It was September 12, 2001—the day after 19 Islamist militants hijacked four planes and felled the New York Twin Towers plus part of the US Pentagon. 3,000 people died. We were shaken to the core. I walked into a Postal Annex I had frequented for years. The owner, a Middle Eastern-looking man, looked shaken too—as if he hadn’t slept in days.
His stare communicated, Are you going to hate me now?
I was alarmed. Although I didn’t know his name, I knew him. How could he think for one moment I would turn on him! Betray someone I knew to be kind, gentle and hard working? Unthinkable.
I made an extra effort to engage him in friendly banter: Looks like it’s going to rain today—finally. We sure need it. This package is going to Chicago.
Oh, by the way, could you add a book of stamps to that?
I spoke loudly, upbeat, hoping to spread good will throughout the store.
Walking out, I worried if the owner and his family would be safe. I made a mental note to return soon.
The 9/11 attacks illustrated how connected we are in our modern, technology-driven world. The US support for Israel incited the wrath of that country’s enemies. Unfortunately, the violence-inclined element had access to the information and technology needed to carry out their bizarre schemes. We were now part of the Muslim vs. Jewish clash.
The connections, however, weren’t just technological. The Muslims and Jews and every other religious affiliation had become us—Americans—our neighbors, co-workers, friends and spouses of our children. Still working through issues around racial and sexual-orientation differences, the US faced a new kind of diversity challenge—religious.
Now, eleven years later, we are birthing leaders and initiatives with the potential to transform our differences into benefits—and change the world. The source is our youth. The birthplace is our campuses.
In 2002 American Muslim Eboo Patel founded Interfaith Youth Core. He, along with other young people, asked: Why do so many stories about religion these days feature young people fighting in the name of God? Why isn’t there a huge movement of young people from different faiths working together to apply the core value of all faiths – service to others.
Patel, with Jewish and Christian cohorts, has done just that—created a safe place for students of differing religions to talk about their differences while affirming their similarities and join together to serve others. The burgeoning IFYC is expanding in office space, staff and attendees at their Interfaith Leadership Institutes at colleges and universities across the nation.
Other visionaries, including Stephen Spina, senior lecturer, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, are advancing interfaith dialog. In addition to teaching the traditional ‘Introduction to World Religions,’ Spina offers ‘Engaging Religious Pluralism,’ including an “immersion experience.” Being immersed meant 46 students spent their spring break this year in Philadelphia meeting people of diverse faiths and joining them in urban service projects. Spina says the goal is, “peaceful co-existence and productive cooperation with anyone who is different than us.”
Across the US, religion is coming out of the closet. A new book, No Longer Invisible: Religion in University Education by Rhonda and Douglas Jacobsen reports this change: No Longer Invisible documents how, after decades when religion was marginalized, colleges and universities are re-engaging matters of faith-an educational development that is both positive and necessary.
Even though religious dialog and cooperation are increasing, the need is great. How we express our religious differences has huge ramifications for our planet. What will make the difference? What will change us? Me?
The biggest solution is already in place and working, although slowly, as with all permanent change. Eleven years ago, I looked into the eyes of a Postal Annex owner and saw a human being, like me. This is it—humans must come face to face with each other and realize we have much in common:
A desire for peace and justice;
A yearning for compassion and mercy;
An ability to love one another, with the help of God; and
A mission to leave a wonderful world to our children.
To affirm our shared humanity and act accordingly will require greater faith—in God, people and ourselves. We will get there. We cannot, will not, betray each other.