Report from the Middle East: Friendships in many forms

http://www.readthespirit.com/friendship-and-faith/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2013/03/wpid-0815_Sarah_Jaward_and_Brenda_Rosenberg_and_Tanya_Ghorra_in_Amman.jpgAT THE AMMAN CONFERENCE ON CROSS-CULTURAL CONFLICT: From left, Sarah Jaward, Brenda Rosenberg and Tanya Ghorra.This is a two-part story about two women who traveled from America to Jordan for an international conference on overcoming cross-cultural conflict. That means this unusual Friendship and Faith story really begins with the remarkable friendship between Brenda Rosenberg and Sarah Jaward. Read Part 1 of this story by Brenda Rosenberg, which is an overview of the entire conference, to learn more about the deepening friendship between Brenda and Sarah.
Here is Sarah Jaward’s story about two other remarkable friendships she forged in Jordan:

http://www.readthespirit.com/friendship-and-faith/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2013/03/wpid-0815_Sarah_Jaward_with_Frida_Tarrab.jpgSarah Jaward with Frida Tarrab at the Amman conferenceMy week in Jordan at the international conference on cross-cultural dialogue was a growing experience. I flew home with new ideas, but even more meaningful were new friendships with people from diverse backgrounds in faith and culture.

I felt personal connections to most of the participants, but there were distinct bonds with two women. I am a Lebanese-American-Muslim woman and, at the conference, I encountered a Lebanese-Christian woman living in Lebanon and a Lebanese-Jewish woman living in Israel. We shared a language, memories of our homeland and personality traits specific to Lebanese women, yet our paths intersected on even deeper levels. We each had lost a loved one as a result of conflict in the Middle East, inspiring us to walking a pathway united in our search for peace and safety for our families, friends and future generations.

As a trained Tectonic Leader (see Part 1 for more on this), my goal is to bring together individuals from opposite sides of the Middle East conflict to take joint ownership in transforming the conflict. That may sound simple, but people who engage in this process struggle with conflicting feelings of loyalty to our causes and the difficulty of developing real compassion for people who we often have dehumanized. This approach challenges people to use the tension within conflicts to deepen and transform our relationships with each other. Shaking hands is impossible with clenched fists. This training shows us how to open our hands and join with other leaders in new approaches to working for peace.

The first person I met at the conference was an Israeli named Frida who also happened to be a Lebanese-Jew born in Beirut, now living in Israel. She is part of an organization called Wounded Crossing Borders: Israeli and Palestinian natives who have been wounded in some way while crossing borders in Israel and Palestine. Their presence at the conference gave us a glimpse of hope towards a more peaceful future as we saw previously imprisoned Palestinians joining hands with previously imprisoned Israelis. Frida told me the most moving part of working with her group was her introduction to Sully, a former Palestinian prisoner. She felt deeply connected to him as an individual and saw hope in a better future as friends, rather than enemies.

The very same day I met Tanya, a Lebanese-Christian woman born and raised in Lebanon. For both us, this conference was our first meeting with Israelis. Her contribution to peace is her work in promoting non-violent communication and mediation. Her story begins at her children’s elementary school where she created a mediation center to resolve conflict using non-violent communication. Her work has helped to engage students at an early age to change their approach, vocabulary and feelings when tension arises.

We know there always will be conflict, but by sharing our pain, fears, hopes and dreams, we saw in Jordan that it is possible to work together. In Jordan, we made some of our own contributions toward peace in the Middle East. Most importantly, through these new friendships, I can see what our world could look like if we reach out in these new ways we discussed at the conference.

In this peaceful world that I now have glimpsed, I can see friends standing together—like the three of us in Amman: Lebanese-American Muslim, Lebanese-Christian, and Lebanese-Jewish women bonded through our heritage, through love, and through our desire for a better tomorrow.

Please help us with Friendship and Faith!

As readers, we welcome you to contribute your own stories of cross-cultural friendship. (NOTE: There are helpful tips under “We’d like to publish your story”)

You can help in many ways! Purchase our book “Friendship and Faith,” which is packed with dozens of stories by women about their real-life experiences with cross-cultural friendships. Bookmark this page—or subscribe via the link in upper right. If you’re on Facebook, please click the “Recommend” button below to share this story with friends. 

