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Pastor's Page -- Interfaith Worship

 

Worship in A Strange Land

A Case Study of Interfaith Worship

 

Daniel E. H. Bryant

 

 

Prepared for the 2005 Northwest Association of Theological Discussion

With appreciation to Eliza Drummond for her assistance
and all those who have served on the Planning Committee of the
Interfaith Service for Prayer and Reflection


By the rivers of Babylon—

                        there we sat down and there we wept
                        when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there

                        we hung up our harps.

For there our captors

                        asked us for songs,

and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,

                        “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the LORD’S song

              in a foreign land?

                                                              Psalm 137:1-4

Stranded in captivity, the Hebrew people lament the difficulty of worshipping the God of Israel in a foreign place.  Today the difficulty is similar but vastly different:  how do we worship the Divine of many traditions in any place?  Interfaith worship is almost by definition an oxymoron.  How can one worship together with people of different traditions when there is no common tradition let alone a common understanding of who or what the object of your worship is?  Interfaith worship is indeed a foreign land.  To go there is to venture into uncharted regions in search of an unknown destiny.  This paper seeks to tell the story of one group willing to make such a journey and what we, as a Christian people, might gain from their explorations.

 

The Eugene Story:  Journey in a Strange Land Without Ever Leaving Home

The roots of the interfaith movement in Eugene go back to two pivotal events in the early 1990s.  For the prior several decades, most of the “mainline” denominations participated in an annual educational event every February based on study materials produced by Church World Service and a community Thanksgiving service held at one of the downtown churches.  Interest in the February Interchurch Seminar was fading and the planning group aging.  Various attempts to revive it had little effect and the event died out in the mid ‘90s.  The Thanksgiving service likewise was struggling but had the advantage of a strong tradition that kept it probably from meeting a similar fate: a pie social afterwards!  Responsibility for preaching at the service was rotated among the downtown pastors, until a 40-minute sermon on the virtues of motherhood by a guest preacher, brought planners to the conclusion that the service would be better served without preachers and thus sermons ceased to be a part of the event.  Oddly, no one has complained in the eight years since.   

The first of the two pivotal events occurred in 1993 when First United Methodist Church hosted the Anne Frank exhibit, working closely with Temple Beth Israel.  As a result of that experience, the Methodist pastor, Gary Powell, invited the synagogue’s rabbi, Myron Kinberg, to be the preacher at the Thanksgiving service that year. (His was not the sermon on motherhood.)  Thus began the tradition of an interfaith Thanksgiving service.  The second event, like the story of Anne Frank, was born in the violence of anti-Semitism.  In March of 1994 two Nazi skinheads riddled the synagogue with rifle fire on the Sunday prior to Passover and Palm Sunday which fell in the same week that year.  A community event in front of the synagogue attended by close to a thousand people was held that Thursday evening and was covered by ABC News.[1]  (See Appendix A for my statement at the event.) Twenty different congregations, plus a couple of other local organizations, provided members for a vigil outside the synagogue that began the next night and ran through Passover and Holy Week, concluding on Easter evening. 

Concurrent with these historical events, a loose knit group of ministers that had been meeting informally at Grace Lutheran Church, formed the Lane Ministerial Association.  When the officers failed to replace themselves after the first year, the organization died mercifully without a whimper.  (The memorial service was canceled when no one could be found to mourn the death, let alone officiate.)  Shortly thereafter, five clergy met in the office of Greg Flint at First Congregational Church to form Two Rivers Ecumenical Ministries and invited Rodney Page to help us form it as a cluster of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon.  The group made two critical decisions:  1) the new organization would be interfaith and 2) it would include lay leaders. “Ecumenical” was dropped the following year from the name in favor of “Interfaith” and thus we have been known as Two River’s Interfaith Ministries (TRIM) ever since.

One of TRIM’s first public events was given in 1995 in response to the performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion marking the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.  Local Jewish leaders were quite disturbed by the selection and requested help from Christian clergy to engage the Bach Festival leaders in dialogue.  The result was a “Service of Reconciliation” held at the Hult Center where the Bach piece was to be performed just a couple of days later.  In the service Christian leaders, which included Rodney Page, requested forgiveness from members of the Jewish community for the church’s contribution to anti-Semitism and failure to stand up to the atrocities of the Holocaust.  Many were the misty eyes from the 300 in attendance.

Slowly over the next six years the interfaith character of TRIM began to expand from largely a Jewish-Christian organization to a truly interfaith community as a new faith community found their way into the group every couple of months.  Other than the community thanksgiving service and the Service of Reconciliation, however, there were no attempts to join together in a service of worship.  Long philosophical discussions were held in various TRIM gatherings on whether one could worship at all in an interfaith gathering.  Indeed, the only ritual that could be found that all could share in comfortably was a time of silence.  The sufficiency and serenity of that silence, however, was shattered on the morning of September 11, 2001.  The community, if not the world, needed something more.

The first response to the terror of that fateful day was organized by the Reverend Ken Henry at Central Presbyterian Church.  Where others opened the doors of their sanctuaries for a much needed time of prayer, Ken put together a community service of prayer for that evening and asked me to find a suitable location.  We settled upon an outdoor amphitheater owned by the City of Eugene.  All the normal fees, rental for sound equipment, union labor and the rest were donated by the City.  The program included Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders.  Word went out on the local news channels.  Approximately 400 people attended.

