I am continually amazed at how easily we think we can know another human being from a glance, a conversation, or even months of friendship. The willingness to see another human being and to be seen, to stay open to the unknown in the process, is a supreme act of faith. It is a triumphant declaration of what matters, and it transforms us, both individually and collectively.
This willingness to see and be seen is not easy work, but I believe that our survival depends on our ability to build a collective story across lines of difference. This requires a rare kind of openness, an ability to receive without judgment or preconception how other persons define themselves.
Last December I attended the Parliament of the Worlds Religions in Cape Town, South Africa, with hopes of gaining more insight into how a new story of love and justice could be created on a global scale. With 3,500 people gathering from all over the world, I was eager to engage in ways that would truly deepen my own understanding and dissolve some of the barriers to durable bonds forged of both reality and vision.
I have seen how this works on a smaller scale.
Through stone circles, the small nonprofit organization I run in Durham, North Carolina, I have been creating spaces for interfaith dialogue and the creative integration of spiritual practice and social justice for the past four years. Above all, this requires formats that allow us to break through our isolation and truly engage with people across lines of difference. We have explored innovative ways to get folks to sit down, pause a moment, remember their own truth, then talk to each other.
I CAME TO THE World Religions gathering hoping for this kind of structured interaction. The first morning I walked into a Jewish meditation led by Rabbi David Hoffman, head of the Cape Town Progressive Congregation. There were relatively few other Jews at the Parliament, and I was feeling a bit defensive in my place of marginalization. Rabbi Hoffmans chanting and gentle invocations of God reminded me where I come from and affirmed my particularity in a way that freed me up to have more substantive interfaith connections.
I wasnt surprised later that day when Iftekhar Hai, director of interfaith relations for the United Muslims of America, sought me out after hearing a comment I made during a panel discussion. He is a tireless advocate for true reconciliation and relationship among Christians, Jews, and Muslims. We immediately initiated a substantive banter about the importance and mechanics of interreligious dialogue that continued throughout the week.
The next day I heard the thick Brooklyn accent of Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, the head of the Kashi Ashram in Florida, irreverently spouting words of love and stories of feeding the poor. I was both shocked and riveted, not just because of her tireless work with poor folks living with AIDS, but because of the way she reminded all of us of what really matters in the world.
Through it all, I was blessed to be traveling with Arrington Chambliss, a Buddhist who is discerning a call to the Episcopal priesthood. Arrington taught me much about what it means to stay open and loving, both vital elements of building authentic relationships.
Story building across lines of faith and spirit asks us to resist the temptation to be smaller, to resist allowing ourselves to be driven by our fear, our frustration, our anger, our sadness. This is what allows us to summon the strength to ask the tough questions, tackle taboo topics, and consider answers that emanate from unlikely places. The inclination to shrink back into the weakest parts of ourselves, particularly when we have been subject to emotional, physical, or psychic violence, is so much a part of life, but the cost of shrinking is high. To keep building this beautiful story, we have to be ready to live large in the world. n
CLAUDIA HORWITZ is director of stone circles, a nonprofit organization that seeks unique ways to integrate faith, spiritual practice, and social justice. She recently finished her first book,A Stones Throw: living the act of faith, a resource for personal and social transformation. Contact stone circles, 301 West Main St., Suite 280, Durham, NC 27701; (919) 682-8323.