What are we doing here?

What exactly are we going to be doing here at Moving Beyond Differences? Hopefully, we’ll be starting up some interesting conversations and making connections. But for now, we thought it would be helpful to put this blog in context and explain a bit more about what you can expect to find here.

All our programs – conflict res, workplace, education, special programs – do a lot of training, presenting and public speaking. There’s usually a lot to talk about (once you create a safe space for people to discuss religion, you open the floodgates – no one wants to stop!). Almost inevitably, you’ll bring up questions and issues that we may not have time to explore as much as we’d like in the interest in making sure the group has the opportunity to cover all the material we have.

That’s where Moving Beyond Differences comes in. While we’ll always hang around to continue an unfinished conversation with you, the issues you bring up are probably issues that other people in your position – be you an HR specialist or 2nd grade teacher – are interested in too.

We’ll bring those questions and issues here and give you our take on them. Hopefully, you’ll get involved in the comments and provide your perspective, and we can have a conversation that will enrich us all.

Look out for an upcoming post on navigating the “December Dilemma.” In the meantime, use comments to let us know what you’d like to talk about.

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Crossing the Faith Line

In retrospect, I wonder who I thought I’d meet at the Interfaith Youth Core “Crossing the Faith Line” conference back in October. I’m not sure. Maybe I hadn’t really thought about who I’d meet, but was rather more concerned with what I’d say. In the end, I met people of many ages, races, nationalities, ethnicities, genders, locations, religions, and belief systems. I met a mini-America. The participants were of a variety of political viewpoints as well—this was neither a “liberal” or a “conservative” crowd. The Interfaith Youth Core looks nothing like you probably think it does, though you probably don’t have a real clear view of what to think. Our country doesn’t have a well-publicized history of interfaith activism. The conference highlighted the reality of who and what an interfaith movement in the 21st century U.S. looks like.

I facilitated a roundtable lunch session called “The Relevance of Religion in 21st Century Curriculum,” and heard concerns about religious diversity in the classroom from educators from all over the country. Teachers, students, and administrators in a variety of settings are finding themselves in the midst of an explosion of diversity in their classrooms, and have not been trained in dealing with it. People are overwhelmed and overburdened, and often are searching for ways to bring students together in celebration of their differences in the face of the often negative messages students get from their surroundings about the meanings of certain differences. I took away a sense of growing hope that there are many Americans interested in healing the rifts between us, even though the process may cause some discomfort.

Selfishly, I must say that part of the pleasure I derived from the conference was purely personal- I enjoyed getting to know new people, many of whom are young and organizing on high school and college campuses across the nation, who are working to make our lives, schools, and towns more harmonious by teaching us how to speak and learn from each other. I was impressed by the grassroots efforts of students and, sometimes, their teachers to put religion on the radar. The feeling of the conference overall was incredibly harmonious, and being a representative of an organization like Tanenbaum, whose whole mission revolves around wanting to support the creation of safe spaces like it, I felt completely revitalized in my work.

If spaces like the conference, and organizations like IFYC, are developing and growing across the country, soon the national conversation around how to live together—in recognition of and respect for our myriad differences—will have to galvanize. IFYC’s work is a big step in the right direction.

*For more information on the Interfaith Youth Core, check out www.IFYC.org.

Our last day in Bosnia:

On the bus ride to Srebrenica, we read a day-by-day account of the massacre, organized by chronology and execution sites. Sheherazade shared a photocopy of the document with Joyce. And I shared a copy with Greg, pulling pages from the stapled packet and handing them to him across the aisle as I was done reading. “14th-15th of July 1995: Petkovići.” “14th-16th of July 1995: Branjevo.”

The guides that work at the “Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial and Cemetery to Genocide Victims” all have relatives that are either buried on the memorial grounds or still missing. Etched in a large stone is the number 8,372 – the number missing or killed in Srebrenica. Less than 2,000 of this number have been buried in the memorial, and the process of recovering, identifying and burying continues. 

Before getting back onto the bus, I bought a postcard for a friend who spoke non-stop about Bosnia during our conflict resolution masters program. I thought about the fact that so many students of conflict and peace know about this small municipality named for its silver mines. People around the world feel connected to it, and they struggle to come to terms with pain that is so overwhelming even at great distance. And here we were, a few Tanenbaum staff and two Peacemakers (Chencho and Benny, who were staying a few extra days), privileged guests, witnesses to grief.

I’ve neglected to mention thus far that the bus was filled with members of the Pontanima Choir. This visit to Srebrenica has long been on their agenda, and we were honored that they would change the date so that we could join them. Our next destination was a community center, where an auditorium filled with children awaited. The choir’s performance and the bright faces of the children were a stark contrast with the imagery that is associated with this town; it was a jolt into the present – a time inhabited by both ghosts of the past and the spirit of the future.

It was wonderful to watch Friar Ivo interact with the children. He was so good with them – relating complex concepts about interreligious harmony in one moment, inviting them to clap along and sing in the next. I have a cd now of the Pontanima Choir, but when I listen to it, I don’t picture the fine red robes that I saw in the majesty of the Bosniak Institute. I picture these brave people laughing and singing for each other, bouncing along at the back of the bus. While I tried to sleep on the long ride back to Sarajevo, they seemed much more concerned with enjoying the time they had together.  

