If you’re like many of us, in the course of a week you ate sushi, pizza, dim sum, had a falafel, pad thai, and some souvlaki. But if you prayed or meditated in community – you probably went to the same church, temple, mosque, zendo, synagogue you always go to.
As you moved through the week you played some jazz and some Japanese flute music, listened to African drumming, Gregorian chants, Celtic harp, and some bhangra. But if you prayed or meditated in community – you probably went to the same synagogue, zendo, mosque, temple church you always go to.
You do yoga, tai chi, take tango lessons, and do Pilates. Your hat is from Afghanistan, your shoes from Italy, your shirt from Costa Rica, your pants from China. The authors of the books beside your bed include Ha Jin, Isabel Allende, the Dalai Lama, and Charles Dickens. Yet if you pray or meditate, you probably went to the same zendo, mosque, church, temple, synagogue you always go to. I did. Until the year 2010.
Wanting to make a difference in the world, as someone who is very active in my San Francisco synagogue, wanting to build bridges between communities, wanting to engage myself body and soul in what we call in Judaism Tikkun Olam, Repair of the World, I made a vow to that which I call God:
I vow to pray once a week for all of 2010
in a religion other than my own.
Over the course of the year I prayed in mosques and churches, with Buddhists and Wiccans, with Hindus and Baha’i worshippers. In addition to making new friends in various faith communities, I helped organize a Jewish/Christian interfaith service, gave a church sermon, was invited to be on a church committee, and initiated a day of Muslim/Jewish prayer that was one of the high points of my life. The only week that I missed praying with others was when I had the flu – but I sat at my kitchen table listening to Latin Mass on the radio.
2010 was the best year of my life. So if you’re thinking, “I’m not a believer,” remember that this is about actively participating in our evolving global community. And if you’re thinking – “I could never do this. I have a full-time job, I’m in school, I have a family!” – consider doing something a little less radical, something that will still enable you to make a difference in the world. Take a deep breath and say the following words:
I vow to pray once a month for the next year
in a religion other than my own.
If the word vow doesn’t work for you, consider pledge, choose, or even just agree. If pray doesn’t feel right, consider meditate, worship, or attend services. If religion seems limiting, how about faith, faith tradition, or spiritual practice? Then there’s the question of denomination. For me, an Orthodox synagogue is still Jewish. For a Catholic, a Baptist church might be another religion. Feel free to interpret these words for yourself.
I made my vow to That which I call God, but you may make yours to Goddess, All That Is, the Universe, the Great Mystery, your higher self, your higher power, or simply to the unfolding future of the human race.
Some people assumed that I prayed each week in a completely different religion. I didn’t. Instead of an anthropological or journalistic survey of different religions, I allowed myself to be guided to places that called to me, and I returned to some of them over and over again. I found the Yellow Pages a great resource. You can do online searches. I suggest that you begin by exploring the houses of worship in your neighborhood, and I invite you to ask friends to join you.
My one resource was How to Be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook, by Stuart Matlin and Arthur Magida. It will give you the basics: how to dress, if women and men sit separately, if you can take pictures, or actively participate in prayers? It’s never a mistake to dress modestly, arrive early, and leave your camera and cellphone at home.
At some services you will be invited to introduce yourself. Some communities have social time after they pray. Consider staying, letting your hosts know where you come from, and telling them why you’ve joined them. And consider returning if you were moved, to learn more and meet new people. Everywhere I went I found people who were glad that I was there and were interested in sharing something about their religion with me. What I was afraid to find – and didn’t – were people trying to pull me into their religion. I found some communities more open than others, and found some communities so warm and nurturing that I have continued to pray there after my year ended.
Be open to what you find in other faith traditions. If the music, images, or beliefs push your buttons, or are incomprehensible, can you allow them to engage you emotionally, artistically, or view them as metaphors? Notice your edges, judgments, resistance, and pay attention to how they change/don’t change in the course of your year of prayer. Also notice what draws you in, moves you, touches your soul, and consider weaving elements of other faiths into your personal practice, just as we do with food, music, books, films, art, and clothing. And notice what praying with others does to your own beliefs. Sitting with Muslims while they prayed made me want a more physical practice. Meditating with Buddhists nurtured my contemplative side. Dancing outdoors with Wiccans reminded me that I find God/dess far more often in nature than I do indoors. And all these reminders and discoveries I have been weaving into my Jewish life.
Thank you for participating in this journey toward community-building through faith in action. I wish you a year of joy, new friendships, transformation, and spiritual growth. Together we can heal the world.