FAITH IN ACTION
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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