Words do not find residence within when I attempt to describe the effect of the Adhan, the Islamic Call to Prayer. Arresting in its unconstrained flow to the bottomless depths of my soul, it is recited by a muezzin during certain prescribed times of the day. It causes pretenses, isolation, fears, ambiguities to fall away. I am left with me. I would say only me. But, that is not true. For I feel enveloped, encompassed, enwrapped by the All Pervading, intimate and sustaining Presence. I am still, completely still. Inner noises are hushed. There is no trafficking of thoughts. I am at home with it and the sacred ground of my existence. I am at one, atoned. We are in agreement.
This call was recited by Imam Rasheed Shabazz at my installation service at Fellowship Church. So powerful is it that I want it recited at my Going Home (Memorial) Service. In 2000, I visited Morocco as part of an interfaith delegation seeking to learn more about how Muslims, Jews, and Christians had lived there for a great expanse of time with mutual respect and cooperation. One of the most beautiful, spiritual gifts to me was that of Muslims stopping whatever was occupying them to sacralize those moments through prayer when they heard the call. Therefore, I honor Islam with heart as well as head.
This past week was World Interfaith Harmony Week. First proposed by King Abdullah II of Jordan at the United Nations in 2010, it seeks to promote a culture of peace and nonviolence and calls on governments, institutions and civil society to observe it by instituting various programs and initiatives that would promote the aim of the WIHW objectives. The week focuses on two commandments: “Love of God, and Love of the Neighbour.” Last Thursday inaugurated International Day of Human Fraternity to be observed annually on February 4.
I had the great fortune to participate in inaugural forums. Invited by Rev. Dr. James Speights, stellar Executive Director of The New Seminary, the two of us engaged in a fireside chat moderated by J. Jioni Palmer, astute founder of Thinking Good and doctoral student (Jioni’s mother, Sherrie, was among the high school students in my first teaching assignment). There were many others of the zoom screen.
The focus was: Building Our Global Community Through Faith. The question raised was: “What does our faith teach about interdependence of one to another and responsibility to community and justice versus the law of the land and how do we cultivate shared wisdom necessary for co-existence in harmony?” It was a rich discussion with Fellowship Church and Dr. Howard Thurman as major contributors.
The New Seminary is connected to the United Nations and says that it is the oldest Interfaith Seminary in the world with over 3500 graduates serving as ministers all over the globe and describes its Interfaith Approach as a form of liberating spirituality that allows us to find comfort, guidance, healing, solace and wisdom in the tenets, rituals, sacred texts and practices from many faith traditions, that we can apply in our lives, spiritual practices and ministry. Our programs help students to deepen their spiritual inquiry, gain an intimate understanding of the major faith traditions of the world as well as prepare them to use their Divine gifts as ministers to provide service to others and building community.
The New Seminary has been designated as an ECOSOC (Economic/Social) NGO (Non-Governmental Organization). Its committee work with the UN aims to integrate spirituality and values into all areas of the United Nations agenda and of public policy. We aspire to support the spiritual principles, global ethics and universal values such as respect, justice, peace, dignity, freedom, responsibility and cooperation, that underlie the work of the United Nations as reflected in the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
TNS extends an invitation to “Join us in restoring the memory of a lost harmony (Howard Thurman).”
What a bold venture we were and are! Our declaration says:
While it (Fellowship Church) derives its inspiration primarily from the source of Hebrew Christian thought and life, it affirms the validity of spiritual insight wherever found and seeks to recognize, understand, and appreciate every aspect of truth whatever the channel through which it comes.
It believes that human dignity is inherent in each person as a creature of God, and it interprets the meaning of human life as essentially spiritual. It recognizes and affirms that the God of Life and the God of Religion are one and the same, and that the normal relationship of people as children of one God is one of understanding, confidence and fellowship.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said:
“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”
When Gandhi was asked to accept leadership of the movement for independence from British rule over India, he stated that he was alienated from India, that he did not know it, that India was comprised of thousands of villages and vowed to visit many of them before he could speak for them. That is, he needed to understand in the gut his interdependence with those villagers before he could speak, villagers who were Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, or devoted to local deities. He had to feel their pain, disillusionment, poverty, before he could dare represent them, or move clearly to re-present them, re-present them to people who had forgotten them.
Gandhi declared: Indeed, religion should pervade every one of our actions. Here religion does not mean sectarianism. It means belief in ordered moral government of the universe. It is not less real because it is unseen. This religion transcends Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, etc. It does not supersede them. It harmonizes them and gives them reality.
Dr. King shared the following with us: “We have inherited a large house, a great world house, in which we have to live together – Black and White, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu – a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interests, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”
Part of King’s own development as a national leader, a movement leader, was due to the leadership of a Hindu, the Mahatma, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. King informs us: Although there may have been political and strategic reasons that Gandhi pursued a non-violent campaign, I believe the ultimate motivation came from his inherent Hindu faith. The Sanskrit term for non-violence is “ahimsa.” In his autobiography, Gandhi states: Part of the issue is that our religions (or faith traditions) are seen as ends rather than means.”
In a similar vein Dr. Howard Thurman wrote: What is true in religion is true because it is true. It is not true because it is in that religion. Therefore, it is what is true that is essential, not the religion or faith tradition that houses it.
King was not talking merely about superficial interfaith gatherings. He was concerned about something much deeper and larger. It was a concern about life longing for itself. It was about excavating the More Than who and what we are, about merging with and resting in the All Pervading Presence.
King was concerned about the interfaith walk together toward a promised land of freedom, justice, the beloved community.
Fellowship Church’s commission states:
This Church undertakes to make specific impact upon the community through a membership committed to the application of the principles of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in everyday living.
Each member is called upon to find their own avenue of practical expression in fulfilling the Commitment both in their own life and through active participation in the program of the Church.
The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples has been involved in this interfaith journey since 1944. In Footprints of a Dream, which is the story of the development of the church, Dr. Thurman penned these words:
The movement of the Spirit of God in the hearts of men often calls them to act against the spirit of their times or causes them to anticipate a spirit which is yet in the making. In a moment of dedication, they are given wisdom and courage to dare a deed that challenges and to kindle a hope that inspires.
The invitation is extended to all to be part of Fellowship Church. It was based on a hunger of the heart to be re-connected with our sisters and brothers of various nationalities, races, creeds, faiths, sexual and gender expressions, and statuses. We continue to live out the idea that if people come together and experience profound religious/spiritual experiences over a sufficient time duration, community will emerge, a common ground that undercuts the socially imposed barriers that separate one person from another. Such a community is the call of creation to our present, to our now. Let us heed the call!
“The problem is never the faith, it is the faithful and how they behave toward each other.” ~ Kofi Annan