When I was in Sri Lanka several years ago, not long after the end of its civil war, I had a long discussion over curry lunch with a man with whom I work, Nimal, about Nelson Mandela.  If only Sri Lanka had its own Nelson Mandela, we lamented, perhaps the next generation could be liberated from the cycle of violence, resentment, revenge violence, entrenchment.  But there were few Lankan voices at that time, or now, who were advocating the kind of message of reconciliation Mandela advanced: one that recognized the atrocities of the past, told the truth about them, yet advocated a compassionate and collaborative moving forward into a just future free of vengeance, beyond the suffering all had experienced.  No victor’s justice.  Of course, the end of the war in Sri Lanka, won by the government still in power, was very different from the end of apartheid in South Africa, with its change of political structure and its appointment of a former “terrorist” as president. So the analogy could only work so well. But the point was taken: that the end of war does not mean the end of suffering, and it’s rare to find people who rise out of the ashes and destruction of war with a clear vision and a compassionate heart that moves communities out of the cycles of violence, social-psychological divisions, communal competition, and into a healthy future.  Phoenixes are mythic.  Later the lunch conversation turned to Nimal’s family cat who had no name (typical of Sri Lanka).  I was giving him a hard time about this feline indignity, especially considering their family dog had a name.  Why don’t you call him Nelson Mandela, since this country needs one?, I joked between mouthfuls of curry. The next week when I was home I received an email from Nimal saying his family had named their cat Nelson Mandela.  I laughed, delighted that back in Sri Lanka Nelson Mandela was basking in the sun, chasing geckos.  And then, a couple years later, I received the following email from Nimal:

Dear Susan,
This is sad news about our peaceful Nelson Mandela.
This evening it is died peacefully.
My Daughter and son are very sad.
But this is the nature,
I pray Nelson Mendela will have Rest in the peace.

When I received the email my heart caught in my throat for a moment. For a split second I had forgotten that Nimal had named his cat after Madiba.  Then I remembered and I felt relief wash over me, before the regret revisited me for Nimal and his family.  Losing a family pet is hard.

But not like losing a hero like Madiba, of course.  This saint among us, gone. We knew this was coming. He was old and had been sick for months.  At my church, we had been commemorating him already, praying for him these past months.  The world knew the end was nigh.  But still, when death comes, even if you know it is coming, it feels so sudden and absolute. Death is not gradual or gentle; it is immediate and decisive. I assume there will be no other like Nelson Mandela in my lifetime. He is the living saint with whom I was lucky enough to have shared this earth for a brief time, as if breathing the same air could allow me to take something of his soul or spirit into me.  But like all saints, like all those messengers of God we revere because they seem somehow human and yet more-than, he is gone.  I thank God for eternal life and the knowledge that his spirit continues to shape me and this world, calling us into Kingdom creation.  I thank God for his inspiration, the message that he still conveys that it is not namby-pampby, not weakness, not naive idealism, to forgive, to reach out, to strive, to put vulnerability above defense, to hope, to advocate, to critique.  To love fiercely, to the point of giving oneself to others despite the fact that they hated you once and may still hate you.  That kind of message lives on forever, beyond death, inspiring hope.  Maybe even taking root in some young thing now, who will be the Madiba for the next generation.  Thank God for eternal life.  And Nelson Mandela, may God embrace you home into the heaven that you constantly strove to create here on earth.  We shall not give up the fight.

I am very sad.
But this is the nature,
I pray Nelson Mandela will have Rest in the peace.

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This sermon was preached on the second Sunday of Advent in 2008 to a community of harried DC over-achievers, at a time when the church was without a building and we were worshiping in borrowed space.

December 7, 2008
Advent II
First Congregational Church DC


Isaiah 40:1-11
Mark 1:1-8

Please, people, for the love of God, let us never forget that Jesus’ messenger ate bugs.  John the Baptist, that seminal one built up in a crescendo by the ancient Israelite prophets, the one granted the glorious task of readying the world for the Messiah’s arrival on earth… he was not the sort of resplendent dewy-skinned angel we usually see this time of year.  He was a bug-eating Saddhu-like wanderer dressed in animal skins.  How awesome is that?  John the Baptist is such a testament to how fiercely God upturns our expectations in order to shake us awake and call us to a new way of living.  A way of living in which we see the divine everywhere and in every bizarre, bug-eating character.

