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Dori Thexton and Nic CableDrawing on the writings and experience of Eboo Patel, Nicolas Cable's sermon was titled "Acts of Faith: Interreligious Engagement as Transformative Spiritual Practice." Nic was the winner of the Annual DA Sermon Contest and delivered this sermon on Sunday, April 29, 2012 at the UUA Central Midwest District Assembly. Photo is Dori Thexton presenting Nic with the award.

Reading #1 From Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation Pages 37-38 

My first college memory is at the gym. There are three basketball games going on--a black game, an Asian game, and a white game. I am confused, but not about who I am. I know I am white. I have spent years making myself so. That is why I started playing basketball in the first place. It is what the popular white kids at my school did. I figured the physical defect of my brown skin would be overlooked if I perfected a fifteen-foot jump shot. The basketball court, to my eyes, was a big bucket of skin whitener.

 

I looked at the black and Asian kids. They seemed so comfortable. They shouted at one another up and down the court in a distinct flow, ran pick-and-rolls and give-and-gos in their own unique rhythms. Didn’t they want to play on the white court? Hadn’t they spent years studying the white game so they could make its moves their own? Isn’t that what it means to be colored in America?

The world has never seemed so new to me as it did during those first few months of college. My first lesson was on race. I was stunned to realize that not everybody wanted to be white. I remember seeing a Korean girl I had gone to high school with across the hall at the Illini Union. “Kristen,” I called out. But she didn’t turn around. “She went back to her Korean name,” a mutual friend, also Korean, later explained when I told her about the incident. “She won’t answer to Kristen anymore.”

What the hell is that about?” I asked.

“It happens to a lot of Koreans when they go to college. They become more involved in their own ethnicity and culture. They hang out only with other Koreans.”

She was using college as a place to de-whiten herself. The more I looked around, the more I realized that she wasn’t the only one. Cafeterias were balkanized by race and ethnicity. Unlike in high school, where the popular (mostly white) kids sat at one table and others longed for a place there, people wanted to be where they were. In fact, they were fiercely proud and protective of their own zones.
 

Reading #2 From Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation Pages 104-105

The first time I met Azim Nanji, I got the sense that he was a man who would play a key role in my life. A well-regarded professor of Islamic studies who had chaired the Department of Religion at the University of Florida, Azim had recently been appointed by the Ismaili Imam as the director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London. I went to see him in the fall of my first year at Oxford and told him that I was interested in doing a doctorate on Ismaili religious education programs. He nodded his approval...

But Azim knew that I was interested in something more significant than a doctorate. I was embarking on an intensely personal journey. The perspective I brought to Islam had been shaped by my admiration for Dorothy Day, Mahatma Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama, as well as my friendships with Kevin and Brother Wayne. I loved the spirituality and social justice in Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism. I had no interest in Islam until my most recent trip to India, when the Dalai Lama had told me to be a good Muslim, and when I had seen my grandmother model what that meant. Now I wanted to learn about the tradition behind her spiritual equanimity and service ethic. Were there heroes in my faith like Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr.? Did it have poets like Tagore and Blake? Philosophers like Maimonides and Aquinas? Had my faith helped free countries the way that Gandhi’s Hinduism had? Did it have mouth-widening beauty, like the Sistine Chapel? I knew nothing of Islam except that it lived in my bones. I desperately wanted it to be magnificent.

Without my explaining any of this directly, Azim somehow understood that this was the animating impulse behind my dissertation topic. He looked at me intently as I explained what I wanted to research, then said, “So many of us begin our careers by studying our history and then locating ourselves within it. My own dissertation was in a similar area. You are living at a time when Islam can go in many different directions, and it will be young people like you who are shaping its next steps. Having an understanding of the humanistic dimensions of Muslim history and how to teach them most effectively is about as important an education as you can get. I want you to know that my door is always open to you.”

