In Solidarity

In Solidarity

The mission of Sharing Sacred Spaces (SSS) is to build community between diverse religious congregations by sharing the sacredness of space and tradition in the intentional spirit of hospitality, trust, friendship, and solidarity.  As a group, we work together to solve common problems that affect all religious communities, through narrow scopes to be sure each religious community feels appropriately included, heard, and properly supported in times of distress.  

While the recent assaults on persons in the black community and the resultant protests are not religiously motivated, we nonetheless feel the need to offer our voice of support and solidarity.  An untenable series of violent acts against Black Americans must cause our ears to perk up and our voices to rise.  Ensuing demonstrations must cause our ears to ring and our mouths to wail in solidarity.  We need to listen, we need to speak out, and we need to act.

SSS New Haven’s project for this year has coincidentally been to create a protocol to actively, tangibly, and spiritually respond to acts of hatred and violence inflicted upon humanity, specifically upon religious persons and/or groups.  How do we show up not only as practitioners in solidarity with religious groups but also in solidarity and support to other groups suffering from bias and the misuses of power? How do we stop the hate? And how do we respond when hate roars its head? In our meetings, we’ve worked together to try to figure this out — to determine what such a protocol would look like and how we would respond to such incidents.  

The method for our research has first been to listen to each of our participating religious communities in turn.  We haven’t heard from all of our groups yet; and we haven’t put it all together yet either.  But we wish to outline just some preliminary insights from our discussions so far as time is of the essence.  

From our Zen Buddhists, we learned that we breathe the same air as those who do and would hate.  We are inherently interconnected, and reactions to divide or try to purify will only accomplish the intention of hate.

Zen Master Jok Um spoke from his spiritual wisdom, and importantly enhanced our understanding of interconnectedness through stories illustrative of exemplary actions and conversations.  He shared, for example, of his interruption of a gang fight by asking the members in the rival gangs, in the midst of their threats, if they wanted to get coffee.  One of the gang members said yes, walked down the hill to the McDonalds with him, had the chance to talk about his family, and enjoyed a cup of coffee.

Following this, Master Jok Um shared this memory:

I’m recalling an interview that was on NPR some years ago.  Somewhere in the deep south there was a black Mississippi blues musician who was on a circuit.  He’s playing in a bar, and in between sets, a white guy comes up to him and says, “You play our music pretty well for a black guy.”  He mentions Bo Diddley, and he starts to name a bunch of white musicians who had a reputation for this kind of music, and that’s what he listens to.  So the musician says, “Can I give you a lesson in music history please?” And he starts to name the 4700 people who have done this for 100 years. And the white guy was thinking, “I didn’t know that.”  “Well that’s why I’m telling you. I didn’t mind telling you. How would you know it? But I know it, so I wanted you to know it.” And he was receptive.  And he said thank you.  But then he said, “I shouldn’t stay here, because I shouldn’t be seen talking to you.  He took out a card and it said something like “John, Grand Wizard, KKK”.  The musician continues on the circuit, and many months later he winds up at the same club.  And the same guy is there. And he has something wrapped up in a package.  The musician asks, “What is it?”  He says, “It’s my KKK robe and I can’t wear it anymore.”  So when the musician was on the circuit, he looked for these people and he engaged with them.  At the time of the interview he had 200 robes.  I don’t know anyone else who could do that.  And it makes me wonder:  those people who committed those acts of hatred… among them is there someone who wants to have coffee? (Read the full transcription of this event here:

From our Catholics we learned how rare it is to have meaningful and vulnerable conversations together, that once we engage in a meaningful conversation we need to share that experience with others, and that hate must be understood as a spiritual sin requiring a fundamentally spiritual solution.

Father John-Paul shared with our group:  It’s my experience as a priest 17 years and a Dominican friar 23 years is that in most ecumenical or interfaith gatherings no one wants to talk about anything tough.  And so it doesn’t get talked about at all, or [we have] these superficial discussions that don’t go anywhere.  The first thing is to speak about it…The second, is inviting people in.

Fr. John-Paul went into the muck of the tough issues to address hatred from three vantage points:  hatred against Catholics; Catholic responses to hate; and hate perceived as coming from Catholics.  

Regarding hatred against Catholics, he shared:  “From my own perspective the beginnings of our response [to hate] is in something that Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If they hate you, know that they hated me first.’”  Standing for one’s truth may bring suffering, even martyrs; and these acts of hatred fuel the faith and the movement for truth.  

