Blessings for the Interfaith Work

I came to the interfaith community nearly ten years ago. I enlisted in a Habitat for Humanity house building project in midtown Sacramento. The City had given Habitat several small lots, all near each other. Three or four different faith groups went to work getting the houses built.

I am a Latter-day Saint, or Mormon. I’ve never been offended to be called a Mormon boy, but the Mormon Church does not actually exist. I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We are a Christian denomination. I learned in working closely, at times, with the Sikh community, the Catholics and others, that they, too, had politically incorrect terms and beliefs hovering over their heads. It seems to be a common thread with religion, organized and otherwise.

For instance, I was quite taken back by the fact that Sikh wearing turbans were thought to be Afghanistan rebels or terrorists. I was stunned to know that many do not believe Catholics are Christian. They’re just Catholic, but that faith distinction does not allow them to claim a discipleship to Jesus Christ. I discovered if you were Jewish you not only have the history and sorrow of the Holocaust to deal with but so many other personal pursuits in conversation and slander that is, at times, nearly unbelievable. I found that long-time Evangelicals were often not all that happy with the Catholic Church; but once learned “friendly” soon becomes, amongst the great friendships in God, a friendship in faith a person will forever enjoy.

Evangelicals are primarily interested in evangelism. That is, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with an unbelieving world.

I discovered that Muslim women (Islam is the proper and true name of the faith, but members of the Islam society and religion are called Muslims) wearing coverings for their heads are frowned upon by others as trying to disguise or cover up, as in CIA-advances to the old Soviet Union-American red team/blue team military circumstances. All of this causes me consternation and concern.

As the possible and probable discussions of interfaith rush through my mind and heart I am reminded of the comment shared by a friend: “…the child with a kitten upside down in her arms, in a manner seemingly injurious to the animal, popped into my mind. And yet, neither is hurting the other. We’ve all seen some version or another of that sometime in our lives. I think as adults, as well meaning as we all can be, it is just that innate sense of the innocence of the other we need to carry now and then that can get forgotten. It’s the program/people syndrome of losing sight of the individual because of the necessity of taking care of the nuts and bolts that have to be continually tightened in order to keep things running that complicates things. The Great Ones always stoop down to assist the individual, but unfortunately, in spite of our best efforts, we fall woefully short of those Perfect examples. However, I know we get credit for showing up and doing our best.”

A very wise man once said of the various faiths on this planet, “We all live in the same house. We just enter through different doors.” Of course, all of us – if we have a faith to hold to – believe that we are children of God.

Sometimes God is called Elohim or Allah. God is sometimes referred to as Father or Adonai. In other faiths God is called All-Glorious and Embu. El Cantare, Adro and Jehovah are frequent names assigned to God. Anyone speaking the English language would know and understand the term “Lord.” And on and on the names and titles go. Someone even wrote a book a few years ago called “The 101 Names of God.” It seems probable that there would be even more than that, though the average religious person would hold sacred that name which is closest to their heart and soul.

The same would hold true with the prophets (and a hundred names assigned to them in the variety of religions). There would be Abraham and Moses. There would be Mohammed and Joseph Smith. There will be Guru Granth Shahib and the Aga Khan. The Dalai Lama is a very real presence in the interfaith world. So are the Yogananda’s. These are great spiritual leaders – though the ones we do not understand tend to be the ones we think are a bit off center. Judgments are easily rendered by those who feel like they are threatening us. Judgments are often rendered toward those we do not understand.

The interfaith work isn’t about converting to God. Either you are converted already – and you want to be involved in the work – or you don’t believe and you still might want to be involved in the work. But it is always about doing God’s work; for we work to serve His children – our friends, our neighbors, our families and strangers once we now love and like.

Interfaith should never be about oneself. No faith based leader, who is true to the nature of religion and spirituality, would ever want the light of life to shine just on them in the interfaith work. That would be wrong and interfaith work is about doing what is right. One of the easy parts of interfaith work is to pursue the “for” in the people’s lives and to work against those who are opposed. If ownership of God’s work is proclaimed to belong to one or two alone, then the work of that one or two will surely fail.