(Originally published at www.FriendshipAndFaith.com)

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WISDOM women invited to bring their diversity into America’s historic, evangelical heartland

http://www.readthespirit.com/friendship-and-faith/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2013/03/wpid-0715_WISDOM_women_take_Friendship_and_Faith_to_Bay_View.jpgOne of America’s historic Chautauqua-style summer “camps” invited women behind the Friendship & Faith project to talk about their diverse spiritual journeys. That fueled some anxiety among the women, because the picturesque Bay View Association is nationally famous as a living example of the 19th-century Methodist camp-meeting movement. Many of Bay View’s Victorian homes overlook Little Traverse Bay near Petoskey. This is the Indian homeland behind the book Dancing My Dream, and the area where Ernest Hemingway penned some of his Nick Adams adventure stories. The Bay View setting naturally blossoms with memories of 19th-century Americana.

Bay View has evolved over the past century! For example, the association is known today for its diverse summer schedule of musical performances—but its educational programs continue to emphasize the core faith of its Christian members. Overall, northwestern lower Michigan proudly regards itself as part of America’s evangelical heartland.

Would Bay View welcome outspoken Jewish, Hindu, Baha’i and Muslim visitors?

The one-word answer: Yes.

Here are some of the stories from the women themselves as they returned from their Bay View experience:

Shahina Begg
Muslim and co-founder of WISDOM

I was anxiously awaiting our trip to Bay View, but when we finally reached our northern destination, our host families greeted us with such hospitality. I stayed with Ric and Lisa, who have a beautiful home facing the bay. They gave me the best room in their home with the most spectacular view. Lisa made me feel right at home with delicious food—and even homemade ice cream for dessert.

I was nervous in the beginning, but I was overwhelmed by the welcome. Our hosts did not know much about our faiths, but they greeted us with open arms. If I changed some minds about stereotypes concerning Islam, I also was surprised by their enthusiasm for our visit. At the end of our presentation, 5 Women 5 Journeys, the entire audience joined hands—along with our panelists—and sang Let There Be Peace on  Earth. It touched my heart.

Paula Drewek
Baha’i and WISDOM president

For me, the two days we spent as guests of the Bay View Association were more about people and building relationships across whatever divides we all experience—and less about views of Little Traverse Bay. Don’t get me wrong; it is a beautiful bay. But even that beauty was eclipsed by the warmth and welcome of Bay View’s residents. 

By the time we left, we all felt like newfound family. We all wanted to continue the experience, the dialogue, the learning about and sharing with each other. The experience validated the “unity in diversity” motto that my Baha’i faith espouses, since you can’t have unity without diversity.

Padma Kuppa
Hindu and WISDOM board member

I was the sole representative of the Dharmic-Eastern traditions in this program and I was touched, as well, by what happened in the 5 Journeys presentation, including the final, meaningful rendition of Let There Be Peace on Earth.

But I made other spiritual connections during our visit as well. I was finishing the book, The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals by Laura Hobgood-Oster. This could have been an easy read had I not taken to heart and struggled with what the author put in its pages. The book lays out a long history of theology that connects religion with our environment. Hobgood-Oster writes about the need for compassion, hospitality and friendship for the creatures with whom we share our planet. Her book called on me to raise the bar on my activism for pluralism—to include all of creation in my work towards acceptance.

In Bay View, each of us stayed with a different family. My hosts were vegetarians like me so, it was a comfortable fit. But what I most remember was their son’s wonderful dog Chaucer who reminded me of how our pets humanize us. Chaucer is aging, and yet is more alert to the behavior of Mother Nature than I as a human ever can be. She barked at the onset of a coming summer thunderstorm, and trembled as she sat by us as we shared morning coffee amid the booming and lightening—reminding me of the frailty of our fellow beasts, and the grandeur of God’s creation. My experience with Chaucer vividly brought the book I was reading to life.

When we left Bay View, we exchanged hugs, emails and book titles. I stored a photo of my host family on my Blackberry. The image causes me to smile when I show it to friends and family: Friendship formed; friendship shared.

http://www.readthespirit.com/friendship-and-faith/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2013/03/wpid-0715_WISDOM_women_Motoko_Paula_Padma_Trish.jpgFrom Left: MOTOKO, PAULA, PADMA, TRISHMotoko Huthwaite
Presbyterian and WISDOM board member

Our other panel members in 5 Journeys represented faiths so different from our hosts. When it was my turn to speak, I wondered how I could tell them anything they did not already know about Christianity.

Then I realized that most people in the audience were lifelong Christians; my journey was different. I had not been born into a Christian family but chose to become a Christian at college. My first introductions to Christianity were through Catholic schooling in Tokyo at the International School of the Sacred Heart Convent.  I learned about Protestant Christianity through my seventh grade public school teacher in Cambridge, Mass., when she started each morning with the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms. But it was in college that I met the Rev. Samuel H. Miller, who later became the Dean of the Harvard Divinity School. I studied Catholic fathers and Quaker authors, novelists like Dostoevsky, theologians like Tillich and the Jewish Martin Buber, and was ultimately baptized in his Baptist church. Many years later, my mother became a Christian, and a radiant one at that, in her fifties.