Sermon: “Acts of Faith: Interreligious Engagement as Transformative Spiritual Practice”

Originally delivered on October 30th, 2011

Slightly updated for 2012 Central Midwest District Assembly Sermon Contest

We live in a very precarious time in human history. Countries around the world are facing economic collapse, political revolution, and intense social upheaval. Here in America, not much is different: our daily papers and nightly news reporters fill our hearts with sadness of the constant barrage of human suffering and death that is being inflicted upon our fellow brothers and sisters. Young boys are being shot down on the South Side of Chicago, an Iraqi Veteran was sent to the ICU for protesting at Occupy Oakland, the unemployment rate remains very high, and all the while it seems our elected officials remain deadlocked in an ideological stalemate. Without a doubt, our earth remains in a state of shock, busting at the seams as it approaches seven billion residents.

But amidst all of this turmoil, surrounded by all of this darkness, there is hope. There is hope. It is in you and it is in me; it fills this space in which we have gathered and made sacred by our shared presence, this morning. We come together as Unitarian Universalists each Sunday because we believe in a world unseen, in a world unfolding beneath our feet, becoming manifest by our compassionate hands and our warm, loving hearts. And every weekend billions of other people around the world gather in places of worship, like this one, not to run away from the realities out there, but to remind each of them of the headlines that didn’t make the New York Times or The Today Show.

When I worked for Dr. Eboo Patel, the President and Founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, he spoke often about the stories that we were not being told about by the media, those that signified not only the potentiality for social cohesion, but the reality that people from diverse backgrounds actually do come together and work together to make this world a better place each and every day. We live in a world where it is easy to get pessimistic, cynical, and just plain tired of trying to hold it in one piece. Progressive people, religious and secular alike, are becoming frustrated beyond measure by the widening division in society as made clear by the Occupy Movement which continues to gain momentum in cities and towns throughout this country and the world.

But what is more troubling than living within this tenuous, globalized world is the fact that hundreds of millions of people are coming of age and entering adulthood in this time of great uncertainty. As a young adult and a life-long Unitarian Universalist, I resonate already, retrospectively considering the difference between my transition into this stage of life compared to many of you here this morning that are only now becoming aware of the grand complexity of the world that you are about to dive head first into. It seems as if in just the last five years or so, we have journeyed into dangerous waters, not uncharted, but rarely traversed in recent history. And so I ask all of us today to consider how we as a religious leaders will respond to the needs of our youth and young adults, as they progress through this time of great revelation and transformation.

This discourse is not solely related to the wellbeing of our youth and young adults, but to the entirety of our faith tradition. As Unitarian Universalists, we promote the interconnected web of existence of which we are ALL a part. We cannot subdivide this symbolic web, for our souls and our hearts are woven in together. Clipping away South Sudan or South Chicago, or the cares and needs of any part of our global family must be understood as a serious spiritual detriment, which will only foster a similar ideological stalemate—that is, who is my brother? Who is my sister?—as the one in Washington D.C. So, the pursuit of effective youth and young adult ministries is the pursuit of dynamic intergenerational ministries. And I believe this journey towards effective leadership around this issue begins and ends with a greater realization of, appreciation for, and an engagement with our 4th Unitarian Universalist Principle.

The reality of our 4th Principle is that it is not only a very progressive theological stance, but it is also a very demanding task. I once delivered a sermon where I articulated the disparate demands the adjectives free and responsible present to us as we travel along our spiritual paths towards truth and meaning. Freedom is a wonderfully simple qualifier; like a kid in a candy shop, we can run for the Skittles, follow it up with a couple Malted Milk Balls, completely avoid the Twizzlers altogether, and finish it off with some terribly time consuming, but ultimately satisfying Gobstoppers. But, then, we must push the metaphor further and question our level of responsibility as a result of our candy binge and sugar high. What parts of our diet are we not fulfilling to remain healthy individuals? The reason I bring this up is not scold the sweet-tooths in the audience; rather, I want to lift up the dual reality to show my deep appreciation for both the freedom this principle grants us, as well as its demands for spiritual responsibility, individually, as well as collectively.

