I don't want learning, or dignity, or respectability. I want this music, and this dawn, and the warmth of your cheek against mine.
— Jalaluddin Rumi, “A Thirsty Fish”
The Rumi quote above suggests a longing to live in the present moment, love your fellow human beings, and appreciate the beauty of today rather than worrying about the mystery of tomorrow. Upon walking into Temple Rodeph Shalom one particularly crisp autumn afternoon, I feel welcome to appreciate the beauty of today. The windows of this sanctuary are stained glass, allowing the slightest distillation of light to shine through. I do not know exactly why I am here, but I do know that we are placed where we are meant to be, at the time we are meant to be in that place.
Proceeding to the basement of the synagogue, the large group of high school students and mentors of various religious backgrounds and traditions form a circle. I take my place. During this particular session we go on learn about food insecurity, de-poverty, and reformed Judaism. We make challah bread, my brown hands dipping into white flour and braiding a strand that will be baked and shared with the other students.
Little did I know this introduction to The Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia’s “Walking The Walk” program nearly three years ago would result in my love of interfaith work. “Walking the Walk” is an interfaith youth initiative that provides teenagers with the experiences, skills, and resources necessary to live in a diverse world, deepen their own identities, and break through walls that distance and divide them from people of other religious, cultural, and economic backgrounds.
The Interfaith Center’s slogan is “Dare to Understand.” I believe that once you take that initial step on the path of universal societal realization, the human condition becomes easier to bear.
This work is tough, and important. It causes me, an African American Muslim girl, to grapple with many of my values and the teachings of my tradition, as well as encourages conversation among teenagers of Baptist, Catholic, Muslim, Mennonite, reformed Jewish, conservative Jewish, Baha'i, Lutheran, and Hindu backgrounds (to name a few). This work is fulfilling. From volunteering with wheelchair-bound individuals to walking the streets in song at the Philadelphia Interfaith Walk for Peace and Reconciliation, I have explored what it means to be a person and the many different ways there are to exist.
Dignity in short is being worthy of respect as well as respecting oneself. Dignity is the courage and will to overcome the obstacles of social division in favor of equality. My tradition has taught me that the Creator has bestowed upon us an existence that is above that of plants and other animals, and that we are meant to use this status for the fulfillment of ourselves as well as others. By having been giving the gift of life and breathing into our bodies of the Creator’s own ruh, or spiritual energy, we are inevitably dignified. The omnipresent dignity found in the Creator is shared with us as the soul.
Interfaith interactions have only enhanced and illuminated these teachings. By standing in community and being welcomed to hold a Torah scroll, watching as it winds around the room touching everyone’s hands, by feeling the reverberation of prayerful voices standing in pews donned in colorful Christmas garb at White Rock Baptist Church, I have been able to acknowledge teachings followed by my Christian and Jewish peers. At the end of the day, we are created in the image of God, and we are walking in that light. Interfaith interactions have helped shape my understanding of human dignity, in that I have had the opportunity to recognize the overwhelming similarities in beliefs about respecting others as well as myself. A quintessential example of this would be the comparative analysis of each faith tradition’s “Golden Rule.” The rules are so similar that being asked to match each definition with each faith tradition is tricky. They all emphasize universal respect and appreciation for life.
There is a Quranic verse that reads: “We have dignified the children of Adam, and carried them over land and sea, and provided them with good and pure things for sustenance, and favored them far above a great part of Our creation” (17:70). It is up to us to uphold and recognize this dignity in our fellow human beings. This can be manifested as a striving for social justice - an equal distribution of societal recognition, respect, and amenities. It is this spirit of revolution that might cause us to stand in solidarity with indigenous Americans in their protection and preservation of water, a vital necessity for human life, or might cause us to respond to bigotry and fascism with candlelit vigils and protests.
Now, more than ever, we need to reflect upon the teachings of all of our various traditions in order to cultivate and sustain respect. My tradition has taught me that I am not this body; I am a soul, inhabiting a body, and will therefore be judged by my actions and inactions regarding how I treat my fellow human beings. Interfaith interactions have beautifully helped me to humanize the beliefs and practices of others. The willingness of others to respect me, grab my hand, and show me the most sacred parts of their lives has enabled me to be appreciative and extend that same respect and warm cheek in return.
Please click here to learn more about Walking the Walk and the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia.
Husnaa Hashim is a 16-year-old high school junior from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She enjoys writing and performing poetry, making flower crowns, and playing with her cat Maya Luna.
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