Interfaith Insight - 2023
Permanent link for A Christian perspective on the Jewish Yom Kippur by Douglas Kindschi, Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute on September 18, 2023
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year is the first of the High Holy Days. Nine days later comes a day of fasting rather than feasting. Yom Kippur means Day of Atonement and is the time to look back, pray, repent and seek to change. Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi in Great Britain, in a blog suggests that it is the time we ask the deepest questions about our lives: Who are we? How shall we live?
Such acts of repentance assume that we can, in fact, change. Sacks asks, “Where did Western civilization get the idea that people can change? It is not an obvious idea. Many great cultures have simply not thought in these terms. The Greeks, for instance, believed that we are what we are, and we cannot change what we are. They believed that character is destiny, and the character itself is something we are born with.”
Stories of change, however, are to be found throughout the Abrahamic religions. The story of Noah in Hebrew Scripture tells of the warning to the city of Nineveh that it will be destroyed, yet because of repentance, the city is spared. The prophet Ezekiel cries out, “Thus says the Lord God: Repent and turn away from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations” (Ezekiel 14:6). Likewise the prophet Joel calls out, "Rend your hearts, and not your garments. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love" (Joel 2:13).
In this same prophetic tradition we read in the first book of the Christian New Testament about John the Baptist, who came preaching repentance in the wilderness of Judea. In the next chapter when Jesus hears of John’s imprisonment he picks up the theme, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:1). No wonder that these two Jewish figures would sound the repentance theme. In similar fashion the apostle Peter preached repentance as did Paul.
In what is perhaps the best known of Jesus’ parables, the prodigal son asks for his inheritance and leaves his family only to come to the realization that he must repent, change his ways and seek to return to his waiting father.
We have the power to change our ways. It is this ability to make a decision, to decide to act differently that is critical to the concept of repentance. Even today there are those who argue that our character and actions are completely determined by our genes, by our DNA. They say that choice and free will are just illusions. Our religious traditions, however, remind us that we have the opportunity to choose, to repent, to live a better life.
In this season of Yom Kippur, no matter what our religious tradition, let us take time to examine our lives, repent, and then act in ways we know to be right.
Permanent link for "Increasing Polarization Leading to Religious Hatred," by Douglas Kindschi, Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute on September 5, 2023
Why are hate acts increasing against the most admired religious group in America?
The Pew Research Center regularly reports on religion and public life including recent studies tracking the attitudes Americans have about various religious groups. In the past few years they report increasing “warm feelings” toward all religious groups from Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Hindus, Mormons, Muslims and other religious identities. At the same time the number of hate acts – especially toward Jewish and Muslim groups -- have increased.
I would like to think that the broad efforts of interfaith understanding have helped in the increasing warm feelings and acceptance of all religious positions, but why the increased acts of violence?
In the various studies the Jewish community has consistently emerged as the most admired among the various religious groups. Three of the current justices on the Supreme Court are Jewish, over 20% of Nobel Prize winners have been Jewish. And yet anti-Jewish activity has increased in the past few years, including the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history, at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, while congregants were in worship.
Has our increasingly polarized society pushed us to extremes even in our attitudes about religious groups?
In our country’s history, the Jewish and the Catholic communities were often the targets of widespread persecution. Anti-Catholicism was prevalent in the mid-19th century with increasing immigration from Ireland and Germany. In some places it led to mob violence, church burnings and even death. It became prevalent again in the 1920s when Catholics became targets of the Ku Klux Klan. Anti-Semitism has a long history in America as well as in Europe. It also reached a peak in the 1920s as Jews were also a primary target of the white supremacists including the Ku Klux Klan. While the attitude toward Jews has been much more positive in the general population, as evidenced by the Pew reports, there are still neo-Nazi groups and other white supremacists active in purveying hate violence.
In today’s debates over immigration, refugees, and diversity, we need to be reminded of the vision included by the framers of our constitution. They had not yet achieved the full inclusion of all identities. Blacks and women did not have the vote. But when it came to religious inclusion the framers came closer to getting it right.
Eboo Patel, author and founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, was a speaker at last year’s Jewish-Christian-Muslim Dialogue in Grand Rapids. In his book, “Out of Many Faiths: Religious Diversity and the American Promise,” he writes about the Founders, “These (generally) wealthy, (loosely) Christian, (presumably) straight, (most assuredly) white male slaveholders managed to create a constitutional system that protected freedom of religion, barred the federal government from establishing a single church, prevented religious tests for those running for political office, and penned more than a few poetic lines about building a religiously diverse democracy.”
