By Marivir R. Montebon
NEW YORK CITY – Quintessential New York has raised the meaning of interfaith into something both profound and pragmatic at the auspices a multi-media classroom for graduate studies of an interfaith seminary here. During a forum on “Interfaith Dialogue in these troubled times” on July 31st at the Unification Theological Seminary, speakers from the academe, community service, and church ministry articulated how interfaith, both in reason and action, could provide the platform for peace in this era of local and global divide and chaos.
UTS president Dr. Hugh Spurgin was ecstatic when he welcomed the speakers and guests to the Oak Room and queried how do we survive in these troubled times? Indeed, having an interfaith mindset of inclusiveness and mindfulness of others is key, he said. The three-hour event thus began and proved to not only being informative but inspiring as well.
Interfaith means to love, be understood and be in a community
Peter Gudaitis, executive director of the New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS), said we needed to be more ambitious rather than be stuck with the thought that interfaith was about religious tolerance. “I want to be understood, not tolerated, to be loved and to be in community with other people.”
Gudaitis started his work as a college chaplain with a conservative Catholic background and said that said he was tremendously moved by his community service work during the horrific 911 bombings of the World Trade Center in 2001. “It turned out that we can only do our work together – provide emotional, spiritual, and economic help to those affected by the bombings. We had to work with other people with different faith traditions in order to be effective.”
Gudaitis said that to have a community means not only to understand but to establish relationships like friends or family in fact, in order to be effective. “New York is unique because we are a global city. I find it incredibly moving that through a community, we are able to heal and serve. I believe this is how we can survive in these troubled times, to become a whole community with many different faiths.”
Black American Church must uncover its own spirituality
Recently ordained interfaith minister Rev. Michael Elam spoke of the uniqueness of the African-American faith experience which according to him was an absolute distinction from the rest of the world. “There is no other experience as the Black Church in America. It wasn’t organic. It was forced.”
Glossing over the experience on slavery and impositions of Catholicism and Protestantism, Elam said that it was how the African-American church was founded. “It was not even about putting a square peg on a round whole. It was molding the minds of Blacks to fit into religion,” he said.
Elam shared his personal story on how he became a shaman and said that his ministry centers on shamanism to “uncover the Black Church”. Shamanism is an ancient spiritual system and a way of life in many parts of Africa and Asia.
UTS student Dasse Dearra concurred with Rev. Elam’s points of view and said that in his home country Mali, spiritual and cultural traditions are rich and diverse and were stronger than any religious practice.
All religions point out to God as love and justice
Dr. Andrew Wilson, UTS professor of Scriptural Studies, said that there is a tremendous overlap of religions and that actually, “we have so much in common in the belief in God such as the values on justice, love, and taking consequences of our actions.”
Wilson is the author of the World Scriptures which is a compilation of the major texts and themes espoused by Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Bahai, and Confucianism. He opined that the mindset of “tribal identity” where people regard their religion as the best, is the beginning of misunderstand and chaos.
“God is infinite and like a diamond with a million facets. This is how every religion describes God. Interfaith honors and celebrates the way that people think of God. If we connect to the one source, being God, all the other rational or traditional differences would not matter.”
A new level of understanding and inspiration
UTS recruitment director Joy Theriot handled the enriching open forum and said that to her, interfaith simply means love and service to all of humanity. The UTS Recruitment department put together the forum which was attended by 35 guests.
Richard Punzalan, a guest, said the forum was fun and insightful and gave him the inspiration that a better, more peaceful world could be built through interfaith cooperation.
Vanette Colmenares, who will be a new student at UTS for the fall semester, said she was happy to have attended the forum. “I reached a higher level of understanding about interfaith. I was truly inspired.”