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Interfaith Lecture Recaps

Satpal Singh explores Sikhism creation and how to honor humans’ shared divine light on last Interfaith Friday

satpal singh

 

Singh

Satpal Singh gave the last Interfaith Friday lecture of the 2020 season on his perspective of creation and humanity as a Sikh at 2 p.m. EDT Friday, Aug. 28, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform. Vice President for Religion and Senior Pastor Gene Robinson said that Singh’s words demonstrated a theme in the Interfaith Friday series.

“One of the reasons that I do this Interfaith Friday program is for people to see how much we have in common with one another, although we would use different words and different practices to express our own own spirituality, our beliefs in the divine and so on,” Robinson said. “… In this multitude of religions, we have this one theme that keeps coming through. Despite the fact that we’re each holding a different piece of the divine, … none of us can comprehend all of it. And what you’re saying has really demonstrated that.”

After the lecture on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, Robinson joined Singh in a subsequent Q-and-A fueled by questions from Robinson and the audience, who could submit questions through the www.chq.questions.org portal and on Twitter with #CHQ2020.

Singh researches neurodegenerative diseases at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Outside of his career, he is the father of Simran Jeet Singh, who has also spoken at Chautauqua on Sikhism, and Satpal himself is a thought leader on Sikhism in interfaith dialogues and on social justice issues. 

According to the Guru Granth Sahib, the central Sikh scripture, there is one universal god who created everything. But this god is formless, without physical traits or a gender. Singh referred to God as “their” to reflect this. While he said a formless god is also difficult to describe, this formlessness is like the concepts of gravity, space and time — though in Sikhism, God also created those, too.

“In a similar way, we can feel love, which is also formless and can permeate our being,” Singh said.

God existed before creation — no land or sky, only darkness.

“Only the divine existed in a profound trance,” Singh said.

Then the divine created the universe.

“From a non-manifest state, the divine became manifest,” Singh said.

Singh sees elements of the Sikh creation story in the Big Bang Theory, the most accepted scientific theory on how the universe began.

“In both cases, starting with nothing, there was a sudden unimaginable force that created an entire known universe,” Singh said.

The divine created it, and also became part of it. Singh said that humans are not only a creation of the divine, but a manifestation, meaning that humans embody the divine itself. The Guru Granth Sahib compares the divine to the ocean, and each human as a wave in the ocean. 

“There is no difference between the water in the ocean and the water in the wave,” Singh said.

In Sikhism, the spiritual pursuit of a life is to realize this and become one with the divine. But this is not on a physical plane. Any physical action, such as going on a pilgrimage, dipping oneself in holy water, fasting, facing in a certain direction, praying in a certain language, eating a certain way, is not related to the spiritual journey — though these actions can help prepare someone for spiritual pursuits on a physical or a societal level.

Since the entire world has been created out of the same divine light,” he said, “how can one person be good and one bad in the name of religion, gender, caste or anything else?”

“Some of these actions may offer us health benefits or other benefits at the level of our physical body or societal principles, but they do not offer us any sort of spiritual advancement,” Singh said. “This may seem odd coming from someone who looks like me. My turban is not a ticket to the realm of the divine. The turban is my identity as a Sikh.”

For Singh, his turban serves as a reminder to himself to maintain Sikh values and ethics, and to make commitments to stand up for equality. Because there is a divine light in every human, Singh said that how a person chooses to follow their spiritual path does not matter.

“If you are a Christian, be a good Christian,” Singh said. “If you are a Jew, be a good Jew. If you are a good Sikh, be a good Sikh.”

He said that recognizing the divine light in every human also means that no person can be greater or lesser than another. He compared it to the idea of water from the same pitcher that fills cups, though the cups all have different colors and shapes.

It’s a matter of practicing complete equality — absolute equality, with everyone sitting together to eat irrespective of religion, caste, gender or social status, or any other divisions among us,” Singh said.

“Since the entire world has been created out of the same divine light,” he said, “how can one person be good and one bad in the name of religion, gender, caste or anything else?”

Thus, the concept of hurting another human who possesses the same divine light becomes illogical. Singh said it was like two brothers with the same mother fighting over whose mother is superior.

“It does not make sense to fight or brutalize others in the name of religion, which we often do,” Singh said.

The concept of this shared divine light, which Singh said was an intrinsic, immeasurable value, is why religious houses of worship, including Sikh gurdwaras, offer free meals to anyone who visits. In Sikhism, this tradition is called langar. With the help of donations and volunteers, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, is the largest gurdwara and feeds between 40,000 per day on average and more than 100,000 on holidays. Regular-sized gurdwaras can serve thousands of meals every day. Gurdwaras have offered food during Hurricane Katrina, earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, flooding, conflicts in Syria, in refugee camps, and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s a matter of practicing complete equality — absolute equality, with everyone sitting together to eat irrespective of religion, caste, gender or social status, or any other divisions among us,” Singh said.

Singh said that healthcare workers, community organizers and volunteers giving their time and energy to help during the COVID-19 pandemic expressed the greatest form of this spirituality.

“This is the divine connection that we all share with one another and our creator,” Singh said.

Dr. Robert J. Wicks touches on burnout, resiliency and how to kindle self care

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A computer screen separated clinical psychologist Dr. Robert J. Wicks and his audience, but it didn’t phase him. From his Pennsylvania home, he looked at the camera and spoke directly to people experiencing secondary stress and burnout in ministry roles and as physicians, nurses, educators, counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and “people like yourselves.”

His second expertise is resiliency psychology and spirituality, “which is designed not simply to help people bounce back from stress, but paradoxically because of it — to become deeper as persons both psychologically and spiritually in ways that would not have been possible had the trauma or stress not occurred in the first place,” Wicks said.

At 2 p.m. EDT Thursday, Aug. 27, Wicks discussed the ways he has guided people as a psychologist and consultant bent toward the spiritual in self-care and resiliency — and how people can put these in practice — in his lecture titled “Night Call: Embracing Compassion and Hope in a Troubled World.”

His lecture marked the end of the 2020 season’s Interfaith Lecture Series, and the Week Nine theme of “The Future We Want, The World We Need.” Wicks is also a recipient of the Holy Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, the highest honor from the Pope for service to the Catholic Church. In his lecture, Wicks discussed topics from his most recent book Night Call: Embracing Compassion and Hope in a Troubled World. It touches on secondary stress and burnout in roles of both physical and emotional service to others and how a person can deepen their inner life.

He recited a quote from Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer: “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.”

But those who serve others also need to take care of themselves in the process.

“Not being aware of the serious stress in our life as we reach out to others — which is a call of every religious faith group — can be quite dangerous,” Wicks said.

Wicks expanded his lecture at Chautauqua to talk about burnout.

“The seeds of compassion and the seeds of burnout are the same seeds,” Wicks said. “Everyone who cares needs to be concerned, not just professional helpers and healers. It’s my belief that for every spiritually committed, compassionate person experiencing significant stress, there’s at least a dozen of us experiencing at least some form of spiritual and psychological burnout.”

Wicks observes guilt when working with nurses and physicians because they can’t save everyone, and in the case of COVID-19, hospitals often don’t have enough equipment to accommodate the high volume of patients. Health care workers also worried about infecting their family.

“Most often, stress is a development rather than a cataclysmic event,” Wicks said. 

After giving a talk in South Africa about his book Perspective, a woman approached him and said she couldn’t keep going as a social worker who specializes in helping women who have been sexually and physically abused. The women, who were often poor single moms, had to take off work to go to court. Then the often-male judge would look at the documents and cancel the court date, and would say to make another appointment. The social worker saw herself as a failure.

But Wicks said that she was there for these women when no one else was.

“Don’t you realize we are not in the success business?” he said to her. “We are in the faith business.”

He said that failure increases with proximity to the problem and possible solutions.

“The more we’re involved, statistically the more we’re going to fail,” Wicks said.

When Wicks worked with surgical residents, he started with telling them that they will end up killing people in their career.

“Maybe not through malpractice, but certainly through mispractice, because it is impossible to be at an A-level 100% of the time,” Wicks said. “But commitment is expected of us.”

Wicks described Rabbi Tarfon as a contemporary of Jesus, and quoted him as  saying: “The day is short, the work is great, the labors are sluggish and the wages aren’t high and the master of the house is insistent. It is not our duty to finish the work, but you are not free to neglect it.”

In terms of addressing wounds with God, Wicks said it was important to attribute them correctly.

“Are these wounds based on reality, or are they based on our lack of faith and our big ego?” Wicks said.

Wicks described how stress can cause a parallel process, where people mimic the patterns of those they guide, minister to or care for. But Wicks cited a spiritual master who once told him to seek to improve his part in a situation, before trying to “carpet the world,” by wearing slippers to cover his feet.

Life is not acute, it’s chronic,” Wicks said. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, you have a problem, you conquer it and —’ no, no, life is chronic and comes and goes, but suffering need not be the last word.”

Wicks said people should be present with others, the self and something greater than either of those. Helping others can be as simple as comforting them in a time of need.

And be conscious of how people feel when they’re with you. While watching Desmond Tutu walk onstage, Wicks heard a man say, “Desmond Tutu is a holy man.” When his friend asked him why he thought this, the man said, “Because he makes me feel like a holy man.”

Wicks said that gratitude for others and the little things is important, and to connect with a cause greater than oneself.

On self-care, Wicks referred to humorist Irma Bombeck, who once said, “I think any man who watches three football games in a row should be declared legally dead.”

“We just eat, metaphorically, spiritually, whatever comes along — rather than taking out the time,” he said. “ … We have time for what we want.”

Stephen Covey recommends not only to schedule time, but also priorities. Wicks said people need to make time to be present through meditation, alone time, praying and reading scripture.

But when practicing self-reflection and meditation, Wicks said to avoid arrogance and projecting issues onto others, self-condemnation and discouragement — the last of which is “the last castle of the ego, because you want things to change immediately.”

Self-care is not a process that starts and ends. It’s continuous management.

“Life is not acute, it’s chronic,” Wicks said. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, you have a problem, you conquer it and —’ no, no, life is chronic and comes and goes, but suffering need not be the last word.”

