eastern Orthodox communities).
Ramadan, the month of fasting for our Muslim neighbors, began on April 2 and is a time of spiritual reflection, prayer, and giving to the poor. It is one of the five pillars of Islam, and is practiced by fasting from sunrise to sunset by refraining from all food and drinking of any liquids. Following sunset the fast is broken by a meal called the iftar. At the conclusion of the month the Eid al-Fitr is considered one of the major celebrations in Islam. Observance of Ramadan is commanded in the Quran and celebrates the beginning of the revelation of scripture to the prophet Muhammad.
This week is celebrated as Holy Week for Christians in the West, and Passover or Pesach for Jews. Because of calendar differences it is not always the case that they occur the same week. Holy Week for the Christians recounts the final week of Jesus beginning on Palm Sunday with his entry into Jerusalem. Then Maundy Thursday remembers his Last Supper with his disciples prior to his death remembered on Good Friday. Easter Sunday concludes the week with the celebration of the Resurrection.
Holy Week is not always celebrated in the West on the same date as it is by the Eastern Orthodox Church, which uses the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian. This year the Western church celebrates Easter on April 17, while the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates Easter one week later on April 24. Easter celebrates the victory of life overcoming death.
This year, Passover begins at sundown on the evening of April 15. The Jewish eight-day celebration of Passover commemorates the deliverance of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The highlight is the Seder meal celebrated at the beginning of the weeklong event.
The focal points of the Seder include the eating of matzah or unleavened bread, remembering that when the Hebrew people were getting ready to leave there was no time for the bread to rise. The eating of bitter herbs commemorates the bitter experience of the slavery endured by the Israelites. Drinking the four cups of wine celebrates the new freedom that was attained after the exodus. The recitation of the Haggadah is a liturgy required in scripture to tell each generation the account of deliverance. The core narrative of Passover and the Seder meal is the movement from slavery to freedom.
The occasion of the three religions celebrating in the same month has led a partnership of congregations in Grand Rapids to formally recognize each other by bringing personal greetings on the occasions of one of the special events of the other traditions. Jewish and Muslim representatives will bring greetings to the service at Westminster Presbyterian Church on Palm Sunday, April 10, and to the Easter Service at Trinity Lutheran Church on April 17. During that same week the Christian and Muslim congregations will bring greetings to the Second Night Seder at Temple Emanuel on Saturday, April 16. For the Muslim Saturday prayers on April 22 greetings from the Christian and Jewish communities will greet the Masjid At-Tawheed and Islamic Center.
While these religious celebrations of freedom and life take place in our various traditions we sadly remember the loss of freedom and life taking place in Ukraine these days. No matter our religious beliefs, we can all pray for the hostilities to cease and for freedom and life to be once again affirmed in that war-torn country.
I suggest that while the dates may change from year to year, the basic message of these three important religious observations should be a constant reminder to us all. We can affirm each other’s religious traditions and celebrations. We can all learn the importance of these commitments to freedom, life and obedience to God.
Other religious traditions celebrating important days this month include:
Buddhist: April 8, Buddha's Birthday commemorates the birth of the Prince Siddhartha Gautama, later the Gautama Buddha, who was the founder of Buddhism
Hindu: April 10, Ramanavami celebrates the birthday of Rama, the seventh incarnation of the God Vishnu
Sikh: April 13, Vaisakh celebrates their New Year and the founding by Guru Gobind Singh
Baha’i: April 20, Ridvan begins the 12-day commemoration of the founder Baha’u’llah’s exile in the Garden of Ridvan in Baghdad
Jewish: April 27, Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), memorializes the six million Jews who died as victims of the Nazis during WW II
These are still just a few... Check out the Multi-Faith Calendar for everything happening this month!
Permanent link for "In the midst of the sin and evil of war, let us work for peace" by Doug Kindschi on March 29, 2022
“War is sin. War is evil. … Since before recorded time. Through the centuries. Now. You might say that our inhumanity to others is a sobering characteristic of being human.”
These words were written by Diana Butler Bass, Christian author, independent scholar, and columnist, in a recent article discussing the horrors occurring today in Ukraine.
Bass continues by noting something else painfully true: “We’d like to believe that religion makes this inhumanity better – we preach good sermons about this, theologize endlessly on love and peace – yet know differently.”
She notes that while there has been a decline of religious practice in the western countries of Europe, Orthodox Christianity is growing Europe’s eastern countries including Russia and Ukraine. In countries like Russia, there has been an attempt, she writes, to “recreate an imperial Christian state … uniting political, economic, and spiritual power into an entity to control the earthly and heavenly destiny of European peoples.”
She sees in contrast, a different style where the future affirms the historic faith, “but is open, tolerant, and creative, not merely as a vassal state of neo-imperial Russia.” Bass concludes, “Make no mistake: the war in Ukraine can rightly be seen as a religious war, a specifically Christian – even Orthodox Christian – one.”
Bass recalls that the beginning of Christianity in Russia and in Ukraine is traced back to the 10th century with the conversion of Prince Vladimir (Volodymyr in Ukrainian) the Great. Following his baptism in the Dnieper River in Kyiv, he installed Christianity as the state religion. Bass called the current invasion a kind of crusade to “recapture the Holy Land of Russian Orthodoxy, and defeating the westernized (and decadent) heretics who do not bend the knee to Moscow’s spiritual authority.”
It is also a conflict over power and control. Bass notes Ukraine’s strong national identity does not insist on a uniformity in religious belief. Its president is Jewish, and the constitution protects religious freedom. Catholic and various Protestant churches thrive in areas controlled by the Ukrainians. Not so in the Russia-backed areas.
“In the eastern regions of Donbas,” she writes, “pro-Moscow authorities forced non-Russian Orthodox churches to register and have waged a persecution campaign against Baptists, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and even other Orthodox who do not recognize the authority of the Moscow church.” Bass is not suggesting that this is being enforced by the religious authorities, but notes the different levels of religious freedom experienced.
The article was sent to me by a friend and faithful Insight reader who is also a practicing Orthodox Christian. She was responding to an earlier Interfaith Insight column discussing the invasion of Ukraine and some of the religious issues involving the Eastern Orthodox churches.
Another response came from an Orthodox priest who pointed out that the religious situation described in my Insight was more complicated than I had suggested. I certainly know that and appreciated a nearly hour and a half video interview with Fr. John Strickland, Orthodox priest and Russian historian, who urged us to look at the historical background in order to understand the war in Ukraine. The introduction called on all Christians to respond with love and to pray for peace. Fr. Strickland pointed to the dangers when nationalism is mixed with religious fervor. He also noted that neither the patriarch of the Moscow church nor of the Ukrainian Orthodox churches supports the war but calls for peace.
I now know a bit more but am still convinced that it is still more complex than I (or Bass) understand. Nevertheless, the carnage and destruction, deaths and violence against innocent civilians, and attempts for one country to control its neighbor, can’t be justified as a pure religious matter. Sin and evil, often enhanced by political power, are present and must be addressed.
Bass is also known for her writing about her own religious journey that led her to a broad understanding of her own faith and the importance of encouraging multiple faith expressions. Religious freedom requires hospitality and a respect for diversity and pluralism. In our own country we still have much to learn in accepting difference.
“Hospitality and diversity are intimately related,” she writes. “I think there are Christian groups, and Jewish groups and Hindu groups and Muslim groups and all kinds of different religious communities, that practice it quite well. But as a country, we really struggle.”
As one working for interfaith understanding, I urge that we all, regardless of our faith or philosophical commitment, decry the sin and evil of war, seek the welfare of all, especially the innocent civilians caught up in this war, and seek and pray for peace.