When the Rev. Don Mackenzie, Rabbi Ted Falcon and Imam Jamal Rahman walk into a room, they’re ready for the joke. But the “Interfaith Amigos,” who spoke Nov. 2 at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis, are serious about their mission to reject what Rahman calls “otherization.” Their path is of oneness, shining a light not on what separates Christianity, Judaism and Islam, but on core teachings that unify them. The three men bonded in Seattle in the devastating days after 9/11, meeting weekly for 18 years and presenting their interfaith message across the United States, as well as Japan and the Middle East. Co-authors of three books, they share more about their outreach and abiding friendship below.
Q: First, an introduction: Pastor Mackenzie, of Minneapolis, is retired as minister and head of staff at Seattle’s University Congregational United Church of Christ. Rabbi Falcon is a psychologist with a private spiritual practice in Seattle. Imam Rahman is co-founder and Muslim Sufi Minister at Interfaith Community Sanctuary in Seattle. So, what brought you together?
Falcon: Imam Jamal and I met when we were invited to participate on a board laying the groundwork for a university of spirituality in Seattle. When the twin towers fell and our media focused on the violent nature of Islam, I immediately called Imam Jamal and invited him to join me for the Shabbat worship that Friday evening. I believed people had to know about the true and peaceful face of Islam. Halfway through the year, we brought in Pastor Don, who was clearly our Christian brother.
Mackenzie: After marking the first anniversary of 9/11, we looked at each other and said, “We can’t stop now.” We shared an intuition that, if we could penetrate the barriers that historically had separated our traditions, we might find ways to address the many moral issues that were facing our deeply troubled world. We have presented over 250 programs and continue to meet weekly, though now online since I moved back to Minnesota.
Q: How did you begin?
Falcon: By creating a context in which we could meet each other as humans, and appreciate the common dramas we share: love and loss, trauma, struggle, joy. Only after that could we move to sharing core teachings of our faith traditions.
Rahman: Once there is friendship, it is difficult to demonize the other. This human connection also opens the door to collaboration on issues dear to our hearts. [American poet and activist] Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”
Q: Does your interfaith work feel particularly urgent now?
Rahman: As a Muslim, I worry that the entire religion of Islam is judged by the behavior of some people. Gandhi was fond of saying that if we judged religions by the terrible actions of some people, every religion would be in deep trouble. Interfaith dialogue is no longer simply a matter of etiquette and hospitality; it is a matter of our survival.
Q: How has your connection enriched your own practice?
Falcon: I discovered the rich spiritual teachings of my Jewish roots only after practicing meditation in the Zen Buddhist and Hindu teachings. And I’ve been able to contribute substantially to Christian groups by sharing the Jewish tradition of Jesus. My brothers Don and Jamal are representative of the more spiritual dimensions of their own faith traditions. In many ways, I share more with them than I do with my own co-religionists, who are less inclined toward the inclusivity of spiritual awareness.
Rahman: By being open to the beauty and wisdom of other traditions, my Islamic roots have been watered, making me a better Muslim and a more developed human being. My favorite Islamic Sufi spiritual insight is, “Blessed are the flexible for they will never be bent out of shape!”
Q: What are a few values you share?
Rahman: We emphasize oneness, unconditional love and compassion.
Mackenzie: We believe that, deep in the human heart, there is affirmation of the essential interconnectedness of all being. This affirmation is extremely difficult to access because of egocentrism and preoccupations. Music often does it, eloquent speaking can do it, the preciousness of life can do it. Religions should do it, but as long as religions insist on separateness and exclusivity, there will be no possibility of the kind of cooperation and collaboration needed to address the troubles in our world. That is why interfaith dialogue is so important — not just being polite, exchanging pleasantries or even just being tolerant. The dialogue, to be effective, needs to embrace trust, openness and vulnerability.
Q: Interestingly, you use “interfaith” as a noun, i.e. “getting to the heart of interfaith.” Why is that?
Falcon: “Interfaith” is a way of being in the world, a release from the confines of religious exclusivities.
Rahman: All religions are paths to a shared universal.
Q: Yet, many people are leaving traditional religion. How might you respond?
Rahman: Less emphasis on theology and more on practical spirituality. Less focus on recruitment and fundraising. More focus on creating opportunities for members to connect. We can reach young people by being honest about what is awkward and difficult in our own traditions, such as exclusivity, violence, unequal status of women, homophobia and apathy about social justice and earth care.
Mackenzie: More moments when the heart can be opened to the lives of others and to God, when the bigger picture we call eternity can be sought and experienced. It is difficult to move people from the chaos and noise of everyday living to those things that are really life giving. On the other hand, there is a deep longing for meaning, for connection.