Jeremy Ben-Ami envisions a future with the political will for a two-state solution

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Jeremy Ben-Ami founded J Street in 2008 with the mission to solve the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine with a two-state solution. As of 2020, this conflict has lasted almost 100 years.

“For nearly 100 years, every effort to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians and to resolve this conflict has failed,” Ben-Ami said.

Ben-Ami delivered his lecture Israel-Palestine 2020: One State Remains the Problem & Two States the Solution” at 2 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, Aug. 26. It was released a day after the Rev. Mitri Raheb spoke about hope for Palestine’s future. Both lectures were part of Week Nine’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “The Future We Want, the World We Need.”

Ben-Ami said that public debate on how to solve the conflict between Israel and Palestine is constant. But in July, The New York Times columnist Peter Beinart stoked the conversation after he announced he stopped believing in a Jewish state or that a two-state solution was possible.

Ben-Ami said he still believes a two-state solution is possible. He believes in Israel as a self-determining solution to a long history of persecution against Jews. Ben-Ami said that a Jewish person is still Jewish without being religious, especially when in Israel. Jewish people are not just united by a religion, but are also a nation of people united by language, culture and heritage — and that aforementioned fraught history.

“Rarely was the story of Jewish life in the lands of others one of integration and success,” Ben-Ami said.

He used his own family as a case study. His distant relative, Isaac Abarbanel, was an adviser to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492 and told them to stop persecuting fellow Jews through the Spanish Inquisition. But his high status didn’t save him. Abarbanel and his family fled Spain, and he and his descendants would remain stateless for hundreds of years. Eventually, his paternal great-grandparents settled in the first agricultural settlement of Israel. Ben-Ami said they bought land from absentee Ottoman landlords after fleeing persecution from what was then the Soviet Union.

The Holocaust caused the international community to agree with Zionist Jews that Jewish people needed Israel as a homeland. In 1947, the United Nations granted statehood to Israel. It was mandated to exist next to the country of Palestine, whose people had deep historical attachment to the land as the descendants of empires past — Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Persians, Muslims, Mamluks, Seljuks, Crusaders, Ottomans and more.

“So while the historic, religious and cultural connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is real, so too are the connections of other people, including many who can trace their family back hundreds of years and more,” Ben-Ami said. “Palestinian nationalism is rooted in such just claims and a national history that itself is soaked in blood and tears. So two peoples, each with just claims and a legacy of suffering, find themselves locked in a conflict that has tortured this holy land for close to a century without resolution.”

Ben-Ami said that out of the nearly 14 million people in Israel and Palestine, which do not have a clear-cut border in between, approximately eight million are Jews, who enjoy a developed country that is a leading economic and military power. Palestinians, treated as second-class citizens, make up the rest of the population. They experience a vastly different reality, which Ben-Ami said must change for Israel to be a legitimate democracy that upholds Jewish values.

“Only if there is a national home for the Palestinian people in the state of their (area) between the rivers and the sea, can Israel be both a safe haven for the Jewish people and live up to the values of freedom, justice and equality on which it was founded,” Ben-Ami said.

But the two-state solution has had an 85-year track record of failure, Ben-Ami said.

To actually get closer to achieving this solution, Ben-Ami said that it will take a different set of political leaders after the current U.S. administration to push this forward, because Israel President Benjamin Netanyahu is attempting to annex the West Bank and U.S. President Donald Trump supports him, while 650,000 Jews have illegally expanded settlements past the 1967 Green Line. According to international laws, legal annexation is meant to be a temporary fix that benefits those who live there rather than the occupiers. But what Ben-Ami calls Israel’s “de facto annexation” of Palestine has continued beyond a temporary fix.

Meanwhile, Ben-Ami said that Palestine currently lacks a strong political leader that can step up and lead it as a state.

“Neither society is primed, nor do they have the leadership needed, to force the necessary tough decisions,” Ben-Ami said.

Walls and barriers around the cities of Palestine built by Israel in attempts to limit Palestinian citizens also need to be dismantled in order to create a clear boundary between the two states. While Ben-Ami said these would be challenging to remove, he noted that “it’s also true that these obstacles have literally been built by people. And there is nothing built by people that can’t be moved or taken down by people when there is the will to do so.”

And the United States eventually needs to demonstrate the cost of occupation to Israel, Ben-Ami said, and reverse prior U.S. administrations’ efforts to erase Palestine by not recognizing it as a state and ignoring atrocities by Israel.

Seeing a two-state solution in the future seems impossible to others who have given up on the solution after all this time. But Ben-Ami said that surprise plot twists in recent history have happened before.

“Who thought while Mandela languished on Robben Island, he would become the country’s president? Who would have thought or foreseen in 1988 the collapse of the Berlin Wall a year later? We have experienced all these outcomes in just the past generation or two. So perhaps all those who are predicting the triumph of doom and gloom and pessimism, when it comes to two states, they’d benefit from a dose of humility grounded in our recent history.”

The Rev. Mitri Raheb looks to future with hope in spite of Israel and Palestine’s present

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Raheb

At 58 years old, the Rev. Mitri Raheb has lived through 11 wars and battles in Bethlehem, Palestine.

“On average, every five years we go through a war,” Raheb said. “And in such a context, it’s really not easy to keep hope alive.”

But as an Evangelical Lutheran pastor, he preaches hope all the same.

“The more I read the Bible, the more I was preaching, the more I discovered that actually the Bible itself was written in a context of lots of despair, war, exile, destruction,” Raheb said. “And you hear the prophets saying, ‘How long, oh Lord, how long?’ And yet, that same book, the Bible, is infused with hope.

In his lecture “Palestine: Hope at Times of Despair?!” Raheb described how just like in the Bible, Palestine is in despair, but he still has hope for future peace.

He pre-recorded his lecture from Bethlehem, Palestine. It was released at 2 p.m. EDT Tuesday, Aug. 25, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform as part of the Week Nine Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “The Future We Want, the World We Need.”

He started with the present. After Palestinians have been pushed out of their homes by Jewish settlers for the last 50 years, Raheb said Israel President Benjamin Netanyahu aims to annex around 40% of the West Bank, including important resources like the Jordan Valley “vegetable basket” and access to water resources like the Dead Sea and a water aquifer. He compared the annexation plan to Swiss cheese.

“Israel gets the cheese, that is, the resources, and the Palestinians are pushed out and get the holes,” Raheb said.

The current U.S. administration is also partial to Israel’s goals.

“They give Israel everything without really leaving any options for the Palestinians,” Raheb said.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan, illustrated in a map, leaves parts of Gaza disconnected from one another, with limited roads to travel between them.

Raheb has been discouraged by the international state response in general. Raheb said the atrocities Jews suffered in the Holocaust often cause European states to hesitate to act on what the Israeli government has done to Palestinians in the name of a holy land.

Meanwhile, Arab states like the United Arab Emirates gain financially and politically through ties with Israel at the expense of Palestine. The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish uses the Judeo-Christian allegory of the 11 brothers abusing Joseph and casting him out in the Old Testament to summarize the the waning lack of support over time from traditionally Muslim countries, though Palestine, too, is traditionally Muslim.

Raheb said it feels like a two-state solution is dissipating, while a one-state solution doesn’t seem possible yet, either.

“We live in this limbo,” Raheb said.

Raheb also uses another word to describe this limbo — apartheid.

“There is no way to violate human rights in the name of divine rights,” Raheb said.

Since 2002, Israel has built a separation barrier deep into Palestinian territory that has been condemned by the international community. Qalqilya, Palestine, is a city with 50,000 people surrounded by a 25-foot wall. To travel from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, five miles away in Israel, Palestinians need a permit. Israel has also created separate road systems that Israelis are permitted to use, while Palestinians are restricted to smaller roads.

When looking at maps, Raheb said it’s hard to be hopeful. But people still inspire hope in him.

He is first comforted by the fact that 6.5 million Palestinians live between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan Valley. They are not going to just disappear. In 1948, outside forces tried to do this by kicking Palestinians out of their homes and displacing them.

He is also comforted by the 6 million-strong diaspora of Palestinians around the world. His conversations with Palestinians abroad who are young, educated and still passionate about Palestine  — even as second- or third-generation immigrants — are another source of hope.

Raheb said that young Jewish people also give him hope for Palestine’s future.

“The third sign of hope is a movement that is happening in the Jewish community, and especially the Jewish community in the United States,” Raheb said.

Raheb said that J Street is part of this movement. An Interfaith Lecture Series talk by J Street’s founder Jeremy Ben-Ami releases at 2 p.m. EDT Wednesday, Aug. 26, the day after Raheb’s.

“J Street said we have to work for a two-state solution. We have to find a compromise,” Raheb said. “Not because they love the Palestinians so much, but because Israel cannot be a democratic country and a Jewish country at the same time.”

Raheb said that he also still sees hope in the international community. Like this summer, when Black Lives Matter protests spread globally following the death of George Floyd. And when Trump moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, Israel, the international community did not follow suit because Raheb said it recognized Jerusalem not as the capital of Israel, but as an occupied state. And churches in the United States and all over the world are calling for companies to divest from business with Israel in protest.

“It is a desperate situation, but there is still hope,” Raheb said.

The future of Palestine, Raheb said, needs the international community to take human rights violations in Palestine seriously, engaged citizens who pay attention, and to regain the diversity that Palestine had prior to British colonization. Until 1928, Christians, Jews and Muslims worked and lived in one municipality before the British divided it  into two separate societies. In 1947, British soldiers did the same with a leper hospital and divided them into Jews and Muslims.

Raheb said that without a state, Palestine doesn’t have access to the rest of the world (though being a state doesn’t cut a nation off from everything in a post-nation-state era). After Palestine has been treated as stateless for generations, Raheb said that a confederation of two states rather than a two-state solution could be an option for peace. And regional cooperation on transnational issues beyond Palestine and Israel — like the COVID-19 pandemic — are also priorities.

“This virus doesn’t know boundaries,” Raheb said.

But to be able to prioritize these concerns, Raheb said the hundreds of billions of dollars of military funding need to be distributed back into investments for the people. He is concerned about growing religious nationalism worldwide; in Christian Zionist movements and links to general populism.

“When you blend religion with nationalism, this is a very explosive mix,” Raheb said.

