Our day began with outdoor gardening work at the aptly-named urban oasis, Girarden, so named because of its location on Girard Ave. in West Philly.
Muneerah and Sue, our two wonderful hosts, walked us through the work to be done–weeding, trash detail, prep for planting.
The group got a lot done and we enjoyed the beautiful sunshine!
After that, we traveled to Interfaith Philadelphia to meet up with Andrew, Communications Director and overseer of the Alternative Break program. Andrew shared a bit about Interfaith Philadelphia and some upcoming programs, including Civil Conversations.
Then, I led a workshop about pluralism with the students. They had such great insights and shared some of the obstacles to embracing active engagement in interfaith work. We reflected on Eboo Patel’s passion for pluralism in place of tolerance and what we can do to truly know our neighbors and to work with them side by side.
Soon after, we journeyed to the NW suburbs of Philadelphia to Bharatiya, a multi-deity Hindu and Jain temple.
We were incredibly fortunate to be there for the Holi Festival.
The festival of colors is vibrant and considered one of the major festivals in India. It is celebrated in the month of Phalgun on full moon day according to the Hindu calendar. It takes place at the start of spring. This festival also celebrates the eternal love of Radha and Krishna. Holi teaches humankind to transcend above caste and creed. It is a festival to forget old grievances and to meet others with great warmth. Celebrants light a bonfire on Holi eve and then the next day, people greet each other with Happy Holi and the colors fly!
We were fortunate enough to experience this all in one night! What fun it was! Such an amazing experience! So much community and celebration!
Our third day began with service-learning at SHARE Food Program in the East Falls neighborhood of Philadelphia.
The SHARE Food Program is a nonprofit organization serving a regional network of community organizations engaged in food distribution, education, and advocacy. SHARE promotes healthy living by providing affordable wholesome food to those willing to contribute through volunteerism.
SHARE relies on volunteers and donations to help pack boxes and organize the tons of food that arrive at their warehouse so they may distribute the food to the thousands of food pantries, shelters, and soup kitchens in the region. Sadly, malnutrition and food insecurity are serious problems in Philadelphia.
The students from Messiah College joined a student group from Lincoln HS in Philly and a group from the University of Connecticut.
And…don’t underestimate the satisfaction that comes from using the box crushing machine…
Thanks, SHARE, for all you do! Thanks, Messiah students, for giving your time and energy!
Won Buddhism is considered a reformed Buddhism in that it embraces the original Buddha’s teachings and make them relevant and suitable to contemporary society. It revitalizes and modernizes Buddhism, so that an ever increasing number of people can use Buddha’s teaching for practical and useful purposes.
The name Won Buddhism (Won-bul-kyo in Korean) is a compound word meaning the universal truth, enlightenment, and teaching. Won means unitary circle, which symbolizes the ultimate truth; Bul means enlighten to the Truth; and Kyo means to teach the Truth. Won Buddhism is a religion that teaches the ultimate Truth so that people can awaken to this Truth and carry it out in their daily life.
The members of the Won Buddhist community embrace and accept those of other faiths and have made a lot of effort in inter-religious dialogue. Strikingly, Won Buddhist temples do not have a statue of the Buddha inside the prayer space. Instead, they have, at the center of the temple, the Il-Won-Sang, a circular symbol representing the origin of all beings in the universe, the truth that all buddhas and sages enlighten to, and the original nature of all living beings.
Upon entering the temple, we participated in chanting for 5 minutes, seated and silent meditation for 25 minutes, and then walking meditation. A leader of the sangha then gave a dharma talk about fear and mindfulness and then there was a Q & A time.
The PA Horticultural Society City Harvest program taps into the skills and energy of urban gardeners and entrepreneurial growers to make fresh, nutritious produce more widely available to neighbors in need.
The program is creating an infrastructure of agricultural supply and education centers, as well as expanding fresh food production, distribution, and consumption in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, thereby creating a healthier future for thousands of city residents.
First, Alex led us through a walk-thru of the outdoor space around us, asking us to listen to the sounds we heard and to experience the place.
