Charlotte & the Labyrinth: ‘Enlarge the circle of people’

Regular readers of Friendship&Faith may recall Charlotte Sommers and her congregation’s Interfaith Labyrinth. Last fall, we wrote about the beauty of walking an outdoor labyrinth in the mist of Midwest colors. Today, we’re sharing the story behind Charlotte’s commitment to interfaith relationships from our book—which you can purchase via the link at right.

What are labyrinths? They are not mazes; they are not designed to confuse. They are circular pathways that lead slowly but surely to a central point. In the 1990s, Lauren Artress of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco launched the labyrinth’s current wave of popularity. Historians debate details in the ancient history of labyrinths—but, all sources agree that the medieval labyrinth in the floor at Chartres Cathedral in France (pictured at right) is a global landmark in this centuries-old spiritual practice.

The Rev. Charlotte Sommers is pastor at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Troy, Michigan, and is a convener of the Troy Interfaith Group. She worked with that group in establishing an Interfaith Labyrinth on the grounds of her church. In many ways, the labyrinth is a spiritual metaphor for Charlotte’s vision of a healthy community.

Charlotte’s Story …

“We can’t escape the fact that we’re a global community now.”

In the Troy Interfaith Group, we commit ourselves to “invite people to gather, grow and give for the sake of promoting the common values of love, peace and justice among all religions locally and globally.” We “believe that peace among people and nations requires peace among religions,” based on a statement by Hans Kung.

Our group hosts some major events during the year, and one of these is the National Day of Prayer, which we observe with an interfaith service. A few years ago in Troy, we had a controversy that made news headlines across the state. National Day of Prayer events are often supported by evangelical Christians, and here in Troy, a Hindu woman, Padma Kuppa, wanted to say a prayer in a public National Day of Prayer event, but was discouraged. This led a number of us to form the Troy Interfaith Group. I offered to host the Interfaith National Day of Prayer event at Northminster Church, where I am the pastor, which is how I got involved.

Now, there are several of us from the interfaith group who have lunch together every month. We just casually say it’s time to get together for lunch and then we talk about all kinds of things, from books to politics to what’s going on in our lives and our families. These friendships have developed as a result of working with the Troy Interfaith Group, which was a surprise to me; I didn’t expect these deeper friendships to develop.

As we form friendships, we discover there are things we all share in life—like concerns for our parents. The first time I visited a Hindu friend’s home for lunch, it was after she attended my mother’s memorial service. I so appreciated her being there, and afterward, she invited me for lunch to talk about some things I had said in the service. As we shared that lunch, we talked about my parents, and we also talked about her parents. She told me that something I had said in the memorial service about my mother really impacted her. My mother had taught me that our feelings are not “right” or “wrong.” Our feelings are real. We shouldn’t try to correct or fix people’s feelings. We shouldn’t say, “Don’t feel that way!” If we want to build good relationships, we should listen and not judge another person’s feelings.

As our time together continued, this Hindu friend and I talked about all kinds of lessons we’d learned from our families. We talked about prayer. We talked about lots of things. It was wonderful.

There also were some Muslim women who called and said they wanted to come visit me after my mother died. They said this was part of their tradition; they visit with the person who is grieving. I was so moved by their thoughtfulness. It was a really wonderful thing to offer. Unfortunately, our schedules were such that we couldn’t actually get together, but the fact that they wanted to come and visit with me was very meaningful. They weren’t of the Christian tradition, but they were showing a sense of compassion—and they were showing me a traditional way that they expressed this compassion in their community. Their call and that idea inspired me.

These experiences have shown me that we need to spend more time together, talking with people of different traditions. We need to enlarge the circle of people who interact with one another. When the Troy Interfaith Group hosts an event like our National Day of Prayer service or our Interfaith Thanksgiving Day service, we are “preaching to the choir.” Usually the people who attend are already on the bandwagon. It’s the people who would never attend such an event that we are really trying to reach.

Closing off our lives—insulating ourselves from other faiths and cultures—is a dangerous choice. We can’t escape the fact that we’re a global community now. The more we learn about each other, the “healthier and wealthier” we all become.

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