Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Value of Sharing our Faith Journeys, Texts and Teachings; An Amazing Conference



I was just in the most wonderful setting for incredible learning with a phenomenal group of people. These people came from all over the world and come to their belief in The Holy One in so many different ways. For three days, we learned together, discussed together, sharing our hopes and our dreams and our challenges, we ate together, we laughed together and most important of all, we shared our humanity and our faith journeys with each other. We discussed God, gender, women in religion and so much else. IF you want to get a sense of the breath and breadth of this amazing gathering go here to see the program and note the different presenters and their nationalities as well as faiths:

https://www2.naz.edu/interfaith/programs/academic-conferences/sacred-texts-human-contexts/schedule

In a stroke of genius on the part of the conference organizers or perhaps as a coincidence (you know, those occasions on which I believe God likes to remain anonymous) I was roomed with a wonderful woman who is a devoutly religious Muslim woman, as well as two lovely Christian women. Immediately my new Muslim friend and I found so much common and shared ground in our lives as we interface our religiously observant souls with our various involvements in our daily life and world. We were able to share the many blessings we feel we have as religiously observant women as well as frustrations regarding what people “think they know about us.” She talked about how people assume she is oppressed and how they do not understand the choices she makes out of her very intentional devotion. This conversation between us went on and on for many hours and I hope fervently that it will continue in the future. This is just one of the wonderful contacts I was able to make and feel as if I potentially found a friend for many years to come, I hope. People were there from lands of origin and lives lived located all over the world – India, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Canada, Israel, United States and so on. We ranged from those who are devoutly observant to the most liberal manifestations of personal journeys of faith. We come from all races and ethnicities.

For three days we learned about and with each other, another example of the types of communities that I just run to be part of, believing with every fiber of my being that God in all of God’s manifestations is truly present in an intentional and joyful manner in such spaces. It is here that we all, as God’s children, come together with our various belief systems, gender and sexuality identities, lands of origin and ethnicities to celebrate what unites us and honor our differences, trying to sincerely deepen our understanding of each other, so that then we can go back to our home communities and share dispelled myths, break harsh and misguided stereotypes and truly work together to build a better world.

As was shared on multiple occasions, in the Koran it is taught as follows: “We have appointed a law and a practice for every one of you. Had God willed, He would have made you a single community, but He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you. So compete with each other in doing good deeds. Every one of you will return to God and He will inform you regarding the things about which you differed.” (Surat al-Ma’ida, 48) We all shared our revealed teaching about the value of every life and how each life is an entire world and so much else that is part of our individuated religious journeys and yet also foundational to the values, so often shared, that inform those practices. We marveled at the similarities between important terms and concepts in Hebrew and Arabic. We asked questions of clarification and learned that while we each interpret and distill practices differently, we all have a deep respect for what is so much greater than us, hopefully keeping our hubris in check.

Were there moments of discomfort or awkwardness for individuals at various moments? Absolutely. As one of our keynote speakers remarked, if we do not have such moments, then we have not cast the net wide enough. This net cast by the Hickey Center of Nazareth College in Rochester, New York for our conference on “Sacred Texts and Human Contexts: A Symposium on Women and Gender in Religions” was clearly cast fairly wide – with the most liberal iterations to the most religiously and ritualistically observant strands of all of the Abrahamic faiths and others included as well; so, how could one not negotiate moments of discord? The question is how we do so, not that these moments exist. I found so much honor and so much love in this space that provided a supportive environment for addressing these realities of our lives. We learned about each other’s lives and each other’s faith journeys. I can only hope that these conversations will continue among so many of us that shared this space in the coming months and years. From face veils to Kipot (Yarmulkas) on women as well as men, from various forms of religion/cultural headdress and garb to everyday western clothes, we found beautiful souls in each of these cloaks.

As it happened, this conference was held over the Jewish observance of Tisha B’Av (yet another coincidence, perhaps?). In a particularly poignant experience, I went with two other Jewish women and we took three of our Muslim friends with us to an Orthodox shul in the area for the reading of Lamentations that marks this day of mourning for having lost our Temples, so much historically and even more spiritually when we consider how we treat each other, which is not in the spirit of the humility and the awe with which we are to hold each other as individuals created by God. I want to thank the shul and their Rabbi for their hospitality even though we could not fully take advantage of it socially due to the muted nature of the day.

Daily in our prayers, Jews repeat the verse “On that day, God will be One and God’s Name will be One.” I have never thought of this as conflation of our varied beliefs and religions, but rather our ascension to the realm beyond words where our separations and conflicts are set aside for all that unites us – our collective belief, through so many modes of expressions, in The One Who Is Holy and Supreme. Gatherings like this convince me that such ascendance is indeed possible if one wills it to be so.