Today, as we observed the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on our nation I participated in two very different events.
The first one was part of an annual festival in Colorado Springs celebrating innovation and the pioneering spirit that has made our nation so great. The theme this year was “What if?” I co-facilitated a conversation on why inter-faith dialogue was so important and how it could help to heal our world.
Our small group spoke about how we came to realize that everyone’s story was different and interesting and important– even if it was not in keeping with our own faith. One man, a member of the congregation I serve at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, said he wanted to be some place today where Muslim-phobia wasn’t the order of the day.
It was a small group but one news station had showed up to interview us. I left feeling uplifted and hopeful about our future.
Then I went to a local bed and breakfast that hosts outside weddings in their stunning gardens. It’s a beautiful place and I have been called upon to do several weddings there over the summer. I am to officiate at a wedding there tomorrow and was to meet the couple and go over the details of the service this afternoon.
I introduced myself to the young couple and the bride’s parents who were also there. As I was beginning to explain the ceremony the bride’s father suddenly asked, “What church are you with?”
“All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, downtown, on Tejon,” I answered. This was a local couple who had grown up here and my bio was on the bed and breakfast’s website. I assumed the parents had at least a little knowledge of where I was from.
“Is it a Christian church?” The dad persisted.
“Well, it has its roots in Christianity, but it has since grown beyond that,” I answered. Then, playing the name-dropping game, I added, “It’s the church of Ralph Waldo Emerson, P.T. Barnum, Thomas Jefferson..”
I trailed off as the father of the bride pressed even further, “Is Jesus Christ the Lord and Savior, the head?”
Startled, I responded, “No. Well, maybe for some folks...”
The bride reached over to pat her father’s arm. “Now, calm down,” she said gently.
We went on with the brief rehearsal but I felt sick to my stomach. I had once again experienced religious discrimination– ironically, what I had just been talking about at the What If festival an hour earlier.
I remembered when I was still an MCC minister. I had accepted an invitation from The Navigators to a minister’s retreat. I had naively sent in the registration form stating that I was a woman and would need to share a room with another female. As I was driving to the retreat I thought about whether or not I would come out as a lesbian minister. I flew out of the closet when I was 16 years old so it was weird to think about coming out again. But once I reached the retreat site all bets were off. The retreatants consisted of 35 white straight men, one African American straight man and me.
Many men were clearly angry that I dared to show my face as a female minister, let alone a lesbian. I felt shut out, silenced. My only saving grace was one open-minded minister who dared to sit with me during meals and asked to hear my story. One man who dared to believe a woman could have a place in ministry.
I’ve come a long way since that retreat, since entering the ministry 21 years ago. I’ve changed and grown and so has my theology. Still, I felt reduced somehow during today’s interrogation at the wedding rehearsal. I felt as if my character were in question if I didn’t believe the same way that the bride’s father did. I felt shut down and silenced.
I was not a part of the majority, therefore, my beliefs were suspect.
Driving home, I tried to analyze my feelings. I realized it wasn’t that I felt insecure about my UU beliefs– which I proudly and defiantly uphold and celebrate. Rather I was just reminded about how important interfaith dialogue– inter-religious acceptance is. And how easy it is for the dominant religious culture to assert itself as the only truth– as if among all the nations, throughout the breadth of history there could only be one truth.
As I drove away from the bed and breakfast, I realized the exchange between me and the father of the bride made me all the more determined to work for a place where all faiths could be shared in safety and respect, where no faith was privileged above the others and where every person felt the freedom to embark on a free and responsible search for truth and meaning– with no map given– only a compass by which to navigate their own spiritual journey.
I was reminded of a quote one of the participants in the interfaith dialogue shared today by theologian Hans Kung. "There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions. There will be no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions."
And I humbly remembered, I used to be that guy– the father of the bride– who thought I knew the only way to truth, who arrogantly sought to impress my beliefs on others. And so I blessed him silently as I left. Blessed his fervency, blessed his zeal and then let him go. Let him continue on his path even as I am on my own. I took in a breath of air from earlier in the day– when a small group of us discussed interfaith dialogue and hearing different stories and being intrigued by them and learning from them and just listening to them without having to prove our “rightness”.
That’s what this anniversary should be about, nine years after the destruction of America’s myth of invulnerability. That all matter, that every belief is sacred, that what is different is not to be feared but to be explored. And for those who don’t want to have those conversations, I shake the dust off my feet, as Jesus said, and move on. Life is too short to be navigated with fear and with righteous intolerance. So I shook the dust off my feet, but I say to you, fellow sojourner, no matter what your story is, if you want to share it, if you want to hear mine, come along side me. Come, let us reason together.