Kaufman Volunteer, Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU
A spring grand awakening for an interfaith town square
A few days ago, I received the latest issue of WEAREGR with news from the City of Grand Rapids, the Public Library, the Parks and Recreation Program and the Grand Rapids Public Schools, along with an encouraging message from our city manager, Mark Washington. This issue contained a remarkable amount of information about all sorts of activities and possibilities for everyone, the calendar begins with May events: “Summertime Sparks Our Grand Awakening.”
After a long COVID and cold winter – even April was one of the coolest, cloudiest on record – we look for some good news. After months of isolation of one kind or another, we are gathering again, kind of like bears lumbering out of hibernation. And, most seriously, after weeks of anxiety because of war, global economic uncertainty, and local violence, we long more than ever for stability and healing. Indeed, a perfect opportunity for a “grand awakening.”
Summer prompts crowds at festivals and concerts and competitions in streets and parks and venues all over the community. So, how will we do with each other this summer? How will we get along, after we have been so long limited? Will we be able to talk with, to listen to — to hear — and to help each other?
One of my favorite images of the Kaufman Interfaith Institute is that of a “town square.” Not physical, of course, but facilitative – a colleague describes it as “not on the map but in the hearts of a community and its citizens – to which they go to share and honor the deepest roots of their moral grounding and the highest ideals of their beliefs.” And “interfaith dialogue,” in its various forms, is our “language.”
Calder Plaza hosts festivals and artists and Rosa Parks Circle welcomes everyone from musicians to protestors. These spaces provide a place for any and all of us to enter, to interact, to mix, to leave, to re-enter and to engage again with friends, family and strangers in a mutually supportive arena that, at its best, produces or enriches our community relationships.
Like these physical, neutral and nurturing spaces, Kaufman Institute provides a supportive framework for us to address some of the difficult issues that are also a part of our lives, along with our recreation and play. The Kaufman “town square” is not political, but it is a non-partisan arena where we can explore political questions. The “space” is not sectarian, but it embraces the exploration of the faith of each of us, however different those beliefs are one from another. This “place” is not judgmental, but it helps us to pursue truth within the context of our various faiths, which encourage us to live with dignity, hospitality, and humility as we seek justice for us all.
Sometimes there are protestors on either side of the street and we have all seen individuals moving from one group across to the other, trying to facilitate understanding and conversation. Most of us have walked through the festival art tent in silence looking at the paintings; we have also observed small groups chattering in interpretive delight and critique. We know it is possible to get beyond the solitary or the noise; sometimes we need a nurturing place or maybe a gentle nudge.
The Kaufman town square is not alone, of course. In every neighborhood there are places where we gather and interact. Particularly in these last couple of weeks, the streets of downtown have similarly functioned. As the city manager said: “For two weekends in a row, we hosted events where people with very different political ideologies gathered and co-existed peacefully in our community …. (and) we saw what America could be if people with differing views had the liberty to express them in a safe way.” The challenge for all of us is to keep the dialogue healthy and helpful and continuing, regardless of points of view, or who has the view, or how firmly it is held.
Most of you who read the Interfaith Inform and the Insight know the many “rooms” where Kaufman provides this “town square”— they are usually linked at the bottom of this column and on the website — some 200 opportunities each year! And, many of you have participated in events where the dialogue vocabulary and protocols are practiced and people’s lives are enriched. The conversations are the heart and soul of civil dialogue that, as we always hope, informs the way we treat each other out in our community — active listening; a commitment to “self-definition” and respect for each person articulating their own position; being open to what Doug Kindschi has often reminded us is a “holy envy” — a willingness, with appreciation, to see in the other’s view a reflection of our own. That’s the language, vocabulary, and supportive framework that Kaufman brings to its town square.
For this summer’s “Grand Awakening,” we here at Kaufman will be experimenting with the content, form, and frequency of this column. I invite, even urge, you to let us know what you think of … well, whatever it is you find in this conversation space, including your suggestions for events, speakers, participants, book group books, or activities. Hit the return email and send us a line or two to help us all increase the value of this town square.
The Kaufman mission is always interfaith relationships. And, in our increasingly polarized culture, what we learn here from and with each other has many applications out there that can help us all.