To look toward the future of Palestine and the world with hope, Raheb said, reminded him of the prophet Jeremiah from the sixth century B.C.E., who watched Jerusalem fall while he was still imprisoned. He asked a family member to buy him a piece of land in Jerusalem after the tragedy.

“This is exactly what we do,” Raheb said. “We are investing in Palestine regardless of the weather, if it’s good or bad, if we have peaceful times, or even during wars; we were busy building the future.”

Raheb is the president of Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture in Bethlehem, Palestine, and co-founder of the U.S. nonprofit Bright Stars of Bethlehem, which funds the university educational and cultural initiatives. During the last five months of the COVID-19 pandemic while everything else shut down, the university finished building an outdoor plaza for students, and a new art gallery for the university art collection — and also started a new training center in Gaza, which suffers from polluted air, water and a lack opportunities for young people due to Israeli state violence.

“The only option we have, actually, is to get ready to work and invest even when no one wants to invest,” Raheb said.

Bishop Minerva Carcaño calls for community with the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Carcaño

Bishop Minerva Carcaño said amidst U.S.-caused inequality in the country and abroad, reaching out to help vulnerable people to bring into communities is an antidote.

“We must agree to strive to love one another as we are loved by God, our creator, remembering that we all yearn for the same thing — belonging in a beloved community,” Carcaño said.

Carcaño gave her lecture at 2 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 24. Titled “The World We Need — Belonging in Beloved Community,” the discussion on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform kicked off Week Nine’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “The Future We Want, the World We Need.” 

Carcaño is the bishop of the United Methodist Church’s California-Nevada Conference and an immigration rights advocate. In 2004, she became the first Hispanic woman to be elected into UMC leadership. Her lecture was pre-recorded from her office in Sacramento, California, where fires caused by lightning have ravaged the state and displaced people from their homes indefinitely. Carcaño urged people to donate to the Red Cross or to funds organized by respective religious bodies.

Carcaño said that in her role on the board of the California Endowment, the largest health foundation in the state, a fellow board member and college student, Lupe, reached out to collaborate on working for the health and well-being of all Californians. While working together over the last few months, Carcaño found that she and Lupe had many similarities. Each have immigrant roots in the border regions of the United States, have experienced extreme poverty, and imagine a better world. But while Carcaño sees the world from the perspective of someone preparing to retire comfortably in a few years, Lupe sees life in two-year increments as a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals student who has to reapply to stay in the country every two years.

“DACA is just one more sign of the brokenness of our immigration policies in this country, and of our racism and xenophobic nationalism,” Carcaño said.

Carcaño said that the ICE detention camps of undocumented immigrants started not with current U.S. President Donald Trump, but with the former U.S. President Barack Obama.

“President Trump has carried out the most recent atrocities, but he did not establish these practices,” Carcaño said. “They began under the Obama administration. We have been allowing the destruction of the world we need for too long.”

Carcaño visited McAllen, Texas, with a group of immigrant rights leaders in 2014 to look into what was happening to unaccompanied minors at a U.S. entry point. Near ICE detention centers and the places on the Rio Grande River where people typically crossed, they also witnessed the intervention of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, which had transformed itself into a center that provided unaccompanied children with hot food, showers, medical care, new clothes, new shoes.

But Carcaño said the welcome they gave the children was another gift, as a door opened to reveal a large room where church leaders, volunteers and immigrant children already there would stop what they were doing to welcome the incoming children in Spanish.

“Some were in awe, some would giggle, and some would begin to weep,” Carcaño said.

She remembered how one child who started to cry when he entered the facility later snuggled up to her while showing her pictures he had drawn at a coloring station. He had traveled over 1,500 miles on foot to get there. When she asked him why he was overcome with emotion, he told her that no one had welcomed him until then.

“It will not be an easy task to move from a world of division and war, from bias, blatant racism, racial inequity, xenophobia, genocide and economic systems that create long-term crippling poverty for too many around the globe, from unjust legal systems that discriminate the poor and people of color, from a world living in disastrous disregard for creation to its detriment — to a world of care, justice, peace, hope and belonging,” Carcaño said.

While thinking about the theme for this week that looks toward the future, Carcaño drew inspiration from the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“… the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community,” King wrote. “It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends.”

King said the necessary fight against racism, war and economic injustice was “a revolution of values.” He not only advocated for racial justice within the United States, but was also against war and the United States’ exploitation of young countries, including through the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Central American Free Trade Agreement — exploitation which Carcaño said is the root cause of migration that continues today.

In 1967, King spoke out against the Vietnam War in front of 3,000 people in Riverside Church in New York City. He said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

“King challenged the assumptions of the inevitability of war, stating unequivocally … that war and its effects of death, homelessness, destroyed families and communities, increased hatred and violence, and physically and emotionally disabled and disfigured soldiers could not be reconciled with wisdom, with justice or love,” Carcaño said. “War could not be reconciled with the virtues of wisdom, justice or love then, and it cannot be reconciled with these virtues now.”

Carcaño said that this is still evident, not only in wars that the United States participates in abroad, but in its internal wars. More money is funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline than educating children. Private prisons of undocumented people who make billions are simultaneously blocking the legalization of immigration.

And police have disproportionately arrested Black people. Carcaño listed just a few names of Black people who died at the hands of police. George Floyd allegedly used a counterfeit $20 bill before the eight-minute video of his death went viral. Breonna Taylor, 26, was killed while sleeping in her home when police tracked down a suspect to the wrong house. Atatiana Jefferson, 28, was taking care of her 8-year-old nephew when police came to the door. Stephon Clark, from Sacramento, California, was a 22-year-old killed in his grandmother’s backyard while holding his phone. Botham Jean was 26 when he was eating ice cream on a sofa.

“The list is endless, and we should never forget a single one of them,” Carcaño said. “We are a nation at war with its own citizens, its own children. Such a nation will fail and fall.”

King titled his 1967 speech on war “Beyond Vietnam.” Carcaño said that U.S. citizens need to follow suit and look beyond the wars of today.

“In our moment of history, I agree that we must treat one another with respect and human dignity, seeking common good rather than our self-centered desires,” Carcaño said.

Carcaño ended her lecture with a childhood memory of the new neighbor, Mr. Johnson, a Black cattle rancher who became friends with her father. Her family had never met a Black person. Carcaño’s father didn’t speak much English, but he and Johnson would meet at the fence to speak with one another at the end of every day. Johnson taught Carcaño’s brothers about the bulls he raised, and watched Carcaño and her siblings when their mother had to check on the grandparents down the road.

When Johnson died years later, Carcaño discovered on the way to his funeral that he wasn’t allowed to be buried at the cemetery they lived next to because of his skin color. He was instead buried in the nearby woods.

Carcaño’s father died not long after, and was buried in their backyard. By the time Carcaño’s mother was buried next to him many years later, Carcaño saw that the woods had been cleared and the cemetery had expanded to the woods where Johnson was buried so many years ago. In death, the neighbors were reunited.

“I don’t want to wait for eternity for that gift of belonging, of love and community,” Carcaño said. “It can be ours now.”

Hazon’s Rabbi Sid Schwarz calls for humans to take up responsibility for creating a better world on Interfaith Friday

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Schwarz

Before he began his Interfaith Friday lecture, Rabbi Sid Schwarz said his take on progressive Judaism was one of many.

“No one should be so arrogant as to think that their interpretation is the only interpretation and the intent of the Biblical text,” Schwarz said. “What I now offer is a Jewish take, because there is no such thing as the Jewish take. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

Schwarz gave his Week Eight lecture “The Creation Story and Humanity’s Homework: A Jewish Take” at 2 p.m. EDT Friday, Aug. 21, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform. Vice President of Religion and Senior Pastor Gene Robinson joined him in a subsequent Q-and-A.

Schwarz has served as a rabbi for 40 years. Prior to Schwarz’s time as a senior fellow at the nonprofit Hazon, he founded and led PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, and organized a historic protest against the former Soviet Union’s treatment of its Jewish citizens. He said that the understanding of creation for Jewish people is multifaceted.

“For Jews, interpreting the texts of the opening chapters of Genesis, or any passages in the Bible, are closer to one of those ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books that you might have bought for your kids,” Schwarz said.

These layered meanings are compounded by the traditional study of Rabbinic literature.

Schwarz said that progressive Judaism is not a common perspective within the broader faith. His parents were Holocaust survivors, and he grew up with the traditional idea of God as an all-powerful, omnipotent being. But when his uncle, who was also a rabbi, introduced him to the writings of reconstructionist Jewish thinker Mordecai Kaplan as a gift for Schwarz’s bar mitzvah, a young Schwarz agreed with Kaplan’s concept that religion should drive personal and community development.

I have always been drawn to this second image of God,” Schwarz said. “Not as a master of the universe, but as a force for personal, social transformation in the world. And this guy gives humanity homework because this guy cannot work alone.”

With Jewish thinkers spanning multiple centuries across the continents, Schwarz said reading the full breadth of Rabbinic literature would take several lifetimes to complete.

“If I, as a 21st-century rabbi, want to deliver my own interpretation on a verse, I stand on the shoulders of rabbis from generations who came before me who commented on the same verse,” Schwarz said.

Schwarz used two verses from Genesis to present two views of the task that God gave humanity. Genesis 1:28 and Genesis 2:15, depending on how they are translated, can connote that humans control the domain of the land on earth because God gave it to them, or that they must work in service to others, protect, and guard the land that God gave them.

Schwarz said that this dichotomy is reflected in the American debate over climate change. Climate change deniers often believe that if God is in control of the environment, humans should be able to build what they need without consideration of the earth because God will provide.

Schwarz believes in the second view of humanity: the idea that people are stewards of the earth for God.

“The world has been given to us as a sacred trust,” Schwarz said.

Schwarz said this reflects two competing perspectives on God in Judaism, as well as Christianity and Islam. One version of God is patriarchal and hierarchical, with divinely ordained justice from above.

The second version of God is a healer, in Psalm 147, and as a leader of the oppressed as described in Exodus 6.

“I have always been drawn to this second image of God,” Schwarz said. “Not as a master of the universe, but as a force for personal, social transformation in the world. And this guy gives humanity homework because this guy cannot work alone.”

