Today I rode my bike to church on campus for a special multifaith celebration. During the service, 24 students were officially commissioned as Fellows for Religious Encounter. This year, they will meet every Wednesday over dinner for dialogue and to hear from engaging speakers. They will visit sacred sites and experience rituals and practices they may have never seen before. As they recited the commissioning prayer before the congregation this morning, I couldn’t help noticing two things: time FLIES, and how necessary this kind of intentional learning is as religion either brings us wisdom to seek justice or violent division.
I remember stumbling upon a Buddhist Temple in my neighborhood when I was little. It was a temple dedicated to Kwan Yin, a beloved bodhisattva in the Mahayana tradition known for her mercy and compassion for human beings. Inside the temple, there was a wood floor with black square cushions lined along the edges of the walls, and at the end of the long hall there was a statue of Kwan Yin sitting on a lotus flower. My entire understanding of God and faith shattered as I scoured the public library, trying to find books about this way of life called Buddhism. My grandmother told me whatever she knew, and encouraged me to keep looking. I didn’t know any Buddhists, though, so all I could do was take my reading at face value.
Seeing these bright young faces this morning made me want so many things for the fellows. I hope they don’t shy away from noting disagreement, especially when it is harmful. I hope they are forced to wrestle with a misconception dispelled in conversation. I hope they feel a range of emotions: anger, confusion, sadness, and joy when wonder strikes. I hope they listen and learn, and talk openly and teach. I hope they are confronted with not just questions about religion and privilege, but constantly engage in self-reflection.I hope they enjoy each other’s company. Of course if all these wishes are fulfilled, these students will inevitably be transformed.
Meeting someone who practiced Buddhism proved quite different than reading about the life of the Buddha and the Four Noble Truths. My teammate’s grandmother didn’t talk about her beliefs in an organized, bullet-point style lecture (she didn’t draw me a chart), she told me about her father and his father going to temple on New Year’s Day, and contacting monks for funeral services, and living life with compassion at the forefront of her mind. Every Sunday I sat in church and learned about the life of another man who preached compassion, who died so that we could go to heaven. I was confused and upset, scared to talk to my parents about these discoveries but excited about my findings, and bouncing from deep discomfort to honest wonder.
I think about walking in to that temple more and more these days. It seems like if everyone could walk into an unfamiliar place, ask some open questions, and struggle through some necessary discomfort to learn an alternative worldview, we could feel this wonder more often. Of course this is not so simple, but interfaith work is not simple at all. Feeling vulnerable to both share one’s own beliefs and subsequently hear views that thwart them takes courage and patience, and not the least of all trust. It is a worthy exercise for anyone to be faced with doubt. Often, confronting this leads us to an even wiser truth that we don’t take for granted.
I hope they learn. I hope they laugh. !