Heaven Help Us: In Search of Our Common History of Faith Traditions 

"Our unique customs and traditions and differences are beautiful. But we do have to remember that they come out of a shared humanity."

Deprivation

Subjugation

Xenophobia

At one time or another—and occasionally all at once—the ugliest of impulses have divided humankind. One millennium's forced exodus is akin to another's refugee crisis. Centuries of institutional bigotry live on in the form of bias against people who choose to love someone of their own gender. And today's economic segregation is a direct descendent of historical servitude.

Against all those odds, most people still hunger for

Compassion

Forgiveness

Sympathy.

This month, as they have for centuries, billions across the globe will fall to their knees, beg for forgiveness, revisit the past, reconcile the present and yearn for a future of acceptance and empathy. To be sure, this is a season in which Western cultures embrace a cartoonish Easter Bunny, and indulge in bountiful brunches and baskets full of candy. But lest we forget, April is also the heart of the holiest season in Christianity—the culmination of Lent with the celebration of Easter. Concurrently, Jews prepare for their 3,000-plus year Passover traditions and Muslims anticipate the month-long fasting season of Ramadan. At no other time in the modern calendar do so many of the world's faith communities intersect.

However, even as devotees fill houses of worship, those same sanctuaries have never been under a greater threat—as made clear by the mass killing of 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue last October; the murders of 26 worshipers at a Baptist church in Texas last November; this March's massacre at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand; recent Satanic desecrations in Roman Catholic churches in France; and just this month, a string of suspicious fires that engulfed three historically black churches near Lafayette, Louisiana.

"I don't know if there are truly safe places anymore. But that doesn't mean that we should be cynical and give up on faith. We should redouble our efforts to create safe places,'" said Rabbi Dan Fink, faith leader of Congregation of Ahaveth Beth Israel in Boise. "We have an obligation to do what we can to see that our sanctuaries are indeed sanctuaries. That means addressing the root causes of hatred and bigotry that spawn this violence."

The Rt. Rev. Brian Thom, Bishop of the Idaho Episcopal Diocese, echoed that, saying, "We need to believe that our houses of worship are indeed safe places. We long for community. We long for understanding."

Phillip Thompson, outreach director of the Islamic Center of Boise said, "Look, we're all under danger. We're all under scrutiny. But it seems that because we are unified in understanding that scrutiny, that might actually tie us a little more closely."

As we approach the seasons of Easter, Passover and Ramadan, Boise Weekly spent some time with faith leaders to talk about what binds us together and the never-ending search for what heals us.

Bible, John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life."

Bishop Thom oversees the Idaho Episcopal Diocese, which stretches from the Salmon River to Idaho's southern border and from Weiser to the eastern border. There are nearly 4,700 Episcopalians in the Gem State. Of the diocese's 27 parishes, some are as small as a half-dozen congregants, while the 115-year-old Saint Michael's Cathedral in downtown Boise—Idaho's first Episcopal church—has a congregation of approximately 1,800. Most are regular attendees of worship services. Added to those numbers are the so-called "C and E" Christians.

click to enlarge The Rt. Rev. Bishop Thom - GEORGE PRENTICE
  • George Prentice
  • The Rt. Rev. Bishop Thom

"Those would be the Christmas and Easter Christians," said Thom. "And so many of them come because mom says, 'Won't you please come to Church? All I want for Easter—or all I want for Christmas—is for you to come to church.'"

Attracting millennials or Gen Xers to a 21st-century worship service is a challenge for any institution of faith, but Thom said he sees it as more of a gift than a problem.

"It's a gift, because by holding a mirror up to ourselves, we're making it very clear that we just can't do it the same anymore," he said. "It forces us to consider the full expression of what happens at the cathedral each Sunday. Yes, there's music, a lot of people and some mystery; and it's great theater...it's that drama that good worship can be. But I'm also convinced that the Episcopal Church has something else, something special to offer to millennials. Gen Xers and millennials actually have a better grasp of mystery because it's not defined. They may not trust institutions, but mystery may be okay for them. And that's an entirely appropriate response, because we can't really be sure about anything nowadays. Some very big pieces of Christianity's history were formed long ago in black and white. Well, the world doesn't really work like that."

Thom delivers a sermon every Sunday, either in Boise or on the road at any one of the diocese's parishes, but on Easter he's one of the busiest men in Boise. In fact, his first Easter vigil will come the night before, on Saturday, April 20, at St. Michael's Cathedral. On Sunday, April 21, Thom will deliver no fewer than three Easter morning services at St. Michael's.

"It's a tradition that the bishop always goes to the cathedral for Easter. By the fourth service, you better have it down," he said.

