By Bill Aiken
June has arrived (along with a lot of noisy cicadas). A difficult school year is coming to a close as we emerge (like the cicadas?) from a lengthy underground hiatus brought on by the Covid pandemic.
We celebrate the beginning of summer (vacation!), flag day and Fathers Day, and here in the DMV the IFC marks its annual Bridge Builders Awards – recognition of those who in diverse ways had the courage, kindness and civic sense to build bridges of understanding and a sense of human solidarity among people from diverse religious backgrounds.
Like most other virtues we need in life, our sense of respect and value for the ‘other’ begins at home. So today, I’d like to put a couple of these celebrations together by honoring the first interfaith bridge-builder I’ve known – my dad. By extension, I want to honor all of those families for whom religious diversity is not an abstract idea but a lived reality.
I come from a completely Irish-American background. My mother’s clan of McFaddens and O’Haras hail from the south of Ireland, and are Catholic, while my Dad’s ancestors came from Northern Ireland and were Scotch-Irish Protestants. This is a dividing line over which much blood has been spilled – not just in Ireland but in my home town of Philadelphia as well, with the Protestant v Catholic workers riots of the 19th century and the anti-immigrant wave of the early 20th Century. So much anger and demonizing leading to so much more anger and grief. So it was not a small thing for either family when in 1944 my Presbyterian Dad (Bob) married my mom (Mary) in a Catholic Church in the then-Catholic Irish enclave of SW Philadelphia.
My dad promised that he would support the kids being raised as Catholic and he remained true to his word, helping us with our catechism studies, and rising every Sunday morning to help my mom dress the kids and bundle all 5 (later 7) of us in the car to go to Mass. I remember Sunday mornings when my father would be sitting behind the wheel of the family sedan packed with squirmy kids as Mary – who was always a bit on the late side (she had her reasons!) would still be inside the house getting ready as we sat waiting for her. We kids would sense dad’s growing impatience as he – sensing the worsening parking conditions at the church – would begin to recite his own sort of prayer, but in place of the standard “Hail Mary”, familiar to most Catholics his mantra was an frustration-driven “damnit Mary!!”
But he did this faithfully Sunday after Sunday, fully supporting our religious upbringing, and giving us a powerful example of loving care. I learned that interfaith cooperation was not a new idea to him; he told us stories of how his protestant grandfather in Derry Ireland would regularly offer his horse and wagon to take the local Catholic Priest on his pastoral rounds.
In time, my dad converted to Catholicism, and remained an active and devoted member of his parish throughout his life.
Picking up the thread, I – who was raised firmly in the Catholic tradition – decided during my college years, that it was the teachings and practice of the Buddha that spoke directly to my soul, leading me over time to part with the faith of my childhood and embrace a new religion.
This happened with no small amount of controversy, and it was a painful moment for my mom especially. And it was in this moment that Bob the bridge-builder stepped in, and listened – really listened – as I poured out to him my decision and my still-muddled reasons for making this shift. I don’t know if he really understood or approved, but if he didn’t, he never let on. Instead, he revealed a sensitivity, a sincere desire to understand, and a respect for my youthful choice that I’ll remember gratefully throughout my life.
It’s with this in mind, that I offer a wholehearted salute to those whom the IFC will be honoring this month as our 2021 Bridge Builders. Through their varied efforts they’ve helped us build a compassionate portrait of the humanity and inherent dignity of the religious “other”, and modeled important paths of cooperation.
So here’s to the University of Maryland’s Professor Hoda Mahmoudi for advocating a broad concept of peacemaking—which she refers to as a “worldview approach”—that draws insights from all cultures amd religious traditions.
And here’s to Gerald Krell and Adam Krell who have dedicated their careers to making films that promote interfaith understanding. Their award-winning documentaries such as “Jews & Christians: A Journey of Faith” and “The Asian & Abrahamic Religions: A Divine Encounter in America” have contributed greatly to interreligious understanding and have been seen by millions on public television in the United States and world-wide.
And three cheers for Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, Bethesda Jewish Congregation and the Maqaame Ibrahim Islamic Center. You show us through your powerful example of hospitality and cooperation how faiths with diverging and even conflicting truth claims can share not only a physical space, but also the sense of human solidarity and community that underlies their initiatives.
These examples each contribute in their own powerful way to weaving a tapestry of cooperation and understanding in our communities. So “thank you” to each of you who contribute to this fabric of community, and thanks especially to the most powerful bridge builder in my life – my dad.
Happy Fathers Day to all and many blessings to all of the bridge-builders of our lives.
Bill Aiken is a Buddhist writer, speaker and activist in the Mahayana (Nichiren) tradition.
He served as Director of Public Affairs for the Buddhist Community Soka Gakkai International-USA, from 1998-2016. In recent years, he has served as board chair then president for the Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington and has taught courses on Buddhist practices and traditions at the Osher Learning Center at Johns Hopkins University and the Federation for the Advancement of Education in Science (FAES) at the National Institute of Health (NIH). He is the author of numerous articles and chapters on Buddhism including A Reporters Guide to Buddhism in America and is currently editing an upcoming volume on the history of Soka Gakkai in the USA.