Faith in Action DC is breaking down the barriers between religious communities, one neighborhood at a time.
When I was a kid, my family would regularly make the long drive down from our home in northern New Jersey to visit family in the Washington D.C. area. As we merged onto the Beltway, just minutes from grandma's house, my parents would whisper to my sisters and me in the back seat of our minivan, "Time to wake up! We're almost there!" Groggily, I'd start to open my eyes. And then, just as I was getting my bearing, I'd see it: The Castle.
Rising above the trees next to the highway, like the Magic Kingdom at the beginning of Disney movies, The Castle stood radiant against the dark sky, adorned with a golden trumpeter hailing our arrival.
My "Castle" was in fact—as any Beltway commuter can probably tell you—the Mormon Temple. Not exactly Never Neverland, but still a place with a certain mystique. Although I stared at those white towers every time we drove that stretch of I-495, I didn't actually ever visit the Temple until years later when, as an adult with a good four years in D.C. already, I decided to go take a closer look.
By then, I had begun serving on the board of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, the area's most diverse and longest standing interfaith organization. In 2010, I had accepted an appointment to represent the local Bahá'í community and was working along not just participants from other Abrahamic traditions, but Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians as well. One community I admittedly knew very little about was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints—LDS for short, or more commonly, the Mormons. So I made an appointment to visit one of the LDS reps at his office.
We ended up talking for over an hour about various topics, from the correct use of terms like "bishop" and "ward" to church reactions to that new Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon." I mentioned how seeing the LDS Temple always brought me back to my childish thought that it was Disneyland. He laughed as though he'd heard that one many times, and invited me to visit. "The Temple itself is open only for members of the church during certain ceremonies,"—marriage, baptism, etc.—he told me, "but you're welcome any time to tour the visitors center."
A few weeks later, in the visitors center lobby, I was greeted warmly by an older man and a couple of cheerful young ladies. They led me on a guided tour in which the teachings of the LDS church were clearly explained and the story from the Book of Mormon was presented with large, colorful illustrations. Most enjoyably, we had a lively exchange about the parallels and differences between the Mormon and Bahá'í faiths.
I found that my visit to the temple, and the door it opened to deeper friendships with LDS folks I met, helped me navigate 2012's "Mormon Moment", when the fervor around Mitt Romney's religion spewed all sorts of—often erroneous—information about the church. A sense of context was an invaluable filter for what was in the media, just as it is in the case of Muslims and Sikhs. I hope for others that the same would be true with Bahá'ís.
These days, stepping beyond familiar boundaries and into foreign religious spaces is something I do nearly every week. For my multimedia project Faith in Action DC, I seek out opportunities to document and celebrate the diverse ways people of faith are serving the greater community in and around our nation's capital.
Each time I cold call a clergyperson to request an interview or visit a new house of worship to photograph a service project, I find myself interacting with a different population with its own lexicon, its own customs, and its own approach to addressing the critical needs in the community. But the longer I work on this project, the more comfortable I am with being uncomfortable, being unsure, being mindful about what I say and do. It's humbling. And that for me is a spiritual lesson: through learning about each other, we discover the importance of proceeding with more questions than answers. It forces us to confront and dismantle our own assumptions.
I'm a social butterfly so the thing I also love about working on Faith in Action DC is that I get to meet all these amazing people—particularly young people—doing great work, usually as volunteers. At the end of my first year on the project, I realized I had a mile-long contact list full of folks who were often working on parallel or potentially complementary efforts in the same neighborhoods. It seemed natural to try to organize a space in which they could meet and strategize how to work together more effectively. So last fall, I enlisted a handful of dynamic young faith leaders—"leader" being a broad term that included clergy, organizers, activists, project directors... basically important voices in the community—and we started planning the first-ever DC Young Adult Faith Leaders Summit.
This gathering, held in February 2013, brought together nearly 100 emerging leaders from dozens of religious communities across the D.C. region: Bahá'ís, Buddhists, Catholics, Hindus, Jews, Latter-Day Saints, Muslims, Protestants, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians—as well as Humanists, participants who identified with multiple traditions, and even a few who did not claim any religion themselves but worked with organizations that organize faith communities for social action. Divided into small groups based on the neighborhoods in which they live, work, or worship, our participants spoke about their backgrounds, shared successes and challenges mobilizing their peers for service projects, and brainstormed ideas of how to improve interfaith collaboration moving forward.
It was also another opportunity for me to work alongside friends from the LDS church. The local young adults "ward"—LDS-speak for a community sub-division—graciously hosted us at their chapel in Chevy Chase.
Our nation's capital can be a model of what happens when people of diverse traditions and cultures work together for the wellbeing of our shared community. As people of faith—as American citizens, as human beings—we know it is a moral imperative to love our neighbors. That love usually begins with getting to know each other. The challenge before all of us is taking that first step towards the unknown.
Photo courtesy of Jack Gordon