Faith and Public Life: A Year After….
By Rev. David H. Rommereim
Love God with all your heart, soul, and strength. Love yourself so that you are able to love your neighbor. Leviticus 19.15-18; Matthew 22.34-40
The 21st Century United States of America resembles an economy similar to the days of Jesus and Rabbi Hillel’s first century Palestine. There were a few winners (5%) who owned 95% of the wealth. The losers scraped out a living on what remained. Rich and poor, landowners and landless, homeowners and homeless lived these severe proportions of distribution. Often indentured servant hood, or paying off mortgages, rent, or i.o.u.’s meant that you could not get ahead. That is why Jesus and his older contemporary, Hillel (whose career spanned between 30 b.c.e. to near 10 c.e.) worked so hard to restore the lethargy of the faith, so that it could make an impact on the moral courage, ethics, justice, and fairness needed to redeem the times.
On the next page you will see two stories which seek to catch the eye of the leaders so that the spirit of their study, action, and faith encapsulate the whole faith so that what one believes is clearly not cerebral as much as action oriented. One ancient text comes from Leviticus 19. It is often described as the Holiness Code. It is a strong, hard, diligent teaching for community wanderlust in its discipline. The sacred text demands wholeheartedness.
This is the absolute pinnacle of Christian love:
‘To love God is to love oneself truly; to help another person to love God is to love another person; to be helped by another person to love God is to beloved.’ Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, p264.
There we read how you should treat your neighbor and yourself. It says, love of self is the key to love of neighbor. Jesus is also confronted with a community which seeks a status quo. When confronted by his advisories, he quotes Leviticus and gives it a little Gospel twist. He says, the greatest commandment is this: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And the second is, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Each is empowering to focus and take yourself seriously enough to learn that if you do not love yourself you become harmful to others.
To that end there is a little Hillel story that encapsulates this challenge. A Gentile came to Hillel and challenged him by saying: Convert me to Judaism on condition that you will teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot. Hillel said to him that which is hateful unto you, do not do unto your neighbor. This is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary. Now, go and study. (Shabbat 31a)
On one level Jesus and Leviticus advise love of self so that you may love the neighbor. Yet, Hillel advises you to watch what is hateful so that you do not reciprocate the hate with your neighbor. All of this may seem fussy to you. However, what each of the moral teachings do for our community is teach us that all of the faith, all of our moral and ethical teachings can be acted on through these two verbal icons. We know that bad attitudes enter community life through emotionally ill individuals. Bad talk between people tends to reveal more the inner soul, good and bad, of the one doing the bad talk.
When people come to me with frustration and they point their fingers at me and blame me for this or that. I always see their heart before I see their complaint. They reveal their illness, their bad attitude, or their emotional well-being, or lack thereof. Then, if given opportunity through a face-to-face honest encounter, we could deal with the heart of the matter rather than the blame game.
Love of self is love of others. Harm of self is harm to the other. There is no other way. And all this - how we treat each other, as nations, communities, groups, or contributors - affects the larger community. Here is a story about public love. Loving the public so that the public can love the public. Or, not hate the public so that one member of the public does not hate another.
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
In a book written during his ten year nomadic wanderings in the Alps and along the Italian seaboard, Friedrich Nietzsche writes a series of essays called, Untimely Meditations (presented in the Sun Magazine November 2011 Issue 431, page 14). There, he writes that you and I are responsible to ourselves for our own existence. Consequently we want to be the true helmsman of this existence and refuse to allow our existence to resemble a mindless act of chance. That is a powerful statement. However, it places a mirror in front of me. I want to be the helmsman, to set the course, to steer through the day to day consequences of my living. Yet, I am often otherwise. I leave things up to chance. At times I could say I live like a lottery ticket putting out to sail without a helmsman. I hope for the best, not noticing that I have let go of the helm.