This vision has been tested in our history as waves of Catholic and Jewish immigrants came to our country to find a better life. For both communities, persecution and prejudice was prevalent, even to the point of violence in some instances. And yet today, these were the two communities that the Pew study found to have the highest levels of respect by the population at large.
Today our religious heritage is often described as Judeo-Christian, and in the 1950s Will Herberg’s book “Protestant, Catholic, Jew” that became the classic description of our national religious profile. Patel, however, points out that this didn’t happen by accident or by normal progress; it was a concerted effort especially by the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ). Patel notes that this might not be completely clear from an historical or theological perspective, but “as civil religion, however, Judeo-Christian is genius. It expands the national narrative in a manner that dignifies previously marginalized occupants, and it makes the process feel … like the rediscovery of a great sacred truth.”
Patel expands his analysis to call for a response to the current Islamophobia, similar to the anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish prejudice that motived the NCCJ. Can we expand our national narrative to include Islam and other religious groups with dignity and respect as consistent with what it means to be American?
He shares a story about how Muhammad Ali was vilified after he embraced the Muslim faith, which in turn led him to refuse to fight in the Vietnam War. He was not only severely criticized but convicted of a felony, lost his boxing license, and sent to jail. The Supreme Court, however, took seriously his religious claim as a conscientious objector and reversed his conviction, leading to his continuing boxing career.
At his funeral in 2016 Ali was considered a national hero, and the Attorney General Eric Holder said, “His biggest win came not in the ring but in our courts in his fight for his beliefs.” Patel also relates his favorite story from that event told by comedian Billy Crystal. Once when Crystal was visiting Ali in his hometown of Louisville, he was invited to join him for a workout at his country club, which Crystal declined. The reason: the country club did not allow Jews. Ali was incensed and vowed never to set foot in that club again. Patel concludes, “Just as his Muslim faith moved him to stand his ground on the Vietnam War, so it moved him to stand up for a Jew in Louisville.”
America throughout its history has been challenged to do the right thing when confronted with prejudice, discrimination, hatred, and even violence. It is particularly loathsome when it is religious discrimination and violence that erupts when our Founders sought to establish religious freedom for all. Our current polarization has threatened that vision in ways that even our most admired religious communities face fear of violence because of hatred.
Let us seek our better angels, affirm our Founders’ vision, and follow our religious precepts to love all of our neighbors.
Permanent link for "Facing the challenge of religious diversity" By: Douglas Kindschi, Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU on August 22, 2023
“We are the most religiously devout nation in the West, and the most religiously diverse country in the world, at a time of religious tension, conflict, and crisis.”
So writes Eboo Patel, founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, in recent book, Religious Diversity and the American Promise . He continues, “How do we affirm and extend the ethic that welcoming religiously diverse people, nurturing positive relations among them, and facilitating their contributions to the nation is part of the definition of America? Responding to that question is the task of this book.”
Patel, who was one of our keynote speakers in 2018 at the triennial Jewish-Christian-Muslim Dialogue, begins his book by pointing out that political theorists have long observed that diversity and democracy have not mixed well historically. But the United States has been the “great exception” in the way our founders “set for themselves the remarkable task of building a religiously diverse democracy, an experiment never before tried at such a scale in human history.”
While the founders, many of whom were slaveholders, did not represent much diversity in gender and race, they did “create a constitutional system that protected freedom of religion, barred the federal government from establishing a single church, prevented religious tests for those running for political office, and penned more than a few poetic lines about building a religiously diverse democracy.”
Patel then continues by recounting George Washington’s letter to Jewish leader Moses Seixas, affirming their welcome as full members of this new nation. Benjamin Franklin made financial contributions to every diverse community that built a house of worship in Philadelphia, and even raised money for a hall in Philadelphia “expressly for the use of any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something.” Franklin was explicit in stating that it would be open to Muslim preachers.
Thomas Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1777, which became the basis for Article 1 of the Bill of Rights, stating, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States and Tripoli was signed by President John Adams and approved unanimously by the Senate in 1797. It made clear that the United States was a secular state and had no “enmity” against any Muslim nation and further stated,“it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony.”
Patel also discusses the historic challenges to religious diversity at times when Jews, Catholics and Mormons were persecuted and not fully accepted. While we have moved beyond those conflicts, we now see members of these groups represented in Congress, the Supreme Court and the highest offices in our nation.