“The work” of interfaith is about waling on godlike avenues. It includes the love and service provided to the homeless, the sick and those whose hands hang wearily down. In our approaching of God, prayers will be offered, heads will be bowed, wishes will be extended and God will be sought for in all corners of the globe – by the believer. Yet the unbeliever might seek haven and solace in other approaches that can be shared with the interfaith worker.

The interfaith community will always respect and support that convergent ideal and often try to find sanctuary for that singular unbeliever where God is at work in their lives.

Other facets of “the work” of interfaith might include helping with personal items such as haircuts, dental work, physical examinations, counseling and employment accessibilities. Experts in these fields will be called upon to serve, but interfaith will often be the one coordinating or organizing. Churches and congregations all over the globe sponsor programs to lift and benefit the individual.

It is generally the holder of one small moral compass who will want to provide the help needed to help those who are less fortunate and in need of intervention to bless the part and parcel of another human. Good people step forward every day wanting to help.

A great spiritual leader once said he believed many of the prayers in life are answered by someone else … while God smiles down on the goodness of those who love to help. Interfaith strives to be helpers in that prayer answering passage.

Through the more than 60 years of my life I’ve heard scores of times that people don’t like obnoxious religious people to invade their space. But in the work of God-based organizations non-believers must be as understanding toward those of the faith community as they want the faith community to be understanding of them. That is just decency and class. It is what God would do. It is always about some form of the Golden Rule.

Being of an understanding mind in all of it is just that: understanding. It’s not open for debate; or, at least, it shouldn’t be. For instance, in one clear example it would seem that dress and appearance is a major factor in intolerance and a basic lack of understanding – which is an un-godlike term leading to un-godlike detractions and subtractions. Thus, if you are not dressed like the majority, you must be a godless danger to the rest of us.

Several years ago we were in the deep reaches of Africa. In one village we found boys and girls without shirts or blouses. The girls had skirts and the boys had pants, but there were no clothing tops. A person traveling in our small group was disgusted that such an overview of poverty would unfold right before our eyes. Many of the women were without blouses or shirt tops either. It happened to be Easter Sunday and the disgusted one could not believe that such a thing would unfold for us on this holy day. Immediate judgments were made and decisions were then directed toward how we might cloth these people before we even talked with them.

I have not forgotten how uncomfortable that made me. That person wanted us to force dress standards from the Western Civilization, on those children of God, living in the far reaches long removed from the western culture we know. And that person wanted us to do that now – before introductions were even made.

It seemed to me that day that African women of all ages – young and old — in this tiny and nearly forgotten village were simply being held up as carriers of pornography-like living that clothingless women portray in the western world. This western person nearly refused to accept local custom and tradition because of their perceived misunderstandings. The answer to this perplexity, of course, was to stay away from the villagers and sit in a removed setting, or to become involved in helping; thus ignoring what evil people have taught through motion picture, magazine page and internet graphic — and get on with coming to know these folks for who they really were – children of God.

The work of interfaith is overcoming and doing better. It’s the cause of God with His children – to help them grow and develop into godlike children. On that particular day in Africa I believe some graduated and moved on, while others were sent back for another year of discourse and discussion.

For one of the African men and his sons in that village, they simply wanted to have their picture taken. It appeared then, and continues to appear in memory, that they were without guile. That (personal photographic experiences) had never before happened to them. When the digital camera we were using allowed them to see the photo in the back display area of the camera, the boys squealed with delight. An interpreter told us that they argued over who amongst them was the best looking in the photo.

