Tuesday, November 27, 2012

My Interfaith Journey

by Project Interfaith Advisory Council Member, Donna Walter
As the world marks the 50th anniversary of Vatican II and approaches the 500th anniversary (2017) of the Reformation, I find it an interesting time to reflect on my interfaith journey. Growing up in the middle of the 20th century, I experienced an inter-Christian journey long before my true interfaith one began. My 19th century born father was not faith practicing, but he did live by the golden rule.  My mother entered the world very early in the 20th century from a long line of German Lutherans. Both parents came from farm backgrounds. I believe stewardship of the land has faith roots and was a very important factor in shaping my parents and me, even though we had moved to city by the time I was two.

In my youth the only interfaith relations I experienced were the tensions between Lutherans and Catholics. I experienced from a distance the divisive effect of Lutheran-Catholic relations when my cousin decided to marry a Catholic. I believe my uncle’s heart attack was caused in part by that great divide. When I began dating a Catholic boy my senior year of high school, I felt the impact on a very personal level.  My mother would not come to the door or even speak to the young man. The tension was so great that, more often than not, I would not be able to keep my evening meal down on a date night, a fact I don’t believe my mother ever knew.  The relationship never came to marriage, so that particular confrontation was avoided. Do not misunderstand my mother.  She was a woman of great faith, love, kindness, and understanding
who taught me to treat everyone the same.  Her anti-Catholic views were a product of the times.

Curiously my next Catholic adventure met with no objection. An all girls Catholic junior college in my hometown provided a very affordable, live-at-home, quality education for my first two years. I went to mass occasionally, talked everyday with Catholics, and was
influenced by many Catholic friends and several of my nun teachers. I still correspond with one former teacher today. Through it all I never considered converting nor was any pressure ever put upon me to do so.  From there, off I went in a blaze of change-the-world idealism to a four-year university. I earned a bachelor’s degree and began teaching in a small mid-west high school, married, had a family, quit teaching – a pretty common routine.  When I returned to teaching after earning a master’s degree, I eventually ended up in the Catholic school system where I chalked up 30 years of experience. I cannot express how grateful I am to have traveled that path and to have been molded by Catholic spirituality and amazing Catholic friends and colleagues. Ironically, it was my involvement with Catholic education and teaching the Holocaust that lead me to become involved with the Jewish community.  Never saw that coming back in the 60’s!

While attending a Holocaust workshop, an energetic ADL employee named Beth Katz asked attendees if anyone was interested in attending a Jewish/Christian study session. I signed up.  I thoroughly enjoyed the session. I found there was more that united us than divided us. The next thing I knew I was working with Beth helping my Catholic colleagues learn how to properly use a Seder meal in Christian education - get yourself invited to a Seder in a Jewish home or involve a person of the Jewish faith to conduct one for you. And then - I found myself on the Advisory Council of what is now called Project Interfaith (PI).
The knowledge I have gained through PI programs and my experiences teaching lessons of the Holocaust have all lead me on an incredible journey.  When I tell people about my interfaith works, I am sometimes asked, if I am still Lutheran. The truth is I am a different Lutheran – a much better Lutheran. As I gain knowledge about other faith traditions, I also learn more about my own faith. As I listen to others share their beliefs, I find myself moved as I recognize my own thoughts and feelings in theirs. This has been the impetus for me to work for better understanding among people of differing faith traditions. My PI experience, along with my role as a Holocaust educator, has given me knowledge to help break down stereotypes and misunderstandings. The impact is contagious.  My church circle is embarking on a second year of studying different religions. Last year it was world religions.  This year we are continuing world religions and then moving into different Christian denominations. We are gathering interest from those who are not in our circle.  It seems many people are eager to know more about other faith traditions. Of course, there are ample numbers who resist. Fear, along with misunderstanding, is the greatest barrier between many people of varying faith traditions. The lessons of the Holocaust illustrate misunderstanding, prejudice and stereotyping at their most extreme. These lessons open up great avenues of discussion that have the potential to break down barriers and call people to speak up and take action in support of one another.

Through all my life I have been blessed with amazing people - parents, friends, colleagues.  My foray into the world of “other” religions has connected me with people who have touched my heart and soul very deeply. I believe this is a direct result of learning that we are more alike than we are different. From a young girl who was confused about the hubbub between Lutherans and Catholics to an adult who places great value on understanding others, my journey has taken me along an incredible road of discovery. I hope many others will share a similar journey, and that dividing walls will crumble and solid bridges of understanding will be built.  Project Interfaith certainly is working boldly toward that end.

Donna Walter has a B.A. in English from Western Illinois University and a M.S. in Reading from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She is the Education Coordinator for the Institute for Holocaust Education and Coordinator for the Nebraska Holocaust Education Consortium.  She was an 8th grade Language Arts teacher and Language Arts coordinator at St. Pius X/St. Leo in Omaha for many years. Donna is the recipient of the 2012 National Catholic Educational Association Distinguished Teacher Award and is an alumna of the Belfer National Teachers’ Conference of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Bearing Witness, and Bearing Witness Advanced with the Anti-Defamation League. She serves on the Advisory Council for Project Interfaith.  She and her husband enjoy talking about Annie and Ben, their grandchildren, and riding a tandem bike.

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