Religion in American life, and in our neighborhoods, continues to be a complex proposition. I live in New York City, a place that typically prides itself on the variety of nationalities, races, religions, cultures, and languages among its inhabitants. A recent community meeting in Staten Island about establishing a mosque, however, revealed how fragile such co-existence often is. Although the mosque did not seem to be an issue for the Roman Catholic order that was leasing its former convent for a new purpose—which is to say, that the clerics seemed to have an understanding of one another—others in the neighborhood were deeply opposed. As reported in the New York Times on June 10:
The tenor of the inquiry became so fraught that the meeting eventually collapsed in shouting around 11 p.m., prompting the police and security guards to ask everyone to leave.
But just 20 minutes earlier, as Bill Finnegan stood at the microphone, came the meeting’s single moment of hushed silence. Mr. Finnegan said he was a Marine lance corporal, home from Afghanistan, where he had worked as a mediator with warring tribes.
After the sustained standing ovation that followed his introduction, he turned to the Muslims on the panel: “My question to you is, will you work to form a cohesive bond with the people of this community?” The men said yes.
Then he turned to the crowd. “And will you work to form a cohesive bond with these people—your new neighbors?”
The crowd erupted in boos. “No!” someone shouted.
How is it that we can live with one another and yet know so little about one another? And, of even greater concern, how is it that we do not know how to speak to one another and many of us seem unwilling even to try?
It seems to me that, as a society, too many of us simply do not have the tools or the language to engage one another in a dialogue about religion, particularly when it comes to religious differences—and this at a time when many American communities are becoming more religiously diverse, not less, and religion infuses public policy debates.
Episcopal schools have a unique opportunity to insure that the next generation moves into adulthood with this crucial ability to grapple with the complex issues of religion and public life in new ways.
November’s Biennial Conference 2010 in San Antonio is one small step towards this goal. Its theme, From Every Family, Language, People, and Nation, comes from Revelation 5:9. The conference speaks to the growing diversity and pluralism in our country, schools, and Church and how we can engage our students in a new kind of inter-religious dialogue. We hope you’ll join us.