Regarding Catholic responses to hate:  care for victims; educate on issues of basic human justice; pray individually and collectively.  He added that there are also reasons to come together with other faiths to pray:

Ultimately hatred in whatever its forms and violence in whatever its forms is sin— and sin is fundamentally a spiritual problem and it needs a fundamentally a spiritual solution.  This doesn’t mean that the solution is only spiritual, but it means that that has to be at the heart of our solution. I think sometimes too quickly even people of faith can be tempted to think it’s the political process that can save us — if we just have the right laws, or the right people in office— then everything will be okay. But I don’t think it will ever make anything okay.  Because the root of the problem is much deeper, and thus our solution must at least be grounded and start at that root. (Read the full transcription here:

From our Greek Orthodox Christians, we learned that prayer is an act that unites people against or in response to hatred, and that prayer also needs to be put into action.

Father Peter Orfanakos shared some specific ways prayer can be manifested in actions.  From the level of the National Church, he offered that a “standard” prayer might be added to the divine liturgy which is enacted in every Greek Orthodox Church across the world — a powerful way to transmit a message of grace and peace across the world. 

He also shared models of leadership in the National Church, one model being Archbishop Iakavos, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at Selma.  Iakavos didn’t go silently, and death threats followed.  There were filing cabinets full where they kept the death threats sent to him for marching.  And yet, after Selma, he made his next pastoral visit to New Orleans.

Locally, Fr. Orfanakos’ parish prepares and participates in various interfaith groups and in annual interfaith services against violence and hate.  Of special interest, however, is the new Greek Orthodox Church, St. Nicholas, being built at Ground Zero.  While it will act as a traditional Greek Orthodox Church, it will also offer quiet rooms where people of any faith can go to pray, meditate, or just find peace.  They will also offer counseling services to those who find they need comfort and support when visiting the shrine. (Read the full transcription here:

From our Jewish community we have learned that both routine and spontaneous interactions with different kinds of people on a regular basis, and physically coming together in diverse groups for education, activism, and/or understanding are paramount to healing from violence.  Integrated neighborhoods where people walked to one another’s houses, the market, etc., are the best ways to achieve this.

We had the benefit of learning from the work of Mark Oppenheimer from Temple Beth El-Kesser Israel, and his research on how the Jewish community from Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh healed in the aftermath of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue.  They healed because their neighborhood was already integrated, accepting of difference, and organized for action.  One woman from the Temple remarked of the profound difference a simple hug made from a friend she ran into while shopping at her food market.  These gestures of understanding, acceptance, and compassion from the community were integral to the grief, experienced trauma, and recovery process. (Transcription forthcoming…)


Though our research tour is not yet complete, certain spiritual and practical insights already emerge from the above.  

First, we can do a lot on the local level– even just one-on-one.   Regular positive encounters, for example, add up over time.  Spontaneous conversations do, too.  The conversations might be about music history, they might be directly about hate, or they might be in the form of a hug.  In any of these forms, authentic encounters are meaningful and can be transformational.  

Second, we must create deliberate avenues to integrate and interact.

Third, we must be able to talk about the tough stuff.  We must be willing to be vulnerable, honest, scared, wrong, ugly, beautiful, defensive, angry, ignorant, arrogant, hurt, and utterly and entirely human.  Rarely do we evolve without the courage to speak and the willingness to encounter our personal limitations and filters.  Spiritual striving demands we do.

Fourth, we must offer and also be willing to receive compassion and caring.  Stand with others, and let people stand with you.  

Fifth, practice or pray to remain centered, balanced, and alert.  This is the foundation for a wise response.  

Sixth, listen deeply.  Ignore the voice in our own head and listen from the silence.  When you can hear what others are really communicating about their space, you can co-shape it.  

Seventh, we must invite others to know and participate in these things.

Which of these will you take on?

Our hearts and prayers rise for the individuals who’ve lost their lives because of the color of their skin; and we offer comfort to the families who’ve experienced such great and tragic loss.  We stand in solidarity with black lives.  

I sincerely hope that the fruit of our research in the interreligious world is useful in other contexts where hatred and bias has caused so much pain.

Wishing us all God’s peace as we strive to repair our world.

A statement jointly conceived and written by the Sharing Sacred Spaces New Haven Planning Committee.

A Catholic Response to Hatred and Violence

St. Joseph/St. Mary’s Parish on a Catholic Response to Hatred and Violence

The following is a transcription of Father John Paul Walker’s talk at the Sharing Sacred Spaces event at St. Joseph Church, New Haven, CT, on Nov. 5, 2019. The essential question we addressed at the interfaith gathering, and to which Fr. John Paul was responding, was: What is your religion’s or your faith’s response to hate or violence against religious persons or groups?

