Monday, November 23, 2009

With Or Without God

By Pia Infante

A couple of experiences of late call my attention to a rather large question.

First, I sang with my choir at the How Sweet The Sound gospel choir competition to 13,000 people who congregated to hear gospel music … which is, well, about God, or Spirit, or the Universe, or the Divine Essence, or the vast Unknown, or the power of Song ~ however it strikes you.  It struck me with the roar of thousands that this crowd, which easily filled Oakland’s Oracle arena, was by far the largest gathering of people I’d seen in months and months.  Larger than any protests or rallies I’ve attended or driven past on any number of issues at the city, state, and national levels.

Second, I attended TWI grantee Interfaith Youth Core’s 6th Conference on Interfaith Youth Work called “Leadership for a Religiously Diverse World,” along with about 600 others – student leaders, faith leaders, educators, civic leaders, funders, innovators, community activists and policy influencers.  [Here are the Opening Remarks] And, this, was, by far one of the most interesting gatherings I’ve attended in months and months.

These two experiences renewed a question I’ve held for a long time ~ where, in secular arenas, are we missing the boat with an unspoken aversion to … well, God?   

Saleemah Abdul-Ghafer, of Malaria No More (an organization formed to advance the United Nations Millennium Development Goals) commented during a plenary that the only way to reach the multitudes unnecessarily dying from a preventable disease (1 million a year, no less) is through partnerships with their faith communities.  It is the imams and faith leaders who know the communities intricately and can provide safe avenues of access for resources that are culturally appropriate.  She chided that if secular groups did have any aversion to these collaborations, they are now vested in them out of an “enlightened self-interest” towards actually being effective in their goals.  Hmph.

The truth is faith communities are the largest, most widespread, and most organic “social networks” on the planet, and evangelicals of every kind already tap into them.  What I believe Eboo Patel, IFYC Executive Director, and many others of the interfaith movement, might say is – let us be and inspire multi-faith cooperation and religious pluralism evangelicals!  Evangelicals whose message is about building relationship and trust through conversation, collaboration and community service. 

This was the deep inspiration of the IFYC conference – a vision of a world that structures and scaffolds connections across vastly different worldviews (from the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem to the indigenous Maori in New Zealand to agnostic Humanists worldwide), instead of passively accepting divisiveness and war as an inevitable outcome of difference.  Let me take a moment to express how important it is to make space at the Interfaith table for the many without religious affiliation who deeply believe in “good works” (as Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and author of Good Without God might say).  I notice that often those who believe in humanity’s responsibility to itself (whether or not they claim “humanist” as moniker) turn away from anything labeled "Interfaith," imagining that they are not included.  As was evidenced at the conference, a movement of inclusivity would clearly be false without them.

This is not a “kumbaya” vision of handshakes for the camera, but one that takes into account the many layers of economic power differential and political influence, regional and cultural nuance, and an over-arching understanding that because religious divides haves spawned generations of violence across the globe that there is some wisdom in our seeing interfaith cooperation as an essential nutrient to this world’s survival.

And by what mechanisms would such an Interfaith Youth Movement be rolled out?  Dialogue.  Partnership.  Serving Communities Together.

Given TWI’s mission, I was particularly attentive to the role that dialogue could play in creating a context for a consciousness shift that Eboo is aiming his life towards – in 30 years “interfaith community service” could be just another Americorps program, an opportunity for development and learning for this country’s next generation of servant leaders.  And, embedded in that would be an embrace of each person’s unique take on the Universe, from “non-believer” to devout, as well as a built-in requirement that we learn to talk with and work alongside with people who are different from us.

Simple.  But not easy. 

·       What does it take to be able to spend time with, work with, and learn from folks who are unfamiliar to us?  Do you do this?  How do you do it?

·        How would/does this capacity enhance your work, your leadership, your life, and social movements? 

·       How could/does interfaith collaboration strengthen your secular efforts? 

There are many of who tirelessly effort in the direction of these questions and I invite your wisdom.  In my next post, I will share some particularly inspiring work from the likes of Charles Randall, Najeebah Sayeed-Miller and others.  In the meantime, I look forward to hearing from you, with or without God ...