A Steep Mountain: Interfaith Life in a Pandemic

In my Easter bonnet. On mute.

We made it through Holy Week and Passover. Dayenu.

Dayenu is everyone’s favorite song at the Seder. It means, “it would have been enough.” We use it to express gratitude. Even in this harrowing time, we need gratitude. (We also need big helpings of courage, and righteous anger, and passion for social justice, all themes of the seder).

Since I last posted here, the pandemic has gotten very close and real. I know people who have died, are sick, were separated from dying loved ones, have not been able to mourn these losses with traditional ritual.

We are locked down. We are masked. We are anxious, depressed, at times terrified.

Pot by Martha Legg Katz. Photo by Aimee Miller

Still, I have the privilege of being able to feel gratitude:

For the cherry blossoms and daffodils. Dayenu.

For the mourning doves nesting on our front porch in a ceramic pot my mother made. Dayenu.

For the sweet antics of the rescue puppy we adopted just before the pandemic hit DC. Dayenu.

For my years spent in Brazil cultivating a love for rice and beans, which help me live from my pantry now. Dayenu.

For my sister who runs a homeless healthcare clinic in New York City, and all the other workers risking themselves to try to save others. Dayenu.

And for Tony Fauci, that brilliant mensch, whom I interviewed many times while covering the HIV/AIDS epidemic during my years as a science reporter. Dayenu.

And, now more than ever, I feel deep gratitude for my interfaith families community. Just as Holy Week and Passover and the Sikh holiday of Vaisakhi and Ramadan were approaching, we were forced to scramble to make the transition to online religious and spiritual gatherings. Clergy now have to be tech wizards, innovating to conjure up the sounds and smells and tastes of these holidays, while attempting to maintain a sense of community for people in tiny pixellated squares. (Teachers, including my daughter, are faced with the same awesome task and steep learning curve right now).

2020 seder plate with some pandemic substitutions

One silver lining of our abrupt and forced transition to online religious and spiritual community, is that anyone with a computer or smartphone and the link can join in. As someone who loves ritual, I was able to zoom into many different communities in the past week, experiencing different seders, and different Holy Week services. At each of those celebrations, we were joined by people from across the country and the globe for the first time. Dayenu. And I had these diverse Jewish and Christian experiences, without having to drive to the homes of relatives in multiple states (as much as I fervently wish I could do that right now).

Historically, I have not always found Easter and Holy Week comfortable, as a Jew. More like, complicated. But once again this year, celebrating with the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC, in a service created by and for interfaith families, felt glorious. I could relax the part of my brain on alert for supersessionist ideas or language. Instead, the beauty of Easter’s metaphor, of renewal, of resurrection, shone through in the time of the pandemic, with over 100 families zooming in. In our community, Easter traditions include singing Morning Has Broken (with music by a Christian who became a Muslim), and Lord of the Dance (a Christian song inspired in part by a Hindu deity), as well as more traditional Easter hymns.

Among academics of religion today, the trend has been to repudiate the idea–the metaphor–that all religions are different paths up the same mountain. Instead, the dominant paradigm now is that each religion is a separate mountain, with different goals. I am glad I am not trying to earn tenure right now, because every time I experience interfaith community, I disagree with my heart and soul. I feel we share the mountain, just as we share the globe.

The mountain is the human condition. And on this shared mountain, the slope feels particularly steep right now. How do we persevere through pandemics and plagues? How do we cultivate community and compassion? Each religion and culture develops different strategies, different rituals, different liturgies. (For those in academia, yes, I am forever #TeamHustonSmith, #TeamKarenArmstrong. Apologies to friends on #TeamStephenProthero). No one said all religions are the same–or anyways not Huston Smith, not Karen Armstrong, and not me. If they were all the same, why would I need a life enriched by both religions in my heritage, the sibling religions of Judaism and Christianity?

