Friday, April 27, 2012

Faith of All Colors

This was recently posted in Chapel Hill News in April, 2012.  It involves the pilgrimage I've taken with my world religion class at NCCU.  Enjoy!

Buen Camino!


As I rushed into worship at United Church of Chapel Hill on Palm Sunday, an usher gave me the morning’s bulletin and a palm frond.
I looked at the banana yellow center and vibrant green edge of the palm frond in my hand, and was slightly overwhelmed by the rush of memories: I’d been collecting these exotic leaves from a palm tree for over 50 years.
At Morrow Memorial United Methodist Church in Maplewood, N.J., I distinctly remember being handed a large palm branch, leading the other choristers down the central aisle of the church singing “Hosanna” at the top of my small lungs.
I cherished the moment of being able to shout in a sanctuary that was mostly cloaked in silence, dim candle-light, sleep-inducing sermons, and cringed during the singing of dirge-like hymns during the rest of the year. Thank God, literally, that there were stories of miracles and battles that kept my attention, with storylines that Spielberg and Lucas could one day replicate in a galaxy far far away.
Growing up in Maplewood as a young child, I was aware of primarily three “faiths”: Protestants, Roman Catholics, and those who were Jewish.
I knew where the various Protestant churches, Roman Catholic Church, and synagogue were in this New York City suburb. And granted, Catholics and Protestants are both Christian churches, but I was secretly envious when my Catholic friends took off from school for a high holy day of a saint, of left early for catechism. As for my Jewish friends, Hanukkah was an incredible gift-giving holiday, let alone the days they got to leave school too. I was oblivious to the fact that all the Protestant Christian holidays shaped the rest of the public school calendar, from Christmas break to Easter’s spring break.
What finally broke me out of this tripartite view of faith communities was education.
Moving out of Maplewood to Portland, Oregon introduced me to the faith system of Indian Americans who were the primary minority group in that region. Studying at a small evangelical college, a major university, attending two seminaries, graduate studies, teaching at a seminary, creating a non-profit – School of the Pilgrim – taking people on actual, intentional pilgrimages around the world, and teaching religions of the world at N.C. Central University (NCCU), has broadened and deepened my appreciation of the many ways people believe, love, live, embody, practice, breathe, and orient their daily lives.
Along with several students from NCCU, I’ve been on a pilgrimage of the faith communities in and around the Cary-Chapel Hill-Durham area. While it is still possible to grow up as a child in this area with the same three faiths that I grew up and around, my class has discovered the richness of vibrant faith communities right in our own backyard.
In Cary, we toured the Sri Venkateswara (Hindu) Temple of North Carolina, feasting our eyes on the intricate beauty of statuary, flowers, candles, and feasted on food that gave us a taste of a world faraway from barbeque. With the members of the Zen Buddhist Retreat Center in Chapel Hill, in our very sitting upon mats and pillows, we were taught contemplative practices that left us all wanting more time of silence in a world that is permanently driving in fifth gear.
At Durham’s Temple Beth El, we peered at the scroll open before us, mesmerized by the beauty of the language written, first communicated orally, that accompanies a people of faith to this very day. And in the coming weeks, the class will reflect upon our own Christian roots, as well as enter a dialogue with our Muslim friends in Durham as we seek to create common ground.
As I store and dry my palm frond, with plans of making ashes of it for next year’s Ash Wednesday, I savor the incredible diverse ways others celebrate, live, and are restored by their faith and sense of the Holy and eternal realities. The richness of the faiths, the religions, of the world is not far away in a distant land, but right here in our backyard. This colorful, dense, rich quilt work of faith communities remind me that there are many people making connections with other people, hoping to make this a better world for one and all.

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