Like the others, I received the most heavenly hospitality at the home of Bets and Bob, their daughter, son-in-law and two adorable grandsons. All three generations made me feel at home. Then, I discovered that I wasn’t quite so distinct in this community. Bets was not Methodist as I had assumed, but a Presbyterian like me (not that there is much of a difference between the two these days). Furthermore, I discovered she had owned and operated a children’s bookstore; I had taught children’s literature at Wayne State University for more than 10 years. We shared so many interests and passions after all!

Gail Katz
Jewish and WISDOM co-founder

Interfaith chaplain Deb Hansen, who has worked on diversity programs across Michigan, helped to connect us with the Bay View Association through their education director, Toby Jones. The Bay View group very thoughtfully arranged home stays for our WISDOM women who would talk about our religious journeys.

When my husband Bob and I first arrived at Bay View, I was struck by the wonderful publicity! Fliers were plastered on the fronts of buildings. The Bay View newspaper, The Town Crier, had a big article about our program. I was greeted by David and Janet, a delightful couple who opened their home. David is a retired professor of philosophy from Kalamazoo College; he and his wife have been pillars of the Bay View education committee for years. I felt right at home when David went out the next morning to pick up the New York Times. We both are devoted newspaper readers.

Our 5 Journeys program drew more than 200 people. Each panelist talked about growing up, their faith and their connection with interfaith work. We also talked about misconceptions and prejudices about our faiths. I had tears in my eyes as we joined in that final song. You could feel the hope in that room about expanding minds, breaking down stereotypes and reducing fear.

Friday evening, Deb, Bob and I attended Shabbat services at Temple B’nai Israel in Petoskey. The student rabbi, Matt Zerwekh, along with members of the congregation had come to the 5 Journeys program. The president of the synagogue welcomed both Deb and me from the bimah, and the warmth and the spirituality of the evening were a definite highlight of this Bay View/Petoskey experience.

Bob and I ended our stay with a wedding-anniversary dinner at the Bay View Inn.  After eating the very best whitefish that either of us had ever had, a Bay View resident came over to our table to greet us, and told me how much she enjoyed 5 Journeys. I felt like a celebrity in Bay View!

Trish Harris
Catholic and WISDOM co-founder

As the time for our visit got closer, I began to wonder what it would be like. Everyone living in this community was Christian. I felt that I would fit in, since I am Christian and Caucasian, but what about my friends?

The Bay View Association is almost 150 years old. Educational director Toby Jones told us that he is fifth-generation Bay View—and some families go back 8 generations. I found it interesting that he described Bay View in terms of the people, not the buildings.

Our hosts all showed us how welcome we were. My host, Kathy, showed me to her home and, as we were preparing for dinner, I noticed our WISDOM book, Friendship and Faith, on her kitchen table. She was starting to read the book and had looked at my photo to help identify me when we arrived. Kathy is a former teacher and principal and is married to Jim, who loves his work in development at a university in Illinois. She and Jim have a daughter-in-law who is Chaldean—an Iraqi, Eastern-rite, Catholic tradition. So, global diversity already is part of their family. We were turning up surprises the more we talked. As it turns out, Kathy isn’t Methodist; she is Catholic like me—and both of us once had attended the same parish!

The world was connecting in new ways, right there in Bay View.

On the night of the program, I was the staff for our WISDOM display table just outside the 5 Journeys program. I laid out all of the different materials we usually make available at our programs. I brought out our primer on conducting interfaith conversations—and copies of the WISDOM interfaith prayer developed through the “Open my eyes to …” process. I even displayed Daniel Buttry’s new book “Blessed Are the Peacemakers.” I was amazed at how many people picked up everything we had to offer.

When 5 Journeys ended on that high note—singing so loudly that I was part of it myself—people began to leave. I heard more “Thank yous” than at any of the other 5 Journeys programs we have presented! The gratitude was sincere. Many asked about hosting a 5 Journeys program in their communities, once the summer is over and they returned home.

Please help us with Friendship and Faith!

As readers, we welcome you to contribute your own stories of cross-cultural friendship. (NOTE: There are helpful tips under “We’d like to publish your story”)

You can help in many ways! Purchase our book “Friendship and Faith,” which is packed with dozens of stories by women about their real-life experiences with cross-cultural friendships. Bookmark this page—or subscribe via the link in upper right. If you’re on Facebook, please click the “Recommend” button below to share this story with friends. 

