By Steve Herrera
Mar 1, 2019
Recently Pope Francis met with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, Abu Dhabi, February 4, 2019 and they issued a joint statement that they both signed entitled, Reflection on the Document on Human Fraternity for world peace and living together. I found this paragraph to be particularly outstanding:
“Freedom is a right of every person: each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action. The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings. This divine wisdom is the source from which the right to freedom of belief and the freedom to be different derives. Therefore, the fact that people are forced to adhere to a certain religion or culture must be rejected, as too the imposition of a cultural way of life that others do not accept;”
The idea that God wills the diversity of religious expression has been a long time coming. In my experience of interfaith work I began to understand that the diversity of religious expression is a great gift and that it illustrates the myriad ways humanity has developed to approach the divine.
Ten years ago my interfaith journey began. What I’ve learned in the past decade is what has been formally declared by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb.
In 2007 I engaged 15 Catholic and Buddhist teenagers in an immersion trip to Tijuana, Mexico to help build schools for Mexican children on the outskirts of town. After working long days mixing cement and sweating in the hot desert sun, there was time for discussing the social-economic situation on the US/Mexico border region and the root causes of poverty in that area. At the end of each evening there was time set aside for prayer, reflection and journal writing.
On the first evening the Catholic teenagers were going to pray with traditional Catholic prayers. Prior to the prayer service, one of the Buddhist adults, Mary, asked if there was some place the Buddhist teens could go to do their evening chanting. I was struck by this question as I had not anticipated it. Quickly thinking about what Mary asked, it occurred to me that it would be terribly rude and inappropriate for the Buddhist teenagers to go in a back room and chant while the Catholic teens prayed in the living room.
Sensing the inappropriateness of that scenario I invited the Buddhist participants to chant with the Catholic teens and the Catholic teens would pray in the presence of the Buddhist teens. So that’s what we did.
The Catholic and Buddhist teens sat in a circle in the living room and took turns praying or chanting. Each group also explained the significance of the prayers, the chants and the gestures used as well. No one was required to participate in the prayers or chants but everyone was encouraged to sit quietly and respectfully during the prayers and chanting. This experience led to an appreciation of each religious traditions prayer and gave the young people a chance to experience the prayer and chanting forms of another religious tradition.
As the week-long immersion trip progressed and the Catholic and Buddhist teens were mixing cement all day in the hot sun, they not only realized that Buddhists and Catholics believe in helping others, but they also had more chances to just talk and become friends and ask follow-up questions about each other’s religious beliefs.
This form of interfaith engagement and interaction became a model for subsequent interfaith programming I developed in the last decade, not only with teenagers but with adults as well. The diversity of religious beliefs referenced by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb was apparent to me all those years ago. The experience of young people being able to be respectful and pray and chant together and to work side by side together on a week-long immersion trip to Mexico was eye-opening and created an atmosphere of mutual respect, understanding and acceptance.
Interfaith immersion trips enable real friendships to occur so that not only do young people of different faith traditions learn about one another’s faith tradition and spirituality, they also learn about shared values of service, love, compassion, and social justice. And ultimately, the youth participants make new friends and realize that just because someone believes in a different religion than they do doesn’t mean they have nothing in common. In fact many of the teenagers realized that they have much more in common than they have differences!