On September 13th the President proclaimed September 14th to be a Day of Prayer.  I received a call that morning on my way up I-5 to a previously scheduled EMO meeting that Steve Overman, the pastor of the Eugene Faith Center (a Foursquare congregation), wanted to talk to me about it.  Steve was the organizer of a quarterly Pastor’s Prayer Lunch which had been meeting for a couple of years and included a wide spectrum of clergy from Roman Catholic to Pentecostal.  He was also the prime mover for the Pentecost 2000 community celebration at the Eugene Fair Grounds that attracted 5000 worshippers on that Sunday afternoon.  Steve and I have had a good relationship over the years. 

I assumed that Steve was calling to discuss what we might do in response to the President’s declaration.  At that time Faith Center had the largest worship facility in Eugene.  (First Baptist has since build a larger one.)  Steve is a progressive pastor for the Foursquare community.  He represents his denomination in bi-lateral dialogues with the Vatican.  He is a powerful witness for the importance of Christian unity.  He is very appreciative of TRIM, though has only come to our programs when he was a part of the program.  Because of my relationship with him, I knew that if Faith Center hosted a community service, it would be a full house and that it would be exclusively Christian.  Before calling him back, therefore, I made another call to Debbie Pitney, pastor of First United Methodist Church, the largest worship facility among those faith communities associated with TRIM.  Once I had secured the location for the TRIM sponsored event to be held the next day, I called Steve.  Much to my chagrin, embarrassment and relief, the good pastor of Faith Center said to me, “I just wanted to call you to say that I know you will be organizing something with TRIM and though we cannot be a part, I want you to know that my prayers are with you!”  I had a full day of meetings ahead of me and it may well be that someone else would have stepped forward that day to finish this story, but it makes me pause to think that if a friend had not called me to say that he would be holding me in prayer while I was doing the thing he could not but which he knew I would be doing, I would not have been doing that very thing!  I do not know how much different the story that follows would have been without that call, for clearly something was moving in our community that had a momentum of its own, but different it would have been.

Thanks to the wonder of cell phones, we had the service for the following day entirely planned by the time I returned to Eugene that afternoon.  Two phone calls stand out in particular.  The first was a call I made to Tammam Adi, a Muslim leader active in TRIM.  I had spoken with Tammam on 9/11.  I learned that he had just received a death threat and was uncertain of what to do, especially since he knew the identity of the caller.  I asked him how he knew.  He said that he had just gotten this new phone service called, “Caller ID”!  I told him to call the police.  (They picked up the caller the next day.)  Tammam understandably was very apprehensive about leaving his home and therefore declined to participate in the service we held that evening.  I called him again to see if he felt comfortable enough to participate in the service on the 14th.  Though the police had indicated that they were confident the man who made the death threat was not dangerous (in fact, he made a public apology and later reconciled with Tammam), Tammam was not yet ready to make a public appearance.  Fortunately for us, Tammam called back to say that he had changed his mind and would like to say something. 

The second call I received on the morning of the service.  Snatam Kaur Khalsa, a leader in the Sikh community, wanted to know if it would be safe for the Sikhs to participate in the service.  (Recall the murder of the Sikh gas station attendant in Arizona on 9/11.)  The Sikhs were not a part of TRIM at that point.  In fact, I had no awareness of their presence in Eugene.  I told Snatam that the program was already set but that we could probably find a place to squeeze them in.  She replied, “Oh no, we do not want to be on the program, we just want to know if it would be safe for us to come.  I assured her that it would be and a handful of Sikhs did come.

Those two calls were both hugely significant in what transpired next.  Tammam gave a five-minute oration that brought the packed house of nearly one thousand people immediately to their feet. (Tammam’s statement is included in Appendix B.) After the service, the Sikh members insisted that we should do this again and do it monthly.  They offered to provide refreshments and First Christian Church offered to host a service for the next three months.  The decision was made to do it on the 11th and to call it the Interfaith Service of Prayer, Remembrance and Reflection. An interfaith committee was quickly formed to plan the service consisting of four women, a Muslim, a Baha’i and two Sikhs.  The group later was assumed under the auspices of TRIM but continues to function with its own planning committee.  One of the Sikh women, Siri Kaur Khalsa, describes the origins of the service:

In response to the tragic events of September 11, 2001, Snatam Kaur helped me bring a proposal to TRIM (Two Rivers Interfaith Ministries) to provide a consistent time for all Sacred paths to unite in the spirit of harmony and Peace. The purpose has always been to nurture appreciation and confidence in one another and the Universal Power that transcends all earthly limitations.

Each month hundreds of people of all ages and walks of life come through the doors of this beautiful old church. With sincerity, each person contributes to building trust and goodwill from a foundation of deep respect & sensitivity. By this simple profound demonstration and Divine assistance the powerful message goes forth that “we are all one” and “greatly loved.”

