Wednesday, August 13, 2014

When Friends Touch the Sacred

written by guest blogger, Lynnea Stuart

Some people think I’m Jewish.  I’m not.

Not only am I a goya (Gentile female), I’m a transsexual Gnostic goya who happens to study Hebrew.

But my best female friend is Jewish… and single.  Sometimes we get together to commiserate about men.  I told her one day, “Why don’t you get serious about your tradition?  Go to Shabbat services.  Light some candles.”

Then I moved away from my boyfriend.  She asked me to stay with her.  For the first week or so I never saw her doing anything more for Shabbat than macrobiotic cooking which isn’t quite the same thing as kosher cooking even if it’s consistent with kosher rules.  So I decided to prompt something to happen.

I went out and bought some candles designed to burn down in a couple of hours.  When it comes to Sabbath lights, one does not extinguish them once lit.  They are simply allowed to burn themselves out.

So we looked around for some candlesticks.  What we found that fit were some silver candlesticks so neglected they were heavily bearded in red wax.  I said, “Those should work.”  She was shaken.

As I learned later, these were her grandmother’s candlesticks she had used for Shabbat.

I continued my preparations:  shower, cooking, cleaning.  Then as sunset approached I prompted her to the Sabbath lights.  She lit them and melted them into their sockets.  She covered her eyes and said, “Will you recite the barakhah (blessing)?”


I  demurred because, after all, I’m not Jewish.  I was just trying to get her to exercise her own tradition.  But she assured me with, “Yes.”

I waved my hands over the candles in a circular pattern, crossed them to cover my eyes and recited, “Barukh Atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melekh Ha’olam, Asher kiddeshanu b’mitvotaiv vitzivanu l’hadliyk ner shel Shabbat.” (Blessed are You, Lord Our God, King of the Universe, Who sanctified us in His commands and commanded us to kindle a light of Sabbath)

My Jewish friend followed along with me in one of the few barakhot I actually know.  But no sooner than we recited it something remarkable happened.

Picture an explosion of a skyrocket like on the 4th of July.  At that moment Light burst from between those candles with energy we both felt, a Lumina that filled the dwelling in a vibrant hush.

My friend’s eyes widened.  “Wow!  This is a holy meal!”

I then understood something from what I had read in various Rabbinic articles.  What my Magian friends had called, “Light” must have been what the Rabbis called, “Chai” (Life).  It felt the same as I had felt many times in many traditions:  tingly, living, and wonderful.  It’s an energy one encounters when touching the sacred.  It alone has kept not a few from returning to the rites of their respective traditions again and again.

And that Shabbat I had the privilege of sharing it with a Jewish friend.

Did she light Sabbath lights on her own after that?  I never saw it happen.  But she did clean up those candlesticks and set them in an honored place on her table… with decorative Shabbat candles for another heralding of Shabbat as a sanctuary in time.  And I offered a prayer that the man she may find would lead her to light those candles again.

For even in something simple as lighting candles, there’s a profound Light ready to answer, regardless of whether a girl is of a given faith or not… and regardless of whether religionists accept her a woman.

Lynnea Urania Stuart was first published in Shabbat Shalom magazine (Review and Herald Publishers) as a contributing writer in 1990 and later wrote the San Francisco Scene column for TV Epic in 2000.  Her religious background is varied, though she today speaks of herself as “Melissite Gnostic” and may be found in most any religious group, whether Abrahamic, Dharmic, Shamanic, or Telestatic.  She does so openly as a post-operative transsexual woman while at the same time promoting spirituality within the transgender demographic within the wide diversity that transgender people hold spirituality.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

My Journey with Project Interfaith

written by guest blogger, Kerri Dietz-Pillen

Like me, have you imagined living in a world where people of all faiths, beliefs and cultures are valued, included and protected?
Like me could you get excited about it?

Would you like to believe that in your immediate community and eventually around the world everyone can be in a classroom where their faith or their culture is celebrated, every health care provider who sees a patient understands how that person’s specific belief system will affect their ability to receive and respond to care, and every business helps their employees of every creed feel understood and comfortable?

Working along with Project Interfaith to develop a world like this is exciting to me!

It excites me that Project Interfaith is right here in Omaha. I have been excited to watch this genesis, one person at a time, one business place and classroom at a time, one city at a time. I have been excited to see specific programs like the Education Trunk and RavelUnravel build interaction between people who likely not otherwise routinely interact with each other: people from different geographic positions, from different positions of affluence and power, from different positions of belief and culture, from different developmental positions in life.

Project Interfaith engages me. It engages all of us, using a variety of ways that people can interact with each other, all to produce this community of respect and relationships that has grown literally across the country and across the world.

It excites me to work with Project Interfaith because when I asked if I could help in any way they said, “Yes!” And every time Project Interfaith engages me in volunteer work they give me fantastic education and appropriate tools to do my job well, often including sessions after the event where we share our experiences with the staff and other volunteers.

