~ by Leah Varsano
I spent this summer as the Faith House Intern. I’m currently
in my senior year at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY as a Religion Major.
Previous to this internship I had been vaguely interested in interfaith for
some time, and my experiences studying abroad in India strengthened my desire
to be part of this work. I was introduced to Bowie through a professor, and as
I was able to fill the position of Jewish representative to the staff, the
relationship was good for everyone.
Apart from living with a Hindu host family in India, I didn’t have a lot of history practicing interfaith before I came to New York. I decided to embrace the experiential, stand-in-your-neighbor’s-shoes mission of Faith House, and spend my summer exploring and experiencing as many different faith traditions as I could find. As Faith House likes to say, there is a “holy awkwardness” in this sort of encounter, and I began entering into religious spaces not my own by tip-toeing, cautiously, often journeying with curious friends who could provide support. In some ways I felt very ill-equipped for these forays. I’ve studied anthropology, where the participant-observer method of research is a model for situations such as these. But that is a rather clinical and dry approach to interfaith, and I wanted to be emotional, compassionately open, and spiritually adventurous.
I attended services at the Faith House affiliated communities, including the Nur Ashki Jerrahi Sufi Order, Romemu, and Citylights. I also visited a mainstream mosque, an inter-denominational mega-church, a Hindu temple, an emergent Protestant house church, several different synagogues and egalitarian minyans, a Quaker meeting, a Messianic service, and a Catholic mass.
Here is what I learned:
1. I love, unabashedly but not blindly, my own tradition. While I don’t consider what I did this summer “religion shopping,” as a lifelong spiritual seeker – a process I believe is unending – I truly gained important and deeply moving lessons, spiritual and otherwise, from every tradition I took part in. In the end, though, I also learned where my spiritual home is. Call me a creature of habit! I’m not saying that my tradition is perfect, because it definitely isn’t, or that it’s the only way to practice, which it’s not. I struggle, wrestle, and debate with my tradition on a regular basis, but I embrace this relationship as my personal faith story. A mentor of mine once described religious resonance as a sort of “hum” - a spiritual vibration that lets you know you’ve found your people. Well, I hum with the Jews.
2. As an interfaith host, you should never undervalue the
importance of a smile, a handshake (or a hug!), and a personal connection. I
remember my first visit to Citylights – my absolute first encounter with Seventh-Day
Adventists – and how every single person warmly welcomed me and invited me to
sit by them. Even at the evangelical church I attended, undoubtedly my most
unsettling experience, my neighbors did not hesitate to introduce themselves
and invite me to join Young Adults, attend the next Bible Study, or accompany
them to the Hospitality Room. These experiences, and others, would have been so
much more uncomfortable and overwhelming had individuals not reached out to me
with friendship and sincerity.
3. Music creates sacrality for me. I’ve chanted to Allah, sung to Jesus, and la-la-la-ed through Jewish melodies. Outside on the grass, in a windowless room, or in a huge church, music creates and shapes a participatory sacred space that defies the boundaries of wall and door. In almost every tradition I visited, music played a central and crucial role. This is not to say that I was left unmoved by my Quaker experience, which could not be farther from the truth; in their meditative silence I found a deep peace and a different sort of sacred music.
4. When I don’t understand, it’s okay. I can’t tell you how many times I felt hopelessly lost when visiting faith traditions I was unfamiliar with, sometimes sneaking glances at others so I could copy whatever they did. When I visited Nur Ashki Jerrahi, I had no idea what I was saying, or what the meanings of the various movements were - and I imagine many who visit a Jewish community are overwhelmed by all the Hebrew. But I learned to let go of my need to understand the why and what to every religious practice. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow, and in doing so you learn the how. There is a leap of faith in letting go – letting go of my desire for explanation, letting go of my fear of appearing ignorant – and through this leap I was able to experience other faiths as I wanted to: with compassion, empathy, and a receptive heart. This, as I understand it, is the Faith House way, and I’m so glad to have been part of the Faith House community, even if for such a short time.