Schwarz quoted a portion of the Talmud, which says that God didn’t create bread, but created wheat so humans could make bread. And rather than creating bricks, God created clay for humans to make bricks.

“Humanity is an integrative part of the unfolding of the creation of the universe,” Schwarz said.

This accounts for all humanity, not just a few. Genesis states that all humans are created in the image of God, which means that humans must treat each other as a fellow reflection of the divine.

“God is present in the world when human beings do their homework and decide to be God’s agent on Earth,” Schwarz said.

The devil isn’t in the details, Fr. Richard Rohr says, but in the military-industrial complex and other institutions

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The demonic kind of evil is any system that is above reproach and is too big to fail, Fr. Richard Rohr said in his final Chautauqua lecture of the week. Examples? The penal system, the military-industrial complex, and the Catholic church — the same one that Rohr trained in as a friar.

“Lest we think the corporate and hidden character of sin is still a theoretical issue, we must ask how the seemingly sincere Catholic church was able to reduce and deny and cover up the pedophilia crisis for decades, centuries, despite 2,000 years of moral teaching and formation,” Rohr said, reading from his book, What Do We Do With Evil?: The World, The Flesh, and the Devil.

Rohr gave his lecture on evil originating from the devil at 2 p.m. EDT on Thursday, Aug. 20, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform. It was the final lecture in Chautauqua’s Week Eight Interfaith Lecture Series theme of “Reframing Our Journey: A Week with Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM.”

Playing off of the term “military-industrial complex,” Rohr said that the devil’s sort of evil is intentionally complex — to the point that people give up on trying to understand it.

The banking system is demonic, for example. Rohr said that to take a loan out used to be enough to excommunicate someone from the Catholic church for profiting off of another person’s poverty. Now, loans are encouraged. And Rohr finds the excess benefits of government workers in the postal system, with paid time off and early retirement while the post office service slows, to be evil.

“Anything above criticism is demonic,” Rohr said.

In terms of evil that can’t be identified, Rohr learned early on in his religious training that no religion has ever thrown out the notion of evil spirits. In Ephesians, Paul called them “spirits in the air that can’t be caught with hands.” Religious art — in the form of faces on the outside of Buddhist temples and gargoyles high above on cathedrals — visualizes evil so humans take it seriously. 

Anything that makes people feel powerless in comparison — something is too big, too rich, too in control — has the same characteristics of a demon. Rohr said this also characterizes the government. But people can also be possessed by evil. Jesus exorcised nine demons throughout the New Testament. Rohr said that demon possession is a kind of addiction that makes someone feel unsafe, inferior or endlessly hungry for more.

“The way I’m describing a demon, I think I’ve got three or four of them — and you do too,” Rohr said to his virtual audience.

Rohr said that the highest form of evil is the disguised kind, romanticized to the point of fantasy. It becomes sacred. Rohr gave the example of people still clinging to Confederate statues because the figures are also valued as generals and soldiers. Rohr said the way that the military-industrial complex makes murder legal in war, but not in the streets, is “moral schizophrenia.”

To overcome this kind of evil, a person has to recognize it in “the little worlds we all live in,” Rohr said.

It’s also important to have a healthy suspicion of power.

“Only a small percentage of people know how to handle power gracefully,” Rohr said.

This program is made possible by the Eileen and Warren Martin Lectureship for Emerging Studies in Bible and Theology and the Strnad Family Fund.

Fr. Richard Rohr describes how the world’s systems and communities put evil on autopilot

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The world puts evil on autopilot.

“Evil is an unconscious set of social agreements,” said Fr. Richard Rohr.

In his second lecture of the Interfaith Lecture Series’ Week Eight theme of “Reframing Our Journey: A Week with Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM,” at 2 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, Aug. 18, Rohr described how the world enables evil.

The day before, Rohr gave his keynote lecture which framed the facets of evil he describes in his book, What Do We Do With Evil?: The World, the Flesh, and the Devil. The book serves as an accompanying work that explains the social character of evil that he mentioned in his previous book, Falling Upwards.

Rohr said that religions have localized sin on the flesh of the individual. Though there is agency within the conscious individual who refuses to cooperate with evil when they recognize it, the world perpetuates evil by determining it as acceptable. And the environment someone is born into, based on factors including their gender, race, culture and the people who raise them, shapes how they move in the world.

“We are all good based on one another’s goodness,” Rohr said.

This also means the inverse: We are all bad by one another’s badness.

When Rohr served as a chaplain in an Albuquerque jail for 14 years, he would enter the jail knowing he was about to meet a criminal. Some were guilty of murder. Others were guilty of rape.

“I would go in expecting to meet this person I read about in the paper, fully expecting to hate them because of the murder or the rape or the dastardly thing that they’d done — even wanted to hate them,” Rohr said. “And then I’d spend an hour sitting in the cell hearing their story.”

Often, Rohr would be shocked they were living at all.

“They are surviving on this level of what little has been given to them,” Rohr said. “What little self-confidence, what little self-worth, what little education, what little self-esteem.”

While communities or religious groups commonly indict individuals as sinners, Rohr said most of the Bible indicts entire communities or cities at once.

In the Old Testament, Edith, Judea and Israel fall in sin, and the entire kingdom of Moab was punished by God. In the New Testament, Jerusalem falls. And Jesus referred to the city of Capernaum in Matthew 11:23, “And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths.”

“That’s the collective that made you the way you are,” Rohr said.

The New Testament refers to this collective as the world. It is the system or the game that everyone is in, but different rules apply to different people.

“You gotta know what a culture excludes to know what it worships,” Rohr said.

Rohr said that in the United States, Americans hate the poor and people of color and worship riches, white privilege and individualism — on both sides of the political spectrum.

“Until you get rid of this illusion of you being a separate self, I don’t think you’ll get very far in understanding the message of the gospel or in dealing with the sinful nature of society that is killing all of us,” Rohr said.

This illusion also allows systemic evil like racism and sexism to flourish. Rohr said leaders in politics who blame a few corrupt individuals, and police leaders who blame police brutality on a few bad apples, is a tactic that distracts people from the systemic issue. However, the last three popes have used vocabulary defining the phenomenon of collective evil with the terms “structural sin” and “institutional evil.”

“Evil is a set of agreements that only make us happy and aren’t true,” Rohr said.

In order to escape from the burden of evil, Rohr said to find ways to not cooperate with it: by removing oneself from its mechanics.

“The point of Gospel is to keep people from buying into the sin system,” Rohr said.

To prepare for his next lecture, “Reframing Our Journey: The Flesh,” at 2 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, Aug. 19, Rohr recommended his audience read Romans and Galatians to see if it reads differently with this new lens of evil.

“Sin is hidden in good places,” Rohr said.

This program is made possible by the Eileen and Warren Martin Lectureship for Emerging Studies in Bible and Theology & The Strnad Family Fund.

Fr. Richard Rohr balances inherent good against equally inherent evil in his first lecture for the week

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Fr. Richard Rohr said that most religions don’t know what to do with evil — and within Christianity, both God and humans are complicit in evil.

“God is not just all good, but all vulnerable,” Rohr said. “… God submits to evil in its own cruel form. … God is not just allowing evil, but participating in it with us.”

Rohr delivered his first lecture for the week at 2 p.m. EDT Monday, Aug. 17, titled “What Do We Do With Evil?

This lecture served as a background for his lectures later this week. Week Eight of the Interfaith Lecture Series, titled “Reframing Our Journey,” reflects on Rohr’s book, What Do We Do With Evil?: The World, The Flesh and The Devil.

Rohr, from his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said that true evil is distinct from sin. True evil, Rohr said, is found in how humans corrupt the planet and politics. And COVID-19 has exacerbated existing evil. Rohr said the way in which COVID-19 has allowed ample time to be distracted from evil allows evil to flourish. When people are removed from meaning and direction in their life for an extended period of time in quarantine, rates of mental illness, depression and suicide have increased.

Before 1054, when there was still one single strain of Christianity, the first thousand years of Christianity’s existence relied on the assumption that there are three sources of evil: the world, the flesh and the devil. While God is not in this short list, God did create them. 

Rohr is a Franciscan priest serving the New Mexico province, as well as a Christian mystic. For the last 50 years, he has served as a priest and ecumenical teacher in 46 countries. From traveling in his career, he noticed that every place, regardless whether it had a Catholic or non-sectarian Christian base, struggled with discerning true evil from sin.

For example, both Judaism and Christianity uphold the 10 Commandments. These commandments tell people what not to do and separates good and bad with clear distinctions. Rohr said that while it is good for the first half of life, and is especially good for kids who can’t easily read into subtle distinctions, it doesn’t provide a full picture.

“It doesn’t teach you how to be a person in a loving relationship with your partner,” Rohr said. “It doesn’t teach you how to be forgiving and affectionate. … It’s just getting us started by teaching us some impulse controls, … to limit the ego, to cut off the arrogance of the ego.”

Referring to Ken Wilbur’s four stages of human development, Rohr said that most religions are stuck in the first stage of creating values that outline a stark contrast between good and evil. Only 10% of people reach the third stage where they wake up and overcome the feeling of separateness from others and the world. Even less people reach the stage of showing up, where a person stops worrying about their own salvation and can focus on giving to other people.

Rohr listed World War I, World War II, the Holocaust, ongoing racism that has been unchecked for most of history, sexism and homophobia as the true roots of evil.

When religious institutions concentrated on what he calls minor sins, “Evil got away with murder,” Rohr said.

To get away with being evil, it has to disguise itself as good,” Rohr said.

In his first 30 years as a priest, when going to Confession was more common, he didn’t hear people admitting their complacency with, and how they benefited from, systems that allow atrocities.

“Issues of justice were hardly ever confessed,” Rohr said.

He heard a husband admit to being impatient with his wife. He heard a child say they talked back to their parents. Before a person finished, Rohr said they would often quickly admit a sexual sin followed by being late for Mass a few times.

“Do you think God really cares?” Rohr said. “I don’t really care.”

Rohr said the first chapter of his book focuses on how minor sins overpower collective focus, which Rohr said should be directed at true evil.