He then connected gardening work and the natural world to expressions of faith traditions like Judaism and Christianity. He shared about this week marking the start of Purim for Jews, a time of costumes and the story of Esther and when many Jewish people reflect on the revelation of what is hidden–discovering new things that have always been there, even the discovery of the presence of Yahweh. Alex did a great job of also connecting the natural world and the experience of the seasons of winter and spring to the Christian season of Lent. He asked the students from Messiah to reflect on what Lent means to them. Then, we headed into the greenhouse to start prepping the seeds that City Harvest folks had planted in pots to germinate; now they had grown into small, green vegetable plants.
Great attitude and enthusiasm on the part of the students! Looking forward to a packed but amazing day 3!
This week I am facilitating an alternative break program with students from Messiah College students through Interfaith Philadelphia. During the week the students and I will visit five faith communities, participate in four service-learning projects, and learn about religious pluralism, interfaith cooperation, and identity.
There are over 20 million Sikhs around the world today. Sikhism began over 500 years ago in the Punjab area of South Asia, which now includes the vast territories of Northern India and eastern Pakistan. Guru Nanak, born in 1469, founded the Sikh religion on the principles of love, understanding, and the rejection of blind rituals. Sikhism is about devotion to and remembrance of God at all times in life–behaving truthfully, embracing the equality of humankind, standing for social justice, and cooperating with people of all faiths.
As with any religious tradition, a few paragraphs cannot adequately inform you. I encourage you to read on your own or visit a Gurdwara to learn more.
Upon entering the Gurdwara, we were warmly greeted by various leaders in the community. We put on head scarves, took off our shoes, and then washed our hands and wrists in the large basin just outside the prayer space. We sat with others in the prayer hall, listening to beautiful prayer songs in Punjabi.
Then, we were led into the kitchen space for the langar meal.
Langar is a community meal that Sikhs offer to all people, free of charge. It is an expression of equality, as all people sit together on the floor and enjoy the food as one communal experience.
After a great meal we headed over to their educational building for an overview of the history of Sikhism and the day to day life of a Sikh. Q&A followed. the Messiah College students had some great and curious questions, including how Sikhs are committed to non-violence and how their scriptures encourage non-violence.
Afterwards, we headed to the offices of Interfaith Philadelphia for the opening workshop. We had the chance to get to know each other a little better and to share why each of us decided to participate in this program. I was impressed with the students and their commitment to learning and interfaith cooperation. After that, we defined what “curious” questions are and what “judgmental” questions are. We thought about the various communities we will visit throughout the week and what types of questions we may have.
In essence, the law of reciprocity is the social norm of responding to a positive action with another positive action, rewarding kind actions. Reciprocity means that in response to friendly actions, people are frequently much nicer and much more cooperative. Conversely, in response to hostile actions, a person is frequently just as hostile and in some cases, even more brutal in response.
This idea of Reciprocity is old. It’s possible that it is even part of our human DNA. Well, at least it’s something that human beings developed socially thousands of years ago. We do know that in the time of Hammurabi (c. 1792–1750 BC), the 6th king of the Babylonian Dynasty, there was the Hammurabi code, a collection of 282 laws and standards for citizens’ conduct. You’re probably familiar with the “eye for an eye” principle. That’s this code, specifically Law #196.
These laws of reciprocity showed up in the Torah and the ancient Israelite culture, and were the cornerstone of ancient Greece. In fact, you can look around the world and throughout history and find the rules of reciprocity. They seem to be a social norm for us as humans.
Now what about the golden ratio? In mathematics, two quantities are in the golden ratio if their ratio is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities. Expressed algebraically: using quantities a and b: a > b > 0.
Yeah, I’m not great at math and especially not algebra. For some of you who are, I bet you get this right away. For me and for others, however, it may be helpful to consider the golden ratio in architecture, art, design, music, and nature. It’s helpful for me to see the spiral arrangements of snails or the patterns of the veins of leaves.
The golden ratio.
And it is both of these concepts—the
golden ratio and the law of reciprocity, that lead us to something we’re all
The so-called golden rule.
