Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Stand Up

written by Project Interfaith's Resource Development Intern, Bethany Walter

"Most people think,
Great God will come from the skies,
Take away everything
And make everybody feel high.
But if you know what life is worth,
You will look for yours on earth:
And now you see the light,
You stand up for your rights. Jah!"

~ Bob Marley and the Wailers (“Get Up, Stand Up”)

When I was only 15, my parents put me on a plane to Africa all by myself.  After 20 hours of being squished up against a plane window, I finally arrived in Zambia, where I would be living with my aunt and uncle for the next three months. Going to Africa is an experience I am very grateful for; it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life. However, I learned something about myself while I was there that changed my life for both the good and the bad.

You see, my aunt and uncle are Christian missionaries. I cannot deny that they do great things for the people in Zambia, including having started an orphanage in the last few years. However, while I was there I found I was expected to “share the gospel” with the “unsaved.” I found out quickly that I didn’t want to. I just ended up asking the questions instead. I wanted to know what they believed and I didn’t feel like it was necessary to convince them otherwise. Besides, they were people too. What made me any more correct than they were?

This realization has led me down a difficult road with my all-Christian family. I love my family very much, but I cannot sit here and truthfully tell you that there has been no pain. Since before I was even born, my life had been decided for me – what I was supposed to believe religiously and politically, how I was supposed to dress, even exactly what type of man I was supposed to marry. I was told to be myself only as long as it fit into the box that had already been drawn around my life. As you may have guessed already, I didn’t fit all that nicely. One of my favorite books, “The Tao of Pooh,” by Benjamin Hoffman says -
 “You'd be surprised how many people violate this simple principle every day of their lives and try to fit square pegs into round holes, ignoring the clear reality that Things Are As They Are.” Growing up this way came with it’s own set of challenges. There didn’t seem to exist any middle ground for me – either I was for them or I was against them. Black and white. This made it very difficult for me to figure out who I was and what I stood for until early into my adult life. I still struggle with many of these issues today.

My spirituality is rather simple actually. However, I have found that many people don’t quite understand not having any religion at all. The closest thing I have found to how I feel about this life is Philosophical Taoism, although I do not identify myself as a Taoist. I have always questioned the need for a middleman in creation. In other words, if God can be self-created, why can nature not be? For this reason, I find evolution to be the most satisfying answer to the question of why we are here. I do not view myself as being separate from this universe; rather, I am one with it. I see humanity as being the universe’s way of evolving to self-awareness, and I strongly believe there is other consciousness out there. Many have questioned me on the grounds that I have no higher purpose to live for or no moral system to live by. My higher purpose
is my existence, which I do not see as insignificant, and my morality comes from knowing in my heart that I should never maliciously harm any other living being.

Like Bob Marley wisely said, once you see the light you should stand up for your rights (Jah!). I am here at Project Interfaith to stand up for myself and for others. Besides being a great opportunity to gain professional experience on my resume with a non-profit organization while in college, it is also an opportunity for me to empower myself by standing up for what I believe instead of allowing others continuously tell me how to think. Second, I am here to stand up for the rights of others around the world and in my own community to be free from intolerance as well. I know that my story is not a unique one, and I have a great desire to be part of a positive change towards religious understanding because I know what a struggle it can be to not be accepted for who you are.

Bethany is Project Interfaith’s Resource Development intern. Bethany was raised in Papillion, Nebraska and is currently a junior at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her major is International Studies with a concentration in Business Marketing and Eastern European Studies. She hopes that her Russian language skills will be useful one day.
She joined Project Interfaith because she believes strongly in every person’s right to be empowered and free from intolerance of any kind. Traveling to several different countries – including Russia, England, St. Vincent and a number of African countries – has given her a passion for learning and understanding people of every culture and faith.
In her spare time, Bethany loves to spend quality time with those close to her, play video games and spoil her two cats. She is not sure exactly where life is taking her yet, but she knows that she wants to do something to help people.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Opening Up

written by our Project Consultant, Philip Lomneth

Openness.  People talk about its importance often, about keeping an open mind when trying to learn something new or entering into a controversial conversation, but do we really know what being open means?  Do we grasp all that it entails?  For if we are open, are we like a door swung wide, letting in all sorts of insects and critters as well as the summer breeze?  Or can we still be open even while screening out the things we want not?  Moreover, if we are open to new ideas and experiences, what must we let go of, what must we empty out, in order to have the room for the new?

I ask these questions because I seek a deeper understanding of what it means to be open.  In interfaith work in particular, having a rich understanding of openness helps one intentionally enter conversations recognizing one's own assumptions and limits

So, what deeper meaning do I seek?  I seek an understanding of openness affirming the need for vulnerability.  Openness means letting go of one's desire to be right, to listen especially when you believe the person talking is wrong.  It is expecting surprises rather than anticipating people's motions or preparing for one's own next move.  To be open is to let your guard down and feel an attack.  We should absolutely reject disrespect, yet if one is open, one does not expect an insult.  Being open means sharing yourself beyond what is comfortable or normal.

