Finding Community in Diversity

FAITH IN ACTION By Katherine Marshall Last Friday evening, in the quiet sanctuary of an old Catholic church in Brooklyn, … Continued


By Katherine Marshall

Last Friday evening, in the quiet sanctuary of an old Catholic church in Brooklyn, a group gathered to talk about a community that works globally for peace and social justice, the Rome-based Community of Sant’Egidio. To understand this group, you have to explore the interwoven notions that they see as their special mark: prayer, friendship, and community.

Earlier that week, I had a conversation with Homa Sabet Tavangar about the challenges of giving today’s children a sense that they belong to a common world community at the same time that they understand and savor diverse cultures. Her new book, “Growing up Global: Raising Children to be at Home in the World,” is full of ideas for introducing children to the interconnected world they live in. Homa’s vision and strength come in part from being part of the Baha’i community, whose members are scattered to the far corners of the world.

These two concepts of community — Sant’Egidio and Baha’i — are robust yet complex. In both instances, the sense of membership is strong but there’s no signing on the dotted line. Both communities are grounded in faith but see themselves as profoundly part of the larger world, with responsibilities that call them to act on their beliefs, at both local and global levels.

The Community of Sant’Egidio has grown from a small group of high school students to something akin to a federation of locally grounded groups, in some 70 countries. Friendship is a word they use constantly. What they mean by it is a robust type of friendship that is deeply welcoming but not cloying. It encompasses humor, joy in life, and profound caring. Friendship is what draws the community to people who are lonely and excluded, down to living on the street or fleeing from war. They care, and show their caring by the time they spend and the true bond of knowing and appreciating each individual. The community is clearly religious – daily prayer is a central feature – and proudly Catholic. But they are grounded in the earth’s problems and skilled in its very secular politics. One senior cleric said to me: “They are what we would like the Church to be.”

The Baha’i community that Homa describes is a diverse group (with only about 5 million members worldwide) that, in whatever far flung corner, welcomes and supports those who are born into or adopt the faith. Baha’is have no clergy and no formal rituals, so much of this welcome takes place in homes. Once again, this personal quality of caring is something that conveys the sense of a community that transcends boundaries. The Baha’i belief in the oneness of mankind, in the common values among faiths, of true equality of men and women, lends the community a palpable sense of belonging and of mission, one that encompasses both the spiritual and the secular. The Baha’i are among the faith traditions who are most active in international settings, bringing always their belief that human rights are an integral part of their faith. At a time when understandings of what gender equality really means for daily life are rather convoluted in various faith traditions, the Baha’i conviction that equality means equality is striking.

Religious communities are extraordinarily diverse, of course, and the question of who belongs and what that suggests about those who do not is never easy to answer. Homa and I agreed that of all dimensions of diversity, differences in belief may be the hardest to address. What people believe is often deeply emotional, and deeply part of how they see their identity, on many dimensions. That challenge, however, makes it doubly important to reflect on how to balance belonging and exclusion, diverse community and common purpose. That’s what gives the reflections about community by Sant’Egidio and the Baha’is a special significance.

Community is a common term these days but it’s not always easy to pin down exactly what it really means. We are, most of us, part of several or many communities, bound by threads that are loose or strong. The language of community can be at the same time as familiar as the street sounds of Brooklyn and as elusive as the soft mutterings of a forgotten foreign language. Community is, in the first instance, the counter to the alienating anonymity that is so easy today, whether the individual is lost on a busy city street, lacking the identity papers that allow them to study or get a job, or dying in an isolated hut of HIV/AIDS or shamed by fistula.

Community is about friendship and caring. It is also about shared beliefs and sense of purpose. Community is one of the great gifts of religious traditions, offering welcome and comfort, and a sense of belonging. Within that framework, the robust, articulate, and welcoming ideas of community that come from two very different faith traditions and histories – the Community of Sant’Egidio and the Baha’i faith – offer a flash of welcome insight into what the social capital of religion can represent.

Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and a senior adviser for the World Bank.

By Katherine Marshall | 
October 13, 2009; 9:20 AM ET

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Faith in Action

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  • ccnl1

    Again two observations:A. The koran does not allow diversity.B. “Singled out as Authentic – as the only Institution in the world that has the living descendant of King David as its president, the great grandson of ‘Abdu’l-Baha seated upon the throne of King David which is to last forever (Psalm 89) – this House alone, the true UHJ, has the Divine Power and God given Knowledge through the “KEY of DAVID” to heal the world of all its ills and guide a wayward and forlorn humanity back out of the gloom of the darkness of war into the light of real fellowship, truth, felicity and brotherly love in the shade of the divine and holy Tree of Life – man reunited with God in the garden of God as this earth was meant to be – in fulfillment of this sacred verse.”

  • pilgrimbrent

    A really excellent piece, urging the reader to reach out past the “alienating anonymity” of today and be of service to others. It will surely mean more than we realize.The first commenter, if I may respectfully observe, is not familiar with either the Muslim or Baha’i scriptures. It is important to not only read tracts against a religion with which one is unfamiliar–but the scriptures themselves. This is also an expression of what the writer has here encouraged — reaching out beyond our own faith traditions.The Qur’an states, “And among His wonders is this: He creates you out of dust–and then, lo! You become human beings ranging far and wide!… And among His wonders is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your tongues and colors: for in this, behold, there are messages indeed for all who are possessed of knowledge!” (Qur’an 30:20) Another verse: “Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him.” (Qur’an 49:13)The poster has not quoted from the Baha’i Writings at all. They can be found at . One example is this “…variation and … difference cause each to enhance the beauty and splendor of the others. The differences in manners, in customs, in habits, in thoughts, opinions and in temperaments is the cause of the adornment of the world of mankind. This is praiseworthy.” (Abdu’l-Baha)My little grandson is, thankfully, being raised by parents who encourage him to reach out to people who look different. One day the family was visiting another city, and a group of Buddhist monks passed by. He stared intensely at these men, bald-shaven, barefoot, and wearing robes, for a long moment; then he pointed at them and proudly told his mother, “Those people are my friends!” We could use more of that.

  • befriendedstranger

    An interesting article! I was not familiar with the work done by the Community of Sant’Egidio. It is refreshing to see how religious practices evolve and engage communities into the relevant problems of the times we live in. This is very much the approach of the Baha’i Community as well, whose members strive to apply its noble principles into the practice of our lives.In the words of the Baha’u’llah, the Founder of the Baha’i Faith:”The All-Knowing Physician hath His finger on the pulse of mankind. He perceiveth the disease, and prescribeth, in His unerring wisdom, the remedy. Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration. The remedy the world needeth in its present-day afflictions can never be the same as that which a subsequent age may require. Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.”Thanks for highlighting the similarities of the work these communities do in the service of humanity!

  • KateWeisman

    Imagine a world community, as described by Katherine Marshall and Homa Tavangar, embracing diversity and a shared purpose; working for peace and social justice, locally as well as globally; with friendship, profound caring, humor and joy; countering alienating anonymity with a sense of belonging. Perhaps hope for our fragile planet and the well being of its people lies in each one of us rushing out and joining or supporting these world embracing communities such as the Community of Sant’Egidio and the Baha’i International Community, or some other like minded community who share a “roll up your sleeve, can do, we are all in this together” attitude. Could this have been the envisionment of the Norwegian Nobel Committee in awarding President Obama with the Nobel Peace prize this year?

  • bita16

    I for one am really glad to see a story about people coming together and learning about community together. There are so many instances where someone thinks that their group is the only one with the answers and I think it is more of a learning process. It is only when we all come to the table that we will all be able to participate and learn. Thanks for sharing.