“This confusion of sin taking the place of real evil is why I think we got bored with the notion of evil, and ended up with the immense evils of the 20th century at every level,” Rohr said.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a museum in Montgomery, Alabama, dedicated to lynching victims, lists Black people who were lynched in counties — in places defined by their citizens’ Christian values — across the United States.

“You have the list of all the names of the Black people who were lynched and hung publicly, (events where) I’m told people applauded,” Rohr said.

And in medieval Europe, both Catholic and Presbyterian monarchs would attend their respective church services. But outside of the church, Rohr said they were tyrants and liars who committed atrocities through war and conquering abroad — and against the very people they led as king or queen.

Rohr said that this issue continues today, as current heads of state in the United States and worldwide wield Christianity and other religions as a nationalist value and use religion to disguise evil.

To get away with being evil, it has to disguise itself as good,” Rohr said.

Citizens in Nazi Germany felt they were tasked with “purifying” the German race. And in the past and present, American politicians claim they need to make the United States safe by eliminating perceived threats against democracy.

“We have Christians being some of the most total supporters of evil — of corruption, of greed, of idolatry of America,” Rohr said. “God is the creator of all creatures. Did you hear that word, ‘all’? God loves the people in Mexico and Canada as much as he loves America.”

In his next lecture on Tuesday, Aug. 18, Rohr will describe how evil manifests in the world. On Wednesday, Aug. 19, he will describe evil of the flesh, and on Thursday, Aug. 20, he will describe evil that comes from the devil. But Rohr said that each day will bring up surprises within each focus.

“We’re always dealing with disguise,” Rohr said.

This program is made possible by the Eileen and Warren Martin Lectureship for Emerging Studies in Bible and Theology & The Strnad Family Fund.

In Sufism, humans bring the divine to Earth, said Kainat Felicia Norton and Muinuddin Charles Smith

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Norton & Smith

In Sufism, life began when Allah gave a deep sigh of compassion and poured heavenly qualities into Earth.

“It’s said that the divine was pregnant with this longing to know itself and to give forth something,” said Kainat Felicia Norton.

Norton and Muinuddin Charles Smith described the creation story of Sufism on Week Seven’s Interfaith Friday. Pre-recorded in their New York apartment, the lecture was released at 2 p.m. EDT Aug. 14, on the CHQ Video Assembly Platform.

Norton and Smith lead the Inayati Sufi Order as senior Sufi teachers, retreat guides and interfaith ministers. They founded the Light of Guidance Center for Sufi Studies in New York City.

Smith said creation was instantaneous when God said the words, “Be and so become.” God’s angels, which existed previously (though not in cherub form), did not understand God’s creation — especially humans, who were tasked as “vice regents” of God. 

The angels were most concerned with humans’ potential for mischief. The first Qur’an stories detail how humans go astray, which include the story of stringing up a she-camel.

“There is so much of the Qur’an warning people that we have a tendency to get out of harmony,” Smith said. “The warnings can sound pretty severe. … But there’s also a part of the Qur’an where Allah says, ‘My mercy precedeth my wrath.’ The wrath is if we don’t live in harmony with life and we’re gonna make a mess.”

But humans also have an ability to act upright and grow into their responsibility to help God deliver the divine on earth. Humans are described as fragments of light or of the divine being, with a body of clay and a crown of stars.

“It’s not possible for the creator to be separate from creation,” Smith said. “It’s like the carpenter has become the wood. … There’s an understanding that divine self-knowledge is a revelation of the spark that’s in each of us. It doesn’t have to take a spiritual or religious form, but it’s something about being enthusiastic, having ‘theos’ within us.”

Sufis either choose new first names — or in Norton and Smith’s cases, Sufi teachers give them new first names — to serve as a reminder of a goal or value to strive for. It’s related to aspiring to that responsibility to bring the divine onto Earth.

“Usually, you’re given a name because you’re meant to unfold that or grow into it, or it’s like an affirmation,” Norton said.

Smith’s, Muinuddin, was given to him two years after he joined a Sufi community. When asked to find a quote by a Sufi prophet or leader, he was struggling to find one that resonated with him. He was sitting in front of a fireplace when a piece of paper fell out of the fireplace into his hand.

“It was the last words of an ancient Sufi,” Smith said. “Long quote, but it said, ‘Love all, hate none. Mere talk of God will not get you far. Mere talk of religion will not get you far. Bring out all the potential of your being and serve the people, and serve the poor and the widow.’”

The next day, Smith’s guide called him and said he had picked out a name for him: Muinuddin. It was the name of the same saint, Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti, from the fireplace quote.

Norton had the first name Sharifa for years. In 2015, while teaching in a program, another teacher said, “I have a new name for you.” It was Kainat, a Persian name which means “the universe.”

With every breath of God, there is a new possibility,” Norton said.

There is a repeated theme in Sufism of bringing the divine on Earth, rather than accessing the divine through a transcendent experience. Norton said for a full life, the flame in the heart of a human must align with the light from above. 

“It’s said that the human is higher than the angel, because it’s more difficult here,” Norton said. “It’s a little harder here than to be up there as an angel. And yet, it has more value because the human has a full experience. Through manifestation, a lot more has happened than just staying in the angelic light.”

Another practice in Sufism and Islam, though Smith said this is also found in Judaism, Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism, is to repeat the name of Allah, or another name for the divine, through chanting and praying for Allah to remember a person. It invokes, “Remember Allah, and Allah will remember you,” from the Qur’an.

“We generate the light of the soul through the word we repeat,” Smith said. “That’s a very important practice for seeing clearly what this world is about, and living in a way that is in harmony with light, with nature, with all of life.”

Norton also said that creation isn’t done unfolding.

“With every breath of God, there is a new possibility,” Norton said.

Ingrid Mattson said in Islam, life is a shared journey — so be a good traveler

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“Be in this world as if you are a traveler” is a teaching from Islam prophet Muhammad. In her lecture of the same name, Ingrid Mattson explored what it means from an Islamic perspective for people to be spiritually united.

Her lecture was broadcast at 2 p.m. EDT Thursday, Aug. 13, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform. Recorded in Mattson’s home in London, Ontario, her lecture aligned with the Interfaith Lecture Series theme for Week Seven, “The Spirituality of Us.”

Mattson is the president of the Islamic Society of North America. She also serves as the London and Windsor Community Chair in Islamic Studies at Huron University College, the oldest affiliate college of Western University in Canada.

In July, Mattson said she was struck by an Architectural Digest article that recommended 41 design shows available on streaming services. It demonstrated a new shared interest in not only spending time at home, but investing in the home and family. 

Mattson said that while there was an existing desire for consuming the latest products, this energy has been redirected into the home. Breadmakers. Swing sets. Swimming pools. Gardens.

Meanwhile, there are also those who go without these luxuries during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For many, lockdown means no access to green space,” Mattson said. “Lockdown means crowding with no privacy. Lockdown means being trapped in an unsafe place. We are not truly having a common experience.”

And before lockdown, nationalism and ethnic nationalism were already rising and dividing people across many countries, which enforced their constructed borders that housed those identities.

“But in this case of the pandemic, the regulation of human proximity and movement-insured spaces does have a scientific — rather than ideological — basis,” Mattson said. “An American paradox is that many of the people who claim to be worried about foreigners transmitting an ideological and cultural virus — which is not a real thing, by the way — are strangely unconcerned about viral infection, which is a real thing.”

Mattson said that while (most) people are sheltered in place, ideology is spreading out of fear. But the virus moves faster.

“It’s not surprising that in these — still early — days, the most ideological have doubled down in their views,” Mattson said. “But the virus continues its replication and its travels throughout the world, indifferent to our ideologies.”

While the pandemic continues, Mattson said people who were previously defined by their mobility or displacement have faced challenges.

“Until the lockdown, many of us found it unremarkable that we could frequent malls and amusement parks, restaurants and music venues. The privileged were taking the world as their oyster, taking cruises, safaris, study tours, sporting holidays, trips to the beach,” Mattson said. “And before the lockdown, the world’s disadvantaged were struggling to flee their homes, to escape political oppression and violent occupation, to move to higher ground, or to find a source of water as climate change has rendered their homes unlivable.”

For the displaced, Mattson said the pandemic has exacerbated their conditions. And prior to the pandemic, the United States had been gradually closing its borders to others who seek to migrate or flee their home countries while simultaneously strong-arming other countries to allow U.S. intervention. Now, U.S. citizens are seeing their international travel options contract as COVID-19 continues to spread in the United States.

“So many of us in the Western world feel entitled to have both a national home that is ours, from which others are locked out, and the right to exploit the rest of the world,” Mattson said. “We demand that other nations remove their barriers to what we want. We should be able to exploit their markets, their natural resources, and we should be able to carry our ideologies and culture to their people without restriction.”

Mattson said that along with other modes of transportation, the human body is geared for forward movement, with eyes and feet directed ahead — even when losing or missing limbs. And in the Qur’an, God calls for humans to spread across the Earth as well.

In the Qur’an, God speaks in Chapter 17, verse 70: “We have conferred dignity on the children of Adam and transported them over land and sea and provided with them sustenance out of the good things of life and favored them far above much of our creation.”

Mattson said that God directs humans to remove obstacles for others, and to clean up after ourselves. The Qur’an says that wealth and children are joys and temptations for excess at the same time.

“The Qur’an encourages the enjoyment of wholesome and beautiful things, and it prohibits waste and excess,” Mattson said.

In Chapter 6, verse 141, the Qur’an states, “It is God who has brought into being gardens, the cultivated and the wild, and date palms and fields with produce of all kinds; olives and pomegranates, similar in kind and diverse. So eat of their fruit in season, but give their due on harvest day, to the tithe or some to the poor on harvest day. And do not waste, for God does not love the wasteful.”

But the Qur’an also notes that unbridled desire is insatiable. The prophet Muhammad said, “If the child of Adam has a mountain of gold, he would wish for another mountain.”

Mattson said that it was important to prioritize collecting acts of kindness rather than material things, but it’s possible to strike a balance.

“Enjoy the things, and enjoy them with others,” Mattson said. “Elevate ourselves through sharing and caring. For it is in service to others that we find the divine presence, which is our true home.”

Returning to Muhammad’s teaching on moving through the world as a traveler, Mattson said one interpretation of this teaching was to literally travel light. Muhammad also taught that each day, each person should perform an act of charity, even as simple as moving a branch from the road.