Patel also celebrates the contribution of religious communities to the overall welfare and social capital of our country. The vibrancy of our civil life is in a significant way dependent on the generosity and contributions of religious groups. He then urges that we “guard against religious preference … and continue the American ideal of free exercise for all faith communities.” We also need to welcome the contributions from these communities, facilitate positive relations between diverse religious communities, guarding against conflict and strengthening social cohesion.”
The task, however, is not easy and there are challenges ahead. Patel discusses the real differences between religions and their truth claims. The idea that all religions are pretty much the same and all paths are leading up the same mountain is called “pretend pluralism.” There are doctrines, rituals, and practices that counter other religions and can even insult. He writes:
“How are non-Jews supposed to view the idea that Jews are God’s chosen people, non-Christians meant to countenance the concept that you must hold to the Christian belief that Jesus is Lord and Savior in order to go to heaven, or non-Muslims to reckon with the idea that Muslims have the final revelation and others are incomplete or corrupted?”
These are real differences, and our interfaith activity urges a “thick dialogue” that seeks understanding and respect rather than a “thin dialogue” that reduces our various beliefs to some kind of bland agreement. Furthermore, to assert that all paths are going up the same mountain implies that we have a “God’s-eye view” that somehow lets us see from above the mountain and make assertions that only God could conclude. We are each on our own path with a limited view. To assume we can affirm or deny the path that someone else in on is a kind of arrogance that is dangerous. We can firmly believe that we are on the right path and still maintain a humility about judging what others believe.
We must always be on guard against thinking we know God’s intents. After all, God chose Abraham before there existed Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or other religious structures. We must be careful not to put limits on God’s ability and actions in dealing with his creatures.
Patel defines “pluralism as an ethic that has three main parts: respect for different identities, relationships between diverse communities, and a commitment to the common good.” He puts special emphasis on developing “meaningful relationships between people from different religious communities.” This was the focus of the Year of Interfaith Friendship that the Kaufman Interfaith Institute initiated in 2018. Many of the affinity or interest groups formed are still meeting. These groups include people from various religious groups coming together around common interests like knitting, cooking and eating together, exploring contemplative practices, watching together and discussing current cinema, and reading each other’s scriptures. The interfaith reading group will soon start reading Patel’s book, “We Need to Build.”
To learn not just about each other, but also with each other, I invite you to consider joining one of these groups.
To learn more, Visit our website www.InterfaithUnderstanding.org
Video intro to Interfaith America and “We Need to Build”
Permanent link for "Houses of worship can be good stewards of their finances, creation" by Rev. Richard Killmer on August 1, 2023
The Refuge, a Christian Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan, had been active in caring for creation, including protecting Rush Creek which flows near the congregation. When somebody mentioned that maybe the congregation should respond to climate change, there was some reluctance to working on an issue that was controversial. Yet as the congregation learned more, especially about the damage that was being caused by the more intense wildfires and hurricanes, droughts, sea level rise, and floods, members were opened to consider possible steps they could take.
In the fall of last year, that opportunity presented itself, when Rev. Gerry Koning, pastor of the Refuge learned about Solar Faithful, a new initiative that aims to increase solar access to faith communities in Michigan. Pastor Gerry told the congregation, “Adding solar panels to our roof will be a witness to our commitment to be being good stewards of our finances and good stewards of God’s creation.”
Rev. William Uetricht, pastor of First Lutheran Church in North Muskegon, agrees. They had two solar panels lighting the church’s sign and a Green Team that was involved in protecting creation, so adding more solar panels was not difficult for the congregation. It wanted to make a strong witness that many people of faith are addressing the climate crisis. “We want to be stewards of the whole creation and all of life,” said Pastor Bill.
Solar Faithful, because it has investors, is able to offer free solar panels to congregations of all faiths and also guarantees a reduced price (at least 10%) that the congregation (or a faith-based non-profit) pays for the electricity produced. Solar Faithful installs the panels without cost and will provide any maintenance needed. The agreement with each congregation will be in effect for 25 years.
Installing solar arrays is a terrific way to both combat climate change and reduce the air pollution that is a threat to everyone. First and foremost, these emissions impact people of color and low-income communities and the people living there. Solar Faithful’s goal is that 50% of the participating organizations in this project will be congregations that are primarily people of color, low-income and/or represent diverse, non-Christian faith traditions.
The way it works is those congregations submit a form indicating their interest along with electric bills for the previous 12 months to Solar Faithful. The organization then sends a draft proposal back to the congregation. Solar Faithful and the congregation will together develop a plan which is acceptable to both parties.
