A panel of faith leaders gathered at the Festival of Faiths to deconstruct the concept of otherness and its role in race, class, and gender issues.
Rev. Neichelle Guidry Jones, Rev. Willie Francois III, Elizabeth Jones, Rev. Robert Harvey, and Rev. Daniel Corrie Shull fleshed out the perpetuation of otherness and the need to look internally to address institutionalized biases.
Elizabeth Jones, an attorney pursuing her Ph.D. in Pan-African studies at the University of Louisville, had worked as a public defender in New Orleans. She said the concept of othering was not a new phenomenon in the U.S., but that there was a historical point where blackness was created, alongside slavery.
“Embedded in many systems of theological thought is the creation of othering,” said Rev. Francois, who is a pastor at the First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York. “Othering” involves individuals allowing another person’s differences to interfere with any search for commonality, understanding, and appreciation.
Francios called upon scripture and noted how Jesus critiqued the system, saying there is still a need today to call systems to task.
“Facilitate dialogue and question,” said Rev. Harvey, who described a sort of theological Stockholm syndrome, where those involved fear deconstructing the system that has institutionalized a process of permitting differences to polarize.
In deconstructing this system, Rev. Francois said, people must learn to see what is deeply human and divine in each individual’s differences.
“If you flatten my identity, you flatten my difference, which is divine,” he said. “I want you to love me with my blackness,” he said, suggesting that loving someone in spite of his or her differences, rather than alongside them, is “cheap diversity.”
“You can’t love someone that you don’t know,” said Rev. Guidry Jones. “This whole concept of loving someone who is different requires a lot of work.”
On Saturday, May 16, during the Festival of Faiths program 'Discovering the Self in Sacred Journey with the Other,' Hannah Drake opened the discussion with a powerful spoken word poem titled '10 & 2.'
In a blog post on the Roots & Wings Website ( http://rootsandwingsart.weebly.com/blog) Hannah writes, "My first poem was 10 and 2, a piece I wrote for my daughter that depicts the trials of a young, black person driving. Too often in our society, driving while black has been deemed a crime. The crowd was silent as I read. I did not know if they understood what I was saying not intellectually, of course, but on a fundamental level that these are the talks that we have with our children because we live in fear for their lives. My daughter is in college, has a 3.5 GPA, and has never been in trouble one day of her life. She is not what society would call 'a thug' yet I fear for her life in these days. Not because she has done anything wrong but simply because she was born black. While having 'the black talk' may be difficult, it is one that is needed."
10 & 2
(Poem on Police Brutality/Race Relations)
by Hannah Drake
When my daughter turned 17 I decided it was time that we had “the talk”.
Only this was a little deeper than the birds and the bees
How do you sit your child down and tell them their reality is not everyone’s reality
She walked into the house eyes bright and smiling
17 just a few months shy of adulthood
17 just a few months shy of being a woman
17 just a few months shy of leaving my home
17 almost grown yet I felt the need to explain to her
As she skipped in the house flashing her drivers permit
Just how deep this rabbit hole goes
Only she was not Alice and this was not Wonderland
This was not some psychedelic dream
While most parents can celebrate their child receiving their drivers permit
And send them to the store on their
Stories of traditions and sacred journeys inspire an appreciation for collective human experience.
Christina Lee Brown, a founder of the Festival of Faiths and a board member of the Center of Interfaith Relations, noted that individuals are able to learn about each other through their faiths. “Our faiths have a lot in common,” she said.
Three speakers on Friday morning conveyed hope for finding common ground among different faith backgrounds.
A Journey to Hope
Dr. William Vendley, the Secretary General of Religions for Peace International, described the six points of his sacred journey that led him to have hope.
- Childhood. Vendley was around people who truly believed their faith. He was introduced to the gift of tradition. He learned how to pray and learned about the Catholic faith before, as he said his second step of:
- “Sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” Here, he said, the early sureties of his faith didn’t hold up. He “had the exquisite sensitivity to hypocrisy that young people have,” and decided he would not be restrained and would explore this world.
- A deepening crisis. Vendley moved to France with his girlfriend and experienced deep despair when she died after suffering the flu. “It was a pit sufficiently deep that I didn’t see any path out,” he said.
- A first mercy. Vendley sought a zen master to find his way out of the pit, and was advised to read the work of Karl Rahner, a Jesuit priest. “Buddhists understand self-emptying is the conditioning of opening,” he said.
- Shared care, shared action. Vendley discovered four trend lines that all work together: Positive image of the other, Willingness to collaborate with the other, Seeing the other with the eye of mercy, Account for a belief in goodness
- Hope. Despite everything going out of our hands, we have confidence in our partnerships.
Wednesday morning's panel on the theme of East and West brought together speakers whose paths led them through exotic places as well as mundane situations on their own sacred journeys.
Like Dante finding himself in a dark wood in the middle of his life's journey, several of the speakers described feeling lost or "that it was a mess" while still in the midst of their search. Often only in hindsight did the outline of their trajectory come clear.
"Who said so?"