“There are so many people who would like to move to safety or like us, who like to explore human culture through education, or the natural world through travel. But their paths are blocked by barriers placed by others,” Mattson said. “To remove a branch, to make the path smoother, to clear it, is an act of charity.”

Mattson said in the 2012 documentary “Never Sorry,” about artist and activist Ai Weiwei, a group of cats lived in Weiwei’s Beijing studio. To go outside, a cat had to jump up and hit a lever to open the door. Only one cat was ever successful in hitting the lever after a few tries. When he did, instead of turning and closing the door, he left it open for all the other cats to follow him out each day.

“Cats, unlike people, never close the door after them,” Weiwei said.

Weiwei has since focused his work on human migration. In 2017, he made the documentary “Human Flow.”

“(Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers) are blocked from the natural flow of human beings that has occurred since humans were first on this earth,” Mattson said. “And we know that for a fact. From archaeology, from looking at where human beings are across the world, we know that human beings have been in movement from the beginning. And now we have this situation where we have hard barriers and people can’t move anymore.”

Mattson said the pandemic has kept everyone stuck in place, but nationalists and white supremacists already sought to keep the “other” out.

“The chant of the ethnic nationalists and the white supremacists is, ‘You will not replace us,’ the idea that there is a human ‘us’ that is so distinct and so different from all other human beings that if others come along — as humans have been doing forever — that somehow it’s like another species,” she said.

Nations have a “mythic, fabricated ‘us,’” which some of its people build a purpose onto identities that can be hateful.

“I say it’s fictional because a quick genetic test would probably prove that a lot of people’s claims are incorrect,” Mattson said.

Culture also constantly changes, yet Mattson said no one can resist attaching meaning to these identities.

Before Islam became popularized in the area, Mattson said that people in the Arabian Peninsula did not believe in an afterlife, but still sought the immortality of their name through conquering and fame.

“If they disappeared in a material sense, as long as their names were spoken, they still existed,” Mattson said. “And they were willing to violate others as long as doing so increased their numbers and their fame.”

With more people in the tribe, it also meant more people could survive and allow the person to live on in their stories.

The Qur’an stands in contrast to the empires of Babylonians, Sasanians, Sumerians, Hittites, ancient civilizations of western Asia and the eastern Mediterranean, all of which are now gone. The Qur’an states that while everything on Earth will disappear, the divine presence remains.

“Eventually the kings died, the people disappeared, and their grand monuments now have crumbled,” Mattson said. “And they are sites where we go and reflect upon people of the past whose names we don’t even know. We might know the names of a king or a few kings or queens, but all of those people who came before, nothing remains of their memories or their name.”

The children of Adam, humans, can return to the original source of goodness for unity. Mattson said that people connect to others to access this on Earth, whether at a place of worship or a musical experience.

People are born into specific times and specific places, which Mattson said makes people both similar and different at the same time. And the diversity of people is celebrated in the Qur’an. 

“Our very diversity is the starting point for knowledge in ourselves and others,” Mattson said, and uncovering the history of humanity and movement of people leads back to the common origin of the divine.

Though people are varied, according to the Qur’an they all have “fitrah,” which is Arabic for a pure, good foundation. But being born into a specific history can place a person in circumstances that can either nurture or deviate from fitrah. A person might need help to return to their fitrah.

To sustain or return to fitrah and live a spiritual life on earth, Mattson said it’s important to remember that everyone is going to the same place.

“To live a spiritual life is to be like a good traveler,” Mattson said. “ … To be grateful to those who have facilitated our journey, to help others who have been on the road along with us, to respect the customs of the land we are visiting, to accept graciously what is offered, and to share it with others — and to never leave a place unless it is at least in as good a shape as we found it when we first arrived.”

Rabbi Naomi Levy says religious verses can uplift and unite the oppressed

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Is religion the opiate of the masses, as Karl Marx said? Rabbi Naomi Levy doesn’t think so.

“Religion can wake you up to your power,” Levy told her virtual lecture audience at 2 p.m. EDT Tuesday, Aug. 11. “It can spark uprisings. It can inspire revolutions. It can heal your soul. … The Bible is a dangerous book to anyone who wants to keep you down.”

Levy pre-recorded her lecture, We Are All Reflections of the ONE: Bridging Distances Between Souls” in the backyard of her home in Venice Beach, California. The discussion aligned with the Interfaith Lecture Series theme for Week Seven, “The Spirituality of Us.”

Levy is the founder of Nashuva, a Los Angeles-based outreach community for unaffiliated Jews. After graduating from The Jewish Theological Seminary’s Rabbinical School in the first class of women in its history, she became the first female conservative rabbi to lead a congregation on the West Coast. Levy has written four bestselling books, including her 2017 book Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul, and through Nashuva she released an album of prayers this summer, “Heaven on Earth: Songs of the Soul.”

When visiting the Museum of the Bible after a Washington D.C. conference she attended in 2019, Levy discovered a version of the Bible that missionaries used specifically for enslaved people. Published in 1807, the Slave Bible was intended to not only “save” enslaved people from the religions that they grew up with, but to oppress them and prevent them from rising up against their masters.

In this Bible, Moses did not exist. No one told the Pharaoh of Egypt, “Let my people go.” For Levy, the entire Book of Psalms was most notably missing as well.

“I lift my eyes to the mountains. Where will my help come from?”

Omitted.

“The Lord is my light, my salvation. Whom shall I fear?”

Not found.

“As we’ve been soul-searching the history of racism and injustice done to the Black community, this Slave Bible stands as a massive spiritual injustice of the highest order,” Levy said. “First, it’s an attempt to muzzle God, to put your hand over God’s mouth.”

For Levy, the power of the Book of Psalms is in Natan Sharansky’s reliance on it during his nine-year imprisonment in the former Soviet Union. In 1977, Sharansky was a Zionist activist who represented Jewish people in the Soviet Union who wanted to leave and move to Israel. The KGB sent him to a gulag for alleged high treason.

He was at first sentenced to 13 years in prison. Throughout that time, in the United States, Levy and other Jewish people protested his imprisonment as well as the Soviet Union’s treatment of Jews, who were forced to practice their religion, language and culture in secret.

Sharansky spent hundreds of days in solitary confinement. His wife had given him a black, palm-sized Book of Psalms in Hebrew before he was taken, though he was secular and was not fluent in the language. While guards quickly confiscated it, he insisted it was just a book of old folk songs and begged them for days to give it back.

A guard eventually returned it — the same day he received a telegram from his mother about his father’s death. Sharansky spent over a month logically figuring out the sentences by copying letters in large font. The first sentence he solved in this puzzling translation was: “When I go through the Valley of Death I will fear no evil, because I know you will be with me.”

Occasionally guards would take the book away from him again, and he would go on hunger strikes to get it back. Nine years into his sentence, the United States arranged for his release. But when he was about to board the plane to leave, he realized they did not bring his psalms book and he collapsed in front of the press. He wouldn’t leave without it, and guards went back to retrieve it for him.

“We’ve been given all the verses, all the stories of power and liberation,” Levy said. “But so often we forget their power to help us, especially in times of trouble. Like right now in these days of corona isolation, it’s as if we’ve deleted verses from our minds and carved out a whole new set of tablets out of our fear and our resignation with our own hands.”

Levy said there is a verse for every person and situation, including the ongoing protests against racism and police brutality: “Open for me the gates of justice, and I will enter them and praise you.”

“The missionaries took these out of the Slave Bible, but they’re yours,” Levy said. “They’re here for you, and they’re here for me.”

The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor said the “spirituality of us” includes all living things, including plants

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Taylor

Whether a person joins a 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program or a social movement, whether they start a family or a nonprofit, whether they speak to people or trees, the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor said that while not everyone believes in a god, it is harder to live without the sacredness found in a group.

Taylor described the spirituality a person can seek in a community in her lecture, “Remember That You Are Stardust, and to Stardust You Shall Return.” The lecture was released on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform at 2 p.m. EDT Monday, Aug. 10. It was the first in the Interfaith Lecture Series theme for Week Seven, “The Spirituality of Us.”

No Q-and-A followed the lecture due to internet connection issues, since Taylor lives in rural Georgia and could not connect to Skype to speak with Vice President and Senior Pastor Gene Robinson. Robinson ended the session by thanking staff who provide upkeep for the virtual lecture experience.

“It was just a living example of how we’re all in this together,” Robinson said.

This was not Taylor’s first time speaking for the Interfaith Lecture Series. Taylor is an Episcopal priest, religions professor, and New York Times bestselling author who has also served as chaplain of the week five times at Chautauqua, and who in 2014 was a recipient of the President’s Medal. Instead of speaking in the Hall of Philosophy this year, Taylor pre-recorded her lecture in the hall of her ironing room.

Her testimony helped me realize that a spirituality of ‘us’ isn’t a luxury item for people who have all their basic needs handled,” Taylor said. “It’s a lifeline for people whose single-propeller modes of being have sputtered at alarming heights, leaving them with nothing but the sound of wind whistling in their ears.”

An Alcoholics Anonymous meeting gave new meaning to “the story of us” for Taylor, who came to celebrate her student’s first year of sobriety. A woman stood up to talk about navigating Step Two — “We came to be aware that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity” — as someone who doesn’t believe in a god.

“You are the power greater than myself that can restore me to sanity,” the woman said to the group.

This moment was what first changed Taylor’s view on the spiritual power of a group.

“Her testimony helped me realize that a spirituality of ‘us’ isn’t a luxury item for people who have all their basic needs handled,” Taylor said. “It’s a lifeline for people whose single-propeller modes of being have sputtered at alarming heights, leaving them with nothing but the sound of wind whistling in their ears.”

While Taylor said “the book” in her religion sometimes comes before the people to a fault, it’s also where she and others like her draw from for strength and lessons. The Bible taught her the idea that everyone is made in the image of God.

But meeting and knowing people expands that image in Taylor’s mind and wrecks her idols.

“Without you, my image of God would be way too small and look too much like me,” Taylor said. “Without you, I might be tempted to believe that a single reading of scripture is adequate, or a single view of history complete. I might go on thinking my view is a normal one, that my skin is a neutral color, that I don’t see race, gender, class, religion.”