Fr. John Paul: I think I can most effectively get at the question asked by breaking it down into three types of hatred or violence, and some responses.

1) What’s the Catholic response to hate or violence when it’s directed at us, specifically as Catholics?

2) In the more global or generic sense, what’s our response to hatred or violence in all its forms when it happens?

3) Important to touch on as well: there are certainly some in our culture today who think the Catholic church as an institution propagates hatred and violence. For example, we don’t ordain women to the priesthood, so we hate women. Or we staunchly oppose same sex marriages, so we hate gays. So third, I’ll touch on is this piece of the puzzle. I think this is important to touch on as it is often the elephant in the room, and I don’t like elephants. I mean, I do in zoos, but not in rooms.

So this is my three-fold plan for my brief reflection, and there’ll be time for Q&A for as long as anyone wants to hang out.

So, first, the Catholic response to hatred or violence directed at us as Cathoics or Catholic Christians. From my own perspective the beginnings of our response is in something that Jesus said to his disciples, “If they hate you, know that they hated me first.” And so I think that there’s a certain peacefulness when we’re hated. Like it doesn’t bother us as much as objectively by the world’s standards it should. Because it’s been the case for some 2000 years, and we expect it to be the case until the day the earth is no more. Our Lord Jesus, who was the perfectly innocent one and the just one, who was hated and ultimately the victim of a horribly violent death — part of what it is to be configured to him is to share in his passion, as we call it, and his cross. This can take a lot of different forms, but this is part of that form. No one likes it when its happening to them in the moment, but it’s part and parcel of our faith.

Those who have been hated to the point of being killed for the faith — that is, martyrs — is a very deep, deep part of our faith. In ancient Rome, before Christianity was legal, so often masses were celebrated in the catacombs— the tombs. Why were they celebrated there? Not only because they were out of site, but because there were the bodies of those who were killed for the faith. There was a sense from the beginning

that there was a spiritual significance there— a spiritual power. For the longest time there it was our belief as Catholics in our churches that the main altar— on which mass was celebrated — that you had to have a relic— a piece of bone or some piece of body — of a martyr underneath that altar in order to be able to celebrate mass on that altar. So there’s a deep connection we have to those who’ve gone before us, and to those who’ve suffered, especially to the point of shedding their blood.

There’s an old saying the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Often historically we’ve seen that in locations where Christians have been killed for the faith, and often very soon after that there’s incredible growth in the faith. In our own country they’re called the North American martyrs who are Jesuit missionaries — they’re in upstate NY and on the Canadian border — who suffered horrific martyrdoms — very grisly and brutal— and I won’t go into details because it’s very grisly and we all just ate and we don’t want that. But very soon after their deaths up there there was a young Native American girl born who became the first ever American-born saint. And again it happened very very soon, almost in the same spot, of where the blood of those first martyrs in this country were shed.

So, that’s part of it — that no one likes to be hated, and no one likes to be the victim of violence, but okay, it goes with the turf. If we’re not prepared for it and we don’t have the spine for it, then we’re not choosing the greater good.

The second phase: the response to hate and violence in general in the world. The Catholic church has a multi-pronged approach to how we look at this.

Part of it is caring for victims and providing for victims whether they’re immigrants, or need healing— the whole sociable outreach of the church— to those who are victims of all sorts of violence.

Part of it is a teaching component. The Catholic church likes issuing documents. These span all kinds of topics, but a lot of these deal with these basic human justice issues— so there’s an educational component.

There’s also obviously a prayer component to violence, to hatred. Whether it’s individuals’ prayers, whether it’s at mass. About midway through the mass when I was at the altar we had prayers of the faithful. Sunday after Sunday we hit all kinds of different groups who need our prayers — those who’ve been victimized by terrorist attacks, or whether it’s more everyday sorts of violence that can mark our society in so many ways.

There are also reasons to come together with other faiths to pray. I was in Baltimore as the Catholic chaplain at Johns Hopkins when the Freddie Gray riots broke out. And we were okay, but 3 blocks one way there were several cars set on fire, and 3 blocks the other way there was a hardware store that was looted. Not only in our own parish, with the Catholic community praying, but a wide variety of gathering with all sorts of different faiths in Baltimore coming together to pray through what happened and bring

some healing. That part is important because ultimately hatred in whatever its forms and violence in whatever its forms is sin— and sin is fundamentally a spiritual problem and it needs a fundamentally a spiritual solution. This doesn’t mean that the solution is only spiritual, but it means that that has to be at the heart of our solution. I think sometimes too quickly even people of faith can be tempted to think it’s the political process that can save us — if we just have the right laws, or the right people in office— then everything will be okay. But I don’t think it will ever make anything okay. Because the root of the problem is much deeper, and thus our solution must at least be grounded and start at that root. Having said that, often the political process in all its forms can be an important tool. When people of faith and people of prayer get together and try to use that political process to accomplish some good I think alot of good can be done.

