By Kit Carlson
There are two different quotes, or memes, going around on Facebook which have caught my eye recently. The first is a joke … sort of. It goes like this: “A Muslim, a Jew, a Christian, a pagan and an atheist all walk into a coffee shop … and they talk, laugh, drink coffee and become good friends. It’s not a joke. It’s what happens when you’re not a jerk.”
I like this quote because it reminds me of how we gather at this service, year after year -- the people of East Lansing and the wider mid-Michigan region, people of many different faiths, different backgrounds, different nationalities. We gather to give thanks. We gather to celebrate our unity in diversity. We gather to pray, sing, listen, talk, laugh, and in a few minutes at the fellowship time, drink coffee, and become good friends.
This is not a joke. This is who we are. This annual interfaith Thanksgiving service is one of my favorite things about living in East Lansing. This service is a core part of our identity as people of faith here in this community. We demonstrate this over and over again – that we can co-exist. We can honor and celebrate and uphold each other across all the boundaries of our faith traditions. As a Christian, I look at this gathering and I see it as a glimpse of what my tradition calls the Kingdom of God. This is the kingdom we Christians pray for in our Lord’s Prayer when we say, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” On a night like this, I can see that Kingdom emerging. I can hear earth and heaven singing together in harmony.
We are gathered here tonight. Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Bah’ai, Buddhist, UUs …so many faiths, gathered to share Thanksgiving. This is not a joke. And we are not jerks. And for that I give great thanks. Hearty and heartfelt thanks.
But there is this other Facebook meme that has caught my attention. It’s from a poem by a Muslim, a Somalian who grew up in Great Britain, named Warsan Shire. It goes like this:
later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
The world is hurting, my friends. The world is hurting tonight. The world is hurting in France and Russia, in Mali and Nigeria, in Syria and on the West Bank, in Myanmar and India. In many parts of the world, members of the world’s great religions – our own religions – Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, even Buddhist -- are fighting one another, persecuting and killing one another, perpetrating violence upon another in the name of God, a God, your God, my God. And out of that violence forces grow, forces that divide us instead of uniting us: fear and mistrust, hatred and hostility. And people bleed and cry and die, and some flee their homes and others secure their borders, while many arm themselves – figuratively and literally – against those who are different, those whom they perceive as The Other.
Where does it hurt? Everywhere. Everywhere. Everywhere.
“Why even bring this up?” you may ask. Why, on a night focused on unity, should I raise the question of division? Why, on a night focused on tolerance, do I bring up the issue of intolerance? Why, on a night focused on peace, do I mention global conflicts? Why do I bring this up at all? After all, here we are, gathered together. Here we are, thanking God with many different prayers and words and songs and praises of our varied faith traditions. We are profoundly blessed to be here, tonight – right here in East Lansing, Michigan, in the United States of America, living as free people, living in a nation where freedom of religion -- freedom to worship the God we know in the manner we choose -- is enshrined in our Constitution. “So can’t we just count our blessings?” you may ask. Can’t we just be thankful?
We can count our blessings. We can be thankful. Yes, we can. And that’s important. Brené Brown, who researches things like shame, and courage, and resiliency, has learned through her data that the practice of gratitude, the daily naming of the blessings that are all around us, can actually reduce our feelings of fear and inadequacy. Brené Brown’s research has shown that simply saying “I’m grateful … for you, for all of you, for this evening, for this place …” simply to say that kind of thing builds our capacity for joy, and reduces our susceptibility to fear and anxiety. Whatever we are grateful for tonight – this act of being thankful, of naming and claiming God’s blessings ,will shine the light of joy and sufficiency into the dark terror of scarcity and dread.
But the world needs more than just this one night of gratitude. The world needs more than just this annual observance of interfaith solidarity. The world needs more than just our co-existence.
