Tales from the Interfaith Journey as told by Kathy Tun  

Part I: On the Way There

Twenty four of us packed into two vans and traveled to Chicago for a 3 day exploration of spirituality among different faiths. While sitting in the backseat of the van I was reminded of the days my mama drove me to grade school every morning. She would teach me how to pray during this time by reciting each line in Rakhine (a dialect of Burmese) and then wait for me to recite them back to her. I was raised as a Buddhist ever since those days in the car, but if you asked me what I was praying for, I could only answer after my mama told me what to say first.

Experiences like this were my knowledge of spirituality for many years. I didn’t understand what my religion meant to me or how other people connected with theirs. Practicing a religion was just something to do on the car ride to pass the time. And when I attended a Catholic high school, I spent more time learning how to wear khakis with every outfit and pass religion tests each year rather than immersing myself in the experience of a faith different from my own. So when we arrived at the Cenacle Retreat Center, I remember feeling nervous because I felt like an outsider. Here in this big city, at this retreat center I’ve never seen before, I was hoping to be accepted into a community without even understanding my own spirituality first.

 

Part II: Safe Spaces

The very first morning that we spent at the Retreat Center we had a Morning Prayer service. I liked the way the natural light flowed in from the surrounding courtyard windows. You could see it from every angle, and somehow the sunlight against the white walls made the whole room feel soft and I felt safe. I even heard my own voice join in during one verse of the songs and I didn’t know how to stop myself. I kept singing along from one verse to the next. It was unexplainable and spontaneous, but I’ve found that’s what sunlight and good company will do to you.

Not long after, we visited a Jewish synagogue for a Sukkot Festival service. The whole place was ready for a celebration. An elaborate arch stretched to the high ceilings, and, within a small gated cabinet, there were scrolls of the Torah. As it was brought out, people kissed their prayer books and then reached out to touch their books to the scroll. An operatic cantor then led the congregation through the service by singing Hebrew verses within the prayer book. But what I liked most was seeing the camaraderie between the main readers and helpers during the service. I witnessed so much joy and hugs, and I felt happy to be there.

The journey continued as we visited the American Islamic College for a service and Q and A session afterwards. I was especially interested in the conversations the Imam led, because he encouraged us to question what it meant to be a follower of a religion. He encouraged us to question our beliefs as they develop, so that we may grow a deeper understanding of what our religion’s true foundations are. I found myself nodding during many of the comments he made, and then I realized that even I am prone to accepting what I hear about religion rather than discovering it for myself. I walked away from that talk feeling like I wanted to start doing something. But it was hard to figure out what that something was especially because I felt like I could learn so much in those safe spaces where other people knew what they were doing and explained it to me. Then I started to wonder if maybe this was the first time I was exploring on my own.

 

Part III: And God said, “Meet me at the movies”

We were fortunate enough to visit the Chicago International Film Festival during our weekend trip, and I was incredibly excited to go. Everything about the walk to the theater and the ride up the escalators felt like I was getting closer and closer to some kind of heaven. It’s strange, but going to the movies has that effect on me. I become detached from my own life for just a little while so that I can watch from a distance the lives of everyone else around me, and all the while I realize the similarities and the differences between their stories and my own. Wherever there was a boundary before, there is just open space now for me to walk right in, to listen, and to learn. I don’t know many places like that. So any place where strangers can listen to each other’s stories without fear of what might be revealed feels like some kind of heaven.

 

Part IV: Weed in Peace

Our Saturday visit to City Farms began with a tour of the compound. We saw each of the vegetable patches scattered among the lot, which once was a vacant space that the city owned. To think that there was never any green in that spot, is a hard thing to imagine. There were jungles of tomato vines, and peppers, and little rows of arugula. Those little rows were where I spent most of my time. I weeded the arugula patches for about an hour with a few other people, but there was a time when I hunched over the patch and didn’t say anything at all. I worked and breathed and kept going. That was about it. When I was little I remember watching my mama work in her garden, all hunched over her patches, for hours during the summer afternoons. I thought about her as I moved down the line of arugula, and I wondered if this was her way of meditation.

 

Part V: I Was Here

The Bahái’í House of Worship is tucked away in the hidden crevices of Evanston, IL. You don’t see it coming before you get there. Instead the whole building just pops out of nowhere, and suddenly there it is, a majestic, shiny place that looks as if it’s draped in lace. When I got closer to the building, I felt my eyes hurting because of how brightly the stones reflected the light. But then you walk inside and you feel instantly calmed down. All I wanted to do was sit alone in one of the chairs. I watched the curtains that  flowed back and forth. I looked up at the ceiling and tried to trace the lace pattern. I did some concentrated breathing. I watched one person do the same a few rows ahead of me, and I could sense that this was a special moment.

