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Asking the clergy: How can houses of worship help heal society’s divisions?

Rabbi Andrew Warmflash

Rabbi Andrew Warmflash Credit: Hewlett-East Rockaway Jewish Centre

In times of social unrest and political divisiveness, Americans often seek answers from their churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship. In addition to receiving scriptural and pastoral guidance, they can also participate in interfaith and outreach programs. This week’s clergy discuss their approaches to achieving political and racial conciliation.

Rabbi Andrew Warmflash

Hewlett-East Rockaway Jewish Centre

While religious institutions are sometimes accused of fostering an atmosphere of divisiveness and intolerance, I think that they can be a force for healing. This can happen when religious leaders preach and teach about the values from our traditions that contribute to mutual respect and understanding. For me as a rabbi, those values include humility, the ability to listen empathetically, and to withhold judgment of people whose views I disagree with. The prophet Micha taught that God requires that we act justly and walk humbly. The renowned 20th century Jewish philosopher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in an essay: “No religion is an island . . . humility is the beginning and end of religious thinking, the secret of faith. There is no truth without humility, no certainty without contrition.” Both men remind us that arrogantly insisting that we alone have a monopoly on truth isn’t worthy of religious people. One of the cardinal Jewish religious obligations is to recite the Sh’ma twice a day. This biblical passage begins with an injunction to listen. Such deep listening entails more than just hearing. It requires that we suspend judgment and listen to others with openness and empathy — agreeing when we can and always disagreeing with respect. The great rabbinic sage Hillel taught: Don’t judge another until you stand in his or her place. Thousands of years later, Pope Francis famously said something similar to a reporter who asked about gay people. Healing will come when we all follow their example.

The Rev. Wendy C. Modeste

Pastor, United Methodist Church of Bay Shore

The houses of worship have always played a major role in societal stability. We are the voices bringing calm to the chaos, speaking a message of love, justice, faith and hope. We represent all of the people: rich or poor, saint or sinner, gay or straight, black or white, foreigner or native. As our nation faces recent acts of gun violence and terrorism, the community of faith must stand with our local leaders, law-enforcement agencies, business owners and our neighbors to fix that which is broken. We are not a segregated faith community unto ourselves; we are a segment of society tackling the issues together. Together we are stronger. Methodists emphasize the power of the individual as well. It has long been a credo of United Methodists, “Do all the good we can. By all the means we can. In all the ways we can. In all the places we can. At all the times we can. To all the people we can. As long as ever we can.” We endeavor to take an active role in helping others. Our church currently hosts a weekly soup kitchen that gives guests a delicious hot meal. Our thrift shop provides lightly used clothing and housewares to neighbors in need. And throughout the year we help support local food pantries and shelters for victims of domestic violence. We invite members of all faiths to join us in these efforts — no church membership required. Together we can change the world, helping one person at a time.

The Rev. Christopher J. McMahon

Former minister, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Great South Bay, Sayville

Houses of worship can and should be places of tolerance, inclusion and love. Many are but sadly, throughout human history, the exact opposite often has been the case. Instead of healing society’s divisions, houses of worship often have directly or indirectly promoted hatred and bigotry against a particular group or groups. This is true even today in the United States and around the world. In a way, this is strange since the fundamentals of all the world’s religions call for people to love one another. In order to strive to heal society’s divisions, religious leaders, including clergy and lay people, must lead by example in their words and deeds. Congregations as a whole must take actions in their communities which demonstrate strong positions of love and inclusion. An easy test of this is to determine whether or not a congregation is truly welcoming to new people who enter its doors; including being welcoming of people who might not fit the norm of most of the congregation’s members. Does the congregation embrace new people or does it ignore them or treat them with suspicion? Unfortunately, if positive steps are not taken, congregations, like some clubs, can be places of exclusion, not inclusion. As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I am proud of my denomination’s history. For more than two centuries, Unitarian Universalist congregations have strived to be places that heal the divisions in society. As a human institution, we have not been perfect in this regard but throughout our history, we have made great progress.

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