If a house of worship wants to reduce its monthly cost for the electricity produced by the solar panels even more, it is able to purchase the solar panels at the beginning of the project. In doing so, it takes on some risk and responsibility as it borrows or raises the money to fund the project and is responsible for operations and maintenance.
The majority of the three dozen solar installations at Michigan faith communities have been funded by internal capital fundraising campaigns. For houses of worship that don’t have access to the upfront capital, Solar Faithful presents an alternative opportunity for accessing the benefits of clean energy.
It is able to help congregations of all faiths and of all income levels to put solar panels on their roofs or their property and enjoy electricity produced by the sun. Doing so protects the earth for generations to come — an imperative that should be central to all of our worldviews.
Solar Faithful is sponsored by World Renew, Climate Witness Project, Michigan Interfaith Power and Light, and Charthouse Energy.
Rev. Richard Killmer is a retired Presbyterian minister, living in East Grand Rapids.
As I reflecting upon the traumas, anxieties, and losses we experience
each and everyday, both here in West Michigan and around the world,
I’m reminded of the words of the legendary saxophonist, Cannonball
Adderley, as he introduced a popular blues tune written by his piano player.
Standing in a Capitol recording studio in 1966, with the band softly grooving underneath his preacher-esque voice, Adderley proclaims, “Ya know, sometimes we’re not prepared for adversity. When it happens sometimes we’re caught short. We don’t know exactly how to handle it when it comes up. Sometimes we don’t know just what to do when adversity takes over.”
He chuckles and pauses for a moment, then continues. “And, uh, I have advice for all of us. I got it from my pianist Joe Zawinul who wrote this tune, and it sounds like what you’re supposed to say when you have this type of problem… ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.’”
What follows is a groovy, laid-back piece that uses a relatively simple repeated riff, or musical phrase, to hold space for both tension and release. This bears similarity, in both title and function, to the Kyrie eleison, or repetition of “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy,” found within the Christian tradition.
People of many diverse worldview identities have these kinds of “sacred riffs:” our words, rhythms, and practices that bring us to a place of centering and strength – resilience – even as our adversity is ever-present. As Adderley observes, sometime adversity - trauma, grief, anxiety, injustice – is so great that there is no quick fix or simple solution. It brings with it such a dysphoria or disorientation that we are at a loss for how to respond. So we look to that which centers us.
In her book “Trauma and Grace,” Serene Jones writes about the power of ritual and liturgy to surprise and shape people who have experienced immense pain and loss. She proposes the idea of “body stories.” These are tactile or physical memories that reappear unexpectedly in the course of a movement or practice. She draws comparisons to yoga positions and acupuncture eliciting memory and pain in our muscles.
Jones notes, “[They bring] to awareness areas of tightness or pain that may have gone unnoticed or ignored for years. … To use the language of trauma theory, the body offers up visceral testimony.”
The physical actions that we practice as people of diverse religious, spiritual, or secular identities - the routine passages, prayers, and ritual movements - are often what guide us as we elicit and confront our grief and trauma. For those of us navigating pain or loss, these repeated movements guide, re-form, and give words to the state of our entire being at a time when we are often incapable of doing it on our own. At the same time that these motions invite us to enter the tension, the pain, the loss, or the anxiety, they also remind us that we are supported and held, offering us release.
“It is a strange, unprecedented form of embrace,” Jones observes “The support might be an acupuncturist’s hand, a yoga teacher’s voice, a wall you rest your legs against, or a supportive community that you learn to lean on; it might even be a routinized prayer chant or an internal memory of your former balance.”
For some this may look like prayer or meditation – concentrating on the power of repeated words, chants, or breaths. For others this may look like the tactile or embodied rhythms of passing beads through our fingers, moving our bodies as in yoga, or returning to a familiar text for contemplation and discernment. Often these practices can be very commonplace, like cooking food, sewing or knitting, spending time in nature, or going for a walk or run. All of these can welcome us into a place of bearing witness to our own experiences and reality.
Trauma theory suggests that this witness-bearing process leads to resilience. As Jones notes, “[B]y testifying and bearing witness, you intuitively learn to bear up under the weight of the trauma you are speaking.”
In this season, we may be feeling overwhelmed by the immense stress we’re under, the responsibilities of caring for our family, of homeschooling our kids, or the looming cloud of financial anxiety, perhaps having find more work to make ends meet. We may be struggling to keep a business afloat or navigate everchanging realities and rhythms around school and learning. We may feel powerless, disheartened as we miss our routines, our favorite places, those things we had so looked forward to, and our friends and loved ones who are now inaccessible to us or have passed away. We may be caught up in the systems-level disparities that disproportionately affect communities of color as racial injustice continues to threaten the lives of BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color) folx everyday.
