Some of you know that from March 16-23 I decided to participate in a program of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia and the University of Wisconsin Eau-Claire’s Better Together initiative. The program was called Interfaith Encounters Alternative Spring Break. There were 44 students from the school from around the world, hailing from various cultural and religious backgrounds. Some of the students were Christian [both Protestant and Catholic]; some Muslims; some Hmong shamans; some Hindus; some agnostics; some atheists; a Wiccan; and some Buddhists. A diverse group, to say the least.
Most of these students have been taking a course at the University called Engaging Religious Pluralism. As part of this class, students learn about other faiths, but do not limit their learning to textbooks and classroom environments. They actually engage people of other faiths and experience their faith practices. The goal is to promote a better understanding across religious lines and to empower younger generations to be interfaith leaders.
Work in pluralism focuses on being curious and engaging. Pluralism is actually not the same thing as tolerance. Tolerance is putting up with someone who is different than you, i.e. I guess I have to sit next to you or share this planet with you. Pluralism goes beyond just tolerating another person, but is an active attempt to understand that person’s worldview.
Pluralism is based on real human encounters that include dialogue and experience.
Of course, this is part of the problem with our world in general. We don’t encounter and engage those who are different than us. We don’t talk, learn, experience, touch, feel, hear, smell, taste, and understand. We watch 30 second clips on TV or read comments on an internet blog. We make judgments about others based on such ridiculous things. And in turn, I would argue that we disconnect ourselves from our own humanity and our own religious practice. By neglecting to encounter and engage our neighbors, we neglect to know ourselves fully. That is why I got involved with this project, and also because I care deeply about younger generations. So much talk these days in Christian circles about how young people do not go to church. What’s happening? People in churches get scared and more protective of their religious territory. Meanwhile, younger generations are less and less interested in faith community. I know this. I’ve studied this. I have experienced this firsthand. So I wanted to spend a week with these students to learn from them.
In our meetings to plan the week, we discussed what types of experiences they wanted to have. We were in agreement. We wanted to experience the religious practice of others. We wanted to put on head scarves, eat the food, take off our shoes, sing and chant, smell and taste, see and touch. How do people pray? How do they bless? What books do they treasure? How does their worldview make them better people and inspire them to cooperate with others? How are we different? How are we the same?
For a week we visited 8 different faith communities: an African Methodist Episcopalian Church, a Sikh Gurdwara, a Hindu and Jain temple, a Won Buddhist temple, a Sufi mosque, a Quaker meeting, a Baha’i devotion, and a Reformed Jewish synagogue. And we also engaged 6 service-learning partners: Heeding God’s Call, Philly POWER, Urban Tree Connection, Philly Food SHARE, Church of the Advocate, and New Sanctuary Movement. It is impossible to express just how much we learned and experienced. If you want to learn more about our week, backtrack to these blog entries.
Today’s message—considering my Interfaith Encounters experience and my experience with John’s Gospel–is about low expectations and the power of touch. I mentioned in my Resurrection Sunday [Easter] message last week that the stories of the Bible don’t mean much unless those stories connect with our own stories. So today, let me share some personal stories with you—about Thomas and Jesus and about my week with UW Eau-Claire students.
Each time I read the Jesus resurrection stories, I am reminded of just how low our expectations have become. The Sunday after Easter is the lowest-attended Sunday of the year. Think about why. We really have low expectations for the Gospel stories. Christmas Eve and Easter stories are mere history, fantasy, or tradition. We rarely encounter them [meaning, we rarely read them], and thus, we rarely engage them [meaning question them]. Because of that, we also have low expectations for God’s Spirit moving through our lives and in the lives of others. We set the bar very low for transcendent experiences and things that change us. We ought to participate in religious practice because it moves us to new places and inspires us to do good.
But we are often disconnected from the stories. Thomas? Disciples behind closed doors? Jesus’ hands and feet? We are more connected to television characters and reality show stories than to these things.
But what if we TOUCH the story? What if the story TOUCHES us? What if we refuse to be content with simply hearing old, old stories and participating in old, old traditions? What if we start to expect great things to happen when we read these stories? When we worship? When we pray? When we learn? When we serve? What if the stories become real in our lives and affect us? What if the stories make us better people, challenge us to be more merciful, push us to love people?
What if our religious practice didn’t stay trapped in a book? Or a tradition? Or a doctrine?
On Sunday morning at 8:00 a.m. we joined Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church for worship. The service included vibrant music with keyboard, drums, and inspiring vocalists. Even a little dancing! Towards the end of the service, people were invited to pray in the front of the sanctuary. People just came. No theme. No reason other than to pray. Music. Prayers.
Then, something unexpected.
Their prayers do not end with the Lord’s Prayer and an amen. They end with hugs. Strangers, old friends, family—it didn’t matter. A prayer ended with an embrace.
That same day we were in Lawrenceville, NJ at the Sikh Sabha. As the bus pulled up, Kavi Pannu and other community leadership greeted us in front of the gurudwara and directed us to a well-laid-out carpet where we could remove our shoes;
Youth brought us head scarves and explained how the afternoon would proceed.
We all sat on the carpet together, side by side, touching each other.
There wasn’t enough room for personal space.
After the prayer service, community members dropped down white cloths; langar meal began.
