Impact of many faiths on everyday life in Ann Arbor
Photo courtesy of Ann Arbor News
Ten years ago Diana Eck of Harvard University wrote that “the United States has become the most religiously diverse nation on earth.” Like it or not, we are Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Baha’i, Unitarian Universalist, Quaker, Unity and the list goes on and on.
One of the untold stories of America is that we have always been a land of many religions — Native peoples, Sephardic Jews, Quakers from England, Muslims from Africa during the slave trade, Buddhists/Taoists/Confucians from China and Japan working on the American west coast, Sikhs in central California just for starters.
With the passing of the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, our diversity multiplied, and we discovered that our neighbors could be of just about any religion on the planet, or of no religion. What has been the impact of all this variety of faiths?
First, there are more mixed, interfaith or inter-marriages and partnerships in this country than ever before. They are not uncommon at all. Many of us have been to weddings where the officiates have been a priest and a rabbi or a Buddhist and a Protestant pastor. Others of us have seen a Muslim and a Christian come down the isle, or an atheist and a Jew.
Here too the variety is enormous. Some clergy and some denominations count how many of their own marry someone “outside the faith.” Some see this as quite positive. What a great way to break down the religious walls that so often divide us into “we” and “them.” One example from California is the intermarrying of Sikh men with Mexican women, creating a rich Sikh-Spanish subculture.
Others see this mixing as unwise and even damaging. They say that marriage is hard enough for two people from the same faith background. Add religious differences and we take on a whole new list of challenges. How will we raise the children? Where will we worship? How will extended family members react? Will one partner convert? How will religious holidays be celebrated? The list is long.
Frankly, we can find success stories on both sides of this issue. There are mixed couples who are thriving and those that have taken on more than they anticipated. Are there “rules of engagement?” The best ones that I know of are don’t ignore these issues before the wedding. Talk about them. Know what to expect. And be ready to get help from those who have made a go of it.
Second, some workplaces have become examples of religious diversity, while others cater to a particular clientele (examples: Jewish — One Stop Kosher Market in Southfield; Christian — U.S. Plastics Corp. in Lima, Ohio; Muslim — Islamic Poultry in Dearborn).
Where religious diversity is prevalent, some employers have made great strides in being inclusive in theory and in practice. A good example of mutual respect for employees of all faith traditions is the University of Michigan Health System.
Around the month of December, it is tempting for the majority Christian workers to assume that Christmas should be the dominant holiday recognized. But with good multi-faith sensitivities over the years, policies have been put into place that respect the many December celebrations from many faith backgrounds. Just look at the Holiday Decorating Guidelines and see the emphasis on inclusion. It is refreshing.
Also, over the years, chapels in the UMHS that were dominantly Christian, and then Jewish and Christian, are now becoming more inviting to patients and staff from all backgrounds. Prayer and meditation are practices that many seek in times of crisis and stress, whether we are Muslim, Hindu, secular or Buddhist.
So whether working in the public or private sector, employees are working with and next to the full spectrum of religious diversity. And in the process, with the help of the courts, we are trying to balance the constitution’s guarantee of the “no establishment clause” and the “free exercise clause.”
It's not always easy, but one thing is clear. The workplace is not a “religion-free zone” (see Federal workplace guidelines). It also calls all of us to develop interfaith sensitivities in these multi-religious settings.
Third, faith communities and congregations have new opportunities to contact and engage religions quite different from one another. In this town there are churches, synagogues, temples, mosques and centers, each a focal point for religious people and practices. There is no excuse for not looking beyond one’s own religious silo.
Look at what Temple Beth Emeth and St. Clare of Assisi Episcopal Church have done. They are co-owning a building, sharing celebrations several times throughout the year and modeling for the rest of us that people from different faith traditions can live and work together in harmony.
People can also look to the Interfaith Round Table of Washtenaw County to see what forms inter-religious cooperation can take. A good entry level event is the annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Celebration on the Sunday evening before Thanksgiving. Beyond that are Round Table Dinners, an interfaith play for students called “Sacred Storytelling,” interfaith music events and the “by invitation only” religious leaders forum.
My dream is for congregations to hold classes where their people learn about other religions, for religious leaders to try a “speaker exchange” where they trade places on a particular weekend, for a congregation of one faith tradition to have a sister congregation of another faith tradition, or for many religious groups to work on a project together. The list is endless, and so are the dreams.
These three examples of the impact of all this religious variety on our city and country are just starters. Sure there are examples that demonstrate tension and animosity, but are there not other examples where bridges are being built to cross our religious divides?
Photo by Lambrides