Trauma, grief, anxiety, and injustice abound, and there is no quick fix or simple solution. We look to those places of centering, space for both tension and release, to ground ourselves that we might bear up and be resilient, ready for the next step of the healing journey, however that may look.
For the past nine years, local hospice care providers have combined efforts to create a service for this centering and healing to take place. We Remember: A Community Interfaith Memorial has been and continues to be a space where the words, rhythms, and practices of the interfaith community are offered for people to support and uphold each other in our adversity and loss.
Using the language of many traditions - prayers, songs, reflections, music, and readings from sacred texts – this service gives language to grief, mourning, and celebration of life. Certainly, as the Interfaith Memorials of years past have shown, resilience is found within every religious, secular, and spiritual identity.
This year’s Community Interfaith Memorial Service will be held at Catholic Information Center, at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 12. The annual event will offer a 30-minute memorial style service, featuring persons from diverse religious / secular / spiritual traditions, followed by interactive family-friendly activities to process loss and remember our loved ones. The service will feature music, reflection, meditation, and poetry inclusive to all traditions.
Whether grieving recent losses, honoring those who have long since passed, or simply curious as to how various traditions commemorate the passing of life, all are welcome to share in this family-friendly space.
May we continually enter the brave work, embodied by the Interfaith Memorial, of seeking healing through community with one another, even while virtual and socially distanced, for this unique season of adversity and loss. Through togetherness and solidarity, centered in hope by those “sacred riffs,” our collective song of resilience is born.
Permanent link for Announcing Shared Leadership of the Kaufman Interfaith Institute on July 11, 2023
The Kaufman Interfaith Institute is pleased to announce some new developments in our organizational structure as we move forward into the next academic year. Effective this month the leadership will be shared with Douglas Kindschi serving as the Sylvia and Richard Kaufman Founding Director, and Kyle Kooyers serving as the Director of Operations. I will continue responsibility for budget, serve as appointing officer for staff, and take on an advisory role for planning and fund raising. I will also assist during the transition of the ongoing leadership for the Institute.
I am particularly pleased to continue working with Kyle Kooyers, who has been serving as the Associate Director for the past few years. His new role as Director of Operations will involve much of what he has already been doing so successfully but will signal his expanded responsibilities as we transition leadership. He will introduce himself further in his statement below.
- Doug Kindschi, Sylvia and Richard Kaufman Founding Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute
I am so very honored to be a part of this team and humbled to be stepping into this role. Since the beginning of my time with the Institute in 2016, I have found this work of human connection, interfaith understanding, and collective transformation to be deeply formative and immensely inspiring. Community organizing has been a common thread throughout my personal journey. The life and energy I find in interfaith collaboration and cooperation is truly without match. As I reflect over this past program year, there’s one phrase, offered by one of our attendees at our Rabbi Sigal Interfaith Leadership Lecture featuring Valarie Kaur, that keeps coming to mind… “Now I feel like I can breathe.”
For a woman of color, whose adoptive parents were white and whose late brother was native American, Valarie’s framework for Revolutionary Love, as she said, “explains my experience and my brother’s and my life. He always fought through life because there was such extreme prejudice and white supremacy behaviors towards us. So never got to that part where he could breathe. And when you said to imagine an ancestor behind you, I instantly saw him behind me. And he is from the Ottawa Tribe. So, I felt him saying, ‘Thank you for acknowledging me.’ He was never acknowledged. He was always acknowledged as an opponent. He always had rage. He always fought. And I grieved for him. Now I feel like I can breathe.”
Spaces of deep personal and communal transformation, spaces where people can feel seen and understood, do not happen simply because one has reserved a room, invited a speaker, brought in students, faculty, staff, and community members, and worked diligently with conference and events to curate a lovely room set-up and some tasty food. While critically important, the logistical labor is not what makes a gathering of people life changing. That is achieved by the work of human hearts:
- Cultivating trust born out of sustained and mutual relationships.
- Giving land and labor acknowledgement to the people it’s due.
- Forging agreements to enter healthy conversation across difference with the expectation that each person with leave having grown, hearing a new perspective, seeing a similarity, growing in understanding, making a new friendship, changing an old attitude for one of admiration.
- Honoring the distinctiveness or our cultures, traditions, beliefs, and lived experiences as well as celebrating that which we hold in common.