But if the image of John does not get you looking at our sacred world through new eyes, then open your ears to his message.  Our readings today reminds us that before Jesus began his ministry, before he even arrived into the cold stink of barn, the world needed to prepare itself.  And so John was sent to tell us to “Prepare his way by clearing a straight path for him.”

We are now on our second week of Advent.  As Keisa reminded us last week, Advent is our church year’s January – the beginning of the new lectionary year.  The new year.  And y’all know what this means: it’s resolution time… and because this is church, I’m not just talking about resolutions to visit the gym more often, or to call your mother more.  Those are important; mom would love to hear from you and she and I would love for you to keep your body healthy so you live a long time.  But the kind of resolutions we talk about in this space are not just about things to do, as about a way to be.

Up in Boston, there is a man who lives in a house on road called the Arborway. My friend refers to his house as the German castle, and it does look like something out of a Bavarian countryside – all thick pointed turrets and gray cobblestone sides.  And though I’m not up in Boston this year, I can assure you that way back in October, the baron of this German castle on the Arborway began doing what he does every year.  He began preparing his home for Christmas.  First he brought out the lights, tens of thousands of them, which he strung along edges and curves of his house.  Then he dragged out the giant ornamental sleighs and figures and set them in suspended animation, flying over the roof of his house.  Then he grabbed a set of colored lights that swept up to a point in his yard, forming a twenty-foot tall silhouette of a tree.  Nearly every day for the past fifty days, I know this man has done what he does every year.  He has gone down into his basement, grabbed another handful of lights, and then climbed up onto his roof and added them to the building crescendo.

Certainly this labor of love is worthy of a testament of some sort.  Last year in the Boston Globe some of his neighbors offered their perspectives for the record, muttering about the man’s ego-driven ejaculation of gaudiness that glared through their windows at night.  The pulsing artificial light kept them awake, as they watched their bedroom walls turn from green to red to blue to yellow.  They were not charmed.  For my part, as I used to zoom past his adorned castle I often found myself asking –what if?  What if we prepared our hearts with the same sort of slightly manic obsession and over-the-top zeal with which this man prepares his German castle?

Friends: something big is coming, soon.  It is looming there, just around the corner of time.  And it will be glorious, and it will be upsetting.  It will be comforting, and it will be utterly de-stabilizing.  That small baby who is even now growing and turning and dropping in Mary’s round large belly, slowly being pulled down towards us and the world, that baby is not just any small innocent baby.  He is our Lord and our Judge.  And with his birth in two and a half short weeks, all our habits will be revealed in the light of day.  And we will be called once again to begin on the path of that radical way of holy discipleship living that we are capable of and yearn for, but that takes a sort of energy that is really hard to sustain.

When Isaiah spoke his prophetic words thousands of years ago, it was during a dark time.  Babylon had sacked Jerusalem.   The Judeans were temple-less, which meant they felt there was no solid ground for their community to stand upon. Everything was uncertain, except for violence, and the abuse of the marginalized, and those with power exercising oppression, and growing poverty.  Our ancestors didn’t see much evidence of God among them in that world.  And so Isaiah was told to comfort the aching beloved community, assuring them that the Lord was on the horizon and would arrive to teach anew the ways of justice and love that could make everything right again.

But Isaiah saw something else.  He saw how the exhaustion of these people had made them close up into themselves.  How their cynicism and defeatism had made them fall asleep at the wheel.  And so Isaiah sought to wake them up, and remind them of all that is at stake in their lives, and all they are called to do as God’s people.  You have to prepare the way of the Lord, he told them.  You have to start tearing down the barriers you have erected in your lives before God can enter into them.  You have to shake yourself awake and stay that way, otherwise you won’t see the glory of the Lord revealed around you.  And it is only when that has happened that everything can begin to be made right again.  You can’t change the world if you’re sleepwalking.  You have to be awake for this.

You know where this is going, people.  Because we are similar people, in similar times.  Broken people, in a broken world that constantly assails our soul and spirits.   A world where wars proliferate.  Where the economy is seizing and everything seems uncertain.  Where this here beloved community is temple-less, without a church building.  It’s no wonder that in the face of all this, we might create walls around our soft, vulnerable hearts, and routines to maintain those walls.  It is no wonder that our cynicism sometimes overtakes and sets us sleep-walking through life, numb to it.

