July 12, 2022
Interfaith Leadership “Award”
By: David Baak, Kaufman Volunteer
Last week the president awarded the Medal of Freedom to 17 Americans who, according to the White House, “demonstrate the power of possibilities and embody the soul of the nation—hard work, perseverance, and faith.” The recipients range from athlete Simone Biles to former U.S. House member Gabrielle Giffords and, posthumously, Senator John McCain.
The list was immediately controversial—apparently everyone has an opinion about who should or who should not be on that list, judging from readers’ comments to the various media reports. That is the nature of such lists and it has been true for the Freedom list each year since President John F. Kennedy named the first group of recipients. But, that’s what makes such listings interesting—the list itself stimulates each of us to think Who would be my addition to that list?
Which is my point, as it relates to interfaith leadership.
Who would you list as someone, local or global, contemporary or historical, who has demonstrated the “power of the possibilities,” to use the Freedom Medal language, in the arena of interfaith relationships, through “hard work, perseverance and faith” – or by whatever might be your own qualifying standard?
I would include the Rev. Dr. Damayanthi Niles. She is Professor of Constructive Theology and Interim Academic Dean at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. Her approach is to teach through the lens of “cultural and religious pluralism” that is “context specific but not context confined.”
She says “You don’t know who you are until you know who you are in relation to another” and she lists one of her mentors as a “post-modern Jewish Indologist, a studier of Hindu scripture who taught me Christian theology.” She also says “I don’t want to be right, just curious” and “I don’t want to win, I just want to relate.”
You can watch a video interview of Damayanthi Niles here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DCNc7yidYqk&t=17s
Dr. Niles suggests that we need to think about Christian doctrine in a manner that sees openness to other faiths as inherent to Christian faith being true to itself. As she says, “You can’t have a conversation if you’re the only one doing all the talking.” She is one of the most open persons I have met.
I met Damayanthi years ago when she and I worked together on ecumenical and interfaith committees and projects. I remember vividly her telling about a small gathering of strangers, in India, in a circle by firelight, talking quietly, getting to know each other, when one of them took some bread and shared it with the person next to them, and, thus, around the circle. It was not Eucharist; but the story, for me, brought a realization that the meaning in my own practice transcends its particularity. That moment had an immense impact on my commitment to and energy spent in interfaith relationships. Hard work, perseverance, deep faith… and strong relationships. Damayanthi Niles is high on my list.
And, so, who for you?
This list of ours, of course, is not in the least controversial—it is intended to be inclusive. There is no limit to nor judgment of the listing of those who have impacted our lives and who have shown what it is to be humble, generous and curious in the plurality and diversity of who we all are, in our many dimensions, and in this instance, as related to our faith and each other.
Let me know who’s on your list; write a sentence or two describing them and their importance to you. I’ll be happy to report back to you all and to expand the circle of acquaintance and to deepen, just a little at a time, our understanding of each other.