Editor’s note: all Contributing Scholars begin writing by answering the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions? Their answer to this question is below.
This past summer, I took a course on World Religions in Boston. It was an incredible class that supplemented lectures and readings on the major world religions with site visits to places of worship and community centers of the faiths we had studied. It was the first course on world religions that I have taken in which we went beyond the textbook and attended services, met with practitioners, and had opportunities to ask questions of religious and community leaders.
The site visit that made the greatest impression on me was our visit to the local Sikh house of prayer, or Gurdwara. We arrived, removed our shoes, covered our heads with provided caps, and proceeded into the Langar–an open area with a large kitchen and space for sitting. Here, food is being prepared at all times of the day for practicing Sikhs, visitors, and anyone in need of a meal. After breaking bread with our hosts, we proceeded to the central prayer hall for the service. We sat as three musicians played instruments and sung from their Scriptures. They sang of God’s love, God’s grace, God’s mercy, and of hope for the lost, the broken, and the oppressed. Reading the English translation from the Gurmurkhi text on the projector screen, I nodded and prayed along with them.
It was a powerful experience to be the religious outsider in the hall of another faith’s house of worship and mutually proclaim the goodness of God. We may perceive the Holy in different ways, with different traditions, and different Scriptures, but we found enough common ground in our respective faiths to build a relationship. I expect to return, and not just for the food.
I tell this story because my academic work is chiefly concerned with ethics, theology, and practices of nonviolence. Peace on any scale is inherently communal and demands a commitment to relationship-building. Great violence is often done to the religious other out of fear, ignorance, and a failure to communicate. Christians are commanded to love their neighbor as themselves, but it seems that we have narrowed down our neighbors to those who believe as we do and worship as we do. I see my work in interfaith dialogue and peace-building as challenging people to see more and more people as their neighbors.
It bears mentioning that we did not have any special invitation or access to this Bostonian Gurdwara through our summer class, nor did we receive any special treatment. You do not have to be in a graduate degree program to visit houses of worship, respectfully observe or even participate as much as an outsider can, and to ask questions to practitioners or leaders. It is a difficult thing to put oneself in such a vulnerable position, and in my experience, people recognize the great step you are taking and are hospitable in return. I strongly encourage readers to reach out of their comfort zone and make neighbors out of who was once the religious other. I did not know what to expect when I stepped in the Sikh prayer service. I did not leave my Christian faith at the door, but instead used it to find enough common ground with our hosts so that we could jointly profess that God is good.