On Friday morning, May 4, 2012, I had the honor of being the keynote speaker at the Troy Community Coalition Annual Prayer Breakfast. I’d like to share a tweaked version of that message, which focuses on building bridges across faith lines, so as to pursue the common good.
It is a great honor for me to speak with you this morning. As someone who is committed to building bridges across religious lines, I want to affirm the Troy Community Coalition for its commitment to celebrating our community’s religious diversity. I believe that this annual breakfast is a fitting complement to your primary calling to improve the quality of life of the community’s residents by promoting a lifestyle that is free of drug and alcohol abuse.
Although we all had to get up extra early on a Friday morning to attend this breakfast, it is always worth the effort. This event reminds us that the faith community, in all our diversity, can reach beyond our differences of belief and practice to build relationships that enhances life in our community. It is a key component in building trust in our community.
What we celebrate this morning is a reflection of the kind of spirit envisioned by the early American leaders who coined our original, and unfortunately unofficial, national motto -- E Pluribus Unum, which means “out of the many, one.” Although I put my complete trust in God, I think Congress made a mistake when it replaced this motto with “In God We Trust.” E Pluribus Unum is a fitting motto because it is both a celebration of diversity and a call to action.
Growing up I learned about the “melting pot” principle, which suggests that we will find our national unity by assimilating into the image of the majority culture. Now, being that I am rather WASPish – White Anglo-Saxon Protestant -- this isn’t difficult for me. It doesn’t take that much for me to fit in. But, while this melting pot theory may make it easier to achieve unity through uniformity, the result is a community that is far less rich than it could be otherwise.
Yes, finding unity in the midst of diversity isn’t easy, but the benefits are invaluable!
When this diverse body of faith communities, which make up this local community, as well as this nation, is at our best, we contribute to the furtherance of the common good of all. Each of our faith traditions can, if they choose, empower their people to look out for the good of others. Each of our traditions teaches principles like hospitality, generosity, respect, and peace. Of course, in each of our traditions there are other voices that exclude and debase. The choice is ours as to which voice we will listen to!
As the pastor of a Protestant Christian congregation, I’m a committed follower of Jesus Christ. But, I’ve also had the opportunity to work closely with people from different faith communities. Not only have I made wonderful friends, but I’ve discovered that the key to removing barriers is to build relationships with others.
It’s not that our differences melt away, but when we build relationships with each other, our differences cease to be a barrier to joining together in building a more just and open community. Over the past fifteen years I’ve been blessed with friends from across the religious spectrum. Although we don’t agree on everything, I’ve discovered that we are all children of a loving God.
The defining moment in my faith journey probably was 9-11. At the time, I was the president of an interfaith clergy group in Santa Barbara, CA. Even as we were hearing calls for revenge and retribution against Muslims here and abroad, I was called upon to organize a service of remembrance for the community. As part of this effort, I reached out to the local imam, inviting him to participate. We had met on two previous occasions, so he knew who I was, and therefore a bridge had already been built. Fortunately he accepted my invitation, and joining a Christian minister and a Jewish Rabbi in a Methodist pulpit, he addressed the overflow crowd with a message of grief at the loss of life and the hijacking of his faith. He also spoke movingly of a vision of peace and compassion. It was a powerful moment that changed my life. From then on I knew that God was calling me to become a bridge builder between faith traditions. I heard a call to work with others to build a better future for our community, our nation, and our world. That event led to a new friendship and a partnership with the Imam, and together with others from the faith community, we started work on removing walls and building bridges.
Since I moved to Troy nearly four years ago, I’ve found myself drawn into leadership of the Troy-area Interfaith Group. One of the blessings of moving to Troy, and my work with the Troy-area Interfaith Group, is that it has given me the opportunity to broaden my circle of partners even further. Before I came here I had developed good friendships with people in both the Jewish and the Islamic Community. Since coming here, I’ve added other partners, members of the Hindu community. It seems that Troy has a lot more Hindus than did Santa Barbara!
What I’ve learned over the years is that our differences needn’t fade away so that we might find a common purpose. I believe that we all want peace and justice, freedom and opportunity. We all value education and helping others.
I believe that we do have a common purpose, but unfortunately a very different ideology is gaining traction in our nation and in our community. It is rooted in fear and the belief that there’s just not enough stuff to go around. It’s an ideology that breeds distrust of others and of our institutions – whether its government, business, or even religion. It’s an ideology that drives people apart rather than brings them together. It builds walls not bridges. Unfortunately, sometimes this ideology finds supporters within our various religious communities. Its message is one of intolerance of difference and teaches that it’s us against them.
We have come here today to share in this breakfast because we won’t accept this “us against them” message. We have come here at the invitation of the Troy Community Coalition to affirm our responsibility to pursue the common welfare of every person in the community, no matter who they are, whether they’re young or old, male or female. It doesn’t matter their ethnicity or their religion. We are all part of the one humanity as it is expressed in all of its wondrous diversity.
In closing, I want to again thank the Troy Community Coalition for calling us together, not only to celebrate our diversity, but as a call to build bridges across the boundaries we so often set. Then, when we accept this calling, we can truly experience the common good that God desires for us!