As for the third part of responding to hate or violence: the third idea is that the Catholic Church is institutionally a source of hatred, at least towards certain populations. And to this I would say this: one thing we believe as Catholics is that there are realities about God and about us that have been revealed— through revelation and some through natural law— (which is a whole thing I can get into but I’ll bracket it for now). And that thus there are aspects of our human life individuallly, collectively, institutionally, and so forth— that we are powerless to decide or to change. And that there’s a certain humility with which we need to bow before that truth that’s been revealed. Part of what we believe as Catholics is that something like human sexuality is inscribed by our creator— it’s not our choice— and that the ways in which our God who gave us our sexual faculties wishes us to use them are likewise determined for us and are not something we can change. And that there’s a goodness in this, and part of our being faithful to Him is speaking about this. Even when it’s difficult, even when it puts us in stark contradiction to many around us, and that this is done ultimately out of love. That to be silent is not an act of love. To tell somebody do whatever you want is not an act of love. But “to speak the hard truth is an act of love to someone and to not speak the hard truth is that you only love yourself.”

Certainly there are a lot of people who disagree with our assessment of this. That’s fine. That doesn’t bother me at all. And there are some who might think we’re arrogant to say God’s revealed something to us that applies to every human being no matter where they’re from and what their religion is or whatever. You might say this is arrogant. And that’s fine too. It seems logical to think that. To think that, for example, what the church teaches about marriage being defined as one man and one woman, to say that because we are trying to state this we are hating someone is not an accurate or fair depiction of the event or of the reality as a whole.

Now in terms of individuals, I’m sure there are Catholics who hate people including hating gays and women and everyone else, just as there are people hating us. But the general approach of the church- and why we’re emphatic about things, and why we teach things, and why we push for things — even in the public order— is because we believe there’s a goodness that God’s revealed to us that we believe is destined for every person. St. Paul said, “Woe to me if I do not preach.”

So this would be my appeal to those of you who might be upset with what the church teaches about some of these topics. Even if it touches personally, to at least be open to the idea that this is not something we’re doing out of hatred. Trust me we don’t like it any more than you do, and I hate to say it that way, but it’s our way of saying there’s a truth and a goodness that is ultimately destined for everyone and we feel compelled in following our Lord to do this. I hope this makes sense and puts a slightly different spin on what you may have heard before.

It’s not too often we can get together as different faiths and actually have meaningful conversations. It’s my experience as a priest 17 years and a Dominican friar 23 years is that in most ecumenical or interfaith gatherings no one wants to talk about anything tough. And so it doesn’t get talked about at all, or these superficial discussions that don’t go anywhere. So at least to be able to say things like this are important.

At this point you can ask me about these three things or you can ask me about anything else.

Qu: What would be the practical steps for the congregation— what would be the things people can do to respond to such hatred?

FJP: Part of the thing about the precepts — whether it’s feed the hungry— certainly no one can be doing something all of the time for all of these people. So inevitably people focus on one thing to direct their efforts. My experience of parishes, that’s the case, too. In Baltimore, for example, they formed a food pantry in the basement. A lot has to do with the context—where there’s more an immigrant population, that might naturally be the focus.

Qu: So what about if there’s violence, for example the arson at the Diyanet mosque?

FJP: That kinda hits home because St. Mary’s was the victim of an arson in 2000. The fire department said we were less than 10 minutes from having the entire church burn down. It wasn’t an act against St. Mary’s or Catholics per se, as he (the arsonist) was caught doing this at other Christian churches. Perhaps he was angry at God and this was his way of dealing with it. Who knows. And the scary part of it is we got word recently that the person who did this was recently released from prison. So we received his photo and showed it to all our staff, just to be on the lookout if he shows up again. So it hits close to home. I had heard about the mosque, but I didn’t hear if there was any kind of interfaith prayer gathering to support that.

Comment: It’s hard to get the word out [about gatherings], especially if it’s very soon after an incident.

FJP: In a lot places we are lacking in the mechanism to get everyone together and mobilized on something reasonably quickly.

Comment: I’m Catholic and I was one of the people at the interfaith service at the Diyanet mosque. But no one would have known that I was there and I was Catholic. I could tell the Quakers were there because some had a sign. I could tell some were Jewish because they were wearing kippas. And the Muslim women were wearing hijabs. But there were a lot of other people there but we didn’t know what tradition they were coming from.