It’s understandable.  But in surviving in this way, we know we pay a price.  These walls separate us from our God, and our innermost selves, and others.  And this separation, as the theologian Paul Tillich preached it, is sin itself.  It takes us to a place where we cannot see or hear the truth, and where our spiritual practice becomes flatlined.  It may shut out the hurt and insecurity, but it ends up shutting everything out.  Even the sacred.  It leads us to live in one mundane dimension – where we don’t notice the miracle of a small round brown bird sitting on a new blanket of snow.  Or the brilliant glow of dusk that bathes us every single evening, or the delicious faint squeal and curled tongue of a cat yawning.  It leaves us estranged from the divine that is around us.  And it convinces us that we can just get by until things get better, rather than live into the solutions ourselves.  We know this isn’t the way we are called to be.  But sometimes we just don’t want to or feel we just can’t live the way we are called to be.  Sometimes we want to get caught up in life’s predictable and secure routines — work, pick-up the kids, the carry-out, watch TV, sleep.  And then sometimes, we just forget.  It’s what we do.  We’re human.

And God knows that.  And God understands.  And that’s why we were given John, who comes to remind us. Every year it is John who greets us at our starting place at Advent.  Earthy, wild-eyed John the Baptist sent to remind us to wake up, and to begin again.  That is what our lives in God are all about, that is what we are called to do as people of faith.  To constantly examine our selves and our world, to see the obstacles we have placed in the pathways to our tender hearts that prevent us from living open joyful deep awakened lives, and then to once again, with great deliberateness, remove those obstacles.  Clear a straight path for the Lord to enter our world.  And then to do it again.  And then again.

It’s resolution time.  And what is a resolution? It is about seeing that where you are is not quite where you want to be, and then deciding to try again, try anew, with great courage and resolve.  And this is what repentance is.  Repentance: that loaded word John calls out in the wilderness with a cry that rises above the darkness and the tumult of life, and travels across thousands of years to break forth into our very world, into our very hearing, into this very room.  Repentance is simply about starting again in the direction of God at the beginning of this new year.

So.  We’re back to the what if? What if we prepared our hearts with even a 1/5th of the energy that the man up on the Arborway in Boston has prepared his castle? What if we prepared our hearts with even a 1/5th of the energy that we prepare for the Christmas holiday – the buying of presents, the cleaning of the house, the traveling home, the cookie decorating – what if we spent some of that time sitting simply, in the Advent stillness, the pregnant trembling stillness of Advent, and we tip-toed past all our walls and slipped into our soft hearts, even into those velvet dark corners we spend so much of our energy avoiding and protecting, and what if we began to get things ready in there.

When you go, you will discover in your heart an eternal flickering – an eternal light of holiness that is yearning to grow big enough to shatter those protective walls that numb you.  John is calling you to that flickering, and he is calling you to lightly blow on it, to let it build so that it can illuminate more of your soul.  And then to do this again and again and again.  Every day.  Like that German baron on the Arborway, persevering with strong-headedness and insane giddiness to illuminate the darkness.  Every day a new string of lights, a new turning toward God, a new resolve, and a new breath blown on that flickering flame.  And if you do this, by the time the Lord comes, in two and a half short weeks, your hearts will be so open and so illuminated that they will light up the neighborhood of your soul, so that it cannot sleep anymore, so that it is awake to see the Lord arrive in your midst.


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Boys, Boys, Boys

This week I was in Vienna, Austria for two large interfaith gatherings. The first was the inaugural Global Assembly of the King Abdulaziz International Center for Inter-religious and Inter-cultural Dialogue (KAICIID), a two-day event that brought together nearly five hundred religious leaders from around the world. Immediately following that event was the ninth global gathering of Religions for Peace, attended by some six hundred religious actors.

I’m still processing the whole experience: the tension between substance and symbolism, the opulence of Saudi hospitality, the varied meanings of the term “dialogue,” Bellanwila Thero’s delusional presentation on the situation in Sri Lanka, all the wonderful new contacts I made and exciting work I learned about, what I discerned were current interfaith peacebuilding priorities. But there is one element of the gatherings that I hardly need time or distance to analyze: the marginalization of women’s voices and experiences.