Last year, I watched and listened to what came to be called a leaderless Zuccotti Square. The term refers to no specific centralized leader. However, experience has shown that there are many leaders. So many in fact that other observers called it a leader-full Zuccotti. The little private park in the midst of our American Icon we call, Wall Street, is full of leaders. The leaders took up temporary residency in what has become an international movement called “Occupy.” In NYC it is called Occupy Wall Street. They occupy in a manner that is consistent with our constitutional privilege of gathering in the public square to make a statement to our leaders of public harm. Such harm has been done, at this time, to the benefit of the very wealthy 1% of our citizens and against the 99% of our residents. The message is simple, We love ourselves so that we may love our country and restore its dignity for the wellbeing of the whole. Or, others say, We do not want to harm ourselves and we want no harm directed toward you. We want justice and fairness. Every youthful soul hears this call day and night, and trembles when he hears it; for the idea of its liberation gives the soul a presentiment of the measure of happiness allotted it from all eternity ~ a happiness to which it can by no means attain so long as it lies fettered by the chains of fear and convention. And how dismal and senseless life can be without this liberation! No one can construct for you the bridge upon which precisely you must cross the stream of life, no one but you yourself alone. This is the means by which an inquiry into the most important aspect can be initiated: let the youthful soul look back on life with the question ‘What have you truly loved up to now; what has drawn your soul aloft; what has mastered it and at the same time blessed it?’ Friedrich Nietzsche.
NY Times news analysis Michael Kimmelman writes about “The Power of Place in Protest.” He said “I thought of Aristotle, of all people, while I watched the Zuccotti Park demonstrators hold one of their ‘general assemblies’ the other day. In his “Politics” Aristotle argued that the size of an ideal polis extended to the limits of a herald’s cry. He believed that the human voice was directly linked to civic order. A healthy citizenry in a proper city required face-to-face conversation.” Mr. Kimmelman also reports that “on the ground is where the protesters are building an architecture of consciousness.” I love the phrase architecture of consciousness. That is what Leviticus, Jesus, and Hillel were seeking. They were building an entry point by which every person could evaluate their own lives and recommit to the welfare of the other. Bad attitudes are always noticed because there is an emotionally healthy alternative. Bad attitudes tend to take the limelight more than emotional healthy attitudes.
They used to say, focus on the positive. But, each of us knows by our own experience that the negative tends to dominate. I believe around the country there is a yearning for a new architecture of consciousness. It looks like the yearning for wholeness could even be helped by the ministry of the faith community, rather than being reactive outsiders, or politicized fundamentalists. Faith communities have a place in the yearning for a voice into the most important inquiry of our living today, how are we treating each other; parents, children, friends, colleagues, members, and others.
The leaders in Zuccotti who occupy this public square appear to have no intention of pointing their fingers at local workers, the blue suits of Wall Street. In fact many workers have come down from the mountainous buildings to mingle among the occupiers. Occupy Wall Street has become a simple moral clarion call to a nation that has taken the hand off the helm and has left things up to chance. It is a clarion call to a nation that has lost its sense of justice and fairness when it comes to sharing resources. The greed is seen in the opulent life styles of a 1% elite who own 48% of the wealth in our beloved City of New York. Greed is seen in our beloved Brooklyn who celebrates being in the upper 5% of job development per capita in the USA. Yet, also has twice the national average in unemployment and under employment in the African American areas of our Borough (Flatbush, Bed-Sty, East New York, etc.). And this hubris of greed is also seen in the consumer DNA of our culture where we have been trained to consume with very little sense of purpose.
The leader-full Zuccotti Square is a generation finessed by Twitter, Facebook and email. But they do their best work face-to face. It has been quite impressive to watch their style of leading this massive movement without a centralized rule of government. However, they have careful and clear rules of engagement. They have solid policies within the park such as, a zero drug and alcohol policy. They also have a zero tolerance for someone who is aggressively negative and demanding too much air time on her/his speech. They are also reaching out to the faith community for clergy who may be able to enter the Park and provide pastoral care, rabbinic care, Imam care, or Shaman care.
Most of that religious/faith based architecture of consciences has been the result of trust built after a few prayer vigils on, or near, the site. Responsible faith communities came on the scene not to tell protesters what to do, but to pray for fairness, safety, and a value of letting non-violent diligence be accomplished by all means. I believe, in a mysterious way the faith community has invoked Leviticus, Jesus, and Hillel at a time such as this when values are seeking a voice in public life. At 3:30 pm every Sunday the leaders of Zuccotti Park have carved out the time for an inter-religious prayer service. That is a responsibility and an opportunity; not unlike every Sabbath worship.
