Diwali's Invitation to Transcend Differences
The weekend before the election, I was at an interfaith conference in Omaha, Nebraska. As a member of the Hindu American Foundation, I was invited by Project Interfaith to be a panelist at The Stained Glass Ceiling: A Community Conference on the Successes and Challenges of Women's Religious Leadership. I was part of a group of women, each of us leaders on a unique path, each of us from different worlds, each of us given the challenge and opportunity "to catalyze discussion and insight about the successes and challenges for women currently holding or trying to assume leadership roles in various spiritual and religious traditions."
I enjoyed being part of the conference, especially because it gave me an opportunity to focus on something outside of the election. Usually, I find interfaith dialogue empowering—people dispel stereotypes, learn something new about others' beliefs and sometimes their own. Interfaith dialogue was unlike the campaigns, from the presidential to the one for our city's mayoral recall. They had left me feeling drained: I was concerned about our ability to accept political views and find compromise when they are radically different from our own. Little did I realize that an incident at the conference would showcase our (in)ability to find middle ground, not just in the political realm, but also in the religious world.
The Scoular Ballroom in downtown Omaha was home to booths representing a wide range of community organizations; participants even had an opportunity to create some art, coordinated by the Union for Contemporary Art. A Right to Life group was on one side, with certain religious communities/denominations "womanning" the booth, and Planned Parenthood was on the other. My co-panelists were Julianne Hammer, a Muslim and an academic, and Alisa Roadcup, an activist on women's issues. Each of us shared from our area of expertise, and then we had an opportunity to participate in roundtable discussions held between our presentations.
The audience was diverse in age, faith, and backgrounds, and thoughtful conversations ensued. But it was during the Q&A that I realized we had an issue where compromise is difficult, as we responded to a question from a participant about women's leadership in the Catholic community. One panelist had dialogued with a nun who was ordained. I mentioned my experience from another women's conference, where one of my co-panelists was a Catholic woman priest, ordained on the St. Lawrence River. By sharing such experiences, I believe that we offended those from the Catholic community who do not feel that women should be ordained. We, like the Planned Parenthood and Right to Life groups, were on opposite sides of the aisle. But I was able to provide a resource from the Detroit metro-area Catholic community as an example of what the religious community is doing to help resolve these radical differences. The organization? www.elephantsinthelivingroom.com. Their mission statement?
We are an organization of priests of the Archdiocese of Detroit, strongly supported by participating laity, who seek renewal of the Church of Detroit. We do this by offering opportunities for education and creating an open forum for discussion and dialogue that will lead us to developing and advocating more collegial solutions to the challenges we face.
Perhaps by following the ideals set forth by this religious organization, we can also achieve a forum for addressing the challenges we face in the political realm, from local to national levels. On the local front, I live in Troy, where we have a City Council of seven—now six, since the mayor was recalled. Troy's Council members are evenly divided in the way they view many things, including or especially, how we run the city and what services should be provided. And one only has to turn on the television or the radio, or open a newspaper or internet news site, to hear what is going in national politics. We are constantly pitted against one another, liberal left against conservative right, Democrat against Republican, red state versus blue. We have a need to develop more collegial solutions to the challenges faced, and while religion can polarize us, it can also bring us together to address a common goal—like this Catholic group is attempting to do here in Detroit.
So I reached into my own religious tradition, to seek guidance on how to address the issues that divide us. Interestingly, the Hindu festival of Diwali, or Deepavali, is a week after the U.S. elections this year, on Tuesday, November 13th. During Diwali, also known as the "Festival of Lights," clay lamps or diyas are lit to signify the destruction, through knowledge, of all negative qualities—be it violence, anger, jealousy, greed, fear, or suffering. In other words, Diwali celebrates the victory of good over evil. And I realize that this victory does not mean my choices are good, and that yours are evil. Rather the victory is in recognizing the inherent divinity in each of us, being open to dialogue, listening to the other and trying to find compromise. And then you have elections again.
Padma Kuppa is a writer, IT professional, community activist, wife, and mother working to build a more pluralistic society within a Hindu and interfaith framework. You can also read her blog A Balancing Act, at padmakuppa.blogspot.com. The views represented in this column are not a reflection of the views of any organization of which she is a part.