The Common Thread of Community:
Recently, I spent eight days in Atlanta studying Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, during an Interfaith Immersion course offered by the Spirituality Certificate Program of Columbia Seminary’s Center for Lifelong Learning.
Although I learned only a fraction about these religions in our intense 16-hour days, I came away with a clear sense that each of these four religions focuses on creating and maintaining community in some form.
In each of these religions, community provides strength, support, structure, and soul – all ingredients necessary for our walk with the Divine.
Judaism: In an early morning Jewish Minyan service, I saw a dozen or so older Jewish men chant and pray, sway and bow – sometimes in unison, but mostly not. It seemed both a chaotic prayer and a beautifully orchestrated, cooperative dance, with each and all glorifying God. I learned that in the Jewish tradition, when someone loses a loved one, the surviving family mourns for a year. The Minyan service requires a quorum of 10 men; so, these dozen men have committed to attending the hour-long 6:15 AM service every weekday, to ensure those in need of mourning will have a daily place of respite. That is community!
Islam: My favorite experience was sitting on the floor with 1,000 Muslims at the Friday Juma Masjidh at the African-American Mosque. In a profound lecture on the story of Abraham and Isaac, Imam Plemon spoke about Ishmael and Isaac as representing the heart and head respectively, and said that Abraham could not exist without both. This was far different from the “God’s test of Abraham” interpretation I have heard so often from priests and pastors. Instead, Plemon approached the story metaphorically, noting the death that results from cutting off part of yourself. He spoke of the pain that results from living a divided life, and the joy that results from integration, especially with God.
Hinduism: Hindus paradoxically celebrate community by honoring the individual. Their belief is there are as many pathways to God as there are people, and each person has the right to find his or her own path. The Hindu masculine and feminine deities are manifestations of how God might appear and are doorways to the One God. My favorite Hindu deity is Ganesha, the “Remover of Obstacles.” Having wrestled with many obstacles in my own life, I can appreciate the value of prayers to remove obstacles.
Buddhism: My favorite insight from the Buddhist community is accepting the notion of continuous change and its resulting impermanence. I can appreciate the paradox of being on a path, ever straying from that path, yet always being exactly where you need to be on the path. There is a tremendous freedom in knowing that wherever you are, it is a perfect place to be, and that in the next moment you will be in the next perfect place - better than our tendency to think that the difficult condition we are in will never change, or our hope that a wonderful state will last forever. Living, breathing, experiencing, and accepting one moment at a time is the Buddhist way.
This interfaith primer provided me a sense of where our religions both converge and diverge. Discovering similarities was both illuminating and, for me, unexpected. Each of these faiths encourages you to experience a spiritual power within and beyond yourself, to be led by what resonates deeply within you, and to become wholly who you are, as an individual surrounded by community.
Note: This story is excerpted with permission from an article at http://www.99namespeaceproject.org/