In the same sentence that grants humans the image of God, people are also tasked to take care of creation, to “lord” over it.

“Not to do whatever the hell they want with it, but to care for it the way the capital ‘L’ Lord would,” Taylor said, “because that’s the image in which they have been made.”

She said humans have abused what they were supposed to protect. Dominion was about making a home in the garden, naming the animals, eating green things and taking responsibility for living things that also had the living breath of God — which Taylor said means that the spirituality of “us” goes beyond humans to plants.

This became clear to Taylor when she and her husband, Ed, who thrives in a garden, moved from the city to the country 30 years ago. While still living in their city lot, Taylor would find her husband’s pole beans growing up the mailbox, a row of corn growing on the curb, broccoli in the flowerbeds and tomato plants in the window boxes. Once, she yanked trumpet squash vines that had overgrown on the front porch railing without telling him.

“You would have thought I drowned kittens,” Taylor said. “Because all those plants, they were people to Ed. They had a history, destiny, the wish to be fruitful and multiply.”

When they had to build a well before their house was built, she realized that the neighboring trees and other life would have to give up water for their cooking and cleaning. She pledged not to waste it.

“To this day, the water that comes out of my faucet is as sacred as air to me, as sacred as blessed bread and wine,” she said. “It’s my daily communion in a ‘spirituality of us.’”

Now, in the country, Ed has plenty of room. Taylor said people often ask her if she gets lonely in the country. While the question revolves around people rather than other kinds of beings, she’s never felt lonely surrounded by nature — by bird voices, the touch of wet grass on her legs and the crowd of honey bees in petunias, but also by raccoons who have killed 12 of her chickens in one night, the dogs that killed a baby rabbit and the owl that carried away one of her cats.

“I guess you could decide that a spirituality of us ought to rise above that somehow, or try to change it,” Taylor said. “Right now, I’m just trying to see my own predation and keep it in check.”

The Bible also states that God loves the stranger as much as the tribe. Deuteronomy calls for not only the orphan and the widow to be taken in and cared for, but also the  able-bodied stranger.

“It’s because the stranger doesn’t have anyone,” Taylor said. “Like the widow and the orphan, the stranger’s kinship bonds are hanging by a thread. … So the divine arm goes out and draws the stranger in, commanding the tribe to see the likeness, not the difference.”

The Bible also calls for people to devote their life to others. Taylor has understood this as life being a relay instead of a marathon, as she realizes she will not finish everything on her to-do list before she passes.

But calls to take care of others are not just found in Taylor’s religion. She said that a spirituality found in taking care of others can be found in the parent who quits everything to care for a disabled child, the poorly paid health aide who continues working in an infected nursing home while people say goodbye to their families on Zoom, and people who have been protesting for months in the face of tear gas.

The spirituality of “us” transcends religions.

“These high calls came to me through my religion, but they stuck with me because they rang bells that were already in me before I ever joined a church or learned the Lord’s Prayer,” Taylor said. “They ring bells … I hear in other places of worship and study, among other people who are so much like me.”

However, Taylor said that religious exclusivity has instilled a fear in some followers and leaders who have sidelined “others” as less than human.

“That’s why I’ve settled for blood and bones as what makes us, ‘us,’” Taylor said.

But to include plants in “us,” she said she settles on “life” as a good definition. While searching years ago for a new creation story that encompassed all others from a scientific view, she found her answer in bone composition. Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson said that the chemical elements of bones and all life came from literal stardust.

“When I take in this 14-billion-year-old history, which has more good guesses in it than facts, one of the more stunning reveals is that in us, the universe has become conscious of itself,” Taylor said.

UCLA’s Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller defines lessons from the story of creation, including shabbat, on Interfaith Friday

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The story of creation in the first Book of Genesis is not science, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller said. That doesn’t mean it should be discounted.

“It’s a religious teaching that proposes to inject meaning and value into existence,” Seidler-Feller said.

Quoting mystics, Seidler-Feller described Orthodox Judaism’s perspective on creation for Week Six’s Interfaith Friday at 2 p.m. EDT on Friday, Aug. 7. Vice President of Religion and Senior Pastor Gene Robinson joined him in a live conversation. Robinson addressed audience questions, submitted through the www.questions.chq.org portal and on Twitter with #CHQ2020, and his own.

Seidler-Feller is director emeritus of the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA, where he has served as executive director for 40 years. He was the founding director of the Hartman Fellowship for Campus Professionals and a founding member of Americans for Peace Now. Seidler-Feller still serves as a faculty member at the Shalom Hartman Institute North America and the Wexner Heritage Foundation. He also served as a rabbinic consultant for Barbra Streisand in the 1983 film “Yentl.”

In his lecture, Seidler-Feller quoted 15th-century Spanish rabbi Isaac Arama who wrote, “If the Torah was a science book, I have better and more comprehensive books of science on my shelf.”

“In other words, why would anyone want to reduce a tome of challenging, transformative, immoving and edifying — and sometimes troubling — ideas into a text full of scientific data and historic facts?” Seidler-Feller said. “The Bible answers the question of, ‘Why? And for what purpose?’”

The Book of Genesis outlines that nature, while humans are tasked with overseeing it, is a creation of God just as humans are. And humans, while all created in God’s image, are also all unique. In the Mishnah and Sanhedrin 4:5, it says that Adam was created for holy greatness. So whenever the blood of Adam is shed, it is also a crime against God.

It also calls for equality. When a master kills his slave, he has murdered a fellow image of God. And there is a noun in Chapter 2 in Genesis, usually translated as “rib,” that is later translated in Exodus as “side,” which suggests that God split Adam in two to produce Eve as an equal female, rather than being fashioned from a rib. Seidler-Feller said that this introduces sexual equality as a religious revelation.

Seidler-Feller also said that some Jews have chosen to become vegetarian because of two quotes. Chapter 1 of Genesis reads, “See I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that you see bearing fruit. They shall be yours.” In other words, humans should avoid the killing of God’s creatures. 

And in Chapter 11, Isaiah said, “The wolf shall lie down with the calf. The beast and prey, together with the little boy to herd them. The calf shall graze, their young shall lie down together and the lion, like the ox, shall eat straw.”

But the creation of the world in seven days should not be taken literally, Seidler-Feller said.

“The lesson is not that the world was created in six days, and then God rested on the seventh and therefore we must celebrate the Sabbath,” Seidler-Feller said. “Rather, because the Torah has innovated the Sabbath and added a day onto the Mesopotamian six-day cycle that neatly fit into this 30-day month, the Torah wants to sanctify and immorialize this seven-day pattern and present it to humanity as a divine mandate.”

Seidler-Feller said this was regarded as innovative at the time, because no other belief had instituted a day of rest for all, including those enslaved. This goes against the concept of a life’s purpose to toil, while the Torah called for people to fulfill their life’s purpose in the name of God. The Sabbath is meant to be a day of spiritual creativity — ideas, learning, meditation and contemplation.

In the past, the Roman hegemony accused the Jews of ruining the economy. And Seidler-Feller said that the pressure to work without end persists to this day. When he first started working at UCLA and had a group of students introduce themselves, he realized they characterized themselves by their work.

“They were stuck,” he said. “They couldn’t talk about themselves. They understood their value, their identity as being linked to their professional achievements.”

Making time for shalom — for peace — on Shabbat, Seidler-Feller said, allows people to think about how they can bring peace into the other days of the week.

“We need the Sabbath revolution more than ever,” Seidler-Feller said, “not just for Jews. It’s a day of renewal, of overcoming our total subjugation to our insatiable appetite for more, and our complete submission to technology.”

At the same time, there must be a return to physical creation on the other days of the week.

“We are humanly incapable of living on a purely spiritual level,” Seidler-Feller said.

The Habdallah, which marks the end of the Sabbath, marks the distinction between the spiritual and the physical and reintroduces humans to the holy task of building the world.

Both Seidler-Feller and Robinson agree that God made humans as “co-creators” to enhance what God is or what the world is. While Robinson said that most people he spoke with were shocked by this, Seidler-Feller said this was a common belief among Jewish mystics throughout history.

“There is a sense that God wants humanity,” Seidler-Feller said. “God needs humanity.”

In Genesis, Seidler-Feller said, the lesson in Chapter 2 is that it is not good for humans to be alone, or for God to be alone. Robinson agreed.

“One without the other would be a distortion,” Robinson said.

Seidler-Feller said it’s important to look beyond technicalities of the text. In the Garden of Eden with the forbidden fruit, he said the original sin was not the classic story of human violation and punishment but the loss of innocence — it was inevitable for humans to eat the fruit. Through creation, there is some destruction.

“If we build a house, we destroy some trees,” Seidler-Feller said.

The story, he said, is a lesson to balance destruction and creation as well as a lost dream that is meant to be held as an aspiration to return— in small steps — to harmony with God.

Part of that is to maintain community and connections with others. Both Seidler-Feller and Robinson said that attendance in faith groups they led had increased while using Zoom, highlighting the need to care for relationships and communities. This touched on Seidler-Feller’s final message.

“It is not good for a human being to be alone,” Seidler-Feller said.

From the news section to obituaries, Columbia University’s Ari Goldman calls for religious literacy and empathetic objectivity

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Goldman

Columbia University’s Ari Goldman thinks that without religious literacy, a journalist runs the risk of misinforming the public.

“When done right, journalism can educate and inform the public,” Goldman said. “When done wrong, it can spread falsehoods and reinforce stereotypes.”

Goldman recorded his lecture, “From Church Stories to Obituaries, Journalists Need Religious Literacy,” on the lawn of his bungalow in the Catskill Mountains on July 26. 

The lecture was released at 2 p.m. EDT Thursday, Aug. 6, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform as part of the Week Six Interfaith Lecture Series theme “Lessons in the School House.” Audience members submitted questions through the www.questions.chq.org portal or on Twitter with #CHQ2020.

Religion news isn’t for the religion pages anymore,” Goldman said. “A sophisticated reporter knows that religion has a role in many of the great debates in our society, from abortion, to gay marriage, to healthcare, to housing, to education.”

Goldman had a consistent byline in The New York Times before he began teaching his Covering Religions course at Columbia University. He said that journalists often struggle with understanding the diversity within religions, much less the difference between them.