The golden rule, is of course: do to others that which you would want them to do to you. Pure, positive reciprocity.
The silver rule is the same, yet in the negative sense: do not to others that which you would not want them to do to you.
Pretty much every religious or faith tradition, as well as secular and humanist traditions, claim some form of the golden and/or silver rule. In fact, in interfaith work I have come across the golden rule countless times, as it is seen as the one universal concept that we can all agree on, in spite of many other competing truth claims. So on the surface the golden rule seems like a perfect ethic for all of humanity. Like the amazingly beautiful and mathematically perfect golden ratio, the golden rule may just be the one thing that can bind us all together.
Not exactly. Don’t get me wrong—when I am with people of differing traditions, conflicting opinions, and even very opposite beliefs than my own, the golden rule can be a comfortable place for us to find common ground. And of course I would like people to treat me as well as I treat them, especially if I treat them well, right?
But wait—the golden rule isn’t perfect, and that’s been proven throughout history and all over the world. Consider whether the golden rule works in situations of adversity and struggle, and especially in contexts of marginalization and totalitarianism. Sadly, we can see in our human history when people who were pushed to the margins were subjected to the golden rule while those in power were not.
We see this today. I for example, I would never tell my black or brown or other non-white friends, or my gay, lesbian, or transgender friends, who have been mistreated, to turn the other cheek when they are racially profiled. Anytime someone’s humanity is questioned, or their dignity taken away, how does the golden rule apply? If you were being oppressed, how would you react?
Obviously, I’m not advocating for revenge or violence or vitriolic reactions. But when hateful things are said and done to people, I have a hard time telling them to be passive and to just accept what’s been done.
No, I think we sometimes overlook that the golden rule is nuanced and has layers to it, according to the context. And it was no different for Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew raised by the law of Leviticus in the Torah: love your neighbor as you love yourself.
But love your neighbor seems different than just “do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Love your neighbor? It feels different than “don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you.”
Love. Your. Neighbor.
Of course, Jesus posed the “who is your neighbor” question with parables, and it never turned out the way people thought. Their neighbors, as it turned out, were not the ones closest to them, and were often even perceived enemies like the Samaritans or tax collectors. And so that’s what I mean when I say we sometimes overdo it with the golden rule, because we hear these words in Luke’s Gospel:
Love: your enemies, do good to those who hate, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you; if someone hits you in the face, let them do it again; if someone steals clothes from you, give them more.
Really, if you take your time and look at these words, they are triggering, are they not? There is NO WAY that I’m telling people I know who have been bullied to love the bullies and let them stay bullies. There is NO CHANCE that I’m telling anyone who has suffered abuse of any kind to just pray for their abusers. If a friend is cursed by another, I’m not telling my friend to bless that person. If someone steals stuff, they should be rewarded? If someone smacks you in the face, you should just let it go and say: “Please sir, may I have another?” And really? We have to do good to those who hate us?
Wow, Jesus, what was in that glass of wine
But remember that with Jesus there is always something subversive and contextual. Yes, preachers and churches and politicians have used even the teachings of Jesus to propagate misogyny, prejudice, racism, war, hate, and their own agendas.
But when Jesus said to LOVE it was not a feeling, it was an action, and it always circled back [or spiraled] to the reciprocal triad of love: love God, love yourself, love others.
Those three always went together and interchanged. If you love the Creator, then it follows that you love all of creation—all living beings. And you love yourself, and you love the other humans you encounter because you all belong together.
In the case of an enemy, agape love isn’t about being a doormat or excusing terrible behavior. In fact, love of enemy can mean confrontation of evil and resistance. Cue Martin Luther King, Jr. who we often point to as a U.S. pioneer of non-violent protest and resistance to bring about major social change. This is what love of enemy looks like. Likewise, Jesus’ contextual view of hate was that some people hated and cursed others simply because of their nationality or ethnicity or their religion. Jesus was flipping over the tables of people’s prejudice and challenging their own biases.