Day 6 of Retreat

The Bosnian (or Turkish or Greek, depending on who is serving) coffee was flowing early again for a second breakfast session with Joyce Dubensky. This one, on “Religion and Healthcare,” was just what the doctor ordered (couldn’t help the pun) for at least one participant, who was approached just this month to do programming in a hospital.

Sigh. And the next session on this Friday was the last session of the Retreat, the occasion to talk about “us” – this friendly and/or familial group – this “network” that has been again reformed, with new and old members, in the space and time of a week. Suffice to say that wisdom swirled around the room for a bit, and before we were ready it was time for lunch. One person suggested that this session – entitled “What is the Peacemakers Network? And how should we mobilize it?” – be the next topic for an entire Retreat. There’s just so much to talk about.

Sigh again. I had a great time with these people. These “religious peacemakers” who, in person, defy any attempt at quantifying or qualifying or boxing in what those two words might readily imply. And I know they had even more fun (and learning) with each other, as people who hold in common this loose but poignant phrase. It was nice that we went to what had become everyone’s favorite restaurant on this last day – a small, at times cooking stove smoke-filled room, that probably was someone’s kitchen/living room not too long ago. The location, in retrospect – now that I’m done laughing and devouring my “devri steak,” embodies a lot of what this week has been about: closeness, good coffee, and a for better or worse proximity to flames.

(Don’t go away; this was the last day of the Retreat; but there’s one more day of Tanenbaum in Sarajevo to come…)

Day 5 of Retreat

This morning’s words were “power” and “marginalization.” Not warm and fuzzy stuff. This session, “Including Marginalized Groups: Women as Peacemakers” was lead by Tanenbaum, with special guests experts from the region (Carolyn Boyd, Zilka Šiljak-Spahić and Vesna Teršelič). Again, this is one of those topics that is so big that, in a half day session, we can only swim around the tip of the iceberg. Yet, again, this is one of those topics that is so important that it must be discussed – lessons shared and challenges issued. From one of the session evaluations: “It caused me to see that in nursing my own isolation, I hadn’t considered those I had isolated.”

After a quick coffee meeting with the deputy mayor of Sarajevo, the Peacemakers were back to work – on “Bringing Indigenous Rituals into Peace Work.” Peacemaker Bill Lowrey has a wealth of experiences and stories from his work in Sudan. And, demonstrating his participatory and inclusive approach, Bill notably left us wanting more in order to make time for the other Peacemakers to tell their stories as well, eliciting the realization that we all have powerful rituals within our traditions that can be used for peace work.

Finally, the day’s “work” complete, Friar Ivo lead us away from the Bosniak Institute (the museum-like structure where we hold our sessions) and into the streets of Sarajevo for a tour of religious sites of the three Abrahamic faiths. This was a historic – and conspicuous (our large multi-cultural group gets quite a few stares from the locals) – journey that ended at Friar Ivo’s own Franciscan monastery. There we were treated with a delightful meal of the local favorite, cevapcic, and with a brief, impromptu organ concert by our talented host.

Day Three of Retreat (NEW)

Tuesday started with an awesome interactive session on religion and ecology presented by Peacemaker Jose “Chencho” Alas. Chencho’s extensive experience in Central America, combined with short presentations from three Bosnian environmentalists – Alen Lebirica, Rijad Tikvesa and Tim Clancy – served as dynamic (and organic, hehe) food for thought, exploring an often overlooked connection between the earth and religious leaders.

This third day of the Retreat showcases one of my favorite aspects of the Peacemakers network – its diversity. While this group is certainly concerned with the use and misuse of religious texts, with culture’s impact on conflict resolution techniques, and with many other priorities of religious actors working for peace, many in the group are also passionate about work that is, at first glance, somewhat “outside the box.” Chencho’s innovative work is one illustration of this; Friar Ivo’s interreligious choir is another.

This evening was a fusion of the annual Reconciliation and Peace meeting of the Interreligious Council of Bosnia-Herzegovina and a performance of the Pontanima Choir, whose members and repertoire represent all of the religious communities in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Friar Ivo lead the meeting by calling onto the stage the Jewish (and then, in turn, the Orthodox, Muslim, Catholic and Protestant) members of the Bosnian Council along with the Peacemakers and Tanenbaum staff who shared that same faith. In a land – within a world – where marks of religious identity can be the cause of death, we waited for our names to be called, then we stood at the front with Friar Ivo.

And then the internationally renowned Pontanima choir sang for us, for each group of us, in turn – in celebration of our religious identities, in songs of our traditions. Pontanima’s name was formed by combining the Latin words for bridge (pons) and soul (anima). These words certainly described the effect the music had on me. I couldn’t understand the Hebrew, the Old Church Slavic or the Arabic, but the lyrics’ translations, soon blurry in my event program, were not needed to communicate the visceral harmony that caused my tears of joy and hope.

From the event program, written by Friar Ivo: “…today we live under the imperative of the moment to cooperate to perform our sublime mission to the world…”