In some ways, I’m used to it… and rather numb to it. The interfaith world at this level — the splashy international elite level — is a boy’s world. This is because international politics/diplomacy is male dominated, as is religious institutional authority. Bring those two realms together, and women are scarce. And so I’m accustomed to being a minority in the room at inter-religious peacebuilding fora. I’m accustomed to sitting in the audience listening to a panel of all men (or, what’s more common: all men and one woman) talk about the need to create just and equitable societies in which all people have a voice. I’m accustomed to religious peacebuilding events making only passing (if any) reference to advancing and securing women’s empowerment through peacebuilding, or strategies for addressing sexual violence against and trafficking of women in wartime. I’m accustomed to the litany of male religious leaders held up as saints in the religious peacebuilding field: Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Abdul Ghaffer Khan, Maha Gosananda… rarely accompanied with mention of any of the women of faith who have risked their lives, sometimes given their lives, for the cause of justice and peace. I’m accustomed to all this, but after being subjected to four days in a row of this phenomenon, I became frustrated anew. Check out these photos I captured during the events:


Two women, literally on the margins.


The closing plenary: a panel of five men and one woman (that’s Shaun Casey speaking, the new head of religious engagement at the State Department and a lovely man).


This panel had six male education ministers, one woman minister, and a male moderator (my friend and colleague Mohammed Abu-Nimer).


An afternoon panel that featured two male keynote speeches and five presentations (one by a woman). Another woman moderated.

A quick scroll through photos on my blackberry revealed a couple more photos I’d taken recently of panels at interfaith events:


This one is from the Coexist Prize award ceremony in New York City, 2012. All men. Ironically, a woman religious peacebuilder from Indonesia won this award.

And lest anyone think I’m attacking other organizations and not my own, here’s one from an event at USIP this year featuring all male religious leaders from Israel and Palestine, a male moderator, and a clergyman from Norway:


At this USIP event, I raised my hand to ask the first question, which was: where are the women? After all, studies have shown that women bring different wartime experiences, perspectives, and insights to peace agendas that are crucial for building successful and sustainable peace – for identifying and transforming the root causes of violent conflict. All the women in the audience clapped in response to my question. To answer, one of the clergy pointed to his teenage daughter sitting in the front row and said she always accompanies him. She was carrying his briefcase. None of the women clapped in response to his answer.

This is a topic I’ve written on a lot. I am co-editing a book with Katherine Marshall that explores women’s religious peacebuilding.  Amongst other things, the book illustrates how involved women are in inter-faith activities at the national and community-level, and how marginalized they are from the well-funded and international level initiatives, and the consequences of this. But clearly the point needs to keep being made. So, inspired by my friend Erin Matson who created the blog White Guys Doing it By Themselves, I’m going to start posting photos to this blog as part of an ongoing feature to illustrate how invisible women tend to be in religious peacebuilding public events. These images will be under the tab: “Missing Women.” Look for it soon!  {update: the page is now up!}

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and they danced


This past weekend, I took a short trip down to Colombia to attend the 4th national gathering of the Ecumenical Women’s Peacebuilding Network in Colombia. I helped establish this network in 2008. I had arrived at USIP in 2007 and been told to build on the work of my predecessor, who had tried to launch an ecumenical effort to push for peace talks. I went to Bogota for a week, asked a lot of questions, and discovered that his efforts had hit many walls. Particularly those erected by the Catholic Bishops. I did not encounter much enthusiasm for reinvigorating that effort, or any ecumenical effort with the church leadership … at least the male leadership. With the ladies it was a different story. They were much more enthusiastic to connect across lines of difference, and in many case already were. They rolled their eyes at the efforts of the men, and the way those efforts were often handicapped by egos. They desired to be supported and to collaborate with others to enact their dreams. So a seed was planted, in their minds and mine, and within a year, the Ecumenical Women’s Peacebuilding Network had been launched — to strengthen and support the work of women building peace through their religious institutions, and to promote understanding and collaboration between Catholic and Protestant women, who don’t often work together (and whose relationships have been strained with the rise and spread of Pentecostalism).