And no, Jesus is NOT telling anyone who has been abused to just accept it. It’s the opposite. Take a look at the “turn the other cheek” thing. Context: the one striking you on your cheek would have been your master. Remember that slavery was alive and well in Jesus’ time. If a master wanted to discipline a servant, he would assert his authority by striking your right cheek with the back of his right hand. That was proper striking etiquette. Now picture this happening, and after you’re struck on the right cheek, you stand there and turn your head to show your left cheek. It would be impossible for the master to strike your left cheek with the back of his right hand. This becomes an act of resistance, as you break the so-called etiquette of acceptable violence and expose the master’s powerlessness.
Let’s get down to it. There is no perfect ethical code or moral law. This is what gets us into trouble and how we end up giving way too much power and authority to a small group of people. No, the power and universality is in the agape love-act itself. What binds us all together on this messed-up, chaotic, seemingly fragmented planet is agape love. It’s not a feeling, not some impossible dream or wishful thinking. Agape love can be resistance, solidarity, subversive, compassionate justice, prophetic, paradigm shifting, difference-embracing, counter-culture, and downright dangerous for the oppressors, the authoritarians, the haters, and the manipulators.
Love. Of the Creator and all creation.
Love. For yourself as you are. Love for others.
These three great loves are one, and they truly are golden.
Are you hearing any prophetic words, seeing any prophetic justice-action these days that are reaching across lines of difference, welcoming the marginalized, and standing up to hate and injustice and privilege? Are you? If so, please share in the comments.
And now…Luke’s version of Jesus’ prophetic voice taking flight….
Jesus of Nazareth had just read from the Isaiah scroll, which said: The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because it has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. I’ve been sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Then Jesus just sits down, drops the mic in the synagogue and says that this is fulfilled simply because the people heard it.
Hearing is an intimate thing. You gotta lean in. You gotta pay attention. You have to notice body language and expression. The words you hear literally come all the way inside your body where they are then “processed” and understood through your neural connections. If your language is ASL you hear just as intimately, by noticing so much more than words, but intention.
So the crowds of people hearing this were amazed. Wasn’t this Jesus bar Joseph from Nazareth? Wasn’t he the same kid from their small town?
But Jesus wasn’t fooled by their amazement. They wanted Jesus to do some miracles or something—prove that he was magic or could do the stuff they had heard about him. More importantly, they wanted their own personal blessing—for the families, for their town, for Jesus’ hometown. Hey Jesus, homeboy, spread the love to us!
Jesus knew his hometown fans were definitely fairweather fans.
They could turn on him at any moment, especially if they found out that this justice and freedom and acceptance wasn’t specifically for them, but was for all those who were oppressed, imprisoned, poor, or marginalized.
Jesus then provides two examples, well-known in Israel, of the prophet coming to the aid of outsiders: the Zarephath widow and Elijah, and Elisha and Namaan the Syrian (1 Kgs 17:8-24, 2 Kings 5: 1-19). In both cases, a prophet came to the aid of a gentile when other people in Israel could have also used the help.
Luke’s author wants us the readers to know that the widow was on the margins of society and undoubtedly poor. Naaman, though powerful as an army commander, suffered from leprosy, so he was unclean.
In both cases, a prophet reached out to them on the margins [Elijah and Elisha]. See, Jesus was being prophetic by telling his hometown that they weren’t going to get special treatment.
This of course didn’t go over well. The people of Jesus’ hometown turned on him. Not only did they want to throw him out of town, they wanted to throw him off a cliff! Yeah, that’s not good. But somehow, in Luke’s version of this story, Jesus is able to get out alive, without the people getting to him, thus recalling to mind the scene from A Christmas Story when the leg lamp is broken and Ralphie’s father heads out to the store to get some glue to try to fix it and in his frustration, he can only utter: “Not a finger!!!” Yeah, they couldn’t lay a finger on Jesus.
But I digress.