Simply put, I find no greater embodiment of this responsibility in spiritual formation than in the moments of engagement between people across religious and philosophical boundaries. When we come together not despite our differences, but because we share a common longing for peace and justice in the world, we begin to see the magic manifest. The Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s was an example of this, when Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched together in solidarity for equal housing, employment, and voting rights. 9/11, while a horrible day in world history, helped us realize our need for building authentic interfaith relationships between communities and nations. Since then, the growth of interfaith organizations in the world has skyrocketed, as people began to realize that we need to come together, that we have a stake in each others’ lives.

The Occupy Movement is one of the most recent manifestations of people wanting to come together regardless of religious background. Occupy Wall Street is inherently an interfaith movement. One experience I have had with the Occupy Movement was chanting and singing in downtown Chicago with Muslims and Jews, Christians and Atheists, and individuals from various life journeys. And in this diversity, in our shared longings for peace and for greater economic equality, we began to see that world unseen, we began to realize that our future was springing up beneath our marching feet, emitting warmly from our shared embrace, and pouring out from our loving songs.

As a result of this movement reaching from coast to coast and everywhere in between, and because it is holding strong throughout the cold months of winter, awaiting the coming spring, I am reassured that something greater than frustration and anger is being realized by tens of thousands of people around this country. There is an energy and life present at these rallies, a palpable exuberance among the people at these gatherings, perhaps consequence of many factors, but one of them, I am sure, is of a growing awareness of what it means to be human living in the 21st century. Identity formation is an inevitable component of social justice movements, as the movement causes us as individuals to ask the question, “Will I move?” But to answer this question, one must consider first the existential and age-old question, “Who am I to move?”

Every single religious community asks this question, along with those related to our origins “Where do we come from?”, our journeys “Where are we going?”, and our associations to others “Who am I in relation to the world around me?” Gandhi asked these questions on his ashram in Gujarat, the Dalai Lama in his monastery in Tibet, Mohammad in Mecca, Maimonides in Morocco, and Jesus in the land of Israel. Countless others, including each and every one of us in this room, today, repeatedly ask ourselves these deeply personal questions. This is our 4th Principle.

This is also the case for members of youth groups in our UU churches throughout the country. This time of life, which I am still in, is a particularly challenging time in life, no matter which way you approach it. We, as young people, are beginning to grapple with issues of sexuality and gender, race and class, vocational direction and economic worries. We balance between on the one hand complete eagerness to take this world by storm, go to college, and be free; and on the other hand, a deep fear of the unknown overwhelms us, of the world that awaits us, and the path our journeys may take.

Eboo Patel’s memoir, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, articulates this dual journey of discovering one’s self, while understanding it in relation to the collective time we share together on this planet. Patel, who grew up in Glen Ellyn, IL, a primarily white and relatively wealthy suburb of Chicago, struggled to understand his identity as an Indian American Muslim growing up in a culture where we was clearly “other”. As our first reading indicated, his time growing up was fueled by shame and even self-hatred. He desired to fit in with the hegemonic white culture that surrounded him, where he could simply shoot hoops and just be normal. In college, he began to realize that this longing for singularity in identity was not the norm; College became a laboratory for experimenting with one’s identity, where one could be free to express oneself without rebuke. Through this struggle of understanding about who he was as an individual, he began to realize the richness and diversity of human existence and experience.

Patel came to an affirmation of his own identity and family history in part through meeting and engaging with people from different religious backgrounds. His encounters with religious people in college carried over into his doctoral studies, when he eventually got his PhD in sociology of religion from Oxford. In other words, Dr. Patel wanted to understand the power religion could and does have in uniting people around common causes to make the world better. He learned about the Beatitudes of Jesus, the Noble Truths of Buddha, the concept of Tikkun Olam in Judaism, and Tawhid in Islam, and was overwhelmed by the compassionate points of intersection in these traditions and teachings. Could bringing people together around these shared commitments be a venue for eradicating the injustice and conflict in the world?