- Naming the realities of power and privilege, along with the ways in which here in the United States and around the world religious, spiritual, and secular communities are complicit in systems of oppression and violence AND at the same time, are also the ones who are leading the work for peace, understanding, equity, and justice.
- Listening to and dreaming with one another about a world we’ll be proud to hand off to the next generation while also ensuring they have a place at the table.
Whether it’s creating spaces for joy - like our International Interfaith Concert featuring ensembles from Israel and Afghanistan or the Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Celebration for an evening of gratitude and love - perhaps, we can feel like we can breathe.
Whether it’s creating spaces for grief, mourning, and remembering - like the Community Interfaith Memorial Services or hosting Remembrance in Action, two art exhibitions and film screenings that bring to the fore the horror of the Holocaust and the need to resist hate - perhaps, we can feel like we can breathe.
Whether it’s developing spaces for listening and support - like Talking Together, a year-long program to address and heal toxic polarization on our campus and in our community or working to implement processes, programs, and resources, to ensure that our students, faculty, and staff feel a deep sense of belonging in their respective religious, spiritual, or secular identity on campus - perhaps, we can feel like we can breathe.
Whether it’s investing in the next generation - like running our Youth Interfaith Service Day Camp bringing together middle and high school youth from around West Michigan to engage in interfaith and cross-cultural understanding and service or mentoring and resourcing those students as they take the reins of the Interfaith Movement through our Kaufman Interfaith Leadership Scholars program - perhaps, we can feel like we can breathe.
All of these initiatives and programs, these spaces of transformational, happen as a direct result of the inspiring and compassionate team that is the Kaufman staff. Week to week, month to month, they engage in the hard work of doing the heart work that makes interfaith understanding and cooperation possible. We joke that our spaces may not look as pretty or polished as larger institutes and centers, but, make no mistake, they are life changing. It takes a very special group of people to time and time again offer programing and space where people are seen, where people feel understood, where our stories are shared, and where the focus of the event isn’t so much to be self-aggrandizing and breathtaking but to be grounded in a revolutionary sense of love that is ultimately breath-giving.
As we look to the future and seek to live into GVSU’s Reach Higher 2025 values - a commitment to Inquiry, to an Inclusive & Equitable Community, to Innovation, to Integrity, and to International Perspectives – these commitments will continue to remain at the fore of our programming because they are first and foremost embodied and exemplified by our staff. It is a profound joy and blessing to be a part of this team.
Thank you for your continued partnership and for all of you who have invested me and in the work of the Institute. I look forward to all that is to come and am eager to connect over coffee/tea or by hosting you here in our new office space!
- Kyle Kooyers, Director of Operations, Kaufman Interfaith Institute
"In a real sense all life is inter-related. All [people] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny . Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
"When we choose to wonder about people we don't know, when we imagine their lives and listen for their stories, we begin to expand the circle of who we see as a part of us. "
Valarie Kaur, See No Stranger
One of our longest-running friendship groups at Kaufman is “Interfaith and Interwoven.” Every week from September to May, a group of women from different religious and non-religious backgrounds (and various handicraft skill levels) gather together for conversation while creating winter gear for students at a local elementary school. This group began in-person, transitioned to a Zoom call during the shut down, and has remained virtual since then so as to keep longtime members who have moved away from the West Michigan area connected to the group.
Another fixture in the West Michigan interfaith scene is the weekly WGVU radio show, Common Threads. Hosted by one of our Kaufman Associates, Fred Stella, the show explores religion and spirituality by providing intelligent conversations with clergy, authors, journalists, filmmakers, and lay members of the community speaking from a variety of religious identities. The topics range widely, yet the ‘common thread’ remains: that we have so much to learn from each others’ experiences in the world.
As we were envisioning our brand redesign, the image of the woven garment kept surfacing. Knitting together conversations and friendships alongside mittens and scarves. The interwoven perspectives of religious scholars and practitioners. Kaufman’s unique position as connector between communities. And the voice of Dr. King ringing in our ears, with the poignant imagery of the “single garment of destiny.”
As Valarie Kaur taught us last winter, the first step in actualizing this interconnectivity, in no longer seeing others as strangers but as parts of ourselves that we do not yet know, is wonder. Being curious is how we begin to visualize the intricate patterns that bind us together as one humanity. The infinite number of potential connections, of fragments of ourselves in others, creates an ever-growing garment, so large we cannot see the edges. Curiosity driven by joy spurs us forward as the Kaufman Institute continues into the next phase of exploring this weave with our community.
It is with excitement that we launch Kaufman’s new look and feel, replete with bright colors we hope will spark joy and wonder and an array of weave patterns to highlight the myriad ways we are interconnected, even in our differences.