Comment: Symbolic expression of spiritual solidarity is important.

FJP: With suffering in any way, it’s 100 times worse to suffer alone. If you replicate this on a wider level, even if we don’t share all beliefs, we can stand united in the human family in this way.

I’ve been advised of security meetings, and can arrange now for a detective from the police department to guide me through a walk-through of the church and its grounds.

After Notre Dame, had security 24/7 in case there was the attempt at a copy cat crime.

Qu: Going forward, what can we take from this gathering, when we go out into our individual communities?

FJP: Some kind of common communication system so that when something is happening, everyone can know about it. This is the lacuna in New Haven right now and would be a massively important thing for us to do. Right now it’s piecemeal.

Maybe start a Facebook Group. Perhaps this would be a relatively simple thing to do. Posts on Twitter.
Have people like the pages.
Get the word out through parish secretaries.

There could be one contact person at each congregation, and it’s that person who then gets the word out.

In some places, might be one or two individuals passionate about these issues, too, as they’re the most likely to go and grab others to go with them.

Qu: How to model being a witness to interfaith collaboration?

The first thing is to speak about it. Because many times we go to things, and then we go back into our lives, and no one even knows we had been there. The second, is inviting people in.

Qu: What we’re asking is how do we form a working community? A community that really works together and moves forward?

With all dead seriousness, I would answer, don’t rely on the clergy. Rely on interested, motivated individuals who want to be involved in something bigger.

Acts Against Humanity — How the Greek Orthodox Church Responds: The St. Nicholas Shrine and Beyond.

The following is a transcription of the Sharing Sacred Spaces lecture at St. Barbara’s Greek Orthodox Church on February 18, 2020.  The talk was prepared and given by Fr. Peter Orfanakos and parishioner James Sarigianis.  Certain slides from their presentation are also included below.  Videos that were shown that evening are not included.

Part 1:  St. Nicholas as a Response to Hate


St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was a parish founded in 1916 by Greek immigrants.  Services began at the Cedar Street location in Manhattan (pictured above) in 1922.  St. Nicholas went down on 9-11.  It was the only religious affiliated building affected by that tragedy.  And one can imagine by where it sat, that the parish was approached many times during each year to sell the property — they were even approached to have the air rights above it, to be able to build around it.  But the congregation felt very strongly that their presence was necessary there.  And they refused and rebuffed the offers.  Until September 11.  

We began preparing for this evening’s presentation by asking how congregations of faith respond to acts of violence.  For us as Orthodox Christians and I think for many people of all faiths, the response is prayer.  

Now, prayer is an action.  We stand in prayer united with all faiths.  But then that prayer needs to be put in action.  After 9-11, for the Orthodox Church specfically, you saw collections being taken— not of simply money to send assistance to our members, but for anyone who was suffering.  You saw collections of food and water.  You saw donations being done in terms of human resources— pastors, for example, being sent down to the places of bereavement.  

Below is a picture of the archbishop of America who had travelled down to ground zero to be able to have services of prayer over the spot where the church stood.  


Archbishop Demetrios offering prayer, consolation, and support.

In this photo, you see people of all faiths coming around where he was in prayer, asking for God’s assistance for the sacred work they were doing as they searched for the remains of humans.

So you see prayer in action here in the general sense.  Also, the archdiocese sent out special prayers that were to be incorporated within the services of the divine liturgy praying for those whose lives were lost, for their rest and repose, praying for those whose lives were changed as family members were unable to come home and join them, and for strength for those who were working at ground zero. 

So after the clean up, as the new design for the church started to take place, questions circulated about how were they going to treat this now sacred ground?  All of us are perhaps familiar with what was going on within the state and the federal governement as to how these spaces were to be utilized.  Well, part of that was the church’s discussion and how the government was in discussion with the church as to what they were going to do with the space St. Nicholas had— how the church was going to utilize that space?  And sometimes the discussions didn’t go very smoothly.  At first, you had those in positions of authority advocating that this is the spot you’re going to have, and they went back to the place that the church originally owned.  Then as the plans started to formulate, the original spot was no longer a place the church could be.  Those in charge then looked and said:  Instead of building the church over here, how about over here?  Then the church agreed to move from this space to this space to be able to accomodate the greater plan, the greater scheme.  Then a new change, a new guard.  And all of a sudden it was:  we’re not letting you rebuild St. Nicholas, and there’s not going to be any church down there; and there’s no room for you and you have to go. Then the church was forced to utilize and give strength to its voice in the court systems, and to be able to take the Port Authority and the city to court.  Eventually the governor stepped in and said no, St. Nicholas is going to happen, this is our responsibility.  And that’s when the church was given the new site it now has at 130 Liberty.  I don’t know how many of you have gone down to see the sight of the new trade center, but It’s right up on that little hill.  I think it’s right where the south tower used to stand; it’s right up there.  They had the official ground breaking ceremony on October 18, 2014— and that’s the service that you see here.  Then construction started.


