Interfaith effort equals acts of courage in age of intolerance

I spent my birthday being courageous and I didn’t even know it. All I felt was blessed.

Those who were paying attention knew Pope Francis was a true profile in courage from the moment he took the name he did and spurned the extravagance of the papal residence. We knew he had a certain fearlessness when he dived into crowds, kissed babies and generally scorned the high-security pope mobile that had long kept our pontiffs, like our presidents, out of our reach. But never have we seen the depths of his courage when Pope Francis humbly faced East, bowed his head and stood next to the Grand Mufti of Istanbul in November.

The act is so simple we might have missed just how courageous praying with those of a different faith can be, especially for the leader of the Church of Rome. But we can’t miss the violence carried out throughout the world every single day by ardent believers of various faiths who simply believe the only way to serve God is to kill in His name. What we believe and who and how we worship can get us killed any day in any country in the world. Such is the nature of divided religion in the 21st century.

Thankfully the Pope did not alone use the lens of the Thanksgiving holiday to draw attention to the need for peace among believers of different faiths. I know similar services likely take place all across the globe, but until my birthday this year I’d never experienced a Thanksgiving multi-faith service like the one I attended in a San Francisco synagogue, hosted by the First Mennonite Church of San Francisco and the Congreation Sha’ar Zahav.

I sat in awe as Jews wearing yarmulkes and Muslims wearing hijabs and Christians carrying crosses or rosaries and Buddhists sounding bells gathered together to celebrate their commonalities instead of their vast differences.

At times it felt like bathing in wisdom passed down through the centuries from all parts of the globe as Jewish poems, Muslim scripture, Christian songs and Buddhist practices were presented.  At least a half dozen languages were represented. Gay and straight were represented. Black, white and in between were represented. Young and old. Male, female.

At one point, as a Jewish cantor and a Mennonite song leader sang, I stared to the rafters where large massive beams held the protection over our heads and I felt for a moment transported. We were those beams, the various shapes, all connected powerfully into a force of collective strength by the One who transcends.

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I had no idea that I’d be given the gift of experiencing just a slice of what heaven must be like on my birthday. It was a memorable present, one that exemplifies the high prayer of Jesus, “on Earth as it is in heaven.”

Because that’s the point of all this here on Earth right?

As it turned out, the simple gathering was anything but. After the service I learned how fractured, difficult and tenuous the planning of the entire event had been. Deference was paid to all. Great care and planning took place, and still some dropped out before the service. It barely came off.

As the service proceeded in its careful, easy pace, I knew that people die for courageous acts like these. I can’t understand why. Especially being there and seeing it for myself, I can’t imagine why we so often use religion as a tool of hate, violence and oppression. But it happens. We know this all too well. We live in an era of religious crusades, as if the first ones weren’t devastating enough.

Hating and killing and degrading are still so much easier than loving, empowering and respecting.

The Pope’s act and this service remind me that God’s mission on this Earth is the unleashing of heaven the way it was intended in the first place. Imagine how much easier that job will be when those God loves so much that She created us in Her image stop destroying that creation and begin to participate in the reclamation project. Because that’s the point of all this here on Earth, isn’t it?

Which is exactly why it is so courageous in the first place.

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