Colombia is one of my favorite places on earth. Despite decades of violence, the emergence of armed group after armed group, the narco-trafficking, the abuses of the State, the seeping of violence into the domestic and criminal spheres, there is such openness and expressiveness in its people. When you visit a conflict zone, I’ve found it either goes one way or the other. Either you walk off the plane and your guard immediately goes up because you feel something in the air — some violence, mistrust, poison — or you visit a place where you would assume people feel that way, given what they’ve been through, but they confound you with their openness, willingness to trust, their easy laughs, their warmth. there’s rarely a middle ground. Sri Lanka and Iraq are places that feel like protracted conflict zones to me: tense and unhinged. Myanmar and Colombia, despite their decades of violence and authoritarianism, don’t (I’ve heard Libya is like this too). What is it about these cultures, these nations, that makes the people so resilient? So full of hope and warmth, despite everything? Despite the traumas? I find spirituality to be a common denominator. Not religion. Certainly Iraq and Sri Lanka are very religious places. But their religion often feels ceremonial, ritualistic, formal. In Colombia and Myanmar, their religious practices are deeply spiritual, deeply infused and embodied, lived out by the lay. The divine is thick in the air in these places. Is this a consequence of their cultural resilience, or a cause of it?

In any event, this weekend I went to spend time with my religious women peacebuilders in Colombia, who are truly an incredible group. These women are living in the crucible of machismo and violence; they are working at the front lines to pull the Kingdom out of the scorched earth. They are Catholic nuns, Mennonitas, and Pentecostal preachers. Some wear habits, some wear tight jeans and deep v-neck shirts. Some drink, some don’t. Some murmur during collective prayers, their appeals growing in pitch and fervor as the prayer continues, their bodies swaying and heads looking heavenward, and some sit silently, their head bowed, still and reverent. These are some of my favorite religious peacebuilders in the world. They work hard (for victims, in the prisons, doing advocacy, etc.), and they pray hard, and they dance hard.
One thing that always sticks with me is their way of referring to women from the tradition when they come together. They dramatize the stories of the women from the Bible who have been victims of male violence — those raped, those killed, those stoned. They identify with these women. They see the story of Colombia’s women in these Biblical accounts. And they also lift up the stories of women leaders from scripture. In this workshop, they spoke of Esther as a political advocate for peace. They broke open their Bibles and they explored how she identified and leveraged her power to save lives, how she convinced others, made her demands. They sketched out her methodology – how a woman persuaded a ruler to choose peace. Then they asked themselves how to live up to Esther’s actions in their context. They made plans to take actions to demand more women be represented at the current peace talks between the Government and the FARC — to push a campaign on the one-year anniversary of the start of the talks. They went to the plaza in town and collected 300 signatures for a nation-wide Covenant for an Ethical Peace. And then they came home and danced. At 11pm, after  being in a workshop since 8am. They are indefatigable.


On Sunday morning, we opened our day with worship and communion. Ana Mercedes sang. We read scripture. We reflected. Women from each region of the country came to the front and offered a prayer. And then a woman walked up to the communion table, lifted the loaf above her head, and broke it. The body, broken. The bodies. The body of Christ, the body of Colombia, the bodies of too many women. She took the cup and lifted it above her head. The blood of Christ, the blood of Colombianos, the blood of too many Colombianas, spilt. We prayed for peace, we prayed for the peacemakers, and we prayed for peace. And then we danced.


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Women’s Rights in Post-Conflict Islamic States

The Brookings Institution recently published a paper that I co-wrote with three of my colleagues.  The paper proposes a method for advancing women’s rights in the key constitutional moments underway in three post-conflict Muslim-majority states: Afghanistan, Egypt, and Libya.  We argue for meaningful collaboration and strategizing done between three sectors we believe are key to advancing and securing social change: legal scholars, political activists, and religious authorities.  The latter are needed particularly when resistance to social change is grounded in religious argument, as women’s rights often are around the world and across religious traditions.  This is particularly important in these three states, however, where they are currently negotiating the substance of constitutions that incorporate religious law (sharia), which will have serious implications for women (depending on which form of sharia and how it is interpreted and upheld).

Although we don’t say this in the paper itself, for obvious reasons, we used as our model the marriage equality movement in the United States.  The significant changes that have been made to advance LGBT rights in such a relatively short period in this country, we believe, is due in part to the fact that these three pillars worked so closely and well together for the common aim.  The legal experts knew where and how the laws could be challenged and the best judicial route (state vs. federal) to do so, the political activists provided their skills in mobilization, advocacy, and lobbying, and the religious institutions and actors (including my own United Church of Christ), provided authoritative theological language to support gay rights and to challenge religious language used to resist it.  We believe it was these three sectors working together that produced such impressive changes in social, legal, and political norms in such a short amount of time.