Permanent link for "Understanding, tolerance practiced by country's founding fathers" by Doug Kindschi on July 4, 2023
We are all aware of the important freedom of religion clause which was written into our Bill of Rights as a part of the First Amendment to the Constitution. It has been an important principle from the beginning of our nation. But how many of us are aware of the early American leaders who not only supported this principle, but practiced interfaith understanding from the beginning? Many of the colonies were actively anti-Catholic in those early days and a popular celebration called Guy Fawkes Day often included burning an effigy of the pope. As the commander of the Continental Army, George Washington in 1775 banned this practice by officers and soldiers in the army. In reference to the Catholics he said, “to be insulting to their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren.” As our first president, Washington continued this openness to other religious expressions. On a visit in 1790 to Newport, Rhode Island, he was greeted by the leaders of the community, as well as by various religious representatives. An official of Yeshuat Israel, the first Jewish congregation established in Newport, was one of those welcoming Washington and his party. Moses Seixas in his welcoming address said: “Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now (with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events) behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People — a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance — but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language, equal parts.” Upon returning to the capital, Washington wrote back what is known as the Letter to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport. It included the following: “The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy — a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States … gives to bigotry no sanction, and to persecution no assistance.” And then referring to the Hebrew prophet Micah, he added: “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid. “May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.” Why do we teach school children silly stories about Washington chopping down the cherry tree when we have such a clear and forceful example of interfaith understanding at the beginning of our country and by our first president? As our country becomes more and more diverse, we must reaffirm the openness to all religions as expressed by our founding fathers, and join George Washington in going beyond tolerance by seeking the goodwill, safety, and happiness of all citizens.
Permanent link for "Why Civilizations Fail" by Doug Kindschi, Director of the Kaufman Interfaith Institute on June 26, 2023
In a blog Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks addressed the question of “Why Civilizations Fail.” He begins by quoting Moses:
"Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God. … Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. … You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’… If you ever forget the Lord your God … I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed.” (Deut. 8:11-19)
Sacks reflecting on this passage continues with the warning that it is not the suffering in the wilderness that is the real test. The real challenge will begin “precisely when all your physical needs are met – when you have land and sovereignty and rich harvests and safe homes – that your spiritual trial will commence.”
This is seen as an early version of what many historians have observed over the centuries as they look at the history of civilizations. Sacks points to the 14th century Islamic thinker, Ibn Khaldun,who in his introduction to history was one of the first to observe that great civilizations become too comfortable and complacent leading to a period of decay and eventual decline.
In his “History of Western Philosophy,” Bertrand Russell notes a similar pattern in what he considered to be examples of great civilizations. In his introduction he notes: “What had happened in the great age of Greece happened again in Renaissance Italy: traditional moral restraints disappeared … the decay of morals made Italians collectively impotent, and they fell, like the Greeks, under the domination of nations less civilized than themselves but not so destitute of social cohesion.”
British historian of the last century, Arnold Toynbee, studied 26 different civilizations in his 12-volume “A Study of History.” I don’t claim to have read this major work, but according to Britannica on the web, he concluded: “Civilizations declined when their leaders stopped responding creatively, and the civilizations then sank owing to the sins of nationalism, militarism, and the tyranny of a despotic minority.” The Britannica also noted that Toynbee “saw history as shaped by spiritual, not economic forces.”
Sacks summarizes this spiritual decline as: “Inequalities will grow. The rich will become self-indulgent. The poor will feel excluded. There will be social divisions, resentments and injustices. Society will no longer cohere. People will not feel bound to one another by a bond of collective responsibility. Individualism will prevail. Trust will decline. Social capital will wane.”
Sacks suggests that this decline is not inevitable and proposes three rules to guard against it.
Rule 1: Never forget where you came from.
He admonishes us tofocus on justice, caring for the poor, ensuring dignity for everyone and “making sure there are always prophets to remind the people of their destiny and expose the corruptions of power.”
Rule 2: Never drift from your foundational principles and ideals.
“Societies start growing old when they lose faith in the transcendent. They then lose faith in an objective moral order and end by losing faith in themselves.”
Rule 3: A society is as strong as its faith.
This faith is necessary in order “to honor the needs of others as well as ourselves … (and) give us the humility that alone has the power to defeat the arrogance of success and self-belief.”