(Originally published at www.FriendshipAndFaith.com)

 

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Great idea in diversity: Crossing religious lines with teens by asking the simple question, What’s in your name?

http://www.readthespirit.com/friendship-and-faith/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2013/03/wpid-0701_Abrahamic_teens_gathered_to_discuss_their_names_and_their_faith.jpgJust some of the teens at the “Face to Faith” program.“Friendship and Faith” helps people make friends across religious and cultural boundaries. Sometimes women write personal stories about the challenges and rewards of such friendships. Sometimes we simply share great ideas that worked for us—and may work well for you, too. Here’s a great idea …

“WHAT’S IN A NAME?”
By Gail Katz

http://www.readthespirit.com/friendship-and-faith/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2013/03/wpid-0701_Abrahamic_names.png“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare put that question in the mouth of a wistful teenager. And, 400 years later, the question still works with teens. This spring, I helped to coordinate an event for 70 Jewish, Christian and Muslim high school students who gathered at West Bloomfield Jewish Community Center for an evening devoted to learning about people of other faiths. We called it “Face to Faith,” and we hoped that the evening would help to break down myths and stereotypes

The mastermind behind this wildly successful evening was a student: Andover High School Junior Josh Morof, a member of the Jewish Youth Organization called BBYO, which meets at the Teen Center at the West Bloomfield JCC. Josh had been a participant in a previous panel of Jewish and Chaldean (Iraqi-Eastern-Rite-Catholic) teens. That panel inspired Josh to expand a dialogue across all three Abrahamic faiths. He contacted Jared Rothberger, program director for BBYO, and explained his idea, and Jared also contacted me, as president and co-founder of WISDOM and a board member of the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit.

For years, before I retired as a public school teacher, I had worked with diversity programs and I know how difficult it is to get something like this started. So, I was extremely excited to find a group of teens, including Josh and Ilana Woronoff, leading other teens in planning this program. Initially, they hoped to gather about 20 to 30 teens at the JCC, then introduce a panel of an imam, a rabbi and a pastor. After the clergy talked about the three faiths, then a teen panel would follow and young people could discuss their own questions about the Abrahamic faiths.

Their early estimate was far surpassed as teens flocked to the center that night! They began at tables discussing the question: “What’s in a name?” Each girl and boy explained the origin and meaning of her or his name.

Then, the Rev. John Judson, pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, spoke about four basic principles of Christianity, including the Golden Rule. Rabbi Aaron Bergman from Congregation Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills followed by talking about the Jewish calendar. Imam Achmat Salie, head of the Islamic Studies Department at Oakland University, outlined some of the basic tenets of Islam. Following the clergy, the teen panel fielded questions. I was the moderator and posed those questions.

Josh Morof, the Jewish teen who brainstormed this event and a congregant at Adat Shalom, Sean Mueller, a junior at Groves High School and an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church, and Tahas Khalil, a junior at Andover High school who took two years of his life to memorize the entire Quran, answered questions such as “How has your religion impacted your high school years?” and “What misunderstandings and stereotypes have you personally experienced or witnessed?”

The crowd listened! That alone made it a memorable evening. Personal stories were shared—stereotypes were pierced—and people listened.

Of course, there was food as well! We served Jewish pastries—hamentashen—triangular, tart-like cookies that are made for the Jewish holiday of Purim. The teens took the cookies back to their tables and kept talking with their newfound friends.

As I listened in on conversations, I found they were discussing ways to create more opportunities like this one. They were making plans to get together again. We gave the young people time to simply relax together. Some even used the center’s games, like ping pong, to unwind and get to know each other better. Meanwhile, the handful of adults who attended had a chance to talk about their occupations, ethnic backgrounds and faiths.

I won’t forget the hugs as the teens finally said their farewells. It was an incredibly inspiring evening—one filled with hope. We had simply provided these young people some organizational help, some pastries and a friendly venue—and their energy lit up the evening and spilled over into plans for “next time.”

The Czech playwright Vaclav Havel says, “Truth and love will conquer lies and hate.” We saw that happen in our evening together. And it all unfolded through simple questions, honestly answered.

So: What’s in your name?

Please help us with Friendship and Faith!

As readers, we welcome you to contribute your own stories of cross-cultural friendship. (NOTE: There are helpful tips under “We’d like to publish your story”)

You can help in many ways! Purchase our book “Friendship and Faith,” which is packed with dozens of stories by women about their real-life experiences with cross-cultural friendships. Bookmark this page—or subscribe via the link in upper right. If you’re on Facebook, please click the “Recommend” button below to share this story with friends. 

