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A Tour to Religious Peace
August 1, 2011
In June of 2006, then Senator Barak Obama gave a speech entitled “Call to Renewal” in which he said, “...we are no longer a Christian nation, at least not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, and a Buddhist nation, and a Hindu nation, and a nation of non-believers.” This statement speaks to the reality of our nation’s spiritual diversity, yes, but more significant is the reason Obama made the observation in the first place.
The painful answer is that if we liken religion itself to a city, often we treat our respective faiths as rival neighborhoods. Creeds become organization mottos and pledges, religious artifacts and symbols become gang signs, and the struggle for new converts becomes a turf war.
How did this happen? Is humanity not one city with various colors and frequencies of spiritual and cultural expression? If, as Jesus said, a house divided cannot stand, then we need swift and decisive action toward healing and peace — not between the faiths, but between the people who live by them.
How do we accomplish this goal? How do we restore this city?
In late 2010, I had an idea. I decided to do something so radical, so different, that all the religious cliques, gangs, and organizations would lay down their arms and watch. Thus, Project Conversion: Twelve Months of Spiritual Promiscuity was born.
The mission: Immerse myself in and adopt 11 faiths from around the world and inspire everyone to learn about the various faiths of their neighbors. I want people to follow my lead and bring about a measure of empathy so deep that the slightest insult or act of violence becomes self-harm.
The first step in this immersive religious municipality tour involved visiting the composite neighborhoods and living among the people. For me, this meant visiting places I wasn't comfortable going, shaking hands with strangers who look, act, speak, smell and think differently than I do, because the idea is to temporarily become them. I was terrified. I was nervous. I was in that ‘hood across the railroad tracks my mother warned me about.
The Buddha once said that it is easier to conquer a thousand men than to conquer one’s self. In the first stage, I had to recognize that my fear was conditioned upon what I thought I knew about “those people.” And I had to cross the tracks.
Each religion required a mentor to guide me through the faiths. I remember thinking about my delusions regarding the religious variety of my southeastern North Carolina home. We have all the Christian flavors, but nothing else. Twenty-four hours of phone calls, emails, and Google searches overturned that notion.
My first track-crossing experience came when I began the preliminary research for a Hindu mentor. Soon, I established a relationship with a yoga instructor and his daughter in Delaware, and discovered the Hindu Bhavan temple of Fayetteville, North Carolina. I grew up in Lumberton, N.C., attended school among Hindus, and never was privy to the Fayetteville temple less than 30 minutes from my home. Such serendipity followed me in every stage of my journey as I traversed the faiths looking for teachers and communities.
My mentor for the next faith neighborhood on the list was a doctor who lived less than a mile from my home in Lumberton. She happens to be the only active Baha’i for miles, and I discovered her in my own backyard. By connecting with her through weekly “study circle meetings” and my subsequent guest lectures at Robeson Community College, I helped her gain a new neighbor—a convert—in her lonely sector of the city. All I had to do was visit a stranger across the tracks.
My experience with the Zoroastrians was quite different. Because their numbers are shrinking, contacting a willing mentor became nearly impossible. Through many calls and emails, I found my teacher in Chicago. I hoped for someone local - someone I could shake hands with, speak with about their faith, and interact with in a physical community. It was March, and it quickly became my most difficult month, as my interaction with the faith became more like a long distance relationship. I learned the hard way how important our spiritual and social networks are on the local level.
Judaism provided one of the most enlightening and gratifying experiences of my year to date. My mentor for April in Judaism happened to be a good friend and fellow writer from Charlotte. He invited me to his home and offered a personal, guided tour of the Queen City and its vibrant Levine Jewish Community Center at Shalom Park. The cultural landscape and social identity of the Jewish people blossomed for me in Charlotte in a way only a tangible experience can. Between our visit to the Levine Sklut Judaic Library, a double bat mitzvah at Temple Beth El and a Shabbat dinner with my mentor and his wife, I drove home with a new extended family and appreciation for the Jewish neighborhood I never knew.
The next romp through the side streets of religious southeastern North Carolina brought me to a Buddhist monastery tucked away in the woods of a quiet town, an hour east toward Wilmington, called Bolivia. Wat Carolina, the monastery where I planned to spend the weekend with the monks, is so remote that I drove by the establishment four times before I realized where it was. No one back in Lumberton— including people who grew up there all their lives— had any idea the monastery, or any other Buddhist community, existed. The monks welcomed me with labor, meditation, and study, and after a fluke emergency, fate called me home just a little closer to enlightenment than when I arrived.
Now in the latest month on my tour of the town, I pray, worship, and interact with the Latter-day Saints of Lumberton. I knew about this church while in high school; however my then Christian leanings were so critical and indignant that I never bothered to visit them. Part of this month then for me has been spent swallowing the regrets of my past and crossing the street of a neighborhood I once cursed. Maybe they trust me, and maybe they don’t. I can understand if some of the congregation feels the strain of a former Capulet/Montague-style rivalry between us. Someone has to be the first to extend his hand in peace. Since I began the war and now intend to end it, that fellow might as well be me.
I suspect the remainder of my year with Project Conversion will follow the same thread of uncomfortable forays into my past biases as well as the pleasurable release of new relationships. My hope, my prayer - no, my insistence - is that my fellow citizens follow my example. For if we are not a city of diversity brought together by a common humanity and the joy of our variation, and then we are a slum where hatred and ignorance rots our very foundations.
All we need to do to prevent the latter is summon the courage to kill our prejudices. We can build this city.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”