When I shared this experience with a native friend of mine, born and raised in Africa, he later wrote back these thoughts: “…the African part of example, with your narration of the story, brings to light the dialogue that needs to take place for us Christians to understand and be aware of what creates our differences and the misunderstanding part. When it comes to solving the problems in this world, we often forget to factor in our perspectives in relationship with the perspectives of the other world because it takes too much work and understanding to do. Therefore we take the short route or short-cut to the solution and impose our ways to them.”

On another occasion we were in the steep and high mountains of the Mexican interior. We were offered a warm drink by a very hospitable older woman. Many in the faith group were not imbibers and they were vocal about it.

I am not a drinker of alcohol myself, and I wish the whole world wasn’t – but we opted to take the woman up on her hospitable offer as she pressed us to bid welcome to her home and surroundings. We did not speak her language … only a few words. She was very pleased when my wife and I drank her hot drink.

I have no idea what was in it, but it tasted like very warm apple cider. If it was alcoholic we did not notice the effects of such a drink, though several in our little group kept a close eye on us that day to see if we were going to show signs of lifetime alcoholism, to stumble through the streets and to carry on like the fools we might have become because of a drink that was some form of homemade liquor.

One other faith based trip that we were involved in was a project that had to do with getting large pallets of torn and weary clothing (though previously washed clean) to a hospital in the outback area of an underprivileged country, so that they would have rags; rags to be used for a dozen different reasons.

Along the delivery journey we stopped to pray. We stopped to worship together. We exchanged testimonies. We sang hymns. We honored the Sabbath even though it was recognized as two different days of the week by some in the group. We even taught one another religious truths from our own religions; and everyone enjoyed the moment. In that small group there were ten different religions being observed and practiced. But together we were practicing as children of God.

We came to know all ten of the customs and religious cultures quite well during the 27 days we were together in hot and cold, clean and dirty, secluded and overrun, quiet and loud.

In one of the other travels we’ve made in our lives the concept of “cleanliness is next to godliness” was discussed early on in the journey. To bath and keep clean in areas without motels, hotels or campgrounds, the women had to find ways to clean themselves in private. A Muslim woman spoke of teachings from her faith for the past 1400 years that dealt with clean hair and clean mouths – physically and spiritually – so that no offenses would be taken and no offense would be given.

For the men in the group the cleanliness thing was easy. We would strip off our clothing, climb into the river and just pass the bar of soap down, by floating it to the next guy down stream. Most religious men have practiced this sort of thing before in their lives. It is not difficult to do. From our mothers’ mouths and our distant memories we heard “…boys will be boys.”

The women, however, carefully and modestly sought shelter and privacy. It was far more difficult for the women than for the men to be clean each day. The men even brushed their teeth in the river.

At evening prayers we would seek direction to find an acceptable place of privacy on the next day. Those prayers were 99% offered in behalf of the women. In turn they prayed for safety and guidance for us as we led them through the different routes and roads.

Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire, unuttered or expressed, the motion of a hidden fire that trembles in the breast.
Prayer is the burden of a sigh, the falling of a tear, the upward glancing of an eye, when none but God is near.
Prayer is the simplest form of speech that infant lips can try; prayer the sublimest strains that reach the Majesty on high.
Prayer is the contrite sinners’ voice, returning from their way, while angels in their songs rejoice and cry, “Behold, they pray!”
O Thou, by whom we come to God, the Life, the Truth, the Way: the path of prayer thyself hast trod; Lord, teach us how to pray!

James Montgomery (1771-1854)

This type of interfaith proposal would follow again in later years when we found ourselves in the back country of China – always looking for Western Civilization in all its easy ways. Two weeks into the trip we found a Dairy Queen in a small mall type place, in a very large Chinese interior city. We were thrilled for a hamburger and milk shake.

As I think of that now, I wonder about so many of my brothers and sisters on earth who do not get to experience “the hamburger and milkshake” experience — ever.

No wonder homeless women love something as simple as flower clips for their hair. No wonder a cold bottle of water means so much to them; liquid and the container both. No wonder something as simple as a bag with handles on it matter to so many. That part of the interfaith work has to be watched for and carried out. You wouldn’t know how difficult it is to find bags with handles on them unless you’ve tried to find them to distribute to those in need.