In the schedule of general assemblies at the park there is a way of talking that makes sure people are heard. Be careful, however, don’t talk too long. The sounds of individual speakers are passed from group to group like an echo. One sentence at a time reaches the ear of those in the outer reaches of the park. Then, if someone does go too long, there is a beautiful signal that has become a symbol of many who have heard too much from a particular speaker. When that happens it is a simple fist folded, and held up to the side of your face. The pinky finger is allotted then waved in such a way as to signal the speaker to “cut off.”
What comes to my heart in this public experience of Occupy Wall Street, Occupy London, Occupy D.C., or Occupy... in over 107 cities nationwide, is that these students, and this leader-full experience, no longer want to leave things up to chance. They want to love themselves so that they are able to love others. They do not want to hate themselves so that they practice hate of others; even the upper 1%.
They are unclear of exact demands other than what I may call the lethargy, or the laziness, of chance. Leaving things up to chance has led us to such a devastating economy. Leader-full Zuccotti people are, however, demanding a new architecture to the conscience of what it means to be an American, a citizen, an immigrant, and one who loves themselves so that they are able to love the other. The Occupiers are watching the faith community these days, as well. Word on the Square is that they are eager to have a religious presence; a religion that is just, fair, soul affirming rather than soul negating. To that end about 300 clergy have signed on to a shared prayer/statement. It says:
We, the people of faith communities throughout New York and the United States, see in the spirit of Occupy Wall Street a promise of democracy renewed. Our traditions are clear: the impoverishment of the many for the benefit of the few destroys us all. The cries of our people are clear: the American dream is compromised; the middle is slipping away; and in our politics, fairness is dissipating. So we commit ourselves to the restoration of justice for all in our economy, and compassion in our politics, that together we might behold a revolution of values for all our people. We ask all Americans to join us in this prayer, that once again our country might be the fulfillment of hopes and dreams for all who reach its shores.
I have signed because I love myself, want to love my children and their future, love the elderly and their entry into the next Kingdom, and love the other, for in the other, I find my wisdom. I have signed because I do not want to be harmed like the migrant who is harmed for simple work that is not remunerated justly. I want not to be harmed like the one who has no insurance and has lost a mortgage due to medical bills. I have signed because I am a pastor who seeks to develop architecture of community life that is not based on money, but on ministry; not on bricks and mortar, but on people; not on brute force but on soul force. I sign because of the absolute pinnacle of Christian love: ‘To love God is to love oneself truly; to help another person to love God is to love another person; to be helped by another person to love God is to be loved.’
Love God with all your heart, soul, and strength. Love yourself so that you are able to love your neighbor.
Abrahamic Three Day Immersion
By Sr. Kathleen Brighton
This summer I took part in the first 3-Day Faith House Immersion from July 25-27, 2012! Abrahamic Manhattan included visits to three different Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities in Manhattan, providing a rich sampling of Abrahamic diversity in NYC.
We walked the streets of New York City! And, boy did we walk! Sweat dripping down our brows, water bottles being filled at each stop. The information we received said that “instead of trotting beaten tourists paths, you are entering its real and pulsing religious life sideways. You are immersed in authentic, colorful, and welcoming spiritual communities with some of the city’s most profound guides and teachers.” And, so we did. Visiting the Abyssinian Baptist Church for their Midweek Manna, where a few days before a funeral was held for Sylvia Woods, the American restaurateur who co-founded the landmark restaurant Sylvia's in Harlem on Lenox Avenue, New York City with her husband, Herbert Woods, in 1962.
Met by ushers, both men and women, wearing badges to identify themselves, and white gloves, we were taken to two pews that would hold our group of about 7 participants and 3 leaders. Hospitality was shown from the front door into the sanctuary and also upon leaving. Guests were welcomed and asked to stand as the name of their town or country was announced. People from Italy, Spain, Austria, England, Georgia and many other places stood and received applause for being present. The choir was superb and the musicians so gifted that the time spent in singing (very possibly one hour) seemed to speed by. Prayers were mostly extemporaneous and met with many “Amens.” I wondered to myself what it would be like in my own church to have standing room only because people were so eager to worship! I left knowing I had experienced God in a new and exciting way.