What the world desperately needs is for us, all of us – Jew and Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist, Christian and Baha’i – to step beyond merely tolerating one another’s differences or coexisting. The world needs each one of us, right now, to work to build meaningful interfaith relationships between our congregations and faith communities, right here in Mid-Michigan. We need to build strong relationships, real relationships. Relationships where we know each other – not just the clergy or congregational leaders, but the members of these congregations – relationships where we know each other by face and by name, where we share one another’s joys and bear one another’s burdens. Where we stand, side by side, shoulder to shoulder, and face down those who would try to divide us, face down those who would tell us we should fear each other. The world needs us to move beyond co-existence, into true solidarity with one another.
We have a place to begin, here, tonight. As we all know, there is a refugee crisis in the world. The Lansing State Journal had three pages of coverage yesterday on the global refugee crisis. At this moment, more people in the world have been uprooted by war, persecution or natural disasters than ever before in history – 55 million by the end of 2014, and as we know from the news, many many more in the past few months, as people flee the Syrian conflicts.
But because of the attacks in Paris, some of our elected leaders -- or people who want to become our elected leaders -- are trying to tell us that we need to be afraid of these refugees. They tell us that we should be afraid, that we should fear the stranger, the person from another country, the person of another faith, or with another skin color, or who speaks another language. They tell us that co-existence is not possible, that we should close our borders and lock up our hearts.
But our faith … my faith, your faith, my religion, your religion, all of our religions … tell us a different story, wrap us in another frame of reference. At the core of our faith traditions, in our sacred texts, we hear over and over again these same words of divine wisdom. Love God. Love neighbor. Do good to the stranger in your land. Do unto others what you would have done to you. Do not do to others what you would not have done to you. Seek peace. Strive for justice.
And leaders of our many faiths have responded. To those who would lock our borders and keep out Syrian refugees, our faith leaders have said over and over again, “Not in our name.” I can read you a roll call of faith organizations that have issued statements that call for the U.S. to welcome refugees, particularly those from Syria. Here are just a few of them. The U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops. The Union for Reform Judaism. The National Association of Evangelicals. The president of the Southern Baptist Convention. The United Church of Christ. The Disciples of Christ. The United Methodist Church, the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. The Islamic Society of North America. The Jewish Orthodox Union. The National Council of Churches. The Unitarian Universalist Association. The Friends Committee on Legislation.
These voices say no. These voices say do not be afraid. These voices say we can do the right thing. We must do the right thing. In God’s name, we must do the right thing. Or we are not the people God has created us to be.
And so we have a place to begin, here, tonight, a moment where we can move beyond simply co-existing. We have a place where we can truly stand -- side by side and shoulder to shoulder -- facing down those who would try to divide us, those who would tell us to fear one another. We begin with our offering tonight, which is going to the St. Vincent Catholic Charities’ refugee resettlement program. We begin by placing gifts of money in the offering basket, gifts that will become the symbol of our solidarity, the symbol of our beginning.
But I think going forward we can do more, much more, as a community of many faiths, as a gathering of people who choose friendship over fear. I think we – the interfaith community of the Lansing area – can work as one. We can step forward together as friends, neighbors, children of God, however it is that we understand and know God through our own religions. We can own this issue as our shared responsibility.
What if we worked together to meet the needs of the refugees who arrive in Lansing from many nations? What if we worked together to support organizations like St. Vincent and the Refugee Development Center, which work with the refugee community? What if we worked together to welcome refugees into our congregations and help them find their way in this community? And what if we did this together, not just as separate congregations, separate organizations, separate people, separate faiths? What if we did this as one inter-faith community, side by side, shoulder to shoulder, united in the face of division, courageous in the face of fear?
Why, then heaven and earth would sing together in beautiful harmony .
On this beautiful November night it is important to remember, even as we give great thanks for our own blessings, that others are still suffering. That the world does hurt, everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.
But the healing of that hurt is in our hands. So let’s go into that fellowship hall together tonight, Christian, Muslim, Jew, pagan, atheist, all of us … and let’s talk and laugh and drink coffee and become good friends. GOOD FRIENDS.
And in that friendship, may we begin together the work of binding up the wounded world.