These services have been based on a powerful Divine Vision and are the result of Divine Intention. All of us involved feel grateful in helping to establish the common ground and Sacred space where safety, comfort and inspiration can be found. Because we celebrate diversity with the grace of unity, we have become a model of respect that others may want to emulate - a unique center of light and hope. I was told that these services “would not only help our community, but with enough heart – the world.

I figured the interest in such a service would wane once the novelty wore off.  I could not have been more wrong.  The October service had nearly a hundred folk.  The November service slightly more and December larger yet.  A decision was made to continue the service for another three months.  I suggested that it should move to other locations but the planning committee felt comfortable at First Christian and felt the consistency would be beneficial.  Interests and attendance in the service continued to grow.  Attendance began to hit the 150 mark regularly.  Our church became so closely affiliated with the service that a Hindu leader who rented our chapel for an event on the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi announced at a TRIM gathering that the event would be held at “First Interfaith Church.”  (I politely corrected the innocent mistake amidst much laughter, but in reality, no correction was needed as all knew what he meant.) The service on September 11, 2002 and every anniversary since have filled the church to its capacity (500).  Meanwhile the average throughout the rest of the year is now closer to 200.

After it became apparent that the service was going to be on-going, a purpose statement was developed.  It reads,

The Interfaith Service of Prayer and Reflection provides a special occasion to pray for peace, remember our loved ones, reflect upon the interconnectedness of all beings, and to uplift our hearts and minds.  Its purpose is to bring together people from different faith communities in the spirit of harmony and growing appreciation, and to nurture confidence in the universal power of love and unity for all.

Rather than describe what these services look like, I’d like to share a few photographs from the services so that you can get a better feel for them.

      

    

 

Observations and Reflections

1.      Pragmatic issues

First, a couple of quick notes on practical matters:  Through trial and error the planners of the Interfaith Service have hit upon a formula that appears to be working well.  The concept is surprisingly simple.  Pick a theme, ask each participant to select something from their tradition on that theme to share in the service, arrange the service to provide a logical flow and limit each participant to a specific time frame.  In the first few months of the service, time was allotted to every tradition that wished to participate.  As more and more groups sought time in the monthly program, planners soon realized that time would not allow for every group to participate in every service.

A critical discovery made early on was how to speak or not to speak on behalf of all present.  For instance, a common phrase heard in many Christian prayers—“we pray in the name of Jesus”—does not work well in an interfaith service.  By the same token, asking everyone to join together in chanting “ohm” is not the best way to make more traditional Christians comfortable.  Thus leaders in the service are asked to speak only for themselves or the community they represent and participants are invited to participate in prayers, singing or chanting only as they feel comfortable.

Another minor but important discovery has been on the use of symbols.  A well-meaning participant in the service purchased a banner that displayed six symbols of major religious traditions.  We quickly learned that if any such symbols are to be used, then it is best to include symbols from all traditions represented, otherwise it is better to use neutral symbols such as candles.  And if you have a lit cross in the sanctuary, best to leave the light off!

 

2.  From Dialogue to Worship

When asked why interfaith relations are important the Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana  Associate General Secretary for Interfaith Relations of the National Council of the Churches of Christ, gives three reasons:  1) the increasing religious plurality of our nation makes it imperative for Christians to understand how to relate to their neighbors of different faiths; 2) the only means to respond to religion-inspired violence is for religious people to learn how to work together in peace;[2] and 3) if God created the whole universe and God’s revelation is evident throughout that universe, then that must include other religious traditions.  If then we do not become more familiar with those traditions, then we are not “missing something of the grandeur of God’s revelation?”[3]

I had the opportunity this past December to meet Dr. Premawardhana at a NCCC event in Washington DC.  I described the Interfaith Service to him and asked if he was aware of any other such effort.  The only one he could name was the Parliament of the World’s Religions that met in Barcelona in July of 2004. More than 8000 people attended this event which was first held in 1893 and then again in 1993 and 1999. (For more information and outstanding resources on the interfaith movement, see www.cpwr.org.)  The 260-page program book for the 2004 Parliament lists 140 gatherings each morning for “spiritual observances, meditation, prayers and reflections” from a wide variety of traditions.  Most are services offered from the perspective of a particular tradition.  Some offered a particular contemplative practice apart from any one faith tradition, such as walking the labyrinth or sacred dance.  Only a few appear to have brought many traditions into one service, e.g. this gathering entitled “A Celebration of the World’s Religions Through Prayer and Practices”.

The Parliament is the creation of the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions which seeks “to cultivate harmony among the world's religious and spiritual communities and foster their engagement with the world and its other guiding institutions in order to achieve a peaceful, just, and sustainable world.”  The bulk of their activity is centered on dialogue to promote interfaith relations.  Likewise the NCCC office on Interfaith Relations also emphasizes dialogue.  The one worship resource they provide on their website is an order of service that affirms the importance of interfaith relations for Christians.[4] 

Disciple and UCC leaders gathered in October, 2002 to develop a rationale for engaging in interfaith conversation and work, issuing a joint report with separate sections on the rationale and gifts of their respective traditions.[5]  The Disciples listed five reasons for interfaith work:

· We are called by Christ’s teachings to “love our neighbors.”

· We are called to build human community.