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Normal Violence

This morning a man I’ve worked with in Iraq, Tariq, called me on Skype.  I hadn’t spoken with Tariq in some time and I wasn’t expecting a call from him, but was glad to hear his familiar voice bursting through the cyber waves from Baghdad into my office in DC (and that’s literally what Tariq’s voice does — it bursts).

Over the past months, I’ve pulled away some from my previous work in Iraq.  The projects I’d been working on came to a close, the funding from State dried up.  Of course, there were ways I could have maintained more active involvement in the Iraq work if I had wanted (to be fair, I am advising on a project USIP hopes to do this next year, offering peacebuilding courses at sharia colleges and seminaries).  But I was ready to move away from the Iraq work.  Even eager to.  I was put on the Iraq work in 2007 when I arrived at USIP and I never stopped feeling conflicted about our religious peacebuilding work there, and uncertain about its real impact.  Iraq is a difficult place to work in for many obvious and perhaps less obvious reasons. I won’t get into that now — that’ll require an epic post.

Even if it was right, or ripe, for me to have walked away from our work in Iraq, that doesn’t mean I haven’t felt morally ambivalent about it.  My country did so much damage to that country.  And then it walked away.  Am I doing the same?

When I heard Tariq’s voice, it stirred all this in me.  I love Tariq — he is always in a positive mood, always making jokes.  He has a good heart and gives a great impression.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in anything other than a pressed suit, looking sharp.


Photo of Iraqi Christian refugees in Sweden taken by my friend Jacob Silberberg

Tariq is Christian, and as many know, the Christian community in Iraq has faced particular hardship over the years since the U.S. invasion.  But Tariq expresses no bitterness, ever, to those in the country/region who have brutalized his community, or to the U.S. who failed to protect so many Christians (and Sunni and Shia and Yazidi and Mandean and… ).  And Tariq has stayed in Iraq, while so many other Christians have left.  He’s stayed and kept working for peace with those from all religious and ethnic communities.  Last year he went to offer a peace training at a sharia college in Al-Anbar province with two Sunni colleagues.  He was incredibly nervous, rightly so.  But he went.  And he charmed the socks off everyone.  And he never told them he was a Christian because he was afraid to.

In many of the places where I work for USIP, violence is the norm.  Iraq is certainly one of those places.  Bombs have been a constant since 2003.  Our news cycles rarely even report them anymore.  But in the past four months alone, nearly 4000 people have been killed by bombs.  Yesterday, 23 were killed at a market outside Baghdad.  When I hear these reports, I think of specific people: Tariq and Dalia and Salih and Qusay and others.  I see their faces in my mind, shuffle through them like a card deck, these ones I love in Iraq.  I pray they are still alive.

Perhaps my own feelings of guilt led me to say to Tariq almost immediately, as if a confession: “The violence is unending, Tariq.  I keep hearing all these reports of bombs and then more bombs.  It seems the good news never arrives — only more bad news.  How are you holding up?”  He replied to me, in an amused voice: “Yes, well.  Things just stay the same, or get worse, really.  I think honestly, we are accustomed to it now.  The sound of the bombs is a part of life here — background noise.  If the sound of bombs were to stop, honestly Susan, it would be weird for us.”  He said it with lightness, a chuckle, as something of a joke.  And then he got down to business about the reason he’d called me — a specific peace program he wants to do.

His words stuck with me throughout the day, reverberating in my head and heart.  They were chilling.  Now, eleven hours later, I still haven’t been able to shake them.  This world these Iraqis inhabit now, where the bombs are normal.  Every day violence.  Everyone touched by it.  You feel it when you go there — that everyone, everyone, is suffering ptsd.  It’s not a condition outside the norm, it’s the norm.  To the point that if the bombs were suddenly silenced, it’d feel abnormal, jarring.  This is the same world we all inhabit, I have to remind myself.  Tonight I fear the good news will never arrive.  Tonight I fear I ran from the cross.  Come, Holy Spirit.

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The Tenderness and Tedium of Multi-Religious Events


Two Sundays ago after worship I hopped on my scooter and drove across town to Washington Hebrew Congregation, a synagogue just northwest of the National Cathedral on Massachusetts Avenue. There, hundreds of people were gathered for the start of the annual Unity Walk.

