Throughout human history, people have encountered each other across religious boundaries. Sometimes those encounters have been filled with curiosity, with one or both groups exploring what they can learn from the other. Sometimes those encounters have been filled with suspicion. Those who had different ideas and rituals were viewed as a threat, and in some cases one or both groups acted with violence toward the other. Sometimes those encounters were met with bland indifference expressed in a live-and-let-live toleration.
In the 20th Century, the scientific Western World saw philosophers and even theologians proclaiming the “death of God.” Religion seemed pushed to the edges of life with the spectacular growth of science and the rapid development of materialist consumer society with all its benefits. But also in that century, two world wars and the nuclear arms race showed the depths of moral depravity into which humanity could plunge and took us to the brink of extinction. In many cultures, there was an awakening of religious interest and fervor. Sometimes that passion has been expressed in extremist, exclusivist and even violent forms. But the religious ferment also has nurtured more cooperation among religious leaders than at any time in history. The shrinking of the planet through communications and travel have enabled people of diverse faiths to connect regularly, learn from each other and work together on global concerns. The 21st Century is beginning with religion as a major theme in news and other media, almost daily. Religion is shaping our politics, our international affairs and our local neighborhood relationships. Religion is haunting our dreams and spurring our hopes.
As an active participant in Interfaith Partners in Detroit (see chapter 50) I started exploring the role models in history for our interfaith cooperation. I began with the names of some people I had known—Gandhi, King, St. Francis, Roger Williams—then asked my friends in Interfaith Partners about people they knew. They referred me to King Negus, Moses Montefiore, Moussa Al-Sadr and Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami—people I’d never heard of. I started putting together little biographical sketches of these folks to inspire us and guide our thinking, calling them interfaith “saints,” using a Christian term, which we eventually changed to “heroes” to communicate this idea more clearly across many cultures. I stumbled across interfaith dimensions of people I knew well in other contexts, such as Howard Thurman and Fritz Eichenberg. Eventually there seemed enough for a booklet, but as I shared it with the Interfaith Partners network the response was so eager and overwhelming that people insisted that this project needed to be shared far more broadly than with just our local network. David Crumm, at that time the religion editor of the Detroit Free Press and coordinator of the new ReadTheSpirit web network offered to publish the stories as a book. Thus was born Interfaith Heroes in January 2008.
David suggested that we declare January as “Interfaith Heroes Month” since it coincided with both the time we were ready to release the book and also featured the national holiday for one of our main interfaith heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Besides publishing the book, David released one heroic story each day during January on the ReadTheSpirit website (readthespirit.com). Various friends of different religions were asked to write a response each day to the featured story. A blog was set up on ReadTheSpirit for readers to respond and to nominate other interfaith heroes.
We had left out a few people to make the initial book come out even with the 31 days of January. That started us thinking about a second volume. As visitors to the website submitted their nominations and I delved into research of my own, the list of additional heroes seemed to explode. There were so many people working in so many courageous and creative ways. Some were people I’d heard about but didn’t know their interfaith activities. Others were people I had never known, especially those from other religious traditions. The giants in the eyes of some of my friends were people I’d never heard of, which illustrates some of the ignorance we have when we stay exclusively within the confines of our own religious communities.
So this time as I got to work on volume 2 on the Interfaith Heroes project I had a broader audience in mind as well as a more comprehensive vision for the interfaith movement around the world. Rather than merely duplicating the first volume with a string-of-pearls approach to the biographical sketches, I decided to cluster the heroes in topical sections that I’d already discerned as I was working through the earlier book. Each person seemed to have particular strengths within interfaith relationships, whether those strengths were in building relationships with people of other religions, learning from people of other traditions, providing refuge in times of danger and crisis, or working across religious lines for common concerns of justice and peace. As I gathered the heroes around each topic I realized that an opening chapter for each section would clarify each issue, help tie together the heroes of the two books, and allow the inclusion of other heroes and interfaith stories that might not work so well as a stand-alone biography. This approach also makes the adventure more compelling. Now, the two books work together on new levels. For example, if you’re looking for a more detailed guide for action or further resources, turn to the first volume of Interfaith Heroes. We did not duplicate that in this volume.
At times in this project I found myself having to go outside my own comfort zone. I am a Christian and a passionate believer in Christ. Some of the heroes who are superb illustrations of various types of interfaith activity are also people with whom I disagree, even about the nature of interfaith relationships. We have different approaches to this work and even different concepts about the appropriate framework for such relationships. Rather than ignore such issues, I found it more helpful to note some of these issues both in the text and in the discussion questions. If we are going to build a more stable, cohesive and harmonious world coming from the diverse range of our religious traditions, then we will have to have a deeper understanding and greater honesty than has been practiced in many of our interfaith settings. We’ve often been acting like suitors on their first date, putting our best selves forward and avoiding the tough questions that might jeopardize the relationship in its fragile early stages. These heroes, those with whom I identify and those who are not so akin to my way of thinking, all challenge me to go deeper and to take the risks of building more real and substantial relationships with people from other faith communities. I trust that you as a reader of this book also will be stimulated and challenged to journey further with your agreements and disagreements.
Interfaith Heroes has been as interfaith community project. Many friends have suggested names, given me leads and provided research material. Others have read the manuscript and provided editorial suggestions and ideas that have enriched the final product. Special thanks go to Brenda Rosenberg, Padma Kuppa, Sheri Schiff, Bob Brutell, Eide Alawan, Victor Begg, Steve Spreitzer, Daniel Appleyard, Michael Hovey, Barbara Talley, Gail Katz, Barbara Clevinger, Ma’sood Cajee and Ken Sehested. Special thanks go to all those who nominated heroes on the website, whether the heroes ended up in chapters of this book or not. Thanks also go to three heroes with whom I was in direct contact during the writing phase: David Rosen, A.T. Ariyaratne and Shanta Premawardhana. David Crumm Media has played a huge role in inspiring the effort, editing the manuscript and publishing and marketing the book. David and ReadTheSpirit Publisher John Hile have managed the website, passed on nominations of heroes and been a constant source of encouragement and affirmation. I especially thank my wife Sharon Buttry, an interfaith partner and leader in her own right, who has both enthusiastically and thoughtfully shared this journey and encouraged me in my writing.
In the first Interfaith Heroes book we thought it wise to focus just on historical figures, or as we put it in our irreverent shorthand, “dead people.” But the living heroes cry out for attention, not personally but by the power of their witness and example. Some of the nominees from the website were living people, and we also discovered so many exciting things happening around the globe that needed to be pulled together in this context of identifying our interfaith heroes. I was introduced to one of the heroes in this book by one of our Interfaith Partners, Barbara Talley. Barbara directs a peace center for the Methodist district in her part of Metro Detroit, and she had sponsored an evening event with A.T. Ariyaratne from Sri Lanka during his recent tour of the United States. As “Dr. Ari” and I were chatting before the sessions, I asked him to teach me the greeting in his native Sinahala language. He said, “Ayubowan. It means: May you live long.” What a delightful greeting, I thought, and perfect for me to use with this elderly man who has made such a huge impact for peace in Sri Lanka and around the world.
So we offer to all the interfaith heroes in this book who are still alive and inspire us by their work: “May you live long—Ayubowan!”
And to you — reading this page right now — may you find inspiration to become an interfaith hero yourself. And, “May you live long—Ayubowan!”