And where does the 2,000-plus-year-old story of Christ's resurrection fit into the 21st century?

"Boy, now more than ever," said Thom. "It's just primordial to reach toward unity. The redeeming thing about Easter for us is that it confirms to us that we are not God. God is God. Indeed, there is this life that can be lived, both on this side and then with God in whatever future he has for us. Unfortunately, right now, we are in disunity. So now, more than ever, Easter is the ultimate expression of unity."

Torah, Exodus 12 50-51: "All the children of Israel did; as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron, so they did. It came to pass on that very day, that the Lord took the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt with their legions."

This year, Rabbi Fink will celebrate his 25th anniversary as faith leader of Congregation Ahaveth Beth Israel (CABI) in Boise.

"Is seems as if it's only a moment rather than 25 years," said Fink, a 12th-generation rabbi. "Sometimes the days are long, but the years fly by."

click to enlarge Rabbi Dan Fink - GEORGE PRENTICE
  • George Prentice
  • Rabbi Dan Fink

He added, "before there was Judaism, before there was Christianity, before there was Islam, there were festivals rooted in the cycle of nature. Why would you not have a spring festival? You see the world being reborn around you. After a long winter, it's a season of hope. In the Jewish tradition, it becomes a remembrance for us... a remembrance of our liberation from Egypt. However you view your particular traditions through your own lens, at the heart of the matter, it's a celebration of freedom, a celebration of new possibility, a rebirth for all of us."

All that said, Fink added that the differences among us, particularly in how we worship, are good things.

"I don't really want to live in a world where everybody has to be Jewish or Christian or Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu or agnostic," said Fink. "Our unique customs and traditions and differences are beautiful. But we do have to remember that they come out of a shared humanity."

The centerpiece of the beginning of Passover is the Seder, the ritualistic meal that helps commemorate the retelling of the story of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery.

"We're sitting around having this meal and we're reading from the Haggadah, the liturgy for the meal; and we have this line that says, 'In every generation, it is incumbent upon us to see ourselves as if we too went out of Mizraim.'"

"Mizraim" is the Hebrew word for Egypt. The root of the word "Mizraim" is "zar," meaning "narrow street" in Hebrew. In fact, the Israelites traveled through the narrow strait of Sinai.

"But it also takes on a metaphorical significance here, because Egypt wasn't just a nation. It's the place of 'narrowness,'" said Fink. "Think of it. We've all been in those narrow places, and our obligation is to help other people get free of those narrow places too. I remind my congregation that the Passover Seder experience is not just a remembrance of something that happened to people 3,000 years ago. It's not just a reenactment. It's a lived experience in which we make our own journey out of our own narrow places. If you haven't done that, you've missed the point."

Quran, 2:183: "Believers! Fasting is enjoined upon you, as it was enjoined upon those before you, that you become God-fearing."

Phillip Thompson, Executive Director of the Idaho Black History Museum and Outreach Director of the Islamic Center of Boise, grew up in a Christian household and reminds his own children that there are strong bridges among many faiths.

"Every major Abrahamic faith has major celebrations in the spring, whether it be Easter, Passover or Ramadan. It's all renewing. It gives us the opportunity to participate and learn about what others do during this time. My own family is predominantly Christian, so there's an overlap there. It's an embodiment we all need to follow," said Thompson. "My daughter has gone to a synagogue a time or two for someone's Bar Mitzvah and she usually asks about things we have in common—such as women covering their heads, people remaining kosher or halal. Judaism and Islam have so much in common. We just don't talk about it that much."

Thompson was quick to add that Islam and Christianity also share beliefs.

"Absolutely. Do you believe in Jesus? Well, our book says he'll return, as is written in Revelations in the Bible, but most Christians don't realize that Muslims hold that truth."

Thompson said Islam's month-long fasting of Ramadan has tangible relevance to a 21st-century world where the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to widen.

"Ramadan is an act of devotion and sacrifice. We're not only supposed to fast, but we're also supposed to be steadfast in prayer," said Thompson. "We're supposed to go help the poor and the needy and less fortunate. Many people don't have the perk of choosing to fast when they're constantly in need of something to eat...something to feed their children. Ramadan, for us, is this cool cleansing [and] spiritual journey because it forces you to put all of your vices in check and work on helping others."

Above all, he said, the celebrations of Ramadan, Passover and Easter are opportunities, albeit spiritual ones, to reflect inward and reach out to the "other."

"We have a choice. We can let our petty differences split us or keep us apart, or we can unify against that," said Thompson. "In these holy times, even if it's something we don't practice through any faith, we can still choose to be mindful and respectful. We can choose to unite."

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