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Friday, December 6, 2019

"The Voice of the Stranger" | by Pat Cody

The news, television, and movie industry sometimes focus on the chaos in the world, and they often point toward religious differences as a primary reason for the world's troubles. At times, I too found myself wondering, "maybe a world without religion is the solution."

But Thomas Merton once said: "God speaks, and God is to be heard, not only on Sinai, not only in my own heart, but in the voice of the stranger."

So what I've chosen to do instead, is to stop listening to the media and start listening to my neighbors.

Encouraged by Merton and others, I began to seek opportunities to listen to the voices of those who thus far have been strangers to me. After all, the world is not as big as it once was, but my neighborhood is bigger now than it ever was.

While seeking these opportunities, I was soon led to Interfaith Philadelphia and their "Gateways to Religious Communities" series. Since 2009, this program has given many an opportunity to learn firsthand the histories, beliefs and practices of many of the world's faith traditions.

Throughout the series, the enthusiasm of our diverse group of visitors, representing many religions, was infectious.

At the Sikh Society of Philadelphia we learned of the Sikhs' commitment to selfless service and standing up for the rights of others.

At the Islamic Society of Chester County, we learned that one of the five pillars of Islam is Charity. In this spirit ICC created "Youth Connecting with Communities", an organization that helps Muslim youth provide clothing and meals to people in their community, as well as engaging in interfaith activities with youth from neighboring churches and synagogues.

At the Mantra Lounge, where bhakti yoga is practiced, a core belief is: when we are able to see others not for their external coverings, but for the indwelling soul, and act according to that understanding, then we can achieve real unity.

Upon entering the meeting space at the Philadelphia Ethical Society, we were greeted with these words high up in the wall "The place where people meet to seek the highest is Holy Ground." We learned that one of the guiding principles of Ethical Culture is to "always act to elicit the best in others and thereby yourself."

At the Baha'i Center, we learned that the Baha'i faith seeks to foster the unification of all nations and people, "honoring all, and benefiting from the unique cultural and religious heritage each brings to the whole". The Baha'i Center actively nurtures the spiritual needs of youth through their Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program.

We also visited Reformation Lutheran Church in Media, a representative of my own faith of Christianity. We were made to feel welcome. I wondered what to say of our visit, but after checking out their website--well, why would I want to say more than that? The greeting on their homepage uses the word "Welcome" five times.

What more straightforward a message would I want my faith to convey than: WELCOME

So, far from being a problem, I have heard in the voices of these strangers a solution. A message of welcome, of love, of compassion, and respect for all life. A solution rooted in the teaching and practices of hundreds and thousands of years.

I am deeply grateful for this experience, and for the work of the interns at Interfaith Philadelphia who organized these visits, particularly Arisha and Hannah.