Most of the time, after you have done all that you can do, you must turn to God for direction. It is as Abraham Lincoln said…that he would fall to his knees when he reached the point of not being able to go anywhere else.

The blessings of doing interfaith work unfold in a variety of ways. You do not have to be in the jungles or deserts to make it happen.

In Sacramento we have all kinds of things to accomplish. We hold quarterly meetings called Day of Dialogue where 50 or 75 faith based leaders come together to talk, or to be taught. Each Day is held at a different venue. We eat different foods at times. We are hosted by a different faith each time. We get a closer look at the houses of worship around the area. We continue striving to enlist the help of all faiths – some who are not yet involved in our working group. Trust must be developed, of course, and the great leader who long ago who said it was greater to be trusted than to be loved, knew of what he spoke.

The interfaith group works tirelessly to help the homeless. The area where most gather in the capitol city of California is a place called “the Village on North C Street.” There can be found Women’s Empowerment, Loaves and Fishes, Safehaven Ministries, Fresh Producers, Ground Zero, Mary’s House, Clean and Sober and another dozen different places that are filled with God-fearing people trying to help the homeless, who often cannot help themselves.

We are asked to visit in hospitals, in jails and in public places where literacy has nearly been forgotten. Yes, that is still a problem in our modern cities and communities.
We provide help for the elderly and those inflicted with homebound kinds of lives.
We fight drug addiction.
We do clean-up and help up projects.
We provide, through our Religious Coalition Cable TV station, programming that will edify and inform.
We sometimes work with veterans, young adults wanting to make a difference, the LGBT groups, some from different cultures and so many special project types that affect the individual.

We try to position ourselves on volunteer boards that can bless lives through our service — or the service and goodness of those we know are willing to help.

As mentioned previously, houses have been built, sleeping bags and toiletries have been handed out by the thousands and food by the train carload has been fixed, served and provided on a daily basis. Volunteerism and service rendered, where nothing is sought in return, has been meted out by weights and measures which will be counted, measured and marked into the out-years far in advance of today.

All of this rests comfortably, in some shape, form or substance under the interfaith (all these wonderful congregations and groups) umbrella in any city or town – and it sometimes borders on faith in people, not always faith in God – though it appears you cannot have one without the other. That which will serve and give life is intended and pursued by most who seek God. Every now and again there is a rogue or a rebel. We are not blind to that. But, the great majority work to serve God.

Not every single entity is attached to a religious affiliation, but nearly every single entity is supported and helped by the religious organizations. One of our interfaith goals is to help show others that working together allows our city, state and country to be a religious arena – to show the world that we believe in God and that we believe in one another!

So, what about worship services, on the Sabbath Day, in the interfaith community?

We sit with the choirs of African-American churches when they bring us to our feet!
We sit in a still quiet as the organ of the cathedral plays the great hymns!
We listen to Jewish and Protestant bands and bell choirs perform.
We join in Islam-type calls to prayer by many, in many houses of worship.
We sing in the universal language that is good music.
We gather and rally when gangs or angry mobs paint or destroy our buildings via delinquency, fire and bombings.
We leave our donations in the boxes and baskets of churches throughout the region so that others will be blessed by our kindness, generosity and aid.
We lead Christian, Islamic, Jewish and other, programs and ministries so others might know about God.
We read sacred writings together.
We break bread together and talk over good food and culture.
We make Sabbath day planning sessions a regular part of worship service.
We gather in workshops to discuss circumstances and/or approaches.

We lead religious gatherings designed to off-set the anti-God people when we feel their actions are detrimental to society. Those gatherings, we hope, are not being judgmental, but rather, simply making good judgments which faith leaders are sometimes required to do.