After a long delay of disputes and negotiations, the Port Authority and the Greek Orthodox Church agreed on a new sight for the rebuilding of St. Nicholas at 130 Liberty Street.  Pictured here is the groundbreaking ceremony on October 18, 2014.

Participant Question:  So after St. Nicholas was destroyed, didn’t the church still own the land?  

Response:  Yes, it still owned the land.  So the archdiocese had to agree to give away the rights to the land and they were given the rights to this new piece of property to build up.  Again, the archdiocese was trying to work together with the Port Authorty and the federal government to be able to say we recognize that this is no longer the space that it once was— how are we going to be able to work together to make sure there’s a space for St. Nicholas that also allows you to do everything you need to do.  

So an architect was chosen, and the groundbreaking began in 2014.  Now, it is probably the most expensive place to build something because it’s a unionized place— you’re talking downtown Manhattan, you’re talking limited access with regard to who can work there, how you can work there, etc.  So the price tag to rebuild this tiny church is 81 million dollars.  They raised 38 million dollars and they built it up to where it was up until about a month or so ago.  You essentially have the outside shell which looks like concrete, and some of the inside done.  You can imagine, too, that the place is fortified ten times over to make sure that everyone is safe.  The church also had to be built in a manner that it would absorb any type of terrorist attack that would take place inside.  The concrete had to be of such calibre that if a bomb were set off inside the church, the church itself would absorb the shock so that nothing would happen outside.  

So construction paused for a time.  81 million dollars is a lot of money.  They raised 39 in the changing of two archbishops.  There were some articles in the newspapers that perhaps you’re familiar with.  There were some questions regarding was all the money being used for St. Nicholas, or was it being used for something out of the archdiocese?  There was a forensic audit.  Some money had been placed in one account and was used for something else.  That money was returned with interest.  Everything, again, was all set, and there was now a new archbishop that had come in as well— I think in May or June of 2019.  The new archbishop’s name, literally translated, means “the bringer of hope.”  So with this new archbishop there was renewed enthusiasm to be able to bring this project to fruition.  

Significantly, in the last 30 days they’ve raised almost 40 million, which means the project is moving ahead.  They contacted the builders already and everythng has started up.  Some things were already being done as of a few months ago.  Part of the new plan has — you see this white shell— it’s being constructed with a very thin layer of marble surrounded by glass with light on the inside of it.  In the evening, the building will shine from the inside out and will create this glowing church that will sit above the place where the twin towers once stood.

 None of this was done by happenstance.  It was all done with a purpose.  The Greek Orthodox archdiocese realizes this church can no longer be a parish as it once once simply set aside for Orthodox Chrisitians to come and pray.  And also other people of other denominations were coming and praying there as days progressed.  But now it’s beng set as an Orthodox Church to be able to continue with the sacraments of the divine liturgy and other sacraments as well; but it’s also set to be a place for people of all faiths to come and experience this truly sacred place— to be able to find comfort and peace as they get overwhelmed as they visit the 9-11 site.

I’m not sure how many went a few years back, but we took some of our teenagers— most who were born after 2001.  And so as we were traveling there to make sure they had a better understanding of where it was they were going, I showed them the documentary 102 Minutes that Changed America, which is a compilation of video footage, some which hadn’t previously ever been seen.  After seeing the events fr the first time through the film, or reliving them, you you can’t help but feel a sense of mourning and hope and peace and confusion and all of that as you find your way to ground zero.  And as you stand there and see the names, not just the letters carved into the stone, but the names of fathers and mothers and children who lost their lives on that day…that’s how the church understands the significance and its placing itself there as a place where there will be quiet rooms where people can go and find peace.  There will be counselors who will come in and donate their time to comfort people when they visit.  Even entering this church will not be like entering any other church.  You’ll likely have to go through some type of screening to enter.  That’s the sad part of reality.

But you know the reaction to the act of violence— is what?  It’s prayer.  That prayer is uniting us to God; it unites us to each other.  It calls us to be able to support those who are suffering to try to give comfort and to bring a sense of peace and grace, and to lift us up as we move forward.  So that’s where the St. Nicholas church stands as a response to violence and a sacred space.  

For this talk, we chose three different habitudes if you will of violence to talk about and this was the first.  

