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Toward Interfaith Community

Amy Carr

Although I have now lived in Macomb longer than I've lived anywhere else, I grew up in L'Anse, Michigan—an Upper Peninsula town about the size of Bushnell. And as often happens when you leave your hometown for somewhere else, I learned more about where I came from only after I left. So it was halfway through my years as a student at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota that I suddenly realized that most people in the U.S. don't have the ethnic backgrounds of the people I grew up among:  most people aren't Finnish American, or Native American, or—like many of my childhood classmates—a mix of both called "Finndian." And it was at Carleton College that I realized that as a child I had assumed that everyone shared a basic Christian worldview. Realizing this was not the case triggered a journey into a new view of the world and of what unites us in community.

My hometown had Catholics and various shades of Lutherans (including the Finnish Apostolic Lutherans, who were different from the rest of us Lutherans because they didn’t dance, drink, or play cards—but they did have the best annual scavenger hunt, one that crossed counties and involved finding logging trucks, nuns, and odd items at stores 70 miles away). We had a Methodist and a Baptist church, but for the most part we had many liturgically-oriented Christians who knew what Advent candles were, and many churches participated in ecumenical Lenten services that rotated from church to church each week during Lent.

As a teenager, I was a piano accompanist for my high school choir, church choir, and the community cantata that performed at Christmas and Easter. Once at a community Good Friday service, the cantata performed from the balcony of the Catholic Church, and as the last candle was snuffed out after someone recited Jesus’ last words on the cross, I got to crash a cymbal in the dark. 

On Christmas Eve, aware of everyone gathered in our town’s churches, I would imagine our voices rising up from the snowy landscape into the starry sky; surely God was aware that the whole town was contemplating the incarnation, the birth of Jesus.

In my freshman year of college, in a psychology class I sat next to a girl with black page-boy hair. I instantly respected her. She seemed serious and very smart. She had the aura of someone holding herself back from the world, as if she wasn’t going to entrust herself to it, but she was going to navigate it perfectly well. Just before winter break, I ran into her on the steps of the student union, and I cheerfully said “Merry Christmas!”

Looking down from the steps above me, she said back matter-of-factly, “Happy Hanukkah!”

“Oh--Happy Hanukkah!” I replied, and as I walked on, I felt the ground give way under my feet.

We didn’t share the same world.  And she was clearly used to navigating all the fissures between people’s ways of understanding ultimate things. I was just stumbling into those fissures for the first time.

The next year, I found myself working with the college chaplain, leading a weekly interfaith conversation over dinner.  I became a Religion major, studying with Jewish and Buddhist scholars. Fast forward to today: here in Macomb, I am a Lutheran who is part of our town’s Interfaith Alliance of Macomb.

Last month we had a Community Unity celebration, drawing together members of our various religious traditions—Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist—as well as those who don’t identify with any particular religion. All belong in our community. Children read essays about peace; adults shared what their religious traditions taught them about connecting compassionately with others. As Jason Woods put it at this year’s interfaith gathering, we need to pay more attention to how we are each doing in this life, rather than worrying about everyone's destiny after death.

Ending that event with candle-lit song, I felt our oneness as a community the way I did at ecumenical church services growing up. We recognized one another as neighbors; across our differences, we sensed the holy by sharing what it meant to each of us.

So long as we can see one another’s faces shining in the light of whatever we hold to be most sacred, we can glimpse that we share a world in a way more profound than anything that threatens to divide us.

Amy Carr is a Professor of Religious Studies at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio.  Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.