To top the day off, we had a Magrib and Iftar dinner at Kine Senegalese Muslim restaurant on Frederick Douglass and 116th Street. (Iftar is the evening meal when Muslims break their fast during the Islamic month of Ramadan. It is often done as a community, with people gathering to break their fast together. Iftar is done right after Maghrib (sunset) time). Believe me; this restaurant knew how to break a fast! Platters of Dibi Alloco – Grilled Lamb or Chicken served with a rich peanut sauce with onions and beans, or the grilled fish called Poisson Grill – whole fish (including the head!) served with sweet fried plantains (alloko) in a rich mustard sauce and garnished with a hardboiled egg cut in half, sliced tomato and lime.
I arrived home, my head hitting the pillow at midnight! What an unbelievable and most exciting day. I knew I was a long way away from a little coal mining town in Southern Illinois (where I grew up) and wow, was it ever delightfully different and unexpectedly unique and inviting.
On Thursday, we visited Eldridge Street Synagogue. The internet says this synagogue is, “home to Kahal Adath Jeshurun. This small Orthodox congregation has never missed a Saturday or holiday service in the more than 120 years since the synagogue first opened.” I missed the tour because I got lost on the subway! When I finally found the group, I got a chance to glimpse the “monumental new stained-glass window by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans. This permanent artwork is the culminating piece of the Museum’s 20-plus year restoration of the synagogue.”
A little later in the day, we visited St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church where we participated in mass. I experienced what is called Eucharistic Adoration. Held after the 1:05 PM Mass, the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for prayer and adoration based on the tenet of the presence of Christ in the Blessed Host. Afterwards, the priest met with us to answer questions.
After lunch at Zuccotti Park, we visited the World Trade Center and then Park 51, two blocks from the World Trade Center site, a center modeled after the Jewish Community Center on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Our tour guide was a young Muslim woman who later shared her story as a native Brooklyite who is Muslim.
Removing our shoes, we entered the Muslim prayer space that has been open for two years. There were 3 people, two men on one side of a room divider and a woman kneeling on their prayer rugs. Most of the rest of the building is unfinished drywall only on the walls. Some rooms have tables and chairs and others are empty.
Fundraising is under way to complete a 15-story building that will also include an auditorium, educational programs, a pool, a restaurant and culinary school, child care services, a sports facility, a wellness center and artist studios.
The mosque is especially needed in lower Manhattan, he said, because thousands of Muslims either work or live in the neighborhood, "and in our religion, we must pray five times a day." (Huff post)
Each day provided time for those participating to share their own short faith story. The path to ministry is not always smooth and sometimes the bumps in the road are caused by the places where we worship, be it churches, synagogues, or mosques.
The Magrib & Iftar Dinner this day was at Turkuaz Restaurant where, once inside, one feels like they are in a Turkish tent because of the fabric draping the ceiling and walls. Upon our arrival, we were greeted by the most incredible selection of food one could imagine. The appetizers started us out: Large Cold Appetizer Plate (7 items) including Babaganuş - Eggplants roasted over an open flame and peeled, Lebne (yogurt cheese), Hummus served with the most incredibly fresh bread and other items. Then came the main dishes followed by dessert and Turkish coffee.
That evening at 10:30 pm, we participated in the Ramadan Zikr (Zikr meaning names of God). Most gatherings are held on Thursday or Sunday nights as part of the institutional practices of the tariqah (since Thursday is the night which marks the entrance of the Muslim "holy" day of Friday). This Sufi Order is known as Nur Ashki Jerrahi, a modern dervish order (tariqah - meaning "way, path, method”) of Sufism. It is a branch of the Halveti-Jerrahi Tariqah of Istanbul. Dervishes perform whirling dances and vigorous chanting as acts of ecstatic devotion.