(Originally published at www.FriendshipAndFaith.com)

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Charlotte & the Labyrinth: ‘Enlarge the circle of people’

http://www.readthespirit.com/friendship-and-faith/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2013/03/wpid-0610_Labyrinth_Chartres_Cathedral_France.jpgRegular readers of Friendship&Faith may recall Charlotte Sommers and her congregation’s Interfaith Labyrinth. Last fall, we wrote about the beauty of walking an outdoor labyrinth in the mist of Midwest colors. Today, we’re sharing the story behind Charlotte’s commitment to interfaith relationships from our book—which you can purchase via the link at right.

What are labyrinths? They are not mazes; they are not designed to confuse. They are circular pathways that lead slowly but surely to a central point. In the 1990s, Lauren Artress of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco launched the labyrinth’s current wave of popularity. Historians debate details in the ancient history of labyrinths—but, all sources agree that the medieval labyrinth in the floor at Chartres Cathedral in France (pictured at right) is a global landmark in this centuries-old spiritual practice.

The Rev. Charlotte Sommers is pastor at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Troy, Michigan, and is a convener of the Troy Interfaith Group. She worked with that group in establishing an Interfaith Labyrinth on the grounds of her church. In many ways, the labyrinth is a spiritual metaphor for Charlotte’s vision of a healthy community.

Charlotte’s Story …

“We can’t escape the fact that we’re a global community now.”

In the Troy Interfaith Group, we commit ourselves to “invite people to gather, grow and give for the sake of promoting the common values of love, peace and justice among all religions locally and globally.” We “believe that peace among people and nations requires peace among religions,” based on a statement by Hans Kung.

Our group hosts some major events during the year, and one of these is the National Day of Prayer, which we observe with an interfaith service. A few years ago in Troy, we had a controversy that made news headlines across the state. National Day of Prayer events are often supported by evangelical Christians, and here in Troy, a Hindu woman, Padma Kuppa, wanted to say a prayer in a public National Day of Prayer event, but was discouraged. This led a number of us to form the Troy Interfaith Group. I offered to host the Interfaith National Day of Prayer event at Northminster Church, where I am the pastor, which is how I got involved.

Now, there are several of us from the interfaith group who have lunch together every month. We just casually say it’s time to get together for lunch and then we talk about all kinds of things, from books to politics to what’s going on in our lives and our families. These friendships have developed as a result of working with the Troy Interfaith Group, which was a surprise to me; I didn’t expect these deeper friendships to develop.

As we form friendships, we discover there are things we all share in life—like concerns for our parents. The first time I visited a Hindu friend’s home for lunch, it was after she attended my mother’s memorial service. I so appreciated her being there, and afterward, she invited me for lunch to talk about some things I had said in the service. As we shared that lunch, we talked about my parents, and we also talked about her parents. She told me that something I had said in the memorial service about my mother really impacted her. My mother had taught me that our feelings are not “right” or “wrong.” Our feelings are real. We shouldn’t try to correct or fix people’s feelings. We shouldn’t say, “Don’t feel that way!” If we want to build good relationships, we should listen and not judge another person’s feelings.

As our time together continued, this Hindu friend and I talked about all kinds of lessons we’d learned from our families. We talked about prayer. We talked about lots of things. It was wonderful.

There also were some Muslim women who called and said they wanted to come visit me after my mother died. They said this was part of their tradition; they visit with the person who is grieving. I was so moved by their thoughtfulness. It was a really wonderful thing to offer. Unfortunately, our schedules were such that we couldn’t actually get together, but the fact that they wanted to come and visit with me was very meaningful. They weren’t of the Christian tradition, but they were showing a sense of compassion—and they were showing me a traditional way that they expressed this compassion in their community. Their call and that idea inspired me.

These experiences have shown me that we need to spend more time together, talking with people of different traditions. We need to enlarge the circle of people who interact with one another. When the Troy Interfaith Group hosts an event like our National Day of Prayer service or our Interfaith Thanksgiving Day service, we are “preaching to the choir.” Usually the people who attend are already on the bandwagon. It’s the people who would never attend such an event that we are really trying to reach.

Closing off our lives—insulating ourselves from other faiths and cultures—is a dangerous choice. We can’t escape the fact that we’re a global community now. The more we learn about each other, the “healthier and wealthier” we all become.

Please help us with Friendship and Faith!

As readers, we welcome you to contribute your own stories of cross-cultural friendship. (NOTE: There are helpful tips under “We’d like to publish your story”)

You can help in many ways! Purchase our book “Friendship and Faith,” which is packed with dozens of stories by women about their real-life experiences with cross-cultural friendships. Bookmark this page—or subscribe via the link in upper right. If you’re on Facebook, please click the “Recommend” button below to share this story with friends. 