Q:  Will the church operate according to the regular divine liturgy or will it incorporate interfaith elements?

A: This is a good question.  It will follow the divine liturgy, but as to what interfaith elements it might include— this is currently being discussed. 

Q:  Will it operate like a normal church with weddings, funerals, etc.?

A:  Yes.

Q:  Will its doors be open 24 hours?

A:  I’m not sure if it will be 24 hours.  I doubt that.  But there will be set hours the doors are open and people are able to go in and find that place.

Part 2:  Models of Interfaith Leadership in the National Church

We thought about three things we would lift up with regard to the Orthodox Church responding to violence.  So the next part of this is:  pictured here (below) is our Archbishop Iakovos, who you see pictured next to Martin Luther King, Jr., during the walk in Selma, Alabama.  


Archbishop Iakovos beside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — Selma, Alabama, March 15, 1965.

We don’t necessarily need to go into a greater understanding of race relations in our country now, which is not a pretty history.  But as the difficulty arose with the peaceful march, and some of the attacks that were being levied, Archbishop Iakovos, who was at the time either President or Vice President of the National Council of Churches, was called by Martin Luther King to see if he would participate in the march.  Iakavos was archbishop of North and South America for the Greek Orthodox Archiodiocese from 1959-1996.  I had the honor to be able to serve as his deacon for 3 years just prior to his retirement from 1993-1996.  

In conversations for various interviews with Archbishop Iakavos as he was getting ready to retire, many people were focusing on this aspect of his history.  He grew up as a Greek Orthodox youngster on a small island in Turkey.  He was a citizen that was considered “less than”, as Greek citizens who lived in Turkey were considered less than back then.  So I used to hear him respond to interviewers that, when he got the call to march, he didn’t hesitate because he knew what it was like to be treated as something less and he would never stand for that.  And so he went.  During one interview there was a conversation with Coretta Scott King and I happened to be off to the side.  She described how, before the march, Martin Luther King was asking, “Who could we get?  How can we raise and elevate this up and get more attention?”  And then said, “Iakovos.  Let’s call him.  Let’s see if he’ll come.”

Iakavos didn’t go silently.  Death threats followed.  As someone working in the archidiocese, I knew the person in charge of the archives, and they had file cabinets full where they kept the death threats sent to him for marching.  Iakavos, after Selma, made his next pastoral visit to New Orleans.

Many Greek Orthodox Christians look at this now and say thank God he had the courage to speak and take that prayer and put it into action. 

When he was retiring, I remember this moving moment.  A friend of mine who was from NY was on a business trip in Atlanta.  There, he made an acquaintance and, as they were talking, my friend mentioned that when he got back to NY he was going to a ceremony honoring the Archbishop Iakavos.  My friend was about to explain who Iakavos was when the gentleman interrupted and said, “You don’t have to explain.  I was in Salma.  I was a young man sent by my college newspaper to go and write about the march.  And as a young African- American man looking and seeing the presence of this man in his vestments walking with MLK— I can’t tell you how I left inspired and alive.”  My friend then asked if he would mind coming up and sharing this story.  He said they’d reimburse his travel.  But the gentleman said, “No, on my own, I’m coming.”  So he came and shared his story, and there wasn’t a dry eye as he shared what this moment meant and what it was like from his vantage point.  Sadly, we still have a long way to go in this regard as well.  But we are trying to change the mind of all people through the manner in which we see each other as God’s creation, as brothers and sisters.  This story was truly remarkable.  

Jim:  I wanted to depict some of the other activities that the National Church does in relation to interfaith relations.  So below you see ‘lost in the sauce’ there, Archbishop Demetrios who stepped down about or a bit less than a year ago.  The caption seaks for itself but this is just after the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.  Again, he was committed to having a presence; it was extremely important for us that the National Orthodox Church be there alongside all the other denominations.  

Fr. Peter:  And this is a carry over.  There are many stories, for example, from the time of the Holocaust when Greek Orthodox bishops were giving sanctuary and hiding many of the Jews who were coming across the borders.  One particular incident that stands out in my mind was as the invading forces were coming in and they were searching to find where the Jews went, they went and saw the Bishop who had control over the area and demanded that all of the names of the Jews be brought to them by a certain time.  The Bishop came and presented a list at the appointed time, and the list had only one name on it:  his own.  And that was it.  And there are similar stories and other cases where this type of protection was done.  I think one is in the Holocaust National Shrine in D.C. — one Orthodox Bishop’s name is emblazened and thanked on the wall for the work that he was able to do.  

