A week ago the Troy-area Interfaith Group celebrated its 11th annual National Day of Prayer event. I helped start this community organization over a controversy – the contentious history is here, and also taught as a case study in pluralism by Harvard University’s Pluralism Project – but it was a very peaceful, harmonious group that gathered to celebrate unity in diversity, with prayers from many people, from many traditions. I was honored that I was invited to share the reflection below on the 10-year anniversary of TIG with the inclusive interfaith community in Troy …
Gather, Grow, Give This is the story of the Troy-area Interfaith Group, this is my story.
Why do we gather? Why did we gather?
Over ten years ago, I learned through someone at the Troy Community Coalition about the National Day of Prayer. In 2005, the City of Troy’s event was slated to be a Judeo-Christian only event. I wanted our City’s event to be inclusive – not really because I wanted to push my way of praying in the public square. I wanted to ensure there was an acceptance of Troy’s religious diversity.
And we are so diverse, in Troy and its surrounding areas: over 80 languages are spoken by TSD families; Asian American population growth in the last decade in the region is nearly 35%; Troy is home to one of the oldest Hindu temples in the state; 20% of Troy residents were born in another country. Many are immigrants like me: arriving with a couple of suitcases, a few hundred dollars in their pockets, and seeking education or because of a job, with hope to be part of the American Dream – which includes religious freedom.
Feb. 2005. I was a mini-van mom, home from work with a sick child, and found an online forum called “Ask the Whitehouse,” a session with Jim Towey, Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. It was a fluke. Through the online Q&A, I learned how then-President George W Bush would celebrate the National Day of Prayer, it would be an inclusive event. This is what our first amendment supports – religious pluralism, when differences in belief are not just tolerated but accepted, where no one is excluded. I wanted to make it happen in Troy.
So I started gathering… people such as Steve Spreitzer, who was Interfaith Programs at NCCJ, and is now President & CEO of Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, the late Rev. Dan Krichbaum, a revered civil rights activist and leader, and the Rev. Richard Peacock, who has since retired from leading the Troy First United Methodist Church and is co-chair of Peace Action of Michigan. Like minded people gathered in front of City Council to make a case for an inclusive event. TIG was born, along with our mission to gather, grow and give. And a few weeks later, many of you gathered with me in this sanctuary as we celebrated the first Troy Interfaith Group National Day of Prayer – we made it happen, we found unity in diversity, with worship from different traditions, in different forms, by people of all ages.
Over the last decade, TIG has grown… this interfaith community has embodied what pluralism is, visiting temples, mosques and gurudwaras, walking interfaith labyrinths, celebrating days of peace and giving thanks, serving the common good by working with Habitat for Humanity and Troy People Concerned, learning about other interfaith journeys around the region. The group has shape shifted, as new people came to the table and brought new ideas and experiences from other places, like Rev. Bob Cornwall, Rev. Kate Thoresen, Meredith Skowronski from IFLC. The children who participated in these events have grown, gone out into the world to share their experience of acceptance. I believe that our message of inclusion, of pluralism has gone with them.
And I have grown: The last ten years have led me from Troy-area Interfaith Group, to leading Outreach efforts for the Bharatiya Temple in Troy, to serving on the boards of WISDOM, a regional women’s interfaith initiative, and the Hindu American Foundation, a national advocacy and human rights organization. I wanted to engage and educate the other, and build bridges of understanding across religious, cultural, ethnic difference. The friendships I’ve developed with people of many faiths have led to discussions grounded in our respective theologies, examining critical issues of our times, such as peace and conflict, public education and opportunity, and racism, being able to speak about these things without fear, learning to overcome prejudice.
Because we have this call to pluralism in the first amendment, I was also looking for it amongst the people of the community. And this community – with all its diversity – gave me the support I needed to become an advocate for pluralism – the pluralism that our first amendment guarantees, that is part of my religious belief – that we may have differences but we are part of one world that needs to live together in harmony. This interfaith community gave me a gift, allowing me to tell its story, of how there was exclusion and voices came together against it. I’ve had the strength of the TIG community when I raised my voice against exclusion elsewhere, to tell people outside of Troy – we are the hope, we are the place where there is an energetic engagement with diversity, we are the place where pluralism is, where pluralism happens.
You see, in these 10 years I have learned that pluralism is a verb. It doesn’t stop with one National Day of Prayer event, with one person, one group. There are still people who otherize simply out of ignorance, who say that Judeo-Christian values are under attack, who fear diversity and don’t embrace difference. So we must continue to gather, grow and give – we must constantly strive to be one community out of the diversity that exists within our neighborhood, our city, our region, our state, our country, our world.