(Originally published at www.FriendshipAndFaith.com)

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A lesson from India to America: bowing to diversity

http://www.readthespirit.com/friendship-and-faith/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2013/03/wpid-0523_Gateway_Arch_Mumbai_India_in_a_recent_photo.jpg

ANJALI VALE grew up in western India in a town near Mumbai. She came to the U.S. when she was married. Now the parents of two teenaged boys, she and her husband are comfortably adapted to life in America. A working mother and practicing Hindu, Anjali writes about her deep appreciation for the world’s diversity. That’s not a lesson she first encountered in America. Despite media stereotypes, India is a richly diverse country—and Anjali learned enduring lessons about diversity as a child.

Today’s photos show the famous Gateway to India Arch in Mumbai—a symbol not only of India as a nation but also of the great diversity within India. The arch was conceived during the reign of Great Britain—but the arch also became a symbol of the British departure from India. The last British troops to leave India passed through the Gateway Arch on their way back home. The 85-foot-tall, stone-and-concrete monument showcases both Muslim and Hindu styles of design. According to accounts from its dedication in 1924, the largest single donor in the fund-raising campaign was a Jewish philanthropist who wanted all segments of the community represented in the project. India’s diversity is built into the stones of this global symbol.

HERE IS ANJALI VALE’S STORY:

http://www.readthespirit.com/friendship-and-faith/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2013/03/wpid-0523_Gateway_Arch_dedication_in_1924.jpgMUMBAI GATEWAY ARCH at dedication in 1924.I moved to the United States from India many years ago with my new husband. We married soon after we first met, and so all at once I had a new land to make my home, a new husband to make my family, and new people to make my friends. Although I was scared and anxious, I was hopeful that, with some work, I would enjoy my new home, family and friends.

Both of my parents, by their behavior, had taught me to have an open mind, to not judge people and to help wherever there is need. They never forced my brother or me to do things or make decisions based on their views, but instead gave us the freedom to choose. My parents always believed in us—believed that we would do the right thing. Their faith in us meant a lot to me.

I always saw my mother, who is a doctor, helping others—even in the middle of the night if someone came knocking on the door with a pain or wound. I saw her travel extra distances to visit and support patients or friends. My dad is a great philosopher who does a great deal of reading of Indian literature. Now that I am a parent raising my own family and have experienced the world a bit, I feel even closer to my parents, and I appreciate and understand them even more.

Growing up in India, I never felt that faith separated people. India is a diverse country with various languages, castes, and religions. I am Hindu, but my very good friends who helped me grow were of different faiths. After coming to the U.S., I feel strongly that, if your wavelengths match, you can build a strong relationship with any human being, no matter the religion, gender or age of that person.

After finishing my Master of Science in the U.S., I began working as an instructor; it was my first job in my new environment. I still remember that time: My son was just a year old, I had a new job, and I had no family nearby to rely on. It was a time full of anxiety. At work, a colleague who was older and more experienced helped me through that difficult time. Most of my support was coming from a person who was American and of a different race, faith, and nationality. But I don’t think we even talked about faith then. She gave me the sense of belonging that I needed. Similarly, a few other new friends from various backgrounds made me feel at home here.

Raising my children in the States has required me to find a balance in mixing our Indian culture and Hindu faith with our life in America. I teach my sons the pieces that are most important and that they can adapt themselves as Indian-Americans. I hope that, as adults, they will have the best values from both societies.

When I go back to India, to my hometown outside Mumbai, people say, “You are different than before. The U.S. has changed you.” I suppose they are right. But I also see a change in the people of India. Life there used to be slow and informal. When I was young, my mother would run an errand and be out for hours, talking to people she ran into along the way. Today, however, people are often in a hurry. Along with a faster pace, people seem to have adopted a more open attitude to the rest of the world. Along with me, India has changed.

Now I have all types of friends from work and the local community, including friends from Ukraine and Japan. We converse about various topics such as the stock market, philosophy or yoga. In India, many faiths coexist peacefully, and I grew up with friends of both genders and of different languages and ethnic backgrounds. I believe every human being is basically the same.

If you have respect and understanding for others, then people will reciprocate the same respect and understanding. People may have different opinions, but if you talk things out with an open mind and try to understand what the other person is thinking, friendship develops. However, if people start making assumptions, and no one is paying attention to what the other is thinking, it is very easy to misunderstand each other and lose a friendship over simple things.

Growing up, I was taught the basic values of Hinduism such as respect for other souls, tolerance and pluralism, which for me means that I see all religious paths as equally valid. I am a firm believer that my path is not the only one toward the Supreme God or divinity, but that there may be many true and meaningful paths.