From my tour of the visitor’s center I learned that this house of worship is considered to be one of the holiest Bahái’í temples in the world. To think, some people might travel hundreds of miles to see the shiny white stone and the curtains that flow back and forth. Here I am, only 3 hours away from my home while others might have been waiting years to finally get to this place.

 

Part VI: Last Stop on the Interfaith Journey

We ended our journey at the Hindu Greater Temple of Chicago, where we toured around and had dinner. Everything was so new to me, and when I think back on that night it is all a blur of colors and music and nice people. I almost feel like I dreamt it all up. Before I visited I had never seen a place like it, and I wish I had a chance to learn more, but we only had so much time. Soon we were headed back on the road towards Bloomington after a quick stop for ice cream. The whole van was packed up and many of us were playing games to pass the time. Like any other road trip that is ending, this interfaith trip was reentering a familiar space again. Even now since I’ve been back, it’s been hard not to feel restless. The big question these days is: Where do I go from here? Suddenly I’m not guided towards those safe spaces where I can enter as a stranger and be promised an enriching conversation at the end. And I’m left on my own trying to understand my own spiritual beliefs. What has been surprising me the most, however, is that these are the questions that don’t scare me as much as they used to. If anything, I feel more prepared to take on the searching and the questioning because I’ve seen others develop their faith through practice and patience, and I don’t feel like such a stranger anymore to this experience.

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Pictures from the trip!

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Reflections: An Atheist’s Religious Engagement

One might wonder why an atheist would choose to attend an interfaith trip.  Why an atheist would want to be surrounded by various faiths that she had already considered and rejected.  Perhaps, as a non-religious person, she was searching to connect for a faith that eluded her.

I’m not looking for faith – that’s not what I’m missing from my life.  And I’ve already accepted that religion, though to my estimation may not be objectively true, can still have value.  There is a reason why almost every culture that has come to be on this Earth has developed it’s own spirituality – religion can enhance one’s life experiences.

So what is it that makes religion so compelling, if not the faith aspect?  After all, every faith is different, but for various religions to still compel people so strongly, there has to be an element that runs common to them all.

I became very aware of both the similarities and differences of various faiths on this trip.  For example, although the three major Abrahamic traditions use some of the same texts, they obviously differ in major ways.  From Judaism, in which being devout means adhering to elaborate strictures about how to live in this world (involving everything from how one’s meat is slaughtered to what color threads may be in certain garments), to Christianity, which focuses more on how to can enter heaven, to Islam which combines elements of both, we see incredible diversity.  I saw further contrasts in our visits to the two temples we had planned: we went from the peaceful, quiet, and tranquil Baha’i temple to the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago which overloaded the senses: everywhere was a different sound, a different smell, and there were so many bright colors everywhere you looked.

However, common threads ran through our experiences.  I saw the same form of prayer across three traditions – practitioners knelt to touch their forehead to the floor in Islam, Hinduism, and Serbian Orthodox Christianity (of which we caught a glimpse of in the film Words with Gods).  Women were also considered very important in each tradition: our guide at the Hindu temple said that women were the best custodians of tradition in many religions.  At the American Islamic College, an imam told us that the word for God in the common prayer one will see Muslims repeat throughout the day invokes womb-like imagery of nurture and creation, which affirms woman’s awesome abilities.  Even when the traditions were practiced differently by men and women (like in Judaism where only men are expected to cover their heads, or in Islam where the opposite is true), we learned that these practices were not to denigrate women at all.

I found that part of what makes religion so compelling is that it is a marker of community, of identity both personal and cultural.  To what extant can one separate Hinduism from India when mythology about the various deities point to holy sites there?  How can one separate the spiritual practices in Judaism from the historical plight(s) of the Jewish people?  And how can one be sure of whether customs and ideas of propriety are formed by culture or religion when the two are so inextricably entwined, which we also see very strongly in Islam?

I found that as an atheist, it is this community facet of religion which is what intrigues me the most.  And as such, I can’t think of a better way to learn about the world and other people than to observe and involve myself in the various beliefs that people of the world hold, and how those beliefs structure their daily actions and their life goals.

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Packing Up

Alternative Fall Break (AFB) students Lily Chang ’18, Ojaswee Shrestha ’18 and Hannah Eby ’15 packed sack lunches for The Night Ministry Service Project before the entire team of 22 students left for Chicago. Some of the students distributed this food Thursday night with the Night Ministry team. While they sorted and packed, it was exciting to listen to Hannah speak about last year’s AFB trip. Nearly half of the students participating this year are international students. For some of them, it’s the first time they have been to Chicago (other than passing through O’Hare International). Everyone seemed excited about the trip and ready to learn more about faith communities.

Lily, Ojaswee, Hannah packing sack lunches

Lily, Ojaswee, Hannah packing sack lunches

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