We sponsor ball games, cultural events, picnic outings and dozens of other events that are put together for the goodness and enjoyment of those who worship actively on their Sabbath Day – while striving to keep the Sabbath Day holy, for it is to bring “the family” together in common goals and pursuits on a wondrous day.

If one were to Google the term “interfaith” they would fine the following:

The term interfaith refers to cooperative and positive interaction between people of different religious traditions (i.e., “faiths”) and spiritual or humanistic beliefs, at both the individual and institutional level with the aim of deriving a common ground in belief through a concentration on similarities between faiths, understanding of values, and commitment to the world. Throughout the world there are local, regional and international interfaith initiatives; many are formally or informally linked and constitute larger networks or federations. The often quoted, “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…” was formulated by Dr. Hans Küng.

We spend a lot of time talking together. We are most grateful in this day and age for cell phones and E-mail. Most of us are in agreement with Dr. Kung.

A group called “Forum” — consisting of longtime faith leaders — come together to talk monthly. Ecumenical Councils meet quarterly. Executive Committee meetings are held monthly in many places including our Council. Scores of discussion groups gather in places the eye does not always see, but the ear will always hear. They plan to” do good” in nearly every conversation.

Dialogue is a wonderful thing. Inside our congregations, and outside, plans are made to bless others with/by our approaches. That is the spirit of interfaith work where the spirit of God like a fire is burning. We wish to strengthen the earthly family that came from God.

In the meantime we must continue with our lives. Each is busy earning by the sweat of their brow. We all have responsibilities to family and friends – a deep and abiding part of our religious beliefs, for no man is an island. Of that, we can be certain. Every religion is trying to keep track of “their own” and each faith-based group, no matter their foundation of time or resource, continues striving to reach out to all, whether they be “the ninety and nine” or the one who seems lost to their own flock. We keep on keeping on in behalf of the individuals about us.

Christianity continues to be “the long pole in the religious tent of our nation.” That would be true in Sacramento, California. However, it does not mean that Christianity will ever be required to bully or overpower. That would not be godlike. The families of the founding fathers of our Constitution, and those before them, fled religious persecution, as those coming to our shores often do today. Nowhere in America is that more obvious than in California. We worry that in this day we have sometimes forgotten about our forefathers and their escape from persecution.

All around us we have strong congregations that are Baha’i, Scientology and Sikh; Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventists, Jewish and Islam. We have Buddhist, Self-Realization and Hindu faiths among us teaching truths that originated a long time ago in the minds and hearts of faithful teachers. The Protestants and the Catholics continue striving to help save souls as instructed by their prophets. And interfaith literally brings together all the faiths – at least, those who want to participate — and be a part of what we do. It creates an “all for one and one for all” concept to helping each other that even Alexander Dumas would be proud of in that now famous line from his classic, “The Three Musketeers.”

Not that along ago a photo appeared in a local publication of me standing and talking with two faith leaders. We were on the front sidewalks of the state capital meeting together and discussing further plans for the advancement of faith traditions in our area; an American Sikh Day in Sacramento. If ever there was a “Three Interfaith Musketeers” on any given day, that photo showed it plainly; a Sikh leader, a Catholic priest and me…the Mormon boy…with a turban of support. But we were there to further “the work.” It’s what interfaith workers do.

I preside monthly over a Board of Trustees meeting of The Interfaith Council of Greater Sacramento, which has a 22-person board. We are represented by 20 different faith groups. Each month one tells of their religion as part of our devotional and prayer, updating us on things unfolding in their congregations and houses of worship. We almost always end up with handouts that help us better understand that particular faith group. Reading crystallizes thought.

Following prayer, devotional and instruction on one of the faiths, we get to work deciding what can be done in the future to help strengthen our community and bless the lives of the God-fearing people who live here. We polish our compass and shine our directions. We press on as faithful children of God.

Prayers are offered in many different ways and we understand that the one praying for us, will pray the way they have been taught to pray, and God will hear our sincere plea to help in the community through an interfaith pleading. Each prayer will be different, yet common, as our ears and our hearts listen intently.