· We are called to Christian unity.

· We are called to express sincere hospitality

· We are called to be learning, growing Disciples.

 

Four gifts from the Disciple perspective to this work are the centrality of the Lord’s table, the importance of scripture, our “frontier spirit” and our emphasis on education.  On the first, the report states,

As Disciples we confess that at the table we meet a God who builds bridges across the barriers that divide humanity.  At the table we meet a Jesus whose lifestyle of servanthood and love provide for us a model of the inclusion, compassion, and respect for all our neighbors that can foster true reconciliation.  At the table we feel the Spirit of God offering liberation and deliverance in our daily lives.  Historically we Disciples saw the openness of the table as a symbol of protest against closed institutional systems and cultures that bred exclusion and division.  Thus, today we find in the open and welcoming table of Christ both the motivation and the model for interfaith relations.[6]

 

Regarding scripture, the report emphasizes the Biblical themes of God’s unconditional love and God’s passion for justice, stating that, “our experience has been that real meaning is given to these themes only as they are lived out in relationships with our neighbors.” 

Recalling our frontier spirit and the value Disciples have placed on creativity and freedom in theological expression, the report calls us “to be open to the radical spirit of God who finds us at the margins and borders—the frontiers of our faith”  My favorite insight from this report builds on the old restoration slogan, “we are not the only Christians, but Christians only.” If we truly believe that other religious traditions include the revelation of God, then our slogan today might be, “we are not the only children of God, but children of God only!”

Lastly, as Disciples of Christ that have placed such a great emphasis on learning and a “reasoned faith”, the report affirms that “we believe that there is much we can learn about God and about ourselves from encounter and engagement with our neighbors” of other faith traditions.  It then concludes that Disciple tradition…

inherently demands engagement in interfaith work.  Disciples are a people who see in the welcome table of Christ an affirmation of the essential unity of all humanity and who hear a call to be students of the Truth who always approach the frontiers of life with flexibility and openness.  Thus, to be a Disciple is to be involved in interfaith connection.  As a consultation we recognize the radical nature of this statement and affirm that, in some sense, to be a Disciple is always to be radical.[7]

 

The report on Interreligious Engagement from the Council on Christian Unity[8] for the upcoming General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) builds on the 2002 report and further articulates the theological justification for Disciples to be engaged in interfaith activity.  In addition to the rationale put forth in the 2002 document, the 2005 report cites the importance of listening to those from different traditions as a critical form of witness required of us as Christians.  It also cites the concept of imago dei as the basis to affirm that “it is morally, ethically, and spiritually wrong for any person, group, or religion to claim exclusive access to God, God’s love, grace, or salvation.”  The report notes that “when Christians and others have made such claims to exclusivity, much suffering and degradation has often been the result.”

The 2005 report also adds three “gifts” which Disciples bring to interfaith work:

·   Two centuries of work for Christian unity which leads to an expectation not of a common theological confession, but that “the Holy Spirit of truth [will] cast a broad light on a path to mutual understanding and to peace.”

·    Intense dialogue with our Jewish brothers and sisters which “has sharpened our grasp of the many beliefs we share with Jews and has led us as well to appreciate our significant differences”.

·    Unflinching belief in God as the Ultimate Companion of all creatures which leads us to believe that God seeks ultimately to redeem all creatures and that “God’s definitive words to the world are words of forgiveness, rather than the threat of ultimate annihilation and punishment.”

The incredible work of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, the NCCC Interfaith Relations office and the Council on Christian Unity cited above as well as many others has contributed enormously to the emerging interfaith movement.  Dialogue is an integral part of interfaith relations.  There is a deeper unity, however, that is achieved when communities of different traditions join together in acts of worship and prayer.  It is to that unity and its theological underpinnings that I now turn.

 

3.    From one to community

One of the most significant results of the Interfaith Service in Eugene has been the development of a true interfaith community vs. a community that has members of many faith traditions.  Now into our fourth year of monthly services, the attendees are coming to know each other on a personal level and they are learning much about each other’s faith traditions in the process.  Over half of those who attend the services stay for the fellowship time that follows.  Save for the variety of religious garb, one could easily mistake the group for a typical congregation where people have known each other for a long time.

Eugene, though a sizable city, is still small enough that we run into people from other portions of our life in places we do not expect. I frequently meet people who introduce themselves by saying, “I was at the service on the 11th…”  I have found it especially enriching to learn that the person whom I have known as a staff member at the American Red Cross is part of a group of Whirling Dervishes and an organic farmer I know through EMO-sponsored programs on the environment is a practicing Sufi.  As we interact with each other in this new form of worship, we find connections in other parts of our lives that share some common spiritual values. 

While most of the participants come from other faith communities, for many this service represents their only regular involvement in an organized, spiritual community.  Or in some cases, their numbers are so few that they are not organized in any way, such as the Masda Yasna, a religion from ancient Persia, from which there is a single participant in the Interfaith Service. 

