For two days, 30 Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Buddhist religious leaders gathered at a Catholic retreat center in Northeast Philadelphia. They didn’t engage in discussions of theology, scripture, or religious history. Nor did they focus on organizing around a political issue or social action. Instead, the religious leaders spent the time teaching and sharing spiritual practices from their respective traditions.
Participants had the opportunity to experience an aspect or practice of various religions and traditions.
The third annual “Cultivating Character” retreat took place in early June. The program is organized and sponsored by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, with generous support from the Henry Luce Foundation.
The program has grown from having ten participants – all female – to 30 male and female religious leaders, some more experienced, and others just beginning their careers.
“We grow spiritually, we learn about the other, and we cultivate trusting connections across communities,” explains Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, Ph.D., director of RRC’s Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives.
Rabbi Kreimer – who has four decades of involvement in interfaith activism – has pioneered this experiential approach to interfaith engagement.
“We invented this,” she said of RRC. “This is our special unique contribution to the field.”
Sharing religious practices does not replace more traditional dialogue, but it can serve as a supplement.
Participants learn how other religious leaders build spiritual sustenance and work toward becoming more compassionate, mindful people. The program can also serve as a model to the leaders to spur their respective communities toward authentic interfaith engagement.
The idea isn’t that leaders will adopt others’ practices whole cloth, but aspects may inform their own religiosity. For example, Kreimer explained she has been deeply moved by the Catholic practice of Lectio Divina, or divine reading, in which New Testament texts are read aloud in an intentional, meditative chant. She has tried to emulate the practice with a group of Jews who study Mussar texts.
In her opening speech, Rabbi Kreimer told the assembled religious leaders that “very often in interfaith dialogue, we want to explain ourselves to others so that they will think better of our religion. Rid them of their mistaken notions of it. Teach their children to like us and our tribe. But this encounter is not about defending ‘our team’ and more about owning up to what we lack, as individuals and as communities.”
We come together with our neediness on our sleeves–we each need each other. Each of us has work to do on our own character and we are not afraid to say that is a task of a lifetime. We have found some wisdom in practices already–either from the tradition we locate ourselves in or borrowed from others and adapted – but we want to learn more. I encourage us each to embrace the vulnerability that this kind of conversation evokes.”
Rabbi Kreimer’s goals are to grow the program and adapt it for campus chaplains, who are yearning for genuine interfaith exchanges. The goal is to inspire and educate the chaplains to lead campus communities in meaningful interfaith interactions.
Francesca Debora Nuzzolese is an associate professor of spiritual formation and pastoral care at Palmer Theological Seminary, a Protestant institution in King of Prussia. Nuzzolese has attended all three “Cultivating Character” workshops. After the most recent retreat, she penned a reflection piece. What follows is an excerpt:
My involvement in the interfaith journey is a relatively new one. In the span of three years, with all the interreligious conflict and violence we have witnessed in the world, I have learned the depth and challenge of the statement above. Hence, I have made participation in interfaith work and dialogues, both as a committed Christian and as a theological educator, my new spiritual discipline and one I practice with intentionality and enthusiasm.
Our first retreat, three years ago, was so unexpectedly rich and powerful, I never thought we would top that experience. Ten women. All deeply committed to our own spiritual growth and to the growth and nourishment of leaders in our traditions. A place special in its own right, for its legacy of justice, hospitality and inclusivity. A container of safety and grace, constructed intentionally by the organizers of the retreat. My memories of our first retreat can be summed up with an image: a heart pumped full with the energy of life, overflowing with gratitude, spilling out into my body, feeding all parts of me. The image is forever immortalized in a collage, which was started on our first day together in 2013, and which sits on my school desk. It is a constant reminder that such fullness of heart is not only possible; it is also extremely necessary in a world of great division and fear.
Three years later, our encounter is just as powerful and rich, yet in new and unexpected ways. The progression from the safety of a small, intimate group of only women to a group three times as large, and much more diverse in terms of ages, experiences and gender, seemed timely. There is an urgent need, I feel, to engage younger voices, the new generations of emerging leaders, in the work of patient, compassionate and constructive dialogue across religious traditions. The model we have developed - grounded in the sharing of practices, which feed us personally, and the practice of honesty and vulnerability, is indeed a powerful one. It needs to be shared, modeled, taught and practiced in every interfaith space and every opportunity we get.
The richness of the experience, at this last retreat, for me was particularly augmented by the presence of the emerging leaders, who sparked in me a desire for mentoring and accompanying them I had not felt before. I found refreshing the experience of a young immigrant Muslim woman, Vjosa, with whom I felt a real sense of sisterhood, which bypasses as much as it honors the different traditions we embrace. I found inspiring the developing identity of a young humanist, who identified his commitment to rigorous research as his personal spiritual practice.
Our informal conversations as well as the spaces for mutual learning and teaching made me forget the differences and enter a sacred space of shared experience, where we all met on the shared grounds of our humanity, our longings for safety, community and belonging, our desire to be affirmed and honored in our life and work. Unexpectedly, in the short span of our retreat time, I came to experience a deep bond of intimacy and closeness, or what I like to define an experience of ‘love without agenda.’ This, as it was pointed out by one of the participants, is often hard to experience even in the context of our own religious communities.