339: Conversation with the Hero Behind all the Interfaith Heroes We Honor

ere is the hero behind all the heroes.
    As the Founding Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I’m calling him a “hero,” but so is his denomination: American Baptist Churches. His official title is “global consultant for peace and justice,” and while the word “hero” isn’t formaly a part of that official nameplate — he’s the guy called to hot spots around the world as a peacemaking negotiator and trainer for grassroots activists.
    His denomination understands the spiritual importance of training in nonviolent action. The American Baptist Churches’ most famous member was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who we will honor in a unique way in the course of the 2nd Annual Interfaith Heroes Month. We’ll do that right around the time of King’s national holiday in the U.S.
    But, today, here’s a look at the real-life hero behind the heroes. Dan was among the first religious leaders to encourage the development of ReadTheSpirit in late 2007 and he served at the helm of the inaugural Heroes Month in January 2008. Dan wrote both the original “Interfaith Heroes” book and this year’s Volume 2, which explores worldwide interfaith relations in far greater depth than the first book.
    He’s 56. He lives in a modest home in an urban neighborhood in Michigan — that is, when he’s not serving in some distant continent for weeks at a time. It’s because of Dan’s many years immersed in global conflicts that both volumes of “Interfaith Heroes” include so many men and women from distant lands, especially Asia.
    (You’ll find a link below to purchase Volume 1 of Dan’s “Interfaith Heroes.” We’re showing you the cover of Volume 2, which will be available via Amazon within a few days, so please check back here and at http://www.InterfaithHeroes.info/.)


    DAVID: In more than a year of working closely with you, I’m absolutely amazed at your travel schedule. Give us a feel for the wide-ranging nature of your work.
    DAN: In 2008, I was in Buma, also known as Myanmar. I was in Orissa in India twice, where there’s been a lot of violence by Hindu militants against Christians. I was in Thailand three times. I was in Naga in northeast India. I was in Bulgaria working with the churches there. I was in Italy planning a global Baptist peace conference that will be held in February 2009. I was in North Korea as part of an ecumenical delegation. I was in Brazil in five different cities doing work mostly on urban peacemaking. I was in Lebanon. Those are trips I can recall right now, but there were others, I think.
    Each year, it’s quite a mix of places where I work. The heaviest focus of my work is northeast India working with the Naga people and also in Burma. I’ve also been to Ethiopia three times in recent years, Indonesia — a lot of places.
    DAVID: Describe your work for us.
    DAN: About 70 percent of what I do is training, which is more than lecturing. It’s very participatory. Rather than coming to give answers to people, I work as a facilitator to help them discover their own answers, using their own experiences and cultures. I’ll share with them input from people in other struggles around the world. I do a lot of work with the Bible and conflict transformation. I’ve even done some work on the teachings of Jesus in peacemaking in settings with Christians and Muslims working together. I did that in Lebanon, looking at how the teachings of Jesus can help us work our way through conflicts.
    DAVID: You’re also a negotiator yourself.
    DAN: Yes, that’s also a significant piece of my work. In some cases, I’m actually on mediation teams to solve conflicts.

    DAVID: A few weeks ago, we published a Conversation With Rabbi Harold Schulweis on “conscience.” He was arguing that one of the toughest challenges we face these days is a widespread belief that individuals can’t make much of a difference in the world — that we’re powerless.
    Rabbi Schulweis uses the word “commandedness” to describe the spiritual mindset of many people who structure their lives largely around what people are telling them to do. The rabbi says, “We must look for those outstanding people who will not allow what is clearly cruel to happen, even if the rules of our faith may allow it — and even if someone is commanding us to do it.”
    That sounds a lot like the motivation behind identifying interfaith heroes. Do you see what the rabbi is describing as a core problem in your work?
    DAN: I agree with him in some ways. Many times I find that people are not thinking about what they’re doing. It’s a lot easier to inherit a set of hand-me-down beliefs. Sometimes we refer to this as fundamentalism. It’s people saying: “The Bible says …” or “The Quran says …” as a way of justifying things they must do. They stop struggling with moral ambiguities. They rely on this kind of absolute set of handed-down beliefs.
    But there is something in the encounter with the divine that stands over against our consciences. Sometimes our consciences can be deadened or misled and sometimes we need an encounter with the “other” that challenges us and reshapes our lives.