“People know about their own religion — well, sometimes — but people rarely know about others,” Goldman said.

In 2010, British TV host Kay Burley confused Joe Biden’s Ash Wednesday ashes for a bruise on his forehead.

“I’m a bad Catholic,” Burley said after producers informed her while she was still on air.

It’s just one example of why journalists need to understand religions to do full reporting. Goldman’s students have gone on to report on religion for the Chicago Tribune, the Miami Herald, the Atlanta Journal Constitution and other publications. For 12 years, his student Maria-Paz López covered the Vatican for La Vanguardia in Spain and is now the publication’s Berlin correspondent.

Goldman’s students have also gone on to cover other topics, including economics, health care, foreign policy, the White House and education, but he said they do so knowing the importance of religion in all parts of life.

“Religion news isn’t for the religion pages anymore,” Goldman said. “A sophisticated reporter knows that religion has a role in many of the great debates in our society, from abortion, to gay marriage, to healthcare, to housing, to education.”

Goldman referred to Harvard University’s Diana Eck, Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies, who he studied with at Harvard Divinity School. She repeats this phrase often: “If you know one religion, you don’t know any.”

“She is telling us not to make assumptions about one religion based on our own,” Goldman said. 

Catholic Confirmation is not the same as a Jewish Bar Mitzvah. While some religions consider hands joined together as prayerful, Buddhists consider them to represent the meeting of the finite and infinite.

The former cornerstone of journalism, Goldman said, was objectivity — but he teaches empathetic objectivity in his courses. Communion reported objectively is people eating wafers. With empathetic objectivity reporting, the journalist communicates that for the believer, this is a sacred act of taking the body of Christ.

The Scripps Foundation in Cincinnati, Ohio, has funded his class trips to Israel, Palestine, Russia, and Ukraine, where his students cover beat topics that center on different religious groups. His students have covered the last three Popes.

His spring 2020 class had planned to visit Louisiana and Mississippi to cover the diversity of religion in the U.S. South. But Columbia University shut everything down a few days before they were slated to leave on March 13.

The class pivoted to instead cover religious groups coping with the pandemic. His favorite story that came out of the course was a story on virtual water baptisms.

“The news changes, and we have to change, too,” Goldman said.

Goldman noted the increase of obituaries written worldwide with the onset of COVID-19. When deaths in the United States hit 100,000, The New York Times published 1,000 names of those who had died by coronavirus in the United States on the front page and started a new section, “Those We’ve Lost to the Coronavirus,” which is similar to the “Portraits of Grief” obituary section they published after 9/11.

And in China, independent blogs and news sites covered the deaths of workers on the front lines of the virus. Italy published between 10 and 12 pages of obituaries per day, and papers in Brazil and South Africa followed suit.

Along with empathetic objectivity, there was one last lesson Goldman said he imparts on his students.

“Every life is a story worth telling,” Goldman said.

Linda K Wertheimer digs into Jewish childhood and cross-country student interviews and finds clear need for religious literacy education

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On the day of the Chabad of Poway synagogue shooting on April 27, 2019, the late Lori Gilbert Kaye was there to sing the mourner’s kaddish in honor of her late mother.

“(The shooter) killed someone who could’ve been me,” Linda K. Wertheimer said. “I am a Jew. I go to the temple every morning to sing the mourner’s kaddish.”

Wertheimer gave her lecture, “From Fear to Hope: Childhood Experiences with Anti-Semitism/How to Teach Respect,” as part of Week Six’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “Lessons in the School House.” After the lecture, which took place on Wednesday, Aug. 5, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, Wertheimer answered questions from Vice President of Religion and Senior Pastor Gene Robinson, who delivered questions through the www.questions.chq.org portal and on Twitter with #CHQ2020.

In 2017, Wertheimer was a writer-in-residence for a week at Chautauqua, but her earliest memory on the grounds is visiting with her parents to see Margaret Mead speak. Wertheimer is a veteran journalist, essayist and award-winning education writer. Her lecture pulled from personal experiences and cross-country reporting on religion in schools for her book, Faith Ed: Teaching about Religion in an Age of Intolerance.

“I know when it comes to religious bigotry, Jews are not the only target,” Wertheimer said. “Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus have also faced harassment because they are often seen as the Other in our predominantly Christian country.”

Muslims and Sikhs have been targeted as part of Islamophobia post-9/11. In 2012, six Sikhs were shot in a Wisconsin temple.

When Wertheimer’s family moved from New York to northeast Ohio in 1974, her personal experiences with religious discrimination would intensify in the Van Buren school system.

“All I wanted was to fit in,” Wertheimer said, reading from her book.

But within a week of attending her new elementary school, someone that Wertheimer only knew as the “church lady” cornered both Wertheimer and her brother. The church lady walked into Wertheimer’s class weekly to talk about Jesus, with figures on a flannel board. Students then raised their hands to talk about Jesus’ effect on their lives. Then they sang a song — about Jesus.

Paid by local Protestant churches, the church lady and others like her visited different schools to preach to elementary school classes. When Wertheimer’s mother asked the superintendent to ask the school board to stop these classes, the school board vetoed the request. Her parents debated on whether to pursue legal action until later that same week, when the local KKK organization had set fire to a cross in the front yard of a Black household.

Wertheimer’s teacher would sit with her in another room when the church lady came to the class. But one day, her teacher told her to sit in a broom closet and left her there until it ended. After her mother complained, Wertheimer was directed to sit in the library.

“It was hard enough being the new kid,” Wertheimer wrote. “Now, I was subject to regular interrogations by some of my peers.”

One of her classmates asked her why she didn’t stay for the church lady’s lessons. When Wertheimer told her classmate that she was Jewish, they didn’t know what that meant. Wertheimer was in elementary school at the time and couldn’t articulate it, either.

She knew less about what Judaism was and more about what her Jewishness was not in relation to Christianity. A youth minister would invite students to youth group events during lunch. Pastors led prayers in Easter and Christmas school assemblies.

At 12 years old, Wertheimer convinced her parents to let her quit Hebrew school on Sundays. Only two or three other Jewish families lived in the same town as them. The two closest synagogues were both an hour away.

When she became old enough to drive and gave a basketball teammate a ride home from practice, her teammate asked her if she believed in Jesus. Wertheimer, still Jewish, said no.

“You’ll end up in hell,” her teammate said.

Shortly after her brother Kevin was cursed at on the bus by other students, one Sunday morning her family woke up to anti-Semitic graffiti on almost every window of their house. Outside, they found a white swastika on her brother’s car, a lime green Barracuda, in the driveway.

When learning about the Holocaust in history class, the teacher read a few paragraphs from the textbook. Wertheimer said he treated it as if it happened hundreds of years ago. A student behind her leaned forward to whisper a slur, and added, “My grandfather was in the KKK.”

As an adult, Wertheimer researched court battles for her book and discovered that in 1948, 25 years before she would meet the church lady, the church lady’s role had been legally outlawed.

In 2010, she read an article about Wellesley Middle School students in the sixth grade who visited a Boston mosque as a field trip for their Global Beliefs course. A few students had been filmed actually participating in the praying when they were just there to observe.

The school scheduled another mosque visit in the next Global Beliefs course, but moved it to a less populated suburban mosque that wasn’t used for prayer during the visit. Wertheimer was able to sit in on the field trip.

“This was not indoctrination,” Wertheimer said. “This was the kind of education I had wished for my peers and myself in Ohio.”

It wasn’t just a history class. It dealt with current events and dispelled stereotypes of different religions. Wertheimer interviewed students during the course and subsequent years after they had completed it to measure the course’s effectiveness. At minimum, it delivered basic religious literacy. At maximum, it dulled the pain of past bullying that happened to students from minority faiths.

Two years after a Muslim student named Zain Tirmizi took the course, the Boston bombings took place. His family worried about both the victims of the terrorist attack and the likely backlash against Muslims.

And there was, in the form of a substitute teacher’s generalizing comments about Muslims in Tirmizi’s history class. Before Tirmizi spoke up, the substitute said, “Not all Muslims, of course.” The next day, other students told their teacher about it before Tirmizi had a chance to do it himself.

A few years before taking the course, Celia Golod, a Jewish student who was also in Tirmizi’s class, was subjected to a student who wanted to measure her nose. A year after the course, 80 of her classmates attended her bat mitzvah. They knew what the Torah was. They weren’t surprised by the yamakas.

“They had achieved basic religious literacy and could put it to practical use,” Wertheimer said.

In her interviews with people who opposed classes like the one at Wellesley, she said that most critics didn’t want any religion taught in schools out of fear.

Most objected to Islam in particular being taught. Controversy erupted in Lumberton, Texas, when teacher Sharon Peters’ geography lesson included trying on a burka, and in Tampa, Florida, when protests continued a month after Imam Hassan Shibly, who is also a lawyer, was a guest speaker for a religion course.

In Modesto, part of the Bible Belt of California, high school students are required to take a world religions course to graduate. While it’s never been very controversial, the occasional Evangelical Christian family or atheist student does object, but most comply. 

One 14-year-old Pentecostal Christian student in the course was taught in church to shun religious idols — the Modesto teacher lined her windowsill with statues from different religions — and to fear other religions. But she also wanted to get an A in the course. When Wertheimer interviewed her a decade later, the student was no longer so afraid of other religions.

On the day of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting, Wertheimer was hesitant to explain it to her 10-year-old son Simon. A few years before, his dad had read My Grandfather Has a Tattoo to Simon before telling him about Simon’s paternal grandmother, who survived the Holocaust and lost her parents and brother to the Nazis.

Wertheimer and her husband want Simon to understand his role in repairing the world, but Simon is now in seventh grade and has gone without religious course offerings.

Wertheimer said there is no way to tell that religious literacy education can prevent violence, but it has a place in condemning it.

“There is clearly no panacea against hate, but if educators don’t teach about world religions and they don’t teach about the dangers of stereotypes, it’s a critical mistake,” Wertheimer said. “As a society, we’ll end up normalizing acts of hate … and we’ll miss the opportunity to empower (children) with education, so they can stand up for the Zains, the Celias and so many other religious minority youths who may face bullying because of their faith.”

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