In Texas, an Imperfectly Perfect Interfaith Start to the Legislative Session

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Posted on January 14th, 2013 | Filed under Community, Featured, Interfaith, Leadership, News, Social Issues, Uncategorized
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interfaith worship at Capitol

It was the opening day of the Texas Legislative session, and our Interfaith Service of Public Witness was off to a rocky start.

A few minutes before the start time, three of the participating speakers still hadn’t arrived. The visitor’s lot was unexpectedly full, and I knew they were out there circling downtown streets, searching for parking.

It was raining. Instead of having our service outside on the South Steps with a podium and a microphone as planned, we moved inside to the chapel. Few people seemed to know that the Texas Capitol had a chapel, let alone where to find it in the building.

Indeed, the Texas Capitol does have a chapel—but there was no way our gathering of sixty people would fit into its one, tiny room with three benches! Service leaders and those gathered in attendance spilled out into the pink granite hallway.

I took the elevator downstairs to help shepherd the last few service leaders up to the 4th floor. By the time I came back up with the last arriving participant, we were almost 15 minutes behind schedule—and with all the noise and confusion amid a large throng of people now standing in loosely scattered clumps in the hallway, it wasn’t clear how any kind order could be created from such chaos.

Then, from the middle of the room, the imam began the Muslim call to prayer. As his voice rose to fill the space, each person stopped talking, turned toward the center of the room, and quietly moved closer.

For forty years, Texas religious leaders, working together through the interfaith, grassroots social justice network, Texas Impact, have convened a service of public witness on the opening day of the Texas legislative session. It doesn’t accomplish anything concrete or tangible. It is usually not well-attended. It doesn’t make a big media splash. One could ask why we do it, at all.

As I stood there during this year’s service, I couldn’t hear many of the words spoken—and I knew no one else could, either. The noise from three other floors full of people and commotion, rising up from the open rotunda and spilling over into our open hallway was just too great. And that was before the cloggers started up on the second floor, halfway through our service!

There we were, amid all the noise from all different kinds of Texans filling the floors below, each person gathered for the excitement of the first day of the legislative session, each of us participating in the democratic process by just being present in the building, and all of us together creating a messy, loud, and motley community.

It was the clogging—and the accompanying applause from the clogging—echoing throughout the pink granite building, that made it truly, finally impossible to hear any of the speakers.

But it didn’t matter. For half an hour, we stood in respectful attention as one after another, representatives of Texas’ diverse religious community came forward to offer words of wisdom and prayer from their religious traditions about the importance of community, caring for the least of these, caring for creation, and working for peace and justice.

Clergy and laypeople; young and not-so-young; Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Unitarian Universalist, and Christian; in Arabic, Hebrew, English, and Spanish—together, we prayed, and together, we witnessed.

That, ultimately, is why we do this service—because our faith traditions obligate us to raise our voices in the public sphere, to work toward a more just world for all people, and to do so together, as best we can.

It was confusing. It was messy. It was noisy.

It was life! It was beautiful. It was holy.

____________________________

To see photos and read excerpts from the service, click here.

To see a time-lapse video of opening day at the Texas Capitol building, click here.

Above photo taken by me, Yaira Robinson.

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2 Responses to “In Texas, an Imperfectly Perfect Interfaith Start to the Legislative Session”

  1. A beautiful story, Yaira. There certainly is messiness and chaos in bringing traditions together to share their wisdom in a similar place, and it is perhaps because of that chaos that it is so beautiful and life affirming. On a separate note – were the 60 people who gathered a normal number for a service of public witness? And as a follow up, does there seem to be more interest for people in public space interfaith gatherings?

  2. Hi Ari, thanks for your comment. (I’ve been meaning to post a comment on your piece about interfaith prayer… this is a good reminder to do that!)

    A couple of answers here: This particular interfaith service is one we do every other year (because that’s how often the Texas legislature is in regular session). It seemed like this year we had more in attendance than usual. We also had more speakers than usual.

    As an organization, we’ve been coming to increasing clarity about the purpose of this service, which I think has helped–for example, it’s not a service whose purpose is to experience different, yet common, expressions of various faith traditions, or to celebrate the diversity of religious experience in the world; its purpose is to call forth the instructions and visions from our traditions about how we’re supposed to live well together, in the context of the legislative session. With that purpose in mind, we’ll definitely continue the tradition in January of 2015.

    There are other interfaith groups in the area who more regularly hold interfaith services–there’s an annual interfaith Thanksgiving service in Austin, for example. That service feels more like a celebration of our diversity. I think there are some people who really like these services; there are others who don’t. My general feeling is that they serve a good and worthwhile purpose for the community at large, so I try to attend and support these efforts. At the same time, maybe once a year is enough. :)

    What’s more important, I think, is bringing people of different traditions together to work on common goals–service projects, community causes, advocacy around shared concerns, etc. That we need to be doing every day!

    L’shalom,
    Yaira

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Yaira is Jewish, married, and mother to two boys who make her laugh every day. As Associate Director of the Texas Interfaith Center for Public Policy, she works with Texas religious communities to promote social and environmental justice. She recently completed her Master's of Theological Studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Yaira is fueled by gratitude, laughter, and sometimes unhealthy amounts of coffee.


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