The experiences in my life, with all the people I’ve met, have taught me to respect other peoples, races, faiths, nationalities and, most importantly, to simply respect others as human beings. Our outside appearances differ, but, inside, every human being is one and the same.

I believe that every human is the manifestation of God, and I bow to that divinity.

Namaste!

Please help us with Friendship and Faith!

As readers, we welcome you to contribute your own stories of cross-cultural friendship. (NOTE: There are helpful tips under “We’d like to publish your story”)

You can help in many ways! Purchase our book “Friendship and Faith,” which is packed with dozens of stories by women about their real-life experiences with cross-cultural friendships. Bookmark this page—or subscribe via the link in upper right. If you’re on Facebook, please click the “Recommend” button below to share this story with friends. 

(Originally published at www.FriendshipAndFaith.com)


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Praying for Peace: Open my eyes to God’s diversity

http://www.readthespirit.com/friendship-and-faith/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2013/03/wpid-0505_PRAYER_photo.jpgSixteen women prayed together for peace—without ever meeting—and they created this prayer for the whole world. They followed John Philip Newell’s call in Praying for Peace and each contributed lines beginning with the words, “Open my eyes to …” Collected here, they form a litany that we invite the world to pray with us.

The women began their notes invoking God in many ways and by many names. Feel free to open your own version of this prayer with an invocation from your tradition.

Open My Eyes to God’s Diversity

By the women of WISDOM

http://www.readthespirit.com/friendship-and-faith/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2013/03/wpid-0505_hands_praying_for_the_world.jpgOpen my eyes to …
Peaceful things in life.
Songs of peace.
Seeds of understanding.
Goodness in all people.
The spirit of each human being I encounter today.

Open my eyes to …
The world around me.
Needs around me.
Outer appearances that can mislead.
Dangers of injustice and misunderstanding.
People we need to understand.
The hunger and thirst of our sisters and brothers.

Open my eyes to …
The larger world.
The value of women everywhere. 

Open my eyes to …
All the people God loves.
All the species God cares about on this earth.
The beauty and abundance of God’s creation.

The grandeur of God’s creation in every person, place and thing.

Open my eyes to …
Love around us.
The face of God in those we meet.
The Divine source of goodness in all peoples.
The Good that is available everywhere.
The power of forgiveness.

Guide me so that I don’t stand idly by.
Guide me to help according to Your will.
Guide me to know the difference between what I want and what I need.
Dispel the delusion that someone else is responsible for my community, my nation and my world.
Open my eyes to this new day and free me from the limitations of yesterday.

Open my eyes to …
The warmth of interfaith gatherings that build respect and understanding.
The potential in each of us to cross divides and build new friendships.

Open my eyes to …
God’s diversity.

SPECIAL THANKS TO Shahina Begg, Jean T. Booms, Paula Drewek, Elaine Greenberg, Patricia Harris, Mares Hirchert, Motoko Huthwaite, Gail Katz, Susan Lalain, Sofia Latif, Cassandra Mudloff, Anne Nachazel, Brenda Naomi Rosenberg, Betsy Ross, Sheri Schiff, Debra Seehaver and Debbie Valencia.

IF YOU DID NOT SEE YOUR CONTRIBUTION IN THIS PRAYER, we apologize. Readers flooded us with responses this week and it was difficult to keep up with all of the emails. We are carefully collecting and weaving together these responses to share with readers. A second prayer was published today, as well, in the main pages of ReadTheSpirit.

Please help us with Friendship and Faith!

As readers, we welcome you to contribute your own stories of cross-cultural friendship. (NOTE: There are helpful tips under “We’d like to publish your story”)

You can help in many ways! Purchase our book “Friendship and Faith,” which is packed with dozens of stories by women about their real-life experiences with cross-cultural friendships. Bookmark this page—or subscribe via the link in upper right. If you’re on Facebook, please click the “Recommend” button below to share this story with friends. 

(Originally published at www.FriendshipAndFaith.com)


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Discovering another world through the kindness of a friend

http://www.readthespirit.com/friendship-and-faith/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2013/03/wpid-0429_Lizzie_and_Susan_Baller_Shepard.jpgLIZZIE WITH SUSAN BALLER-SHEPARD

WE ARE PLEASED, this week, to welcome Susan Baller-Shepard to FriendshipAndFaith—our ongoing effort to promote cross-cultural friendship. One year ago, we kicked off this global effort by publishing our own stories in book form (look in the right margin for links to the book and to our WISDOM network). Then, we invited women far and wide to share their stories—and many have. Susan is a Presbyterian minister, an award-winning writer, a Mom—and a friend. (There’s more about her life with links to her website at the end of today’s story.)