For me, the historical roots of this service presented above are both critical to understanding how this service came to be and what this service reveals about the character of the One we worship, if indeed it can even be said that there is One we do worship or who we understand that One to be.  The service is the outgrowth of two factors that merged in the fall of 2001.  The first was the relationships developed through TRIM.  Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Baha’is were not just groups we had studied in some comparative religion course, they were people we had come to know and respect in our midst.  This made the task of coming together for a service much easier.  Not only did we know whom to invite, but we knew something about them, their beliefs and practices.  Further, we had already developed a common respect for each other and a common understanding that we would not engage in or support efforts to proselytize in our gatherings.  Thus we had already established a basis of trust upon which the service could be built.  Even though the Sikh community was not yet a part of TRIM activities before the Interfaith Service began, the foundation of trust was there to allow them to be quickly assimilated into the interfaith community.

I believe this relational characteristic of the interfaith community is itself a reflection of God.  In a recent conversation with Robert Welsh, the Executive Director for the Council on Christian Unity, I discovered that the Orthodox understanding of the Trinity provides a wonderful theological explanation for this relational aspect of the Divine that fits beautifully with the Interfaith Service.  To understand God as the Trinity means, by definition, that God is relational.  Whether we use traditional language (Father/Son/Holy Ghost), inclusive language (Creator/Christ/Holy Spirit) or other terms (Redeemer/Liberator/Sustainer), to describe the Godhead as multiple manifestations implies that God is the Divine Community. 

Such manner of thinking about God was not new to me.  What was new and quite stunning, as I understood it from Welsh, is that this means for the Orthodox that there is no individual salvation.  The traditional formulation of the confession of faith used in many Disciple churches, “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, Son of the Living God, and accept him as my personal Lord and Savior,” would be quite foreign to an Orthodox congregation.  To understand God in such relational terms means that we are not saved solely through our relationship to God in Christ, but also through our relationship to the community in Christ.  In other words, if I understand this way of thinking correctly, we are saved as a community or we are not saved at all.

Granted, one may argue that the community here means the community of Christ, but such a limited understanding of community limits the freedom of God and impoverishes the true richness of community.  Can a community which excludes the largest portion of humanity be considered Divine?  If all humanity is created in God’s image, then all humanity must be represented in the Divine Community.  The Interfaith Service may well be, therefore, a more complete reflection of the Divine Community than any of our efforts to create Christian unity can ever hope to be.

The UCC portion of the UCC/Disciple report from 2002 cited above provides further reflection on how the doctrine of the Trinity can be used to provide theological rationale for interfaith work.  It states,

The God we know in the three persons of the Trinity is in essence a profound, dynamic interrelationship.  The Trinitarian life of unity in difference is the eternal fountain at the very center of reality, expressing itself in the relationality of human beings with God, one another, and the entire cosmos. We as Christians experience the call to mirror that divine life by living in faithful relationship with all of God’s children, including those who are different from us Christians.  Our threefold encounter with this triune God helps us to see what it means to relate to people of other faiths.

1.  According to the Biblical witness, God the creator is at work in all of creation.  God the creator has covenanted not only with the church but also with all of humanity and the entire world (Gen. 9:12) Therefore, we are called to explore covenantal relations with all members of God’s family including those outside the church.  This theme is suggested by the Reformed doctrine of common grace.

2.  God the redeemer has reached out to embrace all of humanity in the covenant of grace and reconciliation, and therefore we also are called to extend our embrace to all of humanity (Rom. 8:12, I Cor. 15:22, Col. 1:18-20).  The traditions that form the UCC have rejected the notions of limited atonement (the doctrine that God loves only the “elect”).

3.  God the Holy Spirit is at work throughout the world, giving hope, healing wounds, and building community where division and animosity threaten to prevail.  Therefore we are called to be open to the Spirit’s movements in and outside of the confines of the Church (John 3:8).

 

One more note on this concept from the perspective of Process Theology.  In Process Thought, beauty is defined as the relationship between harmony and complexity.  A single violin can be quite beautiful, but more violins played simultaneously does not create more beauty.  In fact, if they do not play together, the sound they create can be hideous.  But if they play in harmony, beauty is increased.  God seeks to create beauty in the world by bringing greater harmony out of the increasing complexity of creation.  The complexity of beliefs and practices among the various religious traditions of the world is quite amazing.  When they compete against each other, the result is often destructive.  But when they come together in a new harmony, the result is a beautiful creation greater than any one of the traditions could create on their own.  This is the work of Divine Community.

 

            4.  From tragedy to good

The second key ingredient to the creation of the Interfaith Service was September 11th.  Without it, it might have been years before TRIM even attempted anything like this, if at all.  The terror of that day did not make the service inevitable, but it did make it urgent.  On the morning of September 1lth, I placed a sign in front of our church, which is a busy one way street.  The sign simply said, “open for prayer.”  No one came that day but months later some one told me that that sign had been an important symbol for her.  The news that morning had left her numb.  It was not until she drove past our church and saw that sign that she was suddenly overcome with the enormity of it all and broke into tears.  The Interfaith Service every month provides people with something concrete they can do in response to this new terror without perpetuating the terror or fixating on hate.  In so doing, I believe it has touched a deep longing among many for a different way of being in the world.  In the words of St. Francis, it offers love where this is hate, pardon where this is injury, faith where there is doubt and hope where there is despair. 

