“The very best of yourselves includes your faith.”
On the eve of Canada’s 150th birthday since Confederation, I was in conversation with 74 leaders of different faiths at the Faith in Canada 150 Millennial Summit in the Capital City. We came together to speak about Canadians’ faith in the private and public sphere in a time when we are expected to leave faith at the door of our places of worship.
If I could use a few words to sum up my experiences at the summit, they would be surreal and enlightening. Entering the room into the welcome reception was like encountering a sea brimming with waves of diversity in faith. I looked around and beamed with hope. Dastars, headscarves, kippahs, clerical clothing and Islamic topis–they made the room look like something I had only hoped for and not seen as of yet – unity amongst faiths. When I took my seat, I exchanged smiles with a young Rabbi next to me, unaware that the next day I would be seated in an Uber with a Palestinian driver and a pro-Israeli Rabbi. Talk about surreal!
Our conversations with others can feel so surface-level; you walk away feeling like you got nothing out of it, there is this bland taste on your tongue and on your soul. At the Millennial Summit, we had genuine conversations – the ones in which you take the courage to become vulnerable, to be honest to yourself and others. Going around the table, we shared our struggles, some saying that they had a hard time finding a balance between their social life and their everyday commitments, and others offering insights on how they find a balance. Our first ice breaker activity fostered this environment of comfort where we could be ourselves in the presence of one another. Each of the 75 delegates were given a piece of paper that contained a question they were to ask, but not just any question–a question about faith. My piece of paper said to find someone who is Catholic and ask them what their favourite prayer is. To answer the question, we had to become vulnerable – even if this meant admitting we could not entirely remember the prayer but, hey, at least we remembered how it made us feel! After this ice breaker, we wanted to ask more questions and we realized the importance of not getting offended when someone just didn’t know. I asked one of the Sikh delegates about why she wears her headwear, which I later realized is called a dastar, that then turned into a meaningful conversation about the significance behind the practices of our respective faiths. Later that night, on the eve of Canada’s sesquicentennial birthday since Confederation, we walked arm in arm down the streets of downtown Ottawa, her wearing her dastar and myself in hijab. We talked about our passions and pursuits, fashion and modesty and, of course, our thoughts on marriage. We were more common than different.
One of my many favourite memories from the Summit is a conversation with a delegate about the prayer before our first lunch at the summit. The prayer was made by a Rabbi, and the delegate, who was Christian, spoke of how he appreciated the use of metaphors in prayers made by Rabbis; he admired how numbers used in their prayers often signified meaningful concepts, and I explained how I liked the Rabbi’s metaphor that we are all birds in God’s nest. To hear the prayers of people of different faiths – to be part of a means through which they connect to the Creator and have their voices heard, questions answered and solace, hope and goodness found – was an incredible privilege, and I surely am not the only one who feels this way. On the day we were heading out of Ottawa, I and two other delegates from DawaNet invited a delegate who we became close friends with, to pray with us. Together, a Mormon and Muslims, our hands up in prayer – the dim lit room and our hearts heaved serenity. Seeing our friend well up with tears when bringing the prayer to a close, told me that there was something undeniably special about praying together – perhaps, it was a profound realization that, indeed, we are like birds in the same God’s nest. Sharing our experiences with one another at the summit, we were overpowered with a sense of liberation and camaraderie when we found common ground in our stories. But, we also recognized the importance in finding beauty in our differences. Dr. Hamid Slimi reminded us of this while mentioning a verse from the Qur’an: “O mankind, indeed We have… made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another,” (Qur’an, 49:13).
Meeting the delegates was beyond beautiful because I was able to witness the same kind of hunger in our souls, and later realized, that it is the kind of hunger that I not only feel from each of the delegates, but from every person I meet. The only difference is that in everyday life, we do not have a language to communicate that deep meaning within ourselves, as Dr. Aileen van Ginkel would say. Engaging in dialogue about faith, we were gifted the opportunity to communicate hope and the deep meaning that rests within. Dr. Aileen van Ginkel encouraged us to leave the summit with the pursuit of learning how to tell our stories of faith and hope – that this would free others, giving them a way to express the deep meaning that lies within them. So, how can we use our faith to make a genuine positive difference in the public sphere?
Dr. Hamid Slimi pointed out that respect and dignity are core values that connect multiple faiths, and we agreed that fighting for people’s rights should be a defining act of being a person of faith. We concluded that our faith gives us a responsibility to focus on issues of societal well-being and to make those issues a priority, and that there is no peace without justice. This meant recognizing the injustice done to Indigenous peoples throughout our history and understanding what justice looks like to them, which Reverend Raymond Aldred, who is from the Indigenous community, clearly expressed, “Justice is about healing, not punishment.” On the other hand, we also spoke about the responsibility that the public sphere has in addressing social political issues for what they are and not dressing them up in religion, and our responsibility in pointing out the integral role vocabulary plays in the misrepresentation of faiths. For example, we argued that “radical” and “extreme” does not mean “violence.” They are different words and their meanings should not be clouded. For instance, pursuing a faith to its extremes, to the point where you are almost radical, should not denote violence. For me, pursuing my faith to its extreme means remembering the Creator in every moment, with every breath that I take. It means being merciful and loving to people not in spite of the mistakes they make, but for the mistakes they make. We reasoned that we don’t like the words “extremist” or “fundamentalist” used for those who pursue faith falsely. This is a matter of poor word choice and allows the conversation to be taken way off course from where it stems from such as, poverty, lack of community, and poor mental health care.
One of the most important learnings I took away from the Millennial Summit is that faith is true and deeply Canadian, and that keeping private about our faith is not only wrong to our faith but wrong to Canada. Keeping private about our faith prevents the opportunity for Canadians to engage in tens of thousands of honest conversations, tens of thousands of acts of goodness. When a delegate at the summit, Abubakar Khan, engaged in interfaith dialogue in his community in Vancouver earlier this year, he was able to organize a stellar initiative –youth of various faiths in his community worked together to turn a mosque into a homeless shelter for a day and showed us the feats Canadians can accomplish when they have open conversations about faith. Although an increasingly secular Canada expects us to leave faith at the door of our places of worship, whether it be a mosque, church, synagogue, gurdwara or temple, the truth is that faith is always and will forever be present in Canadians. Millennials of faith do not walk into the classroom, workplace or social media wearing a separate hat. We are whole people and the very best of ourselves includes our faith.
“O Lord God! Make us as waves of the sea, as flowers of the garden, united, agreed through the bounties of Thy love.” —‘Abdu’l-Bahá