I try to arrive at the house of worship early. Of course there are practical reasons for that: usually, I’ve never been there before, so I need time to evaluate the space where I’ll be meeting with people or speaking—a classroom or library, the social hall or sanctuary; I need time to set out publication materials on a table somewhere; and locating water, coffee and restrooms is always a good idea. More than that, though, I like to arrive at the house of worship early so I can explore.
I am one of those people who was, for the most part, “unchurched,” in that for most of my childhood we did not attend any house of worship. But my upbringing was very religious; my parents are both teachers in the Sufi Order and have been since before I was born. This order of Sufism emerged out of the Indian Chisti Order in 1901 when Hazrat Inayat Khan came to the West to spread the Sufi message. The Message he came to spread is that there is one God—one Truth—that can be found in all religious traditions, and that religions are different because the message of God has come to different people and different cultures, in different places and in different times, so it has been interpreted and expressed differently. Still, it is the same Truth and underlying each religion is a single Reality. It is a mystical tradition with Muslim roots but a universal scope.
Growing up, I remember Sufi initiates meeting with my parents for guidance, people coming over for zikr meditation in our living room, individuals taking spiritual retreats in the small hut my parents built in the backyard, occasional Universal Worship services in rented spaces, and my favorite—Sufi dancing. I also remember learning lots of stories: stories about Jesus’ love of children, Buddha’s concern about suffering and Krishna’s boyhood mischievousness. My childhood was filled with God and religion(s), and I breathed it all in.
The thing my childhood didn’t have was a house of worship with a building, a congregation, a structured religious education program, a youth group, committees or congregational meetings. Somewhere along the way, I decided I wanted those things for my children. So when my sons were young, I sought out a religious community in which to raise them, and before long, I found myself working as Director of Religious Education at a Unitarian Universalist church.
It was there that I fell in love with all things congregational: children’s programs; those sometimes anxious Board members; committee functioning (and non-functioning, and occasional dys-functioning); and those quiet volunteers who pour their hearts and souls into the community because its goals and people are so vitally important to them. Today, I no longer direct religious education programs at Unitarian Universalist churches; I am a simple member of a Jewish congregation, doing what I can to raise my children in our chosen religious community.
In my work, though, I have the great privilege to talk to and meet people of faith from many different denominations and religious traditions. I coordinate Texas Interfaith Power & Light, the environmental education program of Texas Impact, an interfaith organization whose motto is “people of faith working for justice.” It is an honor to be able to visit different houses of worship, to pray with people over meals, and to listen to people’s stories about their congregations—their joys, frustrations, and concerns. Regardless of the denomination or the religion, the challenges and joys of being in community, it seems to me, are the same.
So for my first visit to any house of worship, I try to arrive early. I love to explore these spaces that are central to the community, spaces that are both functional and sacred. I venture into the sanctuary and try to get a feel for the worship space. I wander down hallways and peer into classrooms. I locate the nursery and smile at the bright, cheery spaces people create for their youngest members. Sometimes, there’s time after my presentation or our meeting for a tour of the building, and that’s when the best stories emerge—stories about the art in the hallway that a member made; stories about additions to the building over time, and how those architectural decisions were made; stories about the flowerbeds, a playground, a giant tree out back.
It is pretty clear to me that religious communities are groups of people who come together intentionally to serve each other, God (however God is known there), and the world the best way they can. Each congregation I’ve had the honor to visit is a beautiful, amazing thing—an imperfect but well-intentioned beacon of light and hope in a sometimes dark and lonely world. Maybe if every city organized a day of congregational nursery-room hopping so that everyone could peek into the colorful, well-lit playrooms for children in all kinds of houses of worship and hear some of each other’s stories, we’d all understand our common hopes and limitations—our common humanity—a little bit better.