We ate with our hands—curry and yogurt and beans and rice.
We tasted and smelled and felt.
On Monday we visited the Bharatiya Hindu Temple in Chalfont.
After removing our shoes, we were led upstairs. Worshipers entered the prayer space and the three priests present that evening in the temple for Shiva Abhishekam rang bells and chanted songs–waving lit candles in the air. Their songs filled the space. The incense burned. One of the priests started to fling water towards all of us gathered there. We felt the drops. Then, water from the Ganges River was placed in our right hand by the priest. We drank it and received a piece of fruit.
We heard this from our hosts:
Any religious practice should make us a better person.
But in John’s story, the disciples were locked behind closed doors!
Scared, depressed, and apathetic. Jesus came and offered wholeness to them.
Thomas wasn’t there. Eventually, he had to see for himself. He had to touch in order for this experience to be real. He wasn’t content with a second-hand story. He encountered Jesus; he engaged Jesus. Thomas makes we wonder: what if our religious practice was free and actively moving in the world, capable of risk-taking, open to new perspectives, and not afraid to express doubt? What if atheists and agnostics were encouraged to join our faith community? Thomas was welcomed by Jesus. Don’t we see more of ourselves in this doubting Thomas who wanted to see for himself?
Thomas says: “My Lord and my God!” but that is not the end of the story. Later on, the disciples still don’t recognize Jesus’ presence. They hesitate to answer questions about faith because they are afraid to say: I don’t know the answer! They reach for faith but don’t quite make it. Like Thomas, they don’t “believe” until they eat with their hands–share a meal. Only then are their eyes opened.
I am healed by the message in John’s story, because the story invites us in. We weren’t there. We didn’t see. We are all like Thomas. We are included in the story that we often feel left out of. We’re encouraged to see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. It’s understood that we will have doubt and be skeptical. We are not rebuked–we are blessed with wholeness, too.
On Tuesday, at Won Buddhist Temple the silence was a blessed wholeness.
I could even hear the breathing of the person next to me.
Once the chanting started, the silence remained in my mind. The prayer bowl resonated all the way through the wooden floor.
That afternoon, the Wisconsin students carried signs protesting gun violence in Philadelphia: Stop straw buying! Halt illegal gun sales!
They stood on Torresdale Ave. and hundreds of cars passed, honking their loud approval. The students even engaged the gun shop owner in conversation.
At Philly food SHARE’s warehouse, near the East Falls section of Philadelphia, the students packed boxes full of perishables and organized shipments for soup kitchens and shelters.
On the decorated walls were murals and their motto:
“Do Good. Feel Good. Eat Good.”
On Thursday, snow was on the ground and a chill was in the air. But the students were enthused to be in West Philadelphia to work with Urban Tree Connection.
They cleaned up trash, removed dead brush and prepared the vacant lot to become an urban garden–a safe and functional place that could inspire and promote positive human interaction.
On Thursday evening, at the Mosque of Shaikh M. R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, a Sufi community, our mouths were filled with food.
One of the Muslim student leaders led us in the ritual of ablutions.
The water trickled down our arms and covered our feet, refreshing us.
Another female Muslim student from Saudi Arabia carefully and patiently helped others put on their head scarves.
Upstairs in the mosque, the prayers began to echo.
Bowing, hands in the air. Arabic prayer-songs. Embraces.
On Friday, we journeyed to the University of Temple part of Broad Street and visited the Church of the Advocate; immediately, our senses were overwhelmed by the Gothic cathedral and the artwork everywhere.
But our noses told us something else was going on in the kitchen. Church of the Advocate serves an average of 1,000 people each month, Monday- Friday. Anyone can get a hot meal. One man, proud of this effort and grateful for it, stood outside in the cold and shook all 50 hands in our group, asking each person’s name.
The chef and volunteers in the kitchen laughed as they shared about their work.
We smelled the food.
Then we smelled cleaning supplies.
We found ourselves in the Gothic sanctuary once again—this time helping their sexton to clean.
That evening, at the Baha’i Center of Philadelphia, we sat at the table to eat and talk. Devotions began and people of different ages read sacred scriptures. A song and then a prayer.
And plenty of laughter. Stories. Embraces and pictures.
Our last gathering as a whole group was on Saturday afternoon at St. Barbara’s Catholic Church, before the long bus trip to Wisconsin. A closing time of sharing and challenge and reflection. Some students verbally shared how they expected to use their new-found understandings to be leaders or to stand up for others. Some shared that their experiences were transcendent, powerful, even life-changing. Embraces and pictures and laughter and some tears.
Friends, this experience has left me wondering:
What would it be like if we started acting more like Thomas?
What if we expected more out of our sacred stories and our religious practices?
What if we see, hear, touch, smell, taste, and live our sacred stories?
What if we choose to encounter and engage people who are different?
What if this Jesus, who taught that God’s Spirit was in everyone; who taught that forgiveness was given to us and required of us; what if this Jesus, who offered wholeness, even to the ones who still doubted and needed to touch, see, hear, taste, and smell; what if this Jesus were real in our stories and in our lives?
What if sacred stories became part of our stories?
What if we expected more out of our faith practice—that it would actually make us better people?
May it be so.
 What is Pluralism? Diane Eck.