Reverend Robert Harvey’s path has been punctuated by a series of question marks into what we believe and why we believe it. Already as a child he demanded to know of his Sunday school teacher who wrote the Bible - an inquiry which took him all the way to Harvard Divinity School. As an adult, he puzzled over a gift of wisdom that his grandmother imparted to him on her deathbed: namely, that God never expected him to achieve perfection. What could that mean in the context of the societal expectations for an African-American male in our country? Of that person's dreams for himself? By pursuing such questions with as much intellectual rigor as emotional honesty, Reverend Harvey has been able to offer his parishioners' tough questions about God's workings in their life back to them as reflections for themselves, rather than easy answers from him or any other authority.
Playing parts and becoming whole
Over the course of a lifetime, Pravrajika Vrajaprana came full circle: from “playing nun” as a little girl to literally playing a nun as an adult. Despite being attracted to the monastic life from an early age, she had a protracted series of negotiations with her calling before accepting it. She described knowing in her heart that a worldly life of money and romantic partnership would never quite be enough - and yet she still had to try it on for size. Only once she became a nun and had been living in the convent for seven years did she realize that she
Inspiration for contemplation—whether in the form of music, moral and ethical issues, or social discord—sets a course for solitude, but that solitude can serve as a seed for action.
Allowing stillness and inviting contemplation opens up internal space to allow an individual to receive and respond to the world, and to act within it.
“There’s more than a hint of miraculous—what I might call the possibility of presence,” said Dr. Christopher Pramuk of Xavier University, during Thursday’s exploration of contemplation and action. Enduring life’s moments of dryness and continuing contemplation in solitude can enable an individual to return to the public sphere with renewed humanity.
Yet modern social discourse in that public sphere increasingly extends beyond the physical to the digital.
Thomas Merton wondered whether contemplation had a place in such a technological world—one that invites discussion, but generates a broad flow of information and perhaps, at times, challenges the concept of solitude.
What need do we have for contemplation in the face of such vast information, when the need to know and the need to be right trumps the need to listen?
“Contemplation calls us back to the difficult work of work,” Pramuk said. “It is a check on the ego and the ego’s aggressiveness,” as well as an attempt to recover humanity.
Taking the time to consider the self in relation to humanity can carry contemplation from a space of solitude to a one of interaction and justice.
Rt. Rev. Marc Andrus, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California, addressed the unity of contemplation and action.
He spoke of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the collective work of individuals behind the civil rights movement.
“Their common commitment to justice and the contemplative life,” he said, led to an interconnectedness and interrelationship in their action.
Silence is intimate. It is no wonder Thomas Merton retreated to solitude toward the end of his time at the Abbey of Gethsemani. And it is no wonder each session at the Festival of Faiths begins and ends with a shared silence.
Quiet achieved in a crowded space comes with an awareness of the others within that space and how closely we share in the silence of contemplation.
In the Actors Theatre of Louisville Wednesday, that intimate silence came alongside five individuals’ accounts of their own sacred journeys, told in relation to the work and life of Thomas Merton: poet, author, and interfaith innovator.
Each journey addressed a greater part of what is shared in this life: a spiritual path of which the path walker may or may not be aware.
“Our real journey in life is interior,” Merton wrote, and as Dr. Paul Pearson, the director of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University, said, “Merton introduced contemplation to the world, and the world to the Abbey.”
Pearson offered a brief history of Merton’s journey to and in Gethsemani. Merton’s lifelong path was punctuated by his world-embracing tendencies as well as his prolific writing on all manner of international issues, war and peace, and whether contemplation can find a place in the world of technology.
“Merton’s writings on war and peace still cut today like a knife,” said Dr. Christopher Pramuk, a lifelong musician and a theology professor at Xavier University.
Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, spoke to the audience in a recorded message and reflected on a meeting he had with Merton. He said he asked Merton about the impact of his encounter with Buddhism, and after a moment of reflection, Merton said he would not be able to understand his Christian faith if it were not in the light of Buddhism.
It is important, Br. Steindl-Rast said, to continue to honor Merton by striving for a deep understanding of other traditions. Then, he said, we can truly unders
Who, or what, is the real "me"? In today's world, with the proliferation of social media, i-devices, and various other tools that support the ego – which can sometimes be as literal as a selfie stick - it seems more daunting than ever to discern the still small voice of truth amid the noise of self-promotion.
Yet with effort and intention, it is possible. The speakers at Wednesday’s Sacred World panel on The True Self panel offered both philosophical perspectives as well as practical advice drawn from their own spiritual traditions. Here are some highlights from the session on how it can be done:
- Embrace the mystery.
For many, the spiritual path begins with the acknowledgement that we are strangers to ourselves. In the words of Brother Paul Quenon: "Being at a loss for the answer to the question 'Who am I really?' is the only serious and sincere answer." The world offers various identities based on the roles we play in society: through our work, our family - even our religion. Yet the true self is a matter of being, not doing. And in opening up to the idea that there is really nowhere to go and nothing to do to find the true self, "there is already the sense of a gift," as Brother Paul said. "The basis of faith is that I am loved and being human is a sign of that."
- Take everyday challenges as spiritual opportunities.
"We can either take the fact that we're here as a terrible misfortune, or say, 'How wonderful!'," said Pravarajika Vrajapana. She told the story of bringing her aging father around to accepting her choice to become a Hindu nun by telling him that she loved him rather than arguing with him. Thus: relating to our circumstances with gratitude gets us out of the small self's limited perspective of wanting to be right or superior.