    DAVID: You’re speaking out of your own experience here.
    DAN: I grew up in a military family and lived in Air Force bases most of my life as a child. So, my dream was to be part of the U.S. military and it was shortly after I made a commitment to Christ that I had a conversation with a friend about the war in Vietnam.
    She asked me, “What does Jesus say?”
    And I went back to my room and read the gospels with a new set of questions and there was a strong sense I felt in reading: “Love your enemy.” That broke through all of my accepted world view to that point in my life. It challenged me to ask: Who really is in charge of my life? Is it me or this divine presence.
    As a Christian, Jesus confronts me personally.

    DAVID: You often find yourself working in some of the most frightening places on Earth. People are beaten, tortured and killed in some of these conflicts. But you talk about overcoming our fear as an important part of healing our communities.
    I keep thinking about this other conversation we published with Rabbi Schulweis. He also writes eloquently about this theme of overcoming the shower of fearful images cascading down around us.
    DAN: I live in the city of Hamtramck and my wife works with young people here. One Saturday a month, they’ve decided to adopt a street in Hamtramck. They walk up and down the street and offer to do anything people need them to do to help out.
    But, there is so much fear that the police were called three times one month. People were suspicious of young people offering to help. People slowly began to realize these offers were legitimate, but many people unfortunately have come to assume that no one does anything to help neighbors, anymore, without wanting something.
    In my parents’ generation, many Americans were from small towns. Then, millions of people began to move into suburbs and one of the things that happened in the move is a change in the way we perceive the world. When we’re isolated, we start to rely more on things like television news to tell us about the world. And, fear is used so often in television just to keep people watching the TV screen.

    DAVID: In your new book, “Interfaith Heroes 2,” I was especially interested in the way you explore the many different kinds of interfaith connections people can make. There’s not just one way to make a useful and helpful connection. There are many ways. We can learn together. We can work on community issues together. We can help to protect an endangered minority together.
    Over many years of writing about religion in America, I agree with you on this: One of the toughest issues in bridging religious or cultural boundaries is letting people know that we don’t all have to agree. Most likely, we will never completely agree. And none of us is the perfect representative of our faith. Accepting that, it seems to me, is all part of learning to work together effectively.
    Despite all those challenges, we still can roll up our sleeves, put on a smile and meet each other, talk, work together.
    DAN: We all have flaws. All of us. Christians teach that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. That’s humbling, but we don’t always act that way. We tend to look for the weak point in other people and in other faiths and we start attacking those weaknesses without even stopping to ask: Well, I can see these flaws — but let me turn around the question: What are these people’s gifts?
    Many of the people whose stories we include in volume 2 of “Interfaith Heroes” were not super saints. They were ordinary people who had the courage to act in the time and place where they found a need.
    This year, for example, we’re including Corrie ten Boom, who helped to save Jews during the Holocaust. But if you read her book, “The Hiding Place,” she doesn’t come off as a completely saintly person. She had fears that she expresses. She describes her sister, who died in the camps, as a person of greater faith — a person she looked up to and who gave her courage.
    We also included Pope John Paul II this year as an interfaith hero. But there are well-known criticisms of some of the things he did during his life.
    DAVID: I’m so glad you chose to include John Paul II because of his enormous contributions toward healing religious conflict between major faiths. But, you’re right: For decades, I was a journalist often covering some of those controversies he sparked.
    DAN: John Paul II is a great example of somebody whose record you could spin one way in writing about his life, if you want to focus on disagreements and controversies about some of the things he did. But he was a giant figure in our time in interfaith work, especially. He was pope for 27 years, such a huge span of incredibly action-packed history.
    He’s far more conservative than I’m comfortable with in his overall teachings, but the steps he took in building interfaith relationships are stunning. He didn’t have to do that. He could very well have played a conservative role — keeping things as they had been for many years in interfaith relations. He took that conservative role on the ordination of women. But he took dramatic steps in interfaith relations. He was humble about it, too.
    What I look at in identifying heroes is whether the person somehow transcended their context. John Paul II was an initiator in this work. He transcended his own role. His faith drove him to go further.
    We need to lift up examples like this to the world. We need to give people models of a different way of living together.
    We need to give people hope.

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