As I reflect on these observations from the ancient and more recent prophets, I can’t help but wonder if we have already gone too far down this path of spiritual decline. Have we lost our social cohesion? Do we honor the needs of others, especially the poor? Have we lost faith in a moral order? Is it too late to regain a collective responsibility? When hate becomes respectable or when peaceful protest becomes violent have we lost our sense of community and respect for others?
Sacks also points out that prophets do not predict -- they warn. “If a prediction comes true it has succeeded; if a prophecy comes true it has failed. The prophet tells of the future that will happen if we do not heed the danger and mend our ways.”
We need prophets like Rabbi Sacks as we seek “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.” (Micah 6:8)
Last year, I was invited to speak about fostering interfaith relationships by a professor at Hope College. In my introduction, as I always do, I described myself as ‘Muslim American.’ A student raised her hand and asked me why I described myself this way. “I would never call myself Christian American,” she said. At first I was taken aback by this question, but then I realized my unconscious description of myself was a reflection of a deep-seeded need inside of me to dismantle the perception that for one to be Muslim and American was an oxymoron or worse yet, abhorrent. I wanted to start the conversation with these students by defining myself in a way that was authentic and valid to who I, a part of the 3.45 million Muslims in America, am. As an immigrant of Pakistani descent, a mother, an interfaith youth activator, a ‘Muslim American,’ and an active community member, I believe in the power of relationships and stories to change hearts and minds.
The importance of us each telling our own story is what my work at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute entails. As Program Manager, I am honored to work with the next generation of youth leaders via our summer camps and our co-curricular Scholars programming.
I cannot believe this will be our fifth year of hosting the Kaufman Interfaith Service Day Camp. What began as a dream of community leaders who were passionate about introducing the power of interfaith relationships to younger generations, evolved into a Summer Day Camp. The initial focus of the camp was shared experiences via service at area nonprofits and sacred site visits. Rather than a cursory cross-cultural experience, day camp has transformed into an exploration of equity and justice by making meaningful connections between the core values of a particular worldview, the service we engage in with area nonprofits, and the activities we do during camp. So, our visit to the Sikh Gurdwara, where we learn about “seva” or humble service as we partake in the Langar meal, connects to the service we perform with our hands at Plainsong Farm or New City Neighbors’ Urban Farm. Being called in their faith tradition to care for the earth by these nonprofits connects to the need for good nourishment, especially for those in non-system supported areas. And all of this connects to the Food Access simulation the students experienced as an activity during the same day at camp
Each day of camp is an exploration of the interfaith imperative to advance equity. Students explore their own spiritual, secular, or religious identity and how it connects to the theme of the day. They meet other students and hear their “why” for engaging in this interfaith experience, expanding their views and growing their perspective. Ultimately, they find time to make personal connections to others through story and by creating space within their imagination for other viewpoints outside of their own. Uniquely challenging and expansive, this camp has drawn in area students representing over eight different worldview expressions.
There is still room for your middle- or high-school age student to join our 2023 Interfaith Summer Day Camp taking place the week of June 12th from 9am-3pm. Transportation, meals, snacks, fun and engaging activities, and unique experiences will be provided by the Kaufman staff and our community partners. This year’s day camp would not have been possible without the generous sponsorship of the MillerKnoll Foundation, Gentex Corporation, Corewell Health, University of Michigan Health West, and the Dominican Sisters at Marywood. Here’s where you can find more information about our Interfaith Service Day Camp or to register your student.
Through working with the youth, we have been able to find a balance between narrative and data which drives the way youth leadership and embodied dialogue are framed and executed for effective change. Our Kaufman Interfaith Leadership Scholars meet every other Sunday throughout the school year. This year, as our fourth year of Scholars is coming to an end, we have three Scholars who have been with us since we began. Two of them are seniors and one is only a freshman in high school. Each year, the Scholars spend the first semester learning about interfaith leadership and personal asset mapping while receiving training from GVSU staff on identity, equity, anti-racism frameworks, and deep dialogue. They then apply that training to a project of their choosing during the second semester. This year, the students will host an interactive dialogue at area public schools focused on creating inclusive school environments for people of all spiritual, secular, or religious identities. The students will present their findings at the Parliament of the World’s Religions taking place in Chicago in August. This unique extracurricular opportunity is transformative for our area youth and our communities. While the fifth year of Scholars will begin in the Fall, registration is open now for all that are interested. No prior experience is necessary. Check out this page for more information about our Leadership Scholars
Our dreams for Kaufman’s Next Generation programming are vast. As students graduate high school and move on to jobs or college, we find ourselves wanting to stay connected. We hope that the seeds of learning we are planting produce sprouts of understanding, equity, and belonging wherever these students land.