When the tsunami hit the coastlines of the Indian Ocean, the Reverend Paul Jeffrey was photographing the work of Action by Churches Together (ACT) in response to a flood in Sri Lanka.  Over the next several days, he captured the tremendous devastation of those few hours in the faces of the survivors.  Asked how to make sense of the disaster, Jeffrey responded, “If you take the crucifixion seriously, you have to understand where God is in such a disaster.  God’s not on high somewhere.  God is present with the people who are suffering.  God’s under the rubble.  God is trapped, God is washed away.”[9] Ellie Wiesel found the same answer in the midst of Auschwitz when a young boy was hung for attempting to escape, his small body too light to end his struggle for breath mercifully.  Said the voice inside Wiesel, “God is there, hanging from the gallows.”

Coming together as people of many faith traditions in the wake of September 11th was not only a way for people of all religions to stand in solidarity with the victims and their families, it was in and of itself a statement of faith.  It affirms that God is not idle in tragedy, God hears the cries of the afflicted and knows their suffering.  From the time of time of the Exodus, this has been a central affirmation of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The voice of God proclaims to Moses from the burning bush, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings.” (Exodus 3:7)  Other faith traditions also share this understanding of the Divine’s empathy for human suffering.  Tammam Adi opened his statement at the September 14th Interfaith Service with this adaptation of a traditional Muslim funeral prayer:

Merciful God, our brothers and sisters in the World Trade Center, in the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania, are now in your care.

Please protect them from the trials of the grave and the torment of the fire.  Indeed, you are faithful and truthful.

Forgive them and have mercy upon them.  Excuse them and pardon them, and give them an honorable reception.  Cleanse them with water, snow and ice. 

Purify them from sin, as clean white robes.  And comfort their families.  Exchange their home for a better home and admit them into your garden.

 

Perhaps more importantly, the Interfaith Service is an act of resistance to the kind of religious intolerance and zealotry that led to September 11th, the subsequent murder of the Sikh gas station attendant and the persecution felt by many Muslims.  It is a way of saying that we refuse to succumb to such suspicion, hatred and violence.  It has turned the terrible tragedy of that day into a powerful good.  This good does not surpass the tragedy or somehow make it better, but it does affirm that good can come out of tragedy.  This too, is the lesson drawn by Paul Jeffrey for whom God not only is with the suffering, but God is also in the relief efforts, working to restore not only life, but hope.  The Interfaith Service is giving hope not only to those who attend on a regular basis, but also many who are simply aware that it exists.  In a world where religion continues to be the source of great division and violence, the coming together of the divergent faith communities is a powerful witness to what can be.  It not only speaks to the human hunger for peace and harmony among all peoples, but to the power of the Eternal as transformation, bringing good out of tragedy and new life out of death.  As a symbol of this transformation, I find it fitting to note that “Remembrance” has now been dropped from the title of the service so that even though it still is held on the 11th of every month, it no longer focuses on the tragedy out of which it was born, but on the hope into which it grows.

 

Conclusion

When the monthly service began in October of 2001, it did not occur to me then that this service would not only be continuing four years later, but that it would be growing stronger.  I attribute that success in part to the wise choices of the planning committee, but mostly to the spirit of God moving in this effort and the longing of people for an alternative to the madness they see in the world that has given us the current war on terror.

I opened that first service in October with this quote from Roman Catholic theologian Hans Küng, “There will be no peace among peoples of this world without peace among the world religions.”[10]  I said then and believe even stronger now after these three and a half years that the significance of this service is just that, creating peace among the world’s religions which will finally enable those religions to bring peace to the world. 


 

Appendix A

Vigil Address

March 24, 1994

Temple Beth Israel, Eugene

 

I stand before you this evening with very mixed feelings, feelings of sadness and shame, feelings of joy and hope.  After organizing the Temple Watch to begin tomorrow and to run for the next 10 evenings, one person said to me, “That is such a wonderful thing you are doing.”  I need to tell you, however, that I did not do this because I wanted to do something good for the Temple.

Just as the temple represents centuries of tradition, I come from a church that also represents centuries of tradition, unfortunately not all of it good.  The most shameful part of that tradition is its centuries of anti-Semitism.  From the 4th through the 13th centuries, church councils regularly passed laws against the Jews, prohibiting interaction between Jews and Christians, requiring Jews to remain unseen during Holy Week, requiring Jews to live in ghettoes.  From the 12th to the 17th century, Christian governments regularly expelled entire Jewish populations from their territory.  Even the governor of New York tried to expel Jews in the mid-17th century.  The first crusade ended in 1099 with the burning of a synagogue filled with Jewish families, women and children.  The Spanish Inquisition offered Jews the choice of baptism or death by drowning.  The most prominent Christian theologians from the 2nd through the 20th centuries vilified the Jewish faith from Chrysostom, one of the greatest Christian orators, who called Jews in the 4th century “Christ-killers… suited for slaughter” to Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of this century, who said the suffering of the Jews was the result of their unbelief.  And Martin Luther, the man who started the Protestant Reformation, openly called for the burning of Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues.  Thus Julius Striecher, one of Hitler’s architects of the “Final Solution”, cited Luther in his defense at the Nuremberg Trials.  Indeed, without centuries of persecution by the church, the Holocaust would not have been possible.