I seek an understanding of openness affirming our status as partially filled creatures.  Though we may be ever changing, we have ideas, beliefs, convictions, experiences, and more that have formed us, that have somehow filled us.  They are not burdens to cast off, rather they make up that which we share with the people around us.  What's more, because we are at least partially full, openness encourages us to challenge or question what we find confusing, misguided, or simply wrong.  If being open means to share what is within us, then we ought to also share what we disagree with.  Furthermore, because we can be hurt, openness carries with it the responsibility to care for each other and reject what is harmful.  Understanding is critical, but I do not believe we are simply bodies and minds to be roughly rocked about in order to gain some modicum of deeper understanding.

If we live out some deeper meaning of openness beyond the cliché, I believe our interactions with others will be more authentic as we understand the risks and limits of our own openness.  We will learn to be comfortable setting boundaries in what to share and where we can to divulge more.  Disagreements will not simply appear as attacks or denials of one's perspective but genuine ways of sharing one's perspective and showing deep listening.  If we understand that openness abolishes neither our right to be treated with dignity nor our responsibility to treat others the same, we can enter dialogue knowing that we will hold each other accountable if anyone transgresses those rights.  If we seek richer interactions with the people around us, a fuller understanding of openness is one way to start.

These are just a few of my still forming ideas on what it means to be open, but what do you think?  Why does being open matter?  What does it even mean?  How is being open important in your encounters with people of different faiths, beliefs, or cultures from your own?
Philip Lomneth is a Project Consultant with Project Interfaith.  He graduated from St. Olaf College with a Bachelor's degree in Religion and Ethnic Studies.  Philip's fascination with the many ways identity and belief influences people's lives led him to start volunteering with Project Interfaith in 2008.  He kept returning throughout the years, and is currently developing curricula and other resources at Project Interfaith.  In the fall, he plans to head back to school, pursuing a Master of Divinity. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Please, Keep Boring Me

from guest blogger, David Leslie.

At least it made for a nice, moon lit walk on the beach.

Over a year has passed since that evening on Miami Beach, but it’s become one of those nagging thoughts that won’t go away, and one of the things that has helped me articulate my approach to religion and spirituality.

I was on a very pleasant winter weekend getaway to Miami and had made sure I’d made it back to my hotel room on Sunday evening in time for the webcast of my favorite worship service ( Actually, that wasn’t a major sacrifice since the 5:00 CT broadcast was at 6:00 ET and it had been dark for over an hour. It was, by Miami standards, a bone chilling 60 degrees.

As is usually the case, the format featured a Skype conversation between the minister/host and a guest about a topic of interest to those of us who appreciate open, non-dogmatic discussions of things religious and spiritual. I’ve been a regular attendee, either in person or online, since its beginnings. It’s usually a very good and expansive conversation. Unfortunately, there are exceptions just about everything and this week was it. The guest was a Christian minister whose billing sounded like a discussion of ministry to working people. Instead, she focused more on a promo of her book, which apparently was based on a blog posting she’d titled “Please, Stop Boring Me” and articulated her disdain for the “spiritual but not religious” crowd who she says she finds boring, lazy, and narcissistic.

My laptop was off, my sweatshirt was on, and I was out the door for a walk on the beach.

People engaging in an approach to spirituality different from hers qualifies them as boring? People who are willing to take on the task of seeking something that works for them, and daring to step outside the boundaries of a medieval European framework of Christianity and maybe seek something that transcends man-made organizations are lazy and narcissistic?  I’m not eager to quote John Boehner, but “are you kidding me?!”

A year or so earlier, the Pew Research Center had published a report titled “Rise of the Nones” describing how the “religiously unaffiliated” were the fastest growing religious identification in the U.S., especially among young adults. A few years before, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman had published a book titled “The World is Flat; A Brief History of the Twenty First Century” in which he described how developments in communications technologies have made it harder to stop people from communicating, making the world flat by bringing down borders. He was talking mostly about politics and economics, but I believe the same line of thought applies to religion. It seems to me that those books may be two sides of the same story; many are loosening their attachment to one, and only one, religion because the boundaries between them are seeming less relevant to their lives.

“Spiritual but not religious” isn’t my favorite phrase. I prefer to describe my spiritual identity with more positive terms like “more spiritual than religious” or “multi-faith”, or simply “yes”. Christianity is at the top of my list. It’s the tradition I was raised in and it defines my perspective. I am active in a liberal Christian church. But I’m also influenced by Buddhism and aspects of Native American spiritual traditions. In the past year, I’ve attended worship services or educational events of four churches, two sanghas, and a mosque. I believe I’m more spiritual, and maybe even more religious, for wanting that broader perspective.

I learned some Spanish several years ago when I was travelling in Mexico and Central America for my work, and more recently have started learning German to better connect with my family origins and to prep for a trip to Europe. I have no doubt that my understanding and appreciation of my native English has been made better by the experience. It seems to me that being multi-lingual is usually seen positively. It makes you seen as worldly. I don’t get how trying to apply that same thinking to religion makes you boring.

I love the way Mahatma Ghandi said it; “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any”

If sharing that view makes me boring, I guess I’m fine with that. I hope we can all be boring together. Please, keep boring me.

David Leslie is a Unitarian Universalist who attends a United Church of Christ Church and practices many aspects of Buddhism. When not involved in his day job as an Omaha-based learning and development consultant, Dave enjoys travel, photography, and hiking, and is interested in multi-faith and interfaith educational outreach and is almost done with a graduate certificate in Multi-Religious Studies from Starr King School for the Ministry.