Having joined the Interfaith Youth Core leadership social network, Bridge-Builders, and having read the initial chapter of the IFYC’s Interfaith Leader’s Toolkit (a workbook), I’ve decided to share here my story of how I came to be committed to religious pluralism.
Religious pluralism–I quote here from the workbook– "describes a community where different individuals or groups respect each other’s distinct religious and philosophical identities, seek mutually enriching relationships with one another, and work together for the common good."
Sharing our personal stories is important in promoting religious pluralism because stories build relationships between persons; they inspire others, and may sometimes even lead to life-changing decisions; and finally, by setting forth concrete examples, stories encourage others, in like devotion, to roll up their sleeves and get to work in deeds of compassion.
As I recall my upbringing in a Christian home, and more specifically, a Presbyterian one, I don’t ever recall being converted to an interfaith point of view. Rather, I seem to have been born to it. In my early teens I asked my Sunday school teacher whether certain people were damned to hell simply because they were born into Buddhist families–as I was born into a Christian one–but, because of this happenstance perhaps they had never even heard of Jesus, much less professed him their "Lord and Savior." (It never had made sense to me that a benign Creator would condemn millions of persons for losing in a lottery.) To my teacher’s credit, and to the credit of the denomination and congregation which had nurtured and trained him, he admitted that he knew little about Buddhism, and so, he wasn’t prepared to answer my question. He encouraged me, though, to learn more about Buddhism in my school library. His example of un-anxious honesty, open mindedness, and gentle encouragement, was in fact all the answer I needed.
Although, as I have said, I seem to have been born to an interfaith point of view, I’m nevertheless grateful for having been raised in a family and church that encouraged me to establish friendships with people unlike myself. My father was in a men’s auxiliary of the YMCA, and occasionally he invited Y leaders from other countries to live in our home for a while. I will never forget Salvatore Navaria, a guest from Sicily, who spent a number of weeks with us. He was very strange in a delightful way. When my mom served him breakfast cereal he would always eat it dry and drink the milk separately. And when he ate a sandwich he always took it apart, eating the bread apart from the innards. So, at an early age I realized that people have very different customs, and although these may be quite important to them, they aren’t at all important in defining who they are at a deeper level. This was quite obvious to me, without having learned it in school or church, or at a parent’s knee.
I turn sixty-five this week. As I look back on a life of study and work I realize that there was in me from the beginning a fascination with folk different from my own. Along the way I made major life decisions which intensified this leading, like moving away from my home region to the global metropolis of Miami, Florida.
But the most formative of these broadening experiences I did not choose, namely, the year I spent as a combatant on the rivers and canals of the Mekong Delta. In 1970, serving as a military advisor to the South Vietnamese navy (see picture to left), I lived ashore, got to know the local farmers and fishermen, and was invited often to participate in their religious ceremonies. I was the guest in several fishermen’s homes when they celebrated the death days of their ancestors, burning incense and leaving gifts of food for them, arrayed with care upon crude tables under thatched roofs. I attended an animist ritual held near a whale carcass that had washed up on the river’s edge. I wore with gratitude an amulet of Buddha, given to me by a Cambodian who had emigrated to Vietnam and joined the navy there. It would protect me from bullets, he insisted. I needed all the help I could get!
Abundant help eventually did come, through a channel with which I was familiar. I prayed to Jesus to give me courage to endure, and that prayer was answered dramatically. I had an experience of Jesus with me, which consoled me entirely and filled me with deep joy and peace. I resolved, if I survived the war, to go to seminary, and become a pastor. However, even though I had had this peak experience in connection with Jesus, which many a Christian would understand, I did not in any way discount or denigrate my experiences of sacred spirit through other channels.
Some years ago I helped to start an interfaith e-group called "Many Candles, One Light." I have always believed that the same Spirit moves all people to reconnect to the source of their being. We do so according to the metaphorical tools which birth and our raising confer, and also according to the creative energies of our own unique imaginations. But, the same light illumines all. We are many candles, but we carry the same light.
The most recent chapter in my story of interfaith journeying began in the aftermath of 9-11. Of course, with so many others I was appalled by this murderous act, but I had hoped that instead of seeking revenge my country would investigate the reasons for such rage. It was not to be. Violence most often begets violence. As one who participated forty years ago in the daily de-humanizing business of hunting and being hunted, I could not believe that my country was once again going to war, a war which in this instance was taking on religious overtones; and holy wars are the very worst kind. So, I resolved to resist xenophobia, to resist the insidious suspicion that pits citizen against fellow citizen when faith lines divide. I resolved to become an interfaith peacemaker, and to use the Internet as my means.