My sabbatical has come to an end. I have been a bit busy putting the final touches on my gallery exhibit and presentation. In preparation for these culminating efforts my manager throughout this project, asked me a number of questions. I thoroughly enjoyed answering her questions, it was fun being the interview subject this time around. Here are a few I wanted to share on the blog.
At the onset of your sabbatical, you said that you wanted to explore the many faces of faith across generations and cultures in our nation today through personal conversations with people of different faiths and through immersive experiences in various places of worship.
• In general, do you feel you accomplished this?
Over the course of my sabbatical, I did in fact meet with a great variety of people from different faiths and walks of life. Being able to sit down and have one-on-one conversations about the things that matter most to them, listening to their stories, allowed me to understand these different expressions of faith from the intimate perspective of those who practice and adhere to them. At times our conversations were lighthearted, many times they were deeply emotional, but they were always revealing and thought-provoking. In addition, visiting places of worship such as churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other sacred spaces, allowed me to experience services and rituals that were completely new to me. These experiences gave me a clearer understanding of these traditions and faith narratives, they gave me a perspective I could not have gotten from reading about them in a book as I was able to actively engage and participate (in as much as possible and appropriate) with other practitioners. Because I was able to experience this not only within Kansas City, but in three major cities (New York, San Francisco and New Orleans), I feel that I accomplished this goal to a great degree. Each of these major cities offered a different array of experiences and cultures.
• When did you start your journey? And when did you finish up?
The duration of my sabbatical was June through November of 2014. However, although my sabbatical is over, I feel that this has turned into a lifelong passion and journey. My project is complete and I’m back to my full time work, but I will be thinking about interfaith dialogue and world religions for a long time to come.
• How many people did you end up interviewing?
The lifeblood of this project was conversations with individuals. Some of my interviews were formal, sit-down, recorded interviews that I later recounted in the blog. These interviews lasted anywhere from one to three hours. Many of my interviews were spontaneous. These happened with people I met at places of worship or at interfaith gatherings, and they could be anything from ten minutes to an hour long. I also had a handful of people with whom I interacted online. Some of these conversations were recounted in long form on the blog, others were referenced or alluded to and many others are recorded only in my notes. But all of these conversations have equally informed and influenced the culminating effort and the whole experience of this project. I can’t say exactly how many people I interviewed, but I estimate it was approximately 40 to 50 people.
• What are some things that were confirmed/affirmed through your interviews?
One assumption I had affirmed was that everybody has a story and that most people are happy to share their story and be heard. I didn’t really have to look very hard for interview subjects. In most cases, when people learned about my project they approached me and said they’d be happy to share their story with me. There were a few people I actively pursued, but for the most part people were eager to share their stories.
Another assumption I had going into this project was that faith and spirituality give life meaning. I found this to be confirmed as people shared with me how their beliefs, their faith communities and their practices grounded them, gave them context and made them feel like they belonged. People also shared with me how they were able to cope and make it through life because of the strength of their convictions.
• Any personal assumptions you found to be proven incorrect?
Although I felt strongly that everyone had a story and everyone wanted to be heard, I was convinced I would find a lot of resistance along the way. Because as a culture and as a society we deem religion to be a strictly private matter, I thought for sure I would encounter many people who would be offended or put off by questions about their beliefs. I was happy to find this to not be true. People are generally happy to answer questions about their beliefs and practices as long as they feel that the questions are genuine and well-intentioned. Because I made it clear that I was there to listen and learn, without bias or judgment, and because I was not interested in debate, people were perfectly comfortable answering the kinds of questions we usually wouldn’t dare ask at work (for instance, “How do you experience God?”)
Interfaith work was a field that I knew little to nothing about. Today my understanding of interfaith work is very different than it was when I started this project. One assumption I had was that people involved in interfaith believe all roads lead to Rome and sit around a campfire singing Kum Ba Yah, so to speak. I very quickly learned that interfaith work is deeply committed not only to religious issues but also social, political and economic issues. I learned that people committed to interfaith work are deeply devoted to their own personal beliefs, and that they are able to understand, learn about and respect the religions of others without necessarily accepting them as their own.
A common misconception in our day is that all religions are basically the same. To a certain degree I shared this assumption. While there are certainly similarities and common ground among religions, I now find it more helpful and much more interesting to talk about the things that distinguish each religion from the others. That’s where we really start to move forward.
Another assumption I found to be incorrect was that we are living in a post-religious world, that is, that religion is dying out with older generations. Religion, faith and spirituality are very much alive. They are alive because they are in flux. Christianity, for instance, is vibrant and effervescent among millennials. But it’s not the Christianity of the boomers. The fact that it can adapt and prove to be valid and relevant, continues to keep faith alive today and for generations to come. This is happening across religious traditions. Young Muslims in the U.S. are figuring out what it means to be an American Muslim while the generation before them is still working out what it means to be a Muslim in America. These tensions, this give and take, the exchange between culture and faith are not the death knell of religion but rather the spark that fuels its adaptation and survival.
• Has this experience changed you as a creative professional, a person, a father, a husband, a son?
When I set out on this project, I thought I would be an information gatherer. I thought my approach would have the detachment of academic research. Before too long, however, I found myself faced with questions and situations that challenged my personal beliefs. I knew that this project would change me, because the inevitability of change is one thing in which I’ve always believed. I just didn’t expect it to change me as much. One major change is that having a better appreciation and understanding of different religions has made me much more embracing of religious experience as a whole.
More than ever I believe today in the power of inquiry, that questions are always more interesting than answers. More than ever I believe that the range of religious and spiritual experiences is as vast and uniquely diverse as humankind itself. But most of all, I believe today more than ever, in the power of empathetic and active listening. I believe that having a genuine interest in what gives meaning to other people’s lives creates a more emotionally connected and compassionate world. I believe this experience has changed me at the core and by consequence I do think it has changed how I see myself as a professional, a father, a husband and a son.
Thank you for following along on this journey. Stay tuned for a few more posts in the next few days. I’ll be sharing highlights from the gallery exhibit and my presentation.