Opening Ourselves to God

By Paul McKenna
February 1999

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"By dialogue we let God be present in our midst, for as we open ourselves to one another, we open ourselves to God." Pope John Paul II

Who Is My Neighbour? Each of the world's religions has a lot to say in response to the universal question: Who Is My Neighbour? Last May, in a Sikh temple in Scarborough, Ontario, 200 people representing nine world faiths gathered to address this very question.

The event was co-sponsored by the Gursikh Sabha Sikh Temple and by Scarboro Missions. It was the fifth interfaith event sponsored by Scarboro Missions whose commitment to inter-faith dialogue is inspired by the Second Vatican Council. This `Ecumenical Council' sparked a new openness to Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Aboriginals, and others. As a result, the Church has come to recognize and respect the presence of grace, truth, and holiness in other religions.

As guests entered the Sikh house of worship, they were invited to remove their shoes and put on head coverings. Both of these Sikh customs are a way of showing respect for God while in the temple.

Seated on the floor, the audience then listened to a panel of speakers representing the following faiths: Aboriginal, Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Islam, Sikh, and Zoroastrian.

Each panelist discussed the concept of `neighbour' from the perspective of her or his religion.

John Robinson, an Ojibwa from Sault Ste. Marie, lamented the lack of caring in modern society: "In the old tradition," he said, "everything was shared in a tribe. Today, that tradition of sharing the hunt is lost."

A number of speakers stressed that every person is a child of God. Others maintained that every living creature is worthy of love and respect.

Prakash Mody, representing the ancient Jain religion of India, stated that his religion forbids all forms of violence including the killing of animals. All beings, Jains believe, are entitled to unconditional respect.

Marlon Lo of the Chandrakirti Buddhist Centre agreed. "Every living creature," he said, "is deserving of my love and compassion. Love is the wish for others to be happy, and compassion is the wish to free others from suffering."

For Buddhists, compassion is a possibility for everyone and can be cultivated through meditation.

"Whoever is in need, for any reason, is our neighbour," said Louise Malnachuk. Louise is a Catholic and a Scarboro lay missionary who has served over 10 years in China. Louise is presently coordinating the lay program at Scarboro Missions.

After the nine panelists spoke, the audience divided into small groups to further explore the issue of `Who Is My Neighbour.'

Participants next made their way to the worship section of the temple to join the Sikh community in evening prayer. This colorful and powerful worship service-including prayers, singing and percussion instruments-was complemented by a brief talk on Sikh worship by a member of the community.

The day ended in the temple dining room, where everyone was asked to sit on the floor in rows facing one another. Here they enjoyed a traditional Sikh meal together.

"We sit like this because it's like the family getting together. When you eat together you understand each other," said Piara Singh Minhas, director of the religious program at the temple.

Indeed, it was a powerful day! Nine world religions, meeting together, dialoguing together, praying together, breaking bread together.

One cannot but be reminded of the prophetic words of John Paul II: "By dialogue we let God be present in our midst, for as we open ourselves to one another, we open ourselves to God."

Religion and the Media
Recently, Scarboro Missions sponsored a one day conference on the relationship between religion and the media.

A multi-faith audience of 80 people listened to speakers and panelists representing six religions. These faith representatives were asked to describe how their religions are portrayed in the media.

From the beginning it was obvious that the issue of media sparks an intense and passionate reaction in every religious tradition.

Barrie Zwicker, a media critic with Vision TV, reminded the audience that almost every group in society-including virtually every religious group-feels misrepresented in the media. This point became more obvious as the day progressed. Members of several faiths expressed pain and anger about how they are depicted in the media. The discussion also focused on the international realm as conference participants wrestled with the reality of inter-religious conflict around the globe, and media reporting on such.

Yet within this forum of vastly differing opinions, one point of consensus did emerge: the media needs to develop a more informed, truthful and positive approach in its reporting on religion.

At the end of the day, a Buddhist nun led a meditation amounting to a beautiful challenge springing from the Buddhist spirit of compassion. Participants were being asked to demonstrate unconditional love towards all beings. In this closing reflection there was a lesson for everyone: not only do we need to challenge television, radio, and newspapers when they misrepresent our own religion, but we also need to challenge the media when it misrepresents other faith traditions.

A Multi-Faith Adventure for Young People
A few years ago, a United Nations study indicated that Toronto is the most multi-religious and multi-cultural city on the planet.

Torontonians, like their fellow citizens in many other parts of the country, are now dealing with the gift and challenge of multiculturalism. This gift and challenge also extends to Toronto's youth.

Scarboro Missions is committed to supporting young people in their multicultural journey. Last November Scarboro Missions invited students from Neil McNeil Catholic High School to spend a day in conversation with representatives of seven world religions.

The interfaith guests included a Muslim, an Aboriginal, a Quaker, a Baha'i, a Jain, a Brahma Kumaris, and a Scarboro priest, Fr. Roger Brennan, who practices Zen Buddhist sitting meditation.

The students worked in small groups. Each group was led by a member of a world faith who shared the beliefs, practices and rituals of their tradition with the students. The student groups rotated throughout the day so that each student had an opportunity to dialogue with three religions.

The Aboriginal speaker displayed numerous symbols and ritual objects from her tradition. She also invited the students to join in a Native purification ritual known as the smudge or sweetgrass ceremony.

The Muslim representative outlined the history of Islam and helped the students focus on some of the differences between Christianity and Islam. For example, while Christians see Jesus as Saviour and Messiah, the followers of Islam (Muslims) view him as one of the great prophets.

Among high school students today, there is a great interest in meditation. This probably explains the very positive reaction the young people had to the Buddhist and Brahma Kumaris groups-both of these traditions put a big emphasis on the discipline of meditation.

Nonviolence is a central moral value in both the Quaker and Jain religions. Students learned why Quakers refuse to go to war or to support war in any way; that all Jains are vegetarians because they do not believe that humans have the right to kill animals. For Jains, the ethic of "reverence for all life" includes both humans and non-humans.

Baha'is are very concerned about the oneness of God, the oneness of the human family and the unity of all religions. This Baha'i vision of unity came to fruition in the final session of the day when the world faith representatives and all the students formed a sacred circle. Here the students had an opportunity to share what they learned during the day, a day in which everyone was changed.

Teaching World Religions
For many years, Scarboro Missions has been supporting teachers and students in education for social justice. In recent years, Scarboro Missions has also been functioning as an interfaith resource for schools.

Last December, 45 religion teachers attended a day-long workshop at the Mission Centre. The Scarboro-sponsored event, entitled "Teaching World Religions," featured the following workshops:

  1. Teaching Hinduism
  2. An interfaith and comparative religions approach to teaching world religions
  3. Conflict, forgiveness, and reconciliation in the world religions class
  4. Teaching and celebrating Diwali (key Hindu festival)

Participants found the conference very helpful. For them, such a gathering is a rare opportunity-in Canada there is no institution which trains educators in multi-faith literacy.

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