So you see, my actions this week have not been motivated by my desire to do something good for the Temple, but to atone for the sins of the church and Christians throughout the centuries.  It is with great sadness and shame that I confess, that my church, that Christianity, has been in part responsible for the attack on the temple or at least the anti-Semitism that lies behind it.

And yet, I also am filled with great joy and hope.  The outpouring of support from this community, as is evident in this crowd tonight, for the Temple has been tremendous.  It gives me hope that the days of hatred, racism and prejudice are fading fast.  It gives me hope that the power of God’s love is greater than the power of human hate.  It gives me hope that God can turn a tragic act of violence into a spirit of community to express the commonality that we all share.

Thus my sadness has been turned into joy and my shame into hope.  The prophet Isaiah proclaimed,

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,

The desert shall rejoice and blossom;

Like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,

And rejoice with joy and singing. …

Say to those who are of a fearful heart,

“Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.”

And so I say to you, members of Temple Beth Israel, do not fear, this time the community stands with you; do not fear, this time we will not turn our backs and pretend we did not know; do not fear, this time love will win over hate; do not fear, the Lord our God, your God is with you.

 

Appendix B

 

A Day of Prayer and Remembrance

September 14, 2001

Two Rivers Interfaith Ministries

First United Methodist Church

Eugene, Oregon          

Welcome                                                                   

The President’s Proclamation

A Time to Remember

Hymn              When We Are Called to Sing Your Praise                         Insert

A Litany After an Act of Terror

One:  Compassionate God, our eyes could hardly watch, nor our ears hear, nor our minds conceive nor our hearts believe the unfolding of the tragic events of September 11.  Never have we seen such horrific terror and slaughter of the innocent.  Never have we experienced such a quick and total state of lock down, alert and defense.  We feel attacked and besieged.  Fear and mourning have gripped our souls.  Tears and anger flow with abandon.  Life and liberty have been severely challenged.  O God, in such a moment of shock, we hardly know what to pray. 

ALL:  GREAT GOD OF ALL, HAVE MERCY AND HEAL US.

One:    For the untold thousands of injured and bereaved in our nation,

ALL:  GREAT GOD OF ALL, HAVE MERCY AND HEAL US.

One:    For those who do not know the fate of their loved ones,

ALL:  GREAT GOD OF ALL, HAVE MERCY AND HEAL US.

One:    Be among us in our fears and our tears.  Give comfort and support to our hearts and our souls.

ALL:  GREAT GOD OF ALL, HAVE MERCY AND HEAL US.

One:  Refresh and strengthen those who aid and those who lead, even as we give thanks for so many acts of generosity, kindness and heroism.

ALL:  GREAT GOD OF ALL, HAVE MERCY AND HEAL US.

One:    Unite this nation in one resolve and protect the foundations of our liberty.

ALL:  GREAT GOD OF ALL, HAVE MERCY AND HEAL US.

 

The Twenty-third Psalm in word and song

Silence

Prayer for the Departed

Responsive Reading        

            Response:  We Remember Them

Prayer for Forgiveness

A Time for Hope

Reading            May We Hear

Prayer for Divine Help

Message from the Muslim Community

Prayer for Unity

Reading            Look to This Day

Hymn              On Eagles’ Wings

Benediction and Passing of the Peace

Postlude

You are invited to join a vigil in front of the Mosque today at 1:10 pm to protect our Muslim brothers and sisters as they gather for worship.  The Mosque is located at 1856 W. Broadway (between Chambers & Garfield).

Participants (in order of participation):

Organist:  Christopher Glenn, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
The Reverend Debbie Pitney, First United Methodist Church
Jim Torrey, Mayor of Eugene
The Reverend John Mahon, General Presbyter, Presbyterian Church PCUSA
The Reverend Paul Bigby, St Mark’s CME Church
Dr. Jonathan Seidel, Temple Beth Israel
Joan Haworth-Liu, Baha’i Community of Eugene
The Reverend Gary Oba, District Superintendent,United Methodist Church 
The Reverend Daniel E. H. Bryant, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Gordi Albi, Sisters of Loretto 
The Reverend Jan Fairchild, Springfield Church of the Brethern
Rabbi Yitzhak Husbands-Hankin, Temple Beth Israel
Tammam Adi, Islamic Cultural Center
Dr. Ted Taylor, Baha’i Community of Eugene
Bishop Jim Christensen, Eugene First Ward, Church of Jesus Christ LDS
Jonathan Weldon, Dean of the Central Convocation of the Episcopal Church

 

 

Message from the Muslim Community of Eugene

September 14, 2001  

Tammam Adi, Director
Islamic Cultural Center of Eugene

Prayer recited in Arabic, followed by excerpts below from the Islamic funeral prayer:

"Merciful God, our brothers and sisters in the World Trade Center, in the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania, are now in your care.  

"Please protect them from the trials of the grave and the torment of the fire.  Indeed, you are faithful and truthful.  

"Forgive them and have mercy upon them.  Excuse them and pardon them, and give them an honorable reception.  Cleanse them with water, snow and ice.   