It has been my own personal desire to visit a different congregation on 40 of the 52 Sabbath days each year. Breaking bread – sometimes literally – with the congregation, visiting with them, listening to them, learning from them and being with them always allows me a much greater understanding of how they practice their religion. It also allows a much greater feel for how and when we can bring the interfaith group to the forefront for that congregation…but more often than not, it is vice-versa in its unfolding. In every congregation there are scores – sometimes hundreds – of the children of God meeting to worship Him.

We have service projects together in the community. We extend helping hands to those not of our faith. We give where service is needed; few questions ever asked.

In our city there is a particular locale and place that the adults have decided to take back from the criminals, drug dealers and thugs. That effort has been coming mostly from the faith-based community, though others locally are deeply involved. Our mayor has been very interested.

When hate crimes unfold we rally and come forward to help.
We teach our varied articles of faith.
We instruct, edify and uplift those who struggle. In turn, they bless our lives and lift us up as well.
We support law enforcement without question. We sit on advisory boards and committees that help in that arena of our cities, towns and communities.
We are anxious to help charities in all their varieties. Many are deeply involved in their own religious practices and in charitable fund-raising and leadership.

Any desired path that will better humanity is viewed as worthwhile and decent. Organized religion allows for those out-reach propositions easily and handily. It is one of the strongest arguments for organized religion – that together we can do “good” for our brothers and sisters…and while doing so, bless our own lives and strengthen our resolves. A pure definition of interfaith work, a tag line if you may, would be “doing good for good’s sake.”

In our Council we use “All faiths. All people. All the time.”
We still attend baptisms, confirmations, blessings, marriages, funerals and sacrament meetings.
We sing in choirs.
We make home visits and hospital visits.
We mourn with those who mourn.

We still come together frequently and routinely to worship God. We do so because in all instances we have been commanded to do so, or we have felt that strong tug and pull to come together in God’s name. There are pastors, ministers, reverends, rabbi’s, imam’s, spiritual leaders, lay ministers, deacons, teachers, priests and preachers in all forms, sizes, shapes and denominations. It’s what makes the interfaith work so precious. Each of them brings charisma and personality to the work. That enriches and enables us to do more.

I am strongly familiar with a man in his sixties who was raised by a Muslim mother and a Catholic father. Both religions were strongly emphasized in the home in which he grew. He can quote the Qur’an and he can quote the Bible. Sometimes, in good humor, it almost appears to me that he quotes the one that will get his work accomplished quickest.

Nevertheless, he is a man of god. He tries to make the lives of others easier. He gives of his time, talents and energies, to build up God’s kingdom on earth. I have associated with him for many years and I have labored/worked alongside him too. He just wants the human race to help each other more – to lift the burdens and to help those who cannot always help themselves.

This interfaith work is not always easy. It is time consuming. It can be difficult at times. It can be nerve-wracking and stressful. It can take a completely different shape in a variety of lives doing the same thing. But it is incredibly rewarding.

All of these good works/efforts qualify us for the work – to do the work of God. It is most often called “interfaith” when we come together without one church trying to overpower the others, as we always want to choose to pull together in the struggle.

Those working in this venue find calm via the goodness and decency of so many others who try to seek and find pure and undefiled religion in whatever shape it may come. We may find it in parish churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, meetinghouses, rented spaces, tents, bowery’s or cathedrals.

Where there is interfaith work unfolding, there God’s work for His children will be found. Therein is found the blessing and peace that reaches well beyond verbal description in a simplistic overview like this one. The blessing of the interfaith work is particularly for those who make the interfaith effort stretch to reality, as the practices of being godlike is many times reaching out to others not of their faith or their beliefs.

Jon B. Fish
Sacramento, CA
05.20.2011

For a detailed overview of the many members in the Sacramento Interfaith arena, and their beliefs, please see: www.sacramentointerfaith.org