FRIENDS WITH FAN
By the Rev. Susan Baller-Shepard

A dentist friend of mine tells me he has a patient, new to the United States, working on her English, from Beijing with sons the same ages as my sons, would I like to meet her?

The answer in my head is: Do I have time for this? I have a newly adopted daughter Lizzie from China, two active boys, and I feel overwhelmed as it is.

Instead, I say: “Sure! Why not?”

That’s how my friendship with Fan started, simply enough, eight years ago. We arranged a dinner party to have everyone get together: the dentist’s family, our family, Fan’s family. What is striking about Fan at first is her appearance. She has long black hair, beautiful eyes, a slender figure, and energy that makes her look like a teenager. As I grew to know Fan better, to know her kindness and generosity of spirit, she became a sort of archetypal woman for me—how I’d picture Lizzie’s birth mother, as a woman of grace and beauty.

http://www.readthespirit.com/friendship-and-faith/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2013/03/wpid-0429_FAN_AND_LIZZIE.jpgFAN AND LIZZIEOne day, I had Fan out for coffee. She had recently traveled to Beijing, and had purchased adorable clothes for Lizzie. She explained, “With sons, I never get to shop for girl things.” She gave Lizzie quilted baby clothes, like you see on most babies in China. In the stillness of an afternoon with the boys at school, and Lizzie playing and napping, Fan and I talked. Fan was latching onto the English language incredibly fast. Through that first year I knew her, she was flying through English. She would apologize for her lack of language, not realizing her own mastery of it.

We talked about China. I asked her questions about her life, growing up in Beijing, about what she missed (her friends, family, and food), about what she enjoyed here (opportunities for her sons). I asked Fan to speculate about who she thought my daughter’s birth mother could be, what her life would have been like, what her birth mother would have thought about having a daughter?

Fan looked at me at one point and said, “You see all of this with Western eyes.”

It was a huge relief, that conversation. I was trying to get my head around the grief of Lizzie’s birth mother, the grief of those circumstances, and Fan gave me permission to not understand it all, to leave it open to mystery and differences of culture. I was feeling so raw in those days, trying to understand the magnitude of our adoption, the deep love I had for our daughter, the intensity of what was left behind in China. I was very aware that we had left behind a big piece of our daughter’s history in Yangjiang, China, a “small” coastal city of 2 million people, looking out onto the South China Sea. 

I see Fan at our local Chinese New Year celebrations, at parties, and more often than not, at our bank, where she works. Fan’s friendship has been a bridge for me, connecting me in a real way to Lizzie’s motherland. Fan and Lizzie share a commonality I do not, they are both Chinese-born females living out their lives in America. 

I am grateful for Fan’s friendship, more than she knows. When I tell her I’ve been reading Li Bai and Du Fu, ancient Chinese poets, she gives me books of modern Chinese poets. She tells me the ones she knows, the ones she grew up learning about, the ones she likes. In the collection of Bo Yang poetry she gave me, is a stanza from the poem “What Year What Month” that refers to the holiday Chong Yang, traditionally a time for family reunions:

What makes it so hard is it’s Chong Yang again
I lie listening as mountain echoes reach the grassy terrace
Floating and dancing, their dreaming spirits have all arrived
Once every day I can’t help but wonder

Like Bo Yang, “Once every day I can’t help but wonder,” about my great fortune—this gift of being my daughter’s mother in this lifetime. I pray for the “dreaming spirits” of her ancestors, giving thanks for the lives they lived, that lead up to Lizzie being all she is. And now, this added gift of knowing Fan? It’s learning about mooncakes, learning the sweetness of another world, and finding all that in a friend.

Stanza from “Poems of a Period” by Bo Yang, translated by Stephen L. Smith & Robert Reynolds, Joint Publishing Co. (HK).

The Rev. Susan Baller-Shepard, MSW, has written for many publications, including the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post “On Faith,” Spirituality & Health, Writer’s Digest, and Church & Society. Susan is a parish associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church-Normal, and for twelve years has been editor of an international spirituality web site www.spiritualbookclub.com with its blog of over 125 interviews. Author of the children’s book Matching Yu, Susan lives in Bloomington, Illinois, with her husband and three children.

Please help us with Friendship and Faith!

As readers, we welcome you to contribute your own stories of cross-cultural friendship. (NOTE: There are helpful tips under “We’d like to publish your story”)

You can help in many ways! Purchase our book “Friendship and Faith,” which is packed with dozens of stories by women about their real-life experiences with cross-cultural friendships. Bookmark this page—or subscribe via the link in upper right. If you’re on Facebook, please click the “Recommend” button below to share this story with friends. 

(Originally published at www.FriendshipAndFaith.com)


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