This story is pretty clear, especially in today’s context. Look, I’ll be frank. Christians [especially the U.S. brand] deserve all the bad press they get. Honestly, American Christians have earned the bad reputation. I’ve been in rooms, halls, sanctuaries and in public spaces with self-proclaimed Christians who quote all manner of scripture they claim is holy and the word of God, but do they hear any of it? Because after they read it they say horrific things about gay, lesbian, and bisexual people and then deny the existence of transgender people. Then, they call immigrants “Isis” and Muslims “anti-Christian” and “against Jesus.” They camp out in the alleyways of Planned Parenthood near the back door so they can heckle doctors, social workers, and any women who receive services. They hold up incredibly triggering and hateful signs using words I won’t utter here [and not because I’m PC, but because they are hateful words]. They say they know who’s going to hell [not them of course] and who Jesus loves and who Jesus hates. They say they are “hearers” and “doers” of God’s Word, and well, I [and most of the rest of the world] call BS.
They are chasing Jesus out of his own town, hoping to throw him off a cliff.
Because Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t bless them like they want to be blessed. Jesus doesn’t favor them. Jesus sees their privilege and their hate and their greediness. Jesus reads from the justice prophet, Isaiah, and the Christians don’t listen or hear or care. They have their own agendas. And anyone outside of those agendas either is against them or doesn’t exist.
And this, my friends, is why Jesus of Nazareth gathered people to his side who would follow him to do justice and to love those on the margins. This is why Jesus even rejected his own town and his own religion so that he could be part of something good in the world. This is what we are prophetically asked to do. Religion has failed us. It’s okay to admit it, because we don’t need to be loyal to a religion.
The way of justice and love is not tied to a religion, a country, or even a sacred book.
Doing justice and loving others across lines of difference is a choice we make. It is a difficult, but I argue, a compassionate and wonderful choice. And yes, sometimes this means we’ll have to leave behind religious ideology or traditions that keep us from doing justice and loving others.
As a general rule, I look at any religious practice or ideology and ask: does it exclude people, separate them out, marginalize them? Then it doesn’t come from anything sacred.
Then I ask: does it reach out to those who are hurting, on the margins, oppressed? Does it take no issue with their nationality, orientation, gender, language, or color of skin? If not, then it’s worthwhile, it’s sacred, it’s useful, it’s prophetic.
ask you: how will we listen to the prophetic voices and be inspired to do
justice and to love people as they are, to reach outside of boundaries and
borders and differences? And how will we be prophetic in our words and actions?
Without water, we die. Without water, there is no life. Period.
Look around the world right now
and you’ll notice that there are far too many people who struggle to
survive…because they don’t have access to drinking water.
844 million people don’t
have clean water. (WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) Report 2017)
31% of schools don’t have
clean water. (UNICEF, Advancing WASH in Schools Monitoring, 2015)
Every minute a newborn dies from
infection caused by lack of safe water and an unclean environment. (WHO, 2015)
Worldwide, 1 out of every 5 deaths of children under 5
is due to a water-related disease.
And here’s the thing—access to water affects a
person’s whole life. If a kid, for example, has access to clean water, he/she
does not need to travel miles to fetch water. That kid can then stay in school
and get an education. Also, with clean water, disease and sickness is lessened,
and the child can grow up healthy with access to more opportunities. And, with
clean water access comes better food security and reduction of hunger. Access
to water can break the cycle of poverty.
Now for many living in the U.S., water scarcity is not a thing. Many of us used to think that that kind of thing happened in far away places like Sub-Saharan Africa. And then Flint, Michigan happened. You remember that? Also, as recently as last year, there were a few days in certain Philadelphia suburbs when the water was unsafe to drink due to septic issues. Imagine if that problem were to last weeks, months, even a year?
Many of us take water for granted. It’s coming out of our faucets, shower heads, flushing our toilets, and making our coffee. But what if you had to travel miles on foot just to have access to water? How would that change your view of it? Water would become precious to you. Water would become life for you. Water would be more valuable than money.
We ought to view water in this
way—as a precious treasure, and something that all people [and all living
things] deserve access to. For without it, life is no more.
I hope that you can embrace water
as a tangible thing but also as a symbol of life, of wholeness. For that is
what a small story found in all four canonical Gospels is all about—water.
You may have heard of this tale.