Becoming a certified Project Interfaith speaker caused me to re-examine and rediscover the amazing structure and philosophy that led to PI being recognized internationally for their effectiveness in changing the world one heart at a time. In my studies to become a speaker for them, I revisited the Project Interfaith “Vision” which “strives to create a community and world where people of all faiths, beliefs, and cultures are valued, included and protected.” It inspired me to reassess everything in my life in those terms – Valued, Included, Protected.

My most exciting experience at PI has been that of being part of the RavelUnravel during pilot phase. Our teams went out to people in this area and personally asked and filmed the answers to four questions about their beliefs and the personal community experiences that have sprung from these identities. Now, after gaining the personal experience, I completely understand that if I were to visit the places of worship and fellowship of a wide variety of people I have never met, I would be very welcome and feel very comfortable. Despite this newfound knowledge, I cannot imagine another scenario that would have put me into meetings in people’s homes who are Baha’i or Sikh – or into a Pentecostal church or a synagogue… In these places I was able to learn what has inspired the person across from me to follow the spiritual path they have chosen, and these people were willing to share how others in this community have affected them in their journey.

This has been one of the most sacred experiences of my life.

Come join Project Interfaith in our journey! For you, too, it could be the first step in a journey of a thousand miles.

Kerri Dietz-Pillen is currently the owner of Bellevue Vision Clinic. A graduate from Ohio State University, Kerri has played a large role in volunteering for Project Interfaith throughout the years.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Mr. Farhad Panthaki Brings Light to Traditions and Beliefs of Zoroastrianism (Part 3)

written by Program Intern, Michaela Wolf. 

I think when I first heard of your religion, I made an assumption that reincarnation might be included, due to other mentions of rebirth and cycling. Can you explain why this is not so and what your belief regarding death and the after- life is?

In the Zarathushti faith, the soul is considered to be immortal, and death is viewed as a transformation for the soul from the physical to the spiritual realm. It is believed that on the fourth morning after death, the soul is self-judged at an allegorical bridge to the spiritual world and is drawn into Heaven or Hell depending on if the soul generated more good thoughts, words & deeds. It is believed that through the collective good acts of humanity, at the end of time, all evil will be eradicated and all souls from heaven and hell will have to pass through an allegorical river of molten metal to be cleansed of any imperfections and then will be reunited with their resurrected original bodies in a perfect state. These beliefs are not consonant with reincarnation. Also, there are annual prayers performed for remembrance of the departed soul, which would be pointless if the soul was reincarnated.

Do children learn Avesta today? What role does it have in your contemporary practice?

No. Children today do not learn Avesta. It has not been a spoken language for a really long time. We do pray our prayers in the original Avesta language, on an individual level for the daily kushti prayer and on a community level at communal thanksgiving Jashan prayers. However, we typically use books that have English translations of the Avesta prayers.

Honesty appears as a pillar in your practice. Can you explain how this shapes your life and the role it carries socially? Can you describe a time when this came up in your life and what you did?

As mentioned earlier, Truth & Righteousness is considered to be of paramount importance as highlighted in the Ashem Vohu prayer. We try to live by these ideals to be an example to our children at every opportunity possible. One evening as I was pulling towards the curb to park to pick up my kids after school, my vehicle clipped the corner of a parked vehicle and the corner light broke and was hanging by the wires. With dread and visions of increased insurance premiums, I quickly looked around and no one was there. So, on instinct, I ran in and picked up my kids. As I was sitting back in the car, I saw thorough the rear view mirror the driver of the other car with his child looking at the broken light, but I just sat there, frozen. Later, that whole evening, I felt really terrible until I resolved to call the other car owner. I looked up the last name from the directory (I asked the kids who else left at the same time they did), called the owner and apologetically explained everything, and gave him my insurance information. I suddenly felt extremely relieved, like a huge burden was lifted. It really drove home the old adage “The truth will set you free.”

How do you consider biomedical technologies aimed at extending the lifespan of humans?
I personally believe that quality of natural life is way more important than the lifespan.

Can you speak about the role of dualism in Zoroastrianism?

The dualism that is described is the continuing conflict between Good (Spenta Mainyu) & Evil (Anghra Mainyu) at a cosmic and individual level. Humans are enjoined to always actively promote good to collectively assist in achieving the ultimate triumph of Good over Evil. So, personally, at an individual level, it represents an ethical choice.

How does this impact your life and perspective?

It reminds me to always weigh the consequences of my words and actions, and attempt to always strive to make the right choice.

Is there anything else you would like to share about your religion or beliefs?

I wanted to thank you for your interest in the Zarathushti faith, and want to emphasize that I am also a student of the religion. Therefore, in order to provide the best information, I have relied heavily on the following two sources: a book titled “The Zarathushti Religion – A Basic Text” and a pamphlet titled “ Zoroastrians (Zarathushtis) Followers of an Ancient Faith in a Modern World”, both published by FEZANA (Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America).


Michaela Wolf is the program intern at Project Interfaith. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies with a focus in Biology and a minor in Sociology from the University of Nebraska- Lincoln. She currently attends Clarkson College, pursuing a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing. Her interests include reading, writing, running, the outdoors and art.