Patel surely believes so, as his organization, the Interfaith Youth Core, has become one of the largest and most successful interfaith nonprofits in the world. The IFYC strategically considered the various venues to engage communities with opportunities for interfaith engagement. Empowering young people in college was agreed upon to be the most logical approach; for young people in this country are not only the shapers of tomorrow, but also a powerful factor for social change today. The Occupy Movement is just one example of this because it is largely run and maintained by young people under the age of 35.

This book articulates in my mind a growing edge we as Unitarian Universalists could take to heart. Not only does it offer us an opportunity to consider the method of spiritual formation of our youth and young adults in our religious tradition, but I think it also allows us to have a much deeper discussion: Are we responsibly living out our 4th Principle? Are we called to greater engagement with people of various religious traditions to learn from each other and work together to improve the world of which we are all co-residents? Or, perhaps even a deeper question: how can we engage more holistically with the religious diversity within our own congregations?

I have felt for several years now that we, as Unitarian Universalists, stand as a faith tradition at a great precipice of revolution. Not a violent or political revolution of which we are more accustomed to, and even perhaps frightened of, from media representations of them; rather, we gather today at the genesis of what I hope is an ongoing spiritual revolution, a revolution of the heart, of the soul, a spinning dance of repositioning our focus towards a greater attention of the power interreligious engagement can play within our spiritual practices, individually, and faith tradition, collectively.

We are primed for this revolution. Our UU Principles practically present a 7-point argument about why we should engage with people of various religious traditions. Many congregations are already doing this in various ways. For example, First Unitarian Chicago in Hyde Park where I attend regularly has a Spiritual Pluralism project, which seeks to give space for those who are interested in engaging with people who embrace various theologies, rituals, and/or religious practices. These encounters foster a spirit of religious pluralism within the larger congregation. Some congregations try and work with neighboring religious communities on issues of advocacy and community service. These two examples show that diversity is not just beyond these four walls, but also right here in this room, this morning.

Now, I am not trying to be controversial or suggest we completely re-write the script of what it means to be UU; that would be impossible—We have a script? What I am advocating for is that we continue to consider the place of interfaith engagement in the work of our congregations, our Association, and each of our own life journeys. Interreligious programming at your congregation will inevitably be different than at First Unitarian in Chicago, as it would be different on the East Coast or the West Coast. However, I believe that there is an intimately profound connection possible between this book and the future of Unitarian Universalism.

Acts of Faith was named this year’s Common Read by the UUA, which means churches throughout the country will be organizing events and book-reading groups to consider how this may become a source of great inspiration to our progressive religious movement. Ultimately, I consider this book to not only be well written, but also written for individuals like all of us--young and old and everywhere in between. Identity formation does not stop at 18 or 21 or 30 or 90. Truly, struggles regarding sexuality and gender, career path and economic stability are issues that do not discriminate by age, and especially do not discriminate by religious tradition.

It is not farfetched to consider that interfaith ministries may be a path towards effective intergenerational work because we are all here, now, in this place… not this place, this place—earth, our home—together. Whether you are Buddhist or Muslim, Christian or Jewish, Unitarian Universalist, none of these or an amalgamation of all of these, we must affirm our shared humanity in this world. We are all on a journey and we are all in this spiritual revolution, as one global family. If we can unite in this venture, oh the possibilities that will emerge!

A central part of the Unitarian Universalist Coming of Age curriculum is the time when we send our youth to various places of worship so that they may experience the culture and practice of different religious traditions. This was a powerful experience for me and perhaps it was what initially got me interested in interfaith engagement. I can’t state this enough, the children and youth in this room and at your congregations are bright and shining symbols of the future before us. They are coming of age, I am coming of age, and yes you too are continuing to spiral down your spiritual path.

Seven billion is a very large number; it takes a certain level of maturity and leadership to build a cohesive global community amidst this diversity. It also takes a certain nuance in religious leadership to address the needs of the day in our religious communities. May our leadership in our churches and wider communities be beacons of hope and promise. May we never stop coming of age, growing in love, or journeying together along our paths of spiritual revolution.

May it be so. Amen.

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