Jesus of Nazareth, now a grownup, heads to the river Jordan in the middle of
nowhere to meet up with this crazy preacher named John. Now, there’s context
here, right? John is Elizabeth’s kid, and Elizabeth is somehow related to Mary,
the mother of Jesus. Were they cousins? Very possible. But the Gospels seem to
point out that John and Jesus didn’t know each other yet. How could that be? Well,
it’s possible that when King Herod was trying to kill all the first-born sons
of Judah back in the day that while Mary and Joseph fled with Jesus to Egypt,
maybe Elizabeth and Zechariah and John went somewhere else to hide. Perhaps
Jesus and John grew up apart from each other. And then, it’s possible that
Jesus heard about this crazy preacher by the river Jordan and wanted to meet
him. It’s possible. But we really don’t know. What we do know is that the first
version of this story, in Mark, is shorter and just says that Jesus traveled
from Nazareth to where John was and got baptized, i.e. submerged in the water
of the river. Then, the heavens opened [I’ve always taken this to mean that it
may have rained], and then the Spirit came down [fluttering like a bird] and a
voice told Jesus that he was a pretty good dude.
But the later Gospel writers added
some commentary, because honestly, this story is problematic. I mean, think
about it—many people believed [and still believe] that Jesus of Nazareth was
without sin. So, why in the world would a sinless Jesus need to be baptized by
John, who was doing that so as to forgive people’s sins? Um, yeah. So the later
Gospels try to explain it away and in my opinion, they fail at it. I actually
think this whole “sin” thing isn’t the point of the story at all.
The point is the water.
See, John and Jesus were doing the same thing, in their own ways. They were preaching and teaching what the ancient Hebrew prophets did, like Isaiah, telling anyone who would listen that the world was messed up, out of balance, and injust [especially to the vulnerable and marginalized], and that Yahweh had just about had it. Time to repent [which means turn around], time for a 180 and the water was a symbol of that. You submerge yourself in that river, you make a decision to move forward in a new way. You leave behind whatever was dragging you down. You commit to being just and compassionate to others. You decide to be just and compassionate with yourself.
The water is the tangible element
in nature that everyone needs to survive. There is not one single living thing
on this earth that doesn’t know about water. Every day water is part of our
lives. So it’s the perfect, universal, tangible symbol for something that may
seem not so universal or tangible—the Spirit.
See, many read this story as
Jesus’ big moment when God pretty much certifies Jesus as the Messiah and some
type of demi-god. In fact, that’s what most people wanted. Truth be told, if
you read the whole story in the Gospels, John had his own views about who the Messiah would be. We have NO IDEA how John
really reacted to meeting Jesus. We just know from the earlier story in Mark
that John baptized Jesus. And then they went their separate ways. So make your
But what resonates for me is what is consistent in the story—the water. The water changes the people who are baptized in the Jordan river. The water changes Jesus of Nazareth. After the water, Jesus launches a movement of ragtag, poor, marginalized people who promote justice, peace, and love. They go from town to town, and eventually make it to the epicenter, Jerusalem. The water-spirit drives them there, keeps them together, motivates them when they lose momentum, fills them when they feel empty.
The last thing I’ll say about this story is that the voice coming from heaven was mostly likely heard by lots of people. In other words, don’t take the story so literally that you see these events as happening all in the same linear time frame. The voice was meant for Jesus, yes, but was also meant to be heard by others, and was also meant to be heard by you and me in 2019, reading this story.
Because we’re invited to the water ourselves.
We’re invited there no matter how long it takes us to get there, or where we come from, or who we call ourselves. We are invited to the water, invited to submerge ourselves in it, to feel its drops trickle down our face, to feel the sensation of cool water in the middle of a hot desert. Yes, we’re invited to the water and we NEED this water to live. It turns us around, it reminds us of who we are and who we are becoming, and then we just might have a chance to embrace this Spirit-thing that is sometimes hard to understand or accept. The voice is also for you and for me, for all of us, telling us that we are just fine as we are made, we are beloved as-is, but that also at any time we can go back to this water and make a change.
We can turn around. We can do a 180. We can keep becoming.