Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The Repair of the World - Lynne Meyer

My quest -- man's quest -- is not for theoretical knowledge about myself ... What I look for is not how to gain a firm hold on myself and on life, but primarily how to live a life that would deserve and evoke an eternal Amen. IT IS NOT ENOUGH for me to be able to say "I am"; I want to know who I am, and in relation to whom I live. It is not enough for me to ask questions; I want to know how to answer the one question that seems to encompass everything I face: What am I here for?

-- Abraham Joshua Heschel

Heschel is one of my great spiritual heroes. This question that he claimed as central to his life has been the lifelong question for me as well. It fueled my spiritual search, even before I was old enough to articulate it as such. From my earliest memory, faith by itself always felt hollow, meaningless. My mother would drag me with her to church on Sundays, and although the people were nice enough and I found value in things that were said there, ultimately they were to me just words. For many years, I assumed that this meant that I was simply not religious. What I didn’t realize until later was that I was indeed quite spiritual, and that those childhood years provided my best lesson in authentic spirituality. The lesson just didn’t happen in church.
“Stories,” says Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, “are the way human beings understand and communicate our deepest values.” Stories have power. The narratives that we tell about ourselves and each other can divide us, or inspire and unite us. They can, as he notes, “build community out of people who would otherwise be strangers.”

And so, I’d like to tell you a story.

On July 4, 1976, the 200th birthday of the United States, a Laotian family of Hmong refugees arrived in Chicago, after a grueling 13 months in refugee camps in Thailand. Mr. and Mrs. Xiong and their six young daughters (who ranged in age from 2 to 12) were fleeing a devastating civil war and its even more devastating aftermath, one which would end up claiming the lives of approximately 25% of the Hmong population in Laos. We were introduced to the weary and homeless Xiongs by my mother’s aunt, my Great-Aunt Esther, a Baptist missionary whose work was dedicated to resettling and supporting refugees from around the world. Through her work, I would come to know people from India, from China, and many other parts of the world. But I remember the Xiongs because I met them first, and knew them the best.

“Your church’s parsonage is currently vacant, correct?” Aunt Esther asked my mother in a phone call out of the blue one day. My Congregationalist Christian mother said yes, and soon the Xiongs had a safe, if small and simple, place to stay at the United Church of Christ church that my mother attended. This began a two-year-long relationship between my family, the Xiongs, and my Aunt, during which time my mother moved heaven and earth to help in any way she could as they strove to make a new home for themselves in a land with very different customs, and a very different language. I was just four years old when the saga began, but I remember two things very clearly; my mother never asked why she should help, and she cared not one bit that the Xiongs weren’t Christian. In her view, she and my Baptist aunt were simply doing what human beings are called to do, and that’s to help one another.

To describe the many things that my mother and my aunt did in those years would require far more time. I will simply say that our families became extremely close, and we stayed in touch even after the Xiongs became financially independent and moved to another state. The family prospered and the girls went on, one by one, to graduate from college.

Twelve years after we had first met, one of the Xiong girls got married, and my mother and I were invited to attend the wedding. It was a beautiful, traditional Laotian ceremony, and not the least bit Christian. To my recollection, we were the only non-Laotians present, and we were humbled to have been included. My aunt may not have lived to see that day, but she was there in spirit. The Xiongs remembered my aunt and my mother and their kindness and sacrifices, and honored them as they would a family member. For me, it was a profound experience; my first true interfaith encounter, it represented the culmination of a lengthy collaboration of efforts between two distinct cultures, and multiple spiritual identities.

Credit: Lynne Meyer

Today I identify as a Unitarian Universalist. It’s not a faith that many people seem to know about (I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve had to explain it to people when they ask me the seemingly simple question, “What’s your religion?”), nor is it the tradition in which I or anyone in my family was raised, but it is the one place in which I finally feel that I fit. Of the many reasons why this has become my spiritual home, there are two that stand out. First, being UU allows me to find beauty and truth in the various religions of the world, and to make room for those truths in my theology. Second, UUs have a strong commitment to social justice.

“Love for God,” wrote the great Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, “only comes to its own identity through its fulfillment in a love for neighbor. Only one who loves his or her neighbor can know who God actually is.” For me, faith cannot exist apart from service and care for others. This is what I learned from my aunt, my mother, and others.

This is also what I learn from my students.

As I write this, I’m in the midst of preparing for one of my favorite campus traditions: Fast to Feed, an event I co-host with our Muslim Students Association every Ramadan. At Fast to Feed, Muslims and non-Muslims alike fast for the day, then come together to learn about Ramadan and the practice of Zakat, to break the fast, and to support the Greater Chicago Food Depository. We take freewill financial offerings for the GCFD and donations of non-perishable food items for two of our local partner food pantries, one of which is run by the nearby Catholic church, St. James. It is always well attended, and every year, I come away from the event feeling inspired and spiritually renewed. Our longest running interfaith service program, its importance and impact go far beyond the money we raise and the food we collect.

One of the great reasons I love the work that I do is that it provides me with ample opportunity to help bring young people of all religious and non-religious backgrounds together to accomplish important and wonderful things such as this. Coming together around shared values is a powerful thing, and it has powerful social effects. Scholars Putman and Campbell refer to the ‘Pal Al effect’ – namely, that getting to know someone of a different religious identity positively increases the view a person has of that religion. Importantly, the positive effects of an interfaith relationship extend to other religious identities as well. As Robert Putman said in a lecture at Princeton University in 2010, “when you meet someone of a different religion, when someone from a different religion enters your five-closest-friends network, you become more tolerant toward all religions, not just that one new religion.”

In a world so often divided by religious intolerance, suspicion, and hate, interfaith service and friendship are increasingly vital. It is a holy thing to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless; but if we are to truly address the causes of poverty and suffering, we must also look inward, and do the holy work of removing the logs from our own eyes. As Heschel suggests, one of the best ways -- if not the only way -- to get to know oneself is in relationship with others. Many people erroneously believe that interfaith dialogue requires participants to compromise their religious identity; interfaith dialogue done well, however, does just the opposite. It helps everyone involved to better understand, and appreciate the unique beauty of, their own tradition.

Dialogue is important. But words alone are not enough. As the Buddha wisely noted,  “However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act on upon them?”

For me, engaging in interfaith service is to choose hope over despair. It’s believing that we as the human race can be enriched by our differences, rather than destroyed by them. It is tikkun olam -- the repair of the world.

Lynne Marie Meyer serves as the Director of Spiritual Life and Diversity at Illinois Institute of Technology, and serves ​on the​ Illinois Campus Compact Advisory Council. She earned a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, and a Master of Jewish Studies from Spertus Institute. Lynne is passionate about interfaith work and civic engagement, and works with Illinois Tech’s richly diverse population to make interfaith service a social norm on campus. Twitter: @Lynne_M_Meyer

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