The Unity Walk started in 2005 as a means to celebrate and affirm multi-religious coexistence in the District and the world.  After an opening ceremony, participants walk along Mass Avenue and visit the many places of worship en route to a closing ceremony at the Gandhi statue outside Dupont Circle.  The walk always takes place on the Sunday closest to September 11th. This is intentional, as the walk is meant to serve as an antidote to the belief in some sort of inevitable “clash of civilizations” that motivated, in part, the terrorist bombings on that date in 2001, and that have fueled anti-Muslim and xenophobic attitudes in the U.S.

The Unity Walk is a chance to stand together across many religious, racial, and ethnic lines of difference for a different vision of the world — a world marked by deep religious pluralism that goes beyond mere religious tolerance.  It’s not just about a nice message of respect for “other paths to God.” It’s a chance to encounter the other on their terms, so to speak, by going into their sacred spaces.  How vulnerable and beautiful is that for everyone involved — the guest and the host?  After all, we know how awkward it can feel to enter into an unfamiliar sacred space, afraid you’ll do or say something wrong, a bit in awe of how foreign the space may feel to you, pushing you out of your comfort zone.  And it’s vulnerable as well for those who host — especially minority communities who are eager to share their space with those from the majority community who may know little about their tradition, or have misconceptions about it.  They are revealing their souls for others to see.  I love the tenderness of this exchange.

And so the Unity Walk is a great opportunity to meet new people in DC and to see the insides of some incredibly gorgeous places of worship along Massachusetts Avenue — including those Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, and Orthodox. I have found in my world travels that these opportunities to stand in the sacred spaces of other religious communities have brought me closer to God. Churches and cathedrals always evoke in me a sense of the divine, of course.  They are my familiar space of divine encounter and my heart naturally cracks open to let my soul out when I enter and see the cross looming, the stained glass.  But there is also something about standing in a space that is decorated, shaped, furnished differently, designed and prepared for different rituals, marked by a different divine aesthetic that evokes no less a sacred pulse, that pushes me to encounter God in new ways. It deepens my appreciation for how big and infinite and complex God is, and how diverse is the global community’s expression of the divine that unites us.  This encounter with the other helps me see better the Great Other.  All of this is the promise and richness that can be found in the multi-religious encounter.

This year I did not make it to the actual walk, however. And the reason illustrates the pitfalls one can encounter in these kinds of multi-religious events. My plan had been to attend the scheduled 30 minute opening session at the synagogue, and then to walk for about 30 minutes — long enough to visit the recently reopened Sikh gurdwara, before needing to head to the library to get some homework done. When I arrived, I saw and chatted with some good friends and colleagues — Marc Gopin, a professor at GMU and leading scholar of religious peacbeuilding, and Joe Eldridge, founder of WOLA and head chaplain at American Univeristy (and husband to Maria Otero), and Venerable Uparatana, a Sri Lankan monk who serves as Buddhist chaplain at American University. After the requisite DC-schmoozing, I took a seat next to other First Churchers.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the opening session started late.  And then the prayers began, as well as speeches, spoken word from the DC youth Split this Rock team, a rousing reflection on Nelson Mandela from the South African Ambassador, a guided meditation from the Brahma Kumaris. Every portion was lovely in its own way and together wove a rich tapestry. But soon 30 minutes stretched into an hour, and then beyond. This is often, I find, the challenge with multi-religious gatherings. In the process of seeking to be inclusive, everyone is offered the microphone. And clergy (and politicians) being who they are, the reflections always go longer than anticipated. It can make multi-religious events like these feel tedious, and unfortunately can wind up detracting from the spirit of these events. By the time we left the synagogue, it was well past the time I had appointed to get to the library, and so I missed the walk itself, and the Sikh Gurdwara (where, by the way, they were serving homemade Indian food, gratis. Gahh).

Of course I left glad to have witnessed to the important message — the symbolism of the event.  I was glad (and probably a little self-satisfied) to have made an effort to affirm and deepen multi-religious pluralism (particularly given the rise in hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. and globally this year). Glad to have heard the prayers and poems and soaring speeches I did, including the echo of the lovely Muslim call to prayer in the space of a large synagogue and the fabulous slam poetry from the DC Split this Rock youth team.

But I wrestled again with a familiar question: how can we have authentic multi-religious expression in a manner that is less tedious? Is it possible to capture diversity and richness succinctly and still give it justice?

Read more about the event in this Washington Post article.


First Churchers at the walk.

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