Fifty-some religious leaders gathered last night at Masjid Al-Rahman, the Muslim Community Center in Bloomington, to cultivate relationships with one another across religious divides. The group included a breath-taking range of clergy and communal leaders, a veritable rainbow of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’is, Quakers and Unitarians. More diverse than many interfaith events, there were many races and ethnicities, theological liberals and conservatives, Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, Americans born in South Asia, in East Africa, and in the Middle East, as well as in North America. There were bishops, regional and national leaders of several Christian denominations, and heads of six umbrella organizations of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities. Like standing in a lush garden with endlessly varied species of trees and plants, the diverse gathering was a beautiful sight to behold.
The event was convened by a remarkable coalition: the MN Council of Churches, the Greater MN Evangelical Association, the MN Rabbinical Association, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Islamic Center of MN and the Islamic Civic Society of America. The goal was to bring religious leaders together to deepen relationships with one another, to contemplate the upcoming tenth anniversary of September 11th, and to consider the role of religious leaders as the anniversary approaches.
There were many beautiful moments: colleagues of different religions and races greeting one another as old friends, others engaging in spirited and full-hearted communication with new friends, and many scenes of small groups of people leaning toward one another in engrossed and lively conversation. The spirit of openness to learning and gracious desire to know “the other” was palpable. We were of the whole world, and what a world it would be if it were characterized by such deep desire to connect, to learn and to grow.
The imam of the host mosque taught that the diversity of creation reflects God’s desire that people of different “nations and tribes,” religious and ethnic communities, come to “know another,” to compete with one another only in righteousness. (Kor’an 49:13) One rabbi shared that his memory of the Nazi Holocaust moved him to vow that he would not stand idly by as Muslims were targeted for discrimination and hate. We all received many eloquent blessings and moments of inspiration from around the room, from across the religious spectrum, from around the room.
After months of planning, it was my deep joy and pleasure to co-lead the gathering with my colleague and friend, Rev. Dr. Tom Duke, of SPIN, the Saint Paul Interfaith Network. But just before the event was to begin, I received a text message from a dear friend on the East Coast. The message brought the stunning news that my friend had lost his 25-year old daughter to suicide. I had listened to my friend talk for years about his gifted daughter’s struggle with depression, keenly aware that she was roughly my own daughter’s age.
The news took my breath away. I felt weak and disoriented, wondering how I would recover my focus and do my job as co-leader of an important gathering. As people began to arrive, my energy returned, and the evening’s many moments of joy and hope nourished my spirit.
As people left, the reality of my friend’s loss flooded me again and I excused myself to call him and friends, offering my help in a large circle of support for the family, planning my trip back east during the period of mourning. I felt my own overpowering feelings of horror and broken-hearted grief for my friend and his family, experiencing the loss deep in my own maternal heart.
I did not fundamentally feel shocked that such things can happen. I have come to know that such things regularly occur in the course of life. I am keenly aware that with one phone call or text message from a loved one, one postcard from a doctor’s office, or the frightening sound of a siren, life can be irrevocably changed. This is in the nature of human life.
When these moments of tragedy come, compassion pours forth in a circle of loved ones and community. The inner circle comes forward with food, logistical help, hugs and presence. Those a bit more distant offer donations, prayers, notes and well wishes. For a brief time, the sheer reality of human vulnerability calls forth the best in human kindness. Love flows powerfully, pouring generosity and goodness into the center of the pain. Everywhere one looks, people are coming forward in breath-taking gestures of caring. At such times, there is no space in the heart for fear and suspicion. We instinctively know that offering the gifts of kindness and presence is all we can do, must do, for one another – all of us locked in this human condition together. Our every move is colored by the reality that this could be our own fate.
But as the day of the tragedy recedes into memory, we forget. We go back to our accustomed delusion that life is predictable and subject to our control and mastery. We are focused again on our own narrow concerns, our own mental stories about the world, our own goals and concerns and projects. We forget that in any room full of people, there are those who have just recently had their world torn apart by loss, or who will very soon know tragedy in their inner circle. We are blind to the reality that we and everyone around us are all walking on a very narrow bridge from which we could fall at any moment. In these times of forgetfulness, the mind, unfortunately, has room for fear, suspicion, judgment and hate.
It was wonderful to spend the evening in such a powerful circle of good will and hope before descending fully into the reality of my friend’s pain. I asked myself once again what the world might look like if we could more often remember the pain and fragility of those around us, and allow human compassion to direct our words and our actions. What would it take for us to ground our lives in the truth of human frailty? As the Buddha asked, “When life is so hard, how can we be anything but kind?”