Both Passover and Easter include the egg as a symbol. The mourning dove lays exactly two eggs. On my front porch, which represents the edge of the permissible world for us right now in lockdown, those eggs are due to hatch any day. Mourning seems appropriate in a pandemic. And doves feel like a hopeful sign, as they were for Noah. The doves (the male and female take turns on the nest) are hunkered down. They have adapted to us walking inches from their home, and even to the bark of our untamed puppy. When they hatch, I will feel another small moment of Dayenu.

It will have to be enough.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

My Parliament of the World’s Religions

Tibetan Buddhist monks make a sand mandala
Tibetan Buddhist monks make a sand mandala

Indigenous people getting ready for the opening procession
Indigenous people getting ready for the opening procession

For four days last week, I was immersed in an extraordinary community created by the Parliament of the World’s Religions: almost 10,000 people converged on Salt Lake City from around the world to learn about each other, pray for peace, and talk about saving the planet. The week was rich and dense with intercultural experiences. At dawn, I stood in a sacred circle with Ute people around a fire of wood and sage, gazing up at the Wasatch mountains beyond the highrises. I reclined on pillows with women in a conference room transformed into a red tent. And I learned a traditional Maori greeting from Grandmother Rose (Dr. Rangimarie Turuki Arikirangi Rose Pere), who came all the way from New Zealand to speak truth to power about corporate greed and climate change.

I heard inspiring speakers including Jane Goodall, Maryanne Williamson, Madea Benjamin, Joan Brown Campbell, Tariq Ramadan, Chief Arvol Lookinghorse, and Allan Boesak. And, I delighted in the inscrutable pop-up happenings that make the Parliament so much more lively and radically inclusive than an academic conference: the folks dressed in light-up angel wings, the young men in clown costumes dancing under a disco ball suspended on a long stick. The Parliament includes the sublime, and the ridiculous. Christian writer G. K. Chesterton gave it the snarky epithet: “a pantheon for pantheists.” But more accurately, it is an encounter of pantheists, monotheists, atheists, and everyone else.

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Langar with friends

One of the highlights of the Parliament for me occurred each day, when I took off my shoes, covered my head with my scarf, and enjoyed a free vegetarian meal served by the Sikh community in an extraordinary act of community service called langar, designed to uphold the principle of equality of all people. Whether sitting cross-legged on the floor at langar, or standing and watching the Tibetan Buddhist monks make a sand mandala, I got to meet people I never would have met otherwise, because at Parliament, everyone talks to everyone else in a spirit of openness. I also got to hang out with longtime friends who converged from my interfaith word (including emma’s revolution, Melody Fox Ahmed, Jackie Fuller, Katie Gordon, Victor Grezes, Katherine Rand, Sean Rose). And I finally met interfaith twitter buddies I had never met in person, including Vickie Garlock, Tahil Sharma, Simran Jeet Singh, Ellie Anders).

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Mormon Temple, Salt Lake City

Each Parliament is different, marked by time and place. Because we were in the Great Basin, this Parliament provided a strong opportunity to engage with indigenous American religious traditions from throughout the West and Canada. It also, of course, provided an opportunity to experience the center of the Mormon world. On my last day, suffering conference burnout, I stumbled out of the Salt Palace and walked up to Temple Square. There, I entered the 19th-century Assembly Hall and chatted with a young woman on her mission with the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints (the LDS Church) as she explained her faith. Then, I headed into the spectacular Mormon Tabernacle to witness music and dance from a dozen different religious traditions on Sacred Music night. Judaism, my primary religion, was represented by a group of rabbis positioned all through the Tabernacle who blew long shofars together at the invocation, and by a multi-faith choir of local children who led thousands of people in singing a Shlomo Carlebach nigun (a mystical wordless tune).

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Multi-faith children’s choir in the Mormon Tabernacle

You never really know when or where you will have a Parliament experience again. So far, only a handful have been held (Chicago 1893, Chicago 1993, Cape Town 1999, Barcelona 2004, and Melbourne 2009). Parliament organizers announced their intention to hold the next one in two years, although we don’t yet know where. Wherever it is, whenever it is, I don’t intend to miss it.

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.