"Purify them from sin, as clean white robes.  And comfort their families.  Exchange their home for a better home and admit them into your garden."    

Merciful God, we thank you for your bounties and we ask you for help to pass our tests.  

People of Oregon, thank you for your outpouring support.  I am an immigrant.  Your love taught me what it means to be an American.  

Abraham Lincoln, your assassin failed.  Slavery is dead.

Martin Luther King, Jr., your assassins failed.  Your dream is coming true.

John F. Kennedy, your assassins failed.  Your death did not make us warmongers and haters, it made us love each other and other nations and cultures.  The Berlin wall has come down, and we are now all Berliners. 

Robert Kennedy, your assassin failed.  Civil liberties were enforced.

Malcolm X, your assassins failed.  All African-American Muslims, including Louis Farrakhan, have abandoned racism and rejoined mainstream Muslims.

John Lennon, your assassin failed.  We can now imagine . . . .  We love each other as if there are no countries, and no religion, too, and yes, all we need is love.

Anwar Sadat, your assassins failed.  Egypt and Israel are at peace.

Izhaak Rabin, your assassins failed.  Israelis and Palestinians are determined to make peace.  

Brothers and sisters in New York, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania, your assassins failed.  We will not make war for your sake, but we will make peace.  We will not hate each other for your sake.  We will love each other more than before.  Your death will not create ignorance and prejudice, but enlightenment and unity.  

Thomas Jefferson, you respected Islam and knew it well.  You wrote privately to John Adams "Some hundreds of millions of Muslims (Mussulmans) expect another prophet more powerful than Mohammed (Mahomet), who is to spread Islam(ism) over the whole earth." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1821.

You asked your friends to include Islam as a protected religion.*  

Our founding fathers knew and respected Islam, but only whispered about it to one another because of the prejudice in the old world.

 America's principles are in the spirit of the Torah and the Gospel, and the

 Koran has the blueprint for our democracy and our strength.   

"If you fight to protect each other's monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques, then I shall make you victorious and give you power."  Koran 22:40  

America, in the Arabic language, means "the country in charge."  

President Clinton, you taught America and the world that Islam is not the enemy.  We have not forgotten.

 The terrorists want America to declare war on Islam.   They think they are the "martyrs," dying for a just cause.  They are wrong.  They don't understand their religion.  In Islam, a martyr is one who dies as a witness against evil or a witness for goodness.  They were not the martyrs.  

The martyrs are their victims, our brothers and sisters in the airplanes and the towers and the Pentagon.  They are witnesses against the utmost evil that the terrorists did.  They are witnesses over an America that will become better than ever for their sake. 

President Bush, instead of declaring war on Muslim countries, let's just punish the guilty.  Let's instead finally accept that Islam is part of our spiritual heritage and part of the foundation of our way of life.  Let's instead create world peace and end the war between cultures and religions that is based on myth and prejudice.

Muslims all over the world, America is not the enemy of Islam.  America is the best Islamic state on earth.  Americans, open your eyes.  Islam is not America's enemy.  Islam is our way of life.

 -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 * ". . . they meant to comprehend within the mantle of its protection the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination." --Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 1821. ME 1:67

 


[1] Another community which had a similar experience and response is in Rogers Park, Chicago. In 1996 the Center for a Parliament of the World’s Religions formed a local organization in Rogers Park called “Creating Community Vision” (CCV) In July 1999, a white supremacist shot and killed Ricky Birdsong, Northwestern University's loved basketball coach. Mr. Birdsong, an African American, was the first of several victims of Benjamin Smith, a list which included three Orthodox Jews and an Asian-American in Indiana. The first shootings took place in and around the Rogers Park neighborhood, and affected the community deeply. Within seventy two hours, the people involved in CCV organized a 800-person interreligious vigil. Muslim, Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Zoroastrians and Native Americans, stood side by side to support their Jewish neighbors, and people of all religious and spiritual traditions came together to decry the violence perpetrated in the name of racism and prejudice.  CCV became Rogers Park Interreligious Partners in 2002, a 501©(3) non-profit organization.  For more information, see http://www.cpwr.org/what/programs/ccv2.htm.

[2] Premawardhana cites Charles Kimball, author of When Religion Becomes Evil, for this point.

[3] Shanta Premawardhana, “Setting the Stage for an Emerging Interfaith Movement:   A Report After One Year”.  October 2004 newsletter.

[4] http://www.ncccusa.org/interfaith/ifrliturgy.html

[5] For more information, see http://www.disciples.org/ccu/ifd.htm.

[6] Consultation on Interfaith Dialogue and Relations Report, p. 4.

[7] Consultation on Interfaith Dialogue and Relations Report, p. 6.

[8] This report will be published in the docket for the 2005 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  The quotes below are taken from a preliminary copy provided to me by Robert Welsh.

[9] The Register Guard, January 16, 2005.  The actual quote in the newspaper inaccurately referred to God as “He”.  Jeffrey says he was misquoted since he never uses male pronouns for God.

[10] Hans Küng, Christianity and the World’s Religions.  Orbis Books: New York, 1993.  p.443

 


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