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Religion Column

June 9, 2012

A motley tapestry of faiths

A Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi, a Wiccan priestess and a Muslim imam walk into a bar.

The bartender says, "Is this some kind of a joke?"

It might be a joke (my favorite of the many religious jokes I've heard over the years), or it just might be an interfaith meeting. The setting tends to point to the former. The local interfaith clergy have chosen to eschew the tavern setting for a more respectable, less comedic eating establishment. We meet once a month for breakfast and conversation. Over eggs and pancakes, we share stories, publicize our congregational events, and sometimes coordinate an interfaith response to some crisis or provocative incident.

What does it mean to be interfaith? In some circles, it means a gathering of people from different Christian traditions. Sometimes, the circle is expanded and the Jewish community is invited to sit at the table. More often these days, members of the Muslim faith are a welcome part of the gathering, too. As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I've found myself both welcomed and excluded from interfaith gatherings. I try not to take that personally ... after all, as Groucho Marx said, "I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member." Actually, that's not true _ it always hurts to be excluded. Fortunately, I'm a welcome member of the Interfaith Clergy gatherings here in Oneonta. As a colleague once told me, I'm there to keep them honest. (I'm happy to say the religious leaders of the Muslim community would be welcome too ... and they are invited.)

Interfaith gatherings aren't easy. Assumptions have to be checked at the door. Accommodations have to be made. Mistakes always happen. Apologies and forgiveness are both offered in abundance. Which is really the whole point. Checking assumptions, making room for others, forgiving ourselves and one another _ these are all spiritual practices and absolute necessities in our ever-shrinking, increasingly connected world. Humans have always been a diverse bunch and our answers to the universal questions even more so. In all of recorded history, there has never been a time when there was one religion, one faith tradition, or one belief system. It is highly unlikely such a time, such a convergence of belief will ever occur. (If it did, what would the interfaith clergy discuss over breakfast?) In such a world of diversity and mystery, we have to learn how to get along, how to discuss our beliefs, how to listen to and accept one another _ even when we disagree, especially when we disagree.

Official groups and gatherings that are truly interfaith are few and far between, existing only by effort and intention. Unofficial interfaith groups abound. They exist in our schools, in our workplaces, in the coffeehouses, and anywhere we gather. We are a diverse bunch with diverse beliefs -- even when we don't realize it or acknowledge it. Our strength lies in that diversity, not in our imagined or manufactured divides. And we each have the power to draw the circle a little wider, welcome someone new to the table, and start an honest conversation about what matters most in our shared lives.

That's what interfaith is all about.

The Rev. Craig Schwalenberg is minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Oneonta.

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