“Difference is an opportunity for insight”

Northern California Religious Leaders in Conversation

If it is true that most people today do not encounter God primarily in the Mosque, the Church, or the Synagogue, how can religious leaders engage that reality? That was a challenge raised by Dr. James Donohue, president of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley to some 30 religious leaders from around the Bay Area at the second gathering of Northern California Religious Leaders in Conversation on May 20.

Hosted by the Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, the event followed the first successful meeting last September 6, 2007 at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco. Opening the discussion was a panel which included Maha ElGenaidi, founder and director of the Islamic Networks Group based in San Jose; Venerable Jian Hu, Abbot of the Chung Tai Zen Buddhist Center in Sunnyvale; and Dr. James Donohue of the GTU. Each spoke about the work they were engaged in and the challenges that they see for the future. The panel was moderated by Rita Semel, longtime interfaith activist and Board Member of the Graduate Theological Union, San Francisco Interfaith Council, and the Interfaith Center at the Presidio.

Raised in a non-observant Muslim family, ElGenaidi embraced her Muslim faith as an adult. “I came to Islam because it is pluralistic,” she said, noting the historical cooperation between Muslims and other religions and the respect within the Qur’an for prophets of other traditions. Following the first Gulf War, she was concerned about the lack of knowledge concerning Islam in the general public, and created Islamic Network Groups. ING trains speakers to go to schools, businesses, police, and other community groups to educate them about Islam. They have been careful to observe the separation of church and state; they are not there to make proselytes, but to educate.

Most recently, ING has developed a multifaith speakers bureau, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam. Panels of speakers are available to go out and speak about these traditions and their relationships to each other.
Her great concern is that the perception of Islam is getting worse in the US. 40% of people in recent survey supported making Muslims wear identifying mark (armband, etc.). 1 in 4 favor mass detentions in the event of a terrorist attack. Who will stand up and speak out for Muslims if there are efforts to curtail their civil rights?

Jian Hu related how sometimes he is asked what he does as a Buddhist monk and teacher. “I teach people to sit and breathe,” he said. “And you made a career out of this?” came the response. But simply sitting and breathing is not so simple. The goal of Buddhism is to allow the mind to be quiet and bring out the wisdom within, but this can actually be painful sometimes– we are not good at this in the modern world. We are good at knowledge, but not at reflection. Reflection is needed in all religious traditions.

The challenges for his community involve learning how to be Buddhist in the American context. The Center in Sunnyvale has enjoyed good relationships with the city and neighbors, but also faced unusual questions. Zoning rules do not permit monks to live in the monastery, so they must commute. Parking spaces are required based on size of gathering space, assuming church-like groups, when far fewer people use the space for meditation.

Their biggest challenge is one familiar to other religious communities– how to balance the needs of a bi-cultural, bi-lingual community. What is an American Buddhist Temple like?

Dr. Donohue remarked that the founders of the Graduate Theological Union hoped that it would create the kind of understanding that Jian Hu had emphasized and counter the prejudice that Maha had warned against. The GTU was founded as consortium of protestant and catholic seminaries; then added a Center for Judaic studies, a Center for Buddhist studies, and most recently, a Center for Islamic studies. The goal is to create religious leadership that has understanding of the world’s religious traditions, not only Christian, but others as well. “Any religious leader today needs to understand their tradition in context” with others, he said.

Among the challenges facing religious leaders, Donohue noted three in particular:

  1. Stereotyping in religion
  2. Reductionism. “You’re a [Muslim, Catholic, Evangelical], so you must believe […]” We need to allow others to define themselves and their own faith.
  3. Provincialism. Always turning inward to understand the depth of one’s own tradition can lead to insularity. There is always a need for turning outward– to understand my faith I need to turn to others.

The three panelists agreed that at the root of interreligious understanding and cooperation there is a recognition that “difference is an opportunity for insight, not a point of division,” as Donohue put it. ElGenaidi remarked, that what she thinks is the truth doesn’t necessarily translate as “The Truth” for everyone. “I consider Islam to be the truth,” she says, “but that does not make me view others as less than Muslims. Islam requires that you don’t look down on others.” Jian Hu noted that Buddhists are very practical: “It doesn’t matter who said it; if it’s truth, it’s truth.” He told of a Zen monk who heard the words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount; he declared, “whoever said that must be a Zen master.”

Following the presentations, people broke into smaller groups to discuss questions that were raised by participants, such as “How can religious groups speak out on behalf of one another?” “How can we speak of the common thread that runs through our religious traditions?” “How can we include those who are often not present– African Americans, Latinos, Evangelicals?” “How can we have an interfaith conversation about race in the US?”

Leaders of interfaith organizations and participants in interreligious activities have had few opportunities to discuss issues of common concern and out of that need arose the Northern California Religious Leaders in Conversation. The steering committee is made up of interfaith activists from diverse religious traditions and from around the San Francisco Bay Area. Plans are in the works for another gathering in September 2008.

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