by Beth Robinson
Last week wasn’t my first Religious Diversity Journey. I’ve been writing and compiling the Interfaith Leadership Council newsletter since March of this year and one of the first events I attended was the Journey program at Dearborn’s Islamic Center of America (ICOA). Journeys is a program in which 7th grade students from middle schools around the community tour different houses of worship and learn about their faith traditions.
I was delighted and impressed with the vision of the program, and with its execution. In a world where most kids seem glued to one kind of screen or another, immersed in what seems (to my jaded old eyes) to be mostly tripe, it was a pleasure to see a room full of seventh graders engaged in something that was meaningful and deeply important, and which they seemed to be enjoying.
But last week’s journey was special for me, as it was the first one I took as a parent.
Religious diversity is not new to my kids. A few months ago we spent a revelatory afternoon at the Muslim Unity Center, where our guide singlehandedly, by virtue of her openness, her hijab and her very Americanness, dispelled almost every stereo-type one might have of Muslim women. I entirely enjoyed watching my teenage daughter’s face brighten with enhanced perspective as she heard that our guide had been born and raised in the US, and had chosen as an adult to wear hijab. Far from experiencing it as confining and demeaning, she said she felt that it provided her the liberty to not worry about her hair, and respect from those who instantly identified her as a serious religious person, and not the type of object that billboard lingerie models, and girls that emulate them, become by exposing themselves.
Like many religious communities, the Jewish community in which I grew up has a tendency towards exclusivity. I’ll admit that I grew up feeling discomfort rather than communal joy from the time the first Christmas lights went up and the carols started playing in the grocery stores to the blessed moment when the season ended and I could go back to the illusion that I was not a perennial outsider in a country I was uncomfortable regarding as my own.
I grew up tolerating, but not accepting or understanding any other faith. But I was lucky to have been born with a curiosity that led me into conversations that expanded my worldview, blurring and eventually erasing the lines between me and “them.” My own interfaith journey began by accidentally learning the value of the kind of candid conversations that IFLC works to encourage through these journeys.
During that first journey at the ICOA, I happened into the ladies’ rest room and was privy to a short exchange between one of the participants and a student from the Maya school, who had come in and taken off her hijab. The two young strangers stood in front of the mirror quite casually talking about their hair like any two middle-schoolers in any girls’ bathroom. And I resolved at that moment that my daughter Ruby, who was then a sixth grader at Abbott Middle School would participate in this year’s journey.
I grew up in West Bloomfield, have driven by Kirk in the Hills too many times to count, and have marveled at it from the road, but never actually imagined going in. It was, after all, a church. When I heard that the Abbott RDJ participants were going there, I suddenly realized how very, very much I wanted to go into that magical looking place.
I was not disappointed.
It is a fit tribute to God almighty, in my opinion, every detail designed by its founder, Colonel Edwin George, to create a celebratory sacred space.
I don’t know what the students did or did not learn on this journey. But the very feel of it, I believe, must have communicated to their hearts that it was created as a place to connect to that which is holy.
On my own journey, I have learned that that place in our hearts, when we open it, is where we can all connect across the lines of differing theologies and rituals.
At the end of each journey, children and parents are asked to recap what they’ve learned, and what the highlights were for them.
Personally, I completely enjoyed hearing the story of Colonel George’s commitment to creating a house of worship in the middle of what was then nowhere, visiting the great cathedrals of Europe and eventually choosing the 12th century Melrose Abbey in Scotland for his model, that it took almost a decade from 1950 – 1959 to build, that he insisted that its iconic tower be built first, knowing that if money seemed tight, the church leaders would cut there first.
The carillon in the tower is one of the largest in the world with 77 bells ranging from 14 pounds to a mind-boggling 6 tons. The church’s pipe organ has pipes reaching 32 feet and when you stand in the chancel while it is being played, the sound is like nothing I have ever experienced. Hoping that this is not heretical to someone, but if God had a throat and was singing and you could stand inside God’s throat, that’s what it might sound like. The other remarkable instrument in the church is the body of Glenn Miller, the church’s Music Director and organist, who told us, in his own unique basso profundo, about the church’s many choirs, from wee ones up to the professional choir that sings each Sunday morning.
I learned about the structure of the service, and the governance of the church from Rev. Tres Adams, and, from Rev. Dr. Carol Tate, the meaning of the colors used in the church during the different liturgical seasons.
In a panel discussion, I learned that CJC-LDS Bishop and IFLC board member Greg Geiger can do an amazing recounting of the history of Christianity in less time than it takes a 7th grader’s mind to wander, and that both Rev. Tres Adams and IFLC board member Rev. Kenneth Flowers of Greater New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist church have spent a lot of time coming up with great explanations of the trinity.
I also learned, and this may have been the highlight for my daughter, that there’s a very cute boy that goes to one of the other participating schools. That is part of the journey.
And finally, I learned that my daughter doesn’t seem to have inherited my childhood discomfort of all things Christmas. She posed for photos without hesitation in front of the Christmas tree, and seemed not the least discomfited by the intense and overt Christianness of the place. She just thought it was beautiful. So, maybe I’ve done my job, which was to start her on this path.
Having experienced RDJ as a parent, I realize that we each have our own journey. And the parent’s journey is to have this experience side by side with our kids, as they enter it, not as children, but as burgeoning adults, each of us going into the sacred spaces in our community and the sacred space in our own hearts to discover whatever we discover there.
Or maybe we’ll discover something truly useful and meaningful in the rest room. Who knows? What I do know is that this program creates these opportunities, for students and parents, by taking us on unique and wonderful journeys into these special holy places, and by connecting us to each other through our basic human reactions to their beauty and magnificence.