Upon arrival, we removed our shoes and entered the worship area, seating ourselves on rugs or chairs without legs allowing one to sit with legs crossed on the floor. The chanting began with a circle of people at the front repeating the names of God and continued for perhaps 45 minutes directed by the sheikh of the tariqa, or one of his representatives; monitoring the intensity, depth, and duration of the phases of the haḍra, the sheikh aims to draw the circle into deep awareness of God and away from the participants’ own individualism. The haḍra section consists of the ostinato-like repetition of the name of God over which the soloist performs a richly ornamented song. The participants join hands in a circle, bending forward while exhaling and standing straight while inhaling, so that both the movement and sound contribute to the overall rhythm. The climax is usually reached through cries of "Allah! Allah!" or "hu hu". After this, many then sat down while some dervishes twirled over and over, eyes closed and hands raised skyward.
At the end, close to midnight, people went upstairs for something to eat and I headed back to Bay Ridge. How, I wondered, did these people get up for work the next day?! Falling into bed at 1:40am, I was grateful that the next day did not start until 10:30am!
Gathering for a Croatian Brunch at Samir’s house, the director of Faith House, we discussed our agenda for the day, which included Juma’ah prayers, a visit to Cathedral Church of St. John Divine, and Shabbat with Romemu ending with Shabbat Dinner with Romemu members.
The juma’ah prayer (a congregational prayer (salah) that Muslims hold every Friday) began at 1pm at the Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood in Manhattan. Muslims pray ordinarily five times each day according to the sun's sky path regardless of clock time.
The women in our group covered our heads with scarfs. We then removed our shoes and ascended the stairs to the women’s prayer room. Before entering though, we did the “ritual washing” consisting of splashing water on our faces from hairline to chin three times, the same with hands, forearms and elbows - three times. The last part consisted of running wet hands over our normal hairline in front to the occiput (almost to our hairline in back) three times, and the same with our ears, feet and ankles.
Most women sat on the floor, the older women sitting in chairs. Coming into the room, each woman performed The Sujiud (Prostration) which is obligatory and consists of one going down to the floor prostrate and pressing one’s bare forehead to the floor while putting one’s palms, knees, and pads of the toes on the floor. Both feet are kept vertical with the heels up and the toepads down, touching the floor. They remained in this position for at least the time it takes to say subhanallah (Glorious is God), or God is devoid of all evil. It seems that the Christian counterpart is "Hallowed be your name". After the sermon (transmitted from the downstairs men’s area), those of us who were not Muslim left the room while those remaining prayed. Whew! What a week and we still had Shabbat with Romemu and dinner.
Romemu advertise themselves as “Judaism for Body, Mind and Spirit. They meet at West End Presbyterian Church (which is not air-conditioned!). Online, you will read - “Unabashedly eclectic, we engage in body practices like yoga, infuse traditional liturgy with the energy of ecstatic chant, and ground our practice with meditation and contemplation. We are a progressive, fully egalitarian community committed to tikkun olam, or social action, and to service that flows from an identification with the sacredness of all life."
We were handed song books that read from right to left and seated ourselves wherever we chose. Off to the left in front were three musicians playing bass guitar, keyboard and bongo drums. The Rabbi lead the singing from the center dressed in the tallit, or Jewish prayer shawl. Extemporaneous dance by individuals, and a sort of circle dance around the worship area with people joining hands and singing, was part of the ceremony. Once again, we, and all of the visitors were warmly welcomed.
Faith House write that they have “worked for 4 years to discover the treasures that this most-religiously-diverse city on the planet hides and have developed relationships to be able to take you through 3 days of prayer, insight, surprises, music, dance, food, and friends that can only come to those willing to experience their neighbors’ faith. Or, you can just be present, and hold back, ask difficult questions, or offer the wisdom and experience that you bring. Either way, that song, that scent, that conversation will renew your life like a breeze of fresh air or like a strong wind, and you will find your own faith deepened.”
Yes, my life had been renewed by songs and scents and conversation and meals. For perhaps the first time in my life, I felt a oneness with Jews and Muslims. I knew in my bones that all of us are God’s children worshiping in the way that we know, and honoring those whose worship is different than ours and loving them because of it, not in spite of it!
To learn more about Faith House, visit: http://www.faithhousemanhattan.org/