It’s not about the things that separate us, it’s about the things that unite us.  We need to be able to look after anyone who is being made to feel that somehow they are less, and to remind them that we are all less.  And we are all equal in the same way.  And together we can become more through God’s grace.

Here’s a more recent situation where you see the new Archbishop Elpidophoros receiving an award of thanks.  Elpidophoros is currently the highest ranking Greek Orthodox cleric in America, and he is very active in interfaith dialogue.


Archbishop Elpidophoros receiving an award of thanks.

Jim:  So, Archbishop Elpidophoros is the founder and director of something called the Appeal of Conscience Foundation.  I don’t know too much about it, but I’m amazed at this archbishop who was enthroned as the archbishop of America in June of 2019, and what he has done in the few short months that he’s been at the helm of the National Church.  He’s not shy about getting involved in interfaith groups and offering support, for example in his actions after the attack on the Jewish community in Monsey.  Typically our church puts out statements, and here’s the one he put out after the Monsey attack:  

Antisemitism, bigotry, and hate of any kind are repugnant to our values and will not be tolerated in our state. We condemn this attack and all attacks against the jewish community in NY.  An attack against one of us is an attack against all of us.  Together we will continue fighting hate and intolerance with love and inclusion.

The next slide has another quote which I think is even more beautiful, so forgive me just for reading it:

Even as we witness a rising tide of religious hatred and terrorist extremism in our country, we must—with more urgency and vigor—support and defend all people of faith from those who worship nothing but death and destruction. These attacks against the Jewish Community of New York are especially painful because they are our neighbors.  Such hateful acts of violence damage us all, and we all have a duty—both civic and religious—to respond with love and compassion for all those afflicted. In the coming days I will be reaching out to our Jewish brothers and sisters to see how we can better support them through this grievous and vulnerable time and find ways to combat not only anti-Semitism, but all religious, ethnic and racial hatred.

I thought that was just very well worded.  So that’s from the National Church and then locally you’ll see a lot of churches doing different things.

Question:  Any idea, when he did reach out, what the Jewish community said?  How they felt they wanted to be supported?

Fr:  I’d say its an ongoing dialogue.  This is done at the archdiocese level and there’s a person in charge of the interfaith department.  I haven’t heard much about this particular one, and they just met recently to discuss how the church and other communities of faith in NY— what they’ll be able to do regarding the homeless situation— they just had an interfaith dialogue about that in the past day or two.

Part 3—What St. Barbara’s Does

Locally:  as other parishes around the country, St. Barbara’s participates in various interfaith groups and participates in annual interfaith services against violence and hate, for example, on September 11th; in services of remembrance like remembering Sandy Hook; in response to attacks at Christian churches and also in response to recent incidents against Jewish communities.

Zen Center — How do we respond to hate?

SSS Program, New Haven, March 4th, 2020

Post-Sit Talk by Zen Master Jok Um (Ken Kessel) and Discussion


Please, don’t hate.  (Laughter).  Then you’ve already responded as well as you can.  If you respond with hatred, then you’re throwing gasoline on the fire.  If you want to the fire to go out, please don’t give it more fuel. Some of the air we’re breathing was breathed by people who hate us.  Some of the air we’re breathing passed through plants and animals that are venomous.

Can we pick which molecules we prefer?  And can we somehow purify those molecules so our air doesn’t contain any of that?  These things are impossible.

If we make sacred spaces somehow as opposed to everything else we encounter, then we’ve already defiled everything else.  So if we want to be free of defilements then we should stop making things sacred. Then everything is equal.

This poem wasn’t written for the occasion, but it maybe suits the occasion:  

It’s called “What we all own.”

What We All Own

This is a

Thick mess

Like glass

Shards in honey


Who knows

How to

Find and use

The fine cloth

And warm water?


Many suffer

Cry and 

Bleed waiting


For now

Where is

The refuge

With no roof?

                                                                           — Ken Kessel, Zen Master Jok Um, 2/2/2020

In no particular order – 

Every morning Master Soeng Am Eon would call to himself:  Master! And answer, Yes! You must keep clear! Yes! Never be decieved by others any day, any time.  Yes! Yes! They didn’t have alarm clocks.  

This “never be deceived by others” is a very interesting exhortation to oneself.  Because one kind of deception is you’re not rich, but you tell me you are, so I think you are.  Or you’re not honest, but you tell me you are, so I believe you. Somebody misrepresents how they conduct themselves, and I believe that, so I’ve been deceived.  But not that kind of deception. Everybody who is here, is here because on some level, that has nothing to do with the form of how we engage our beliefs. There’s something that’s eminently clear to us that’s carried through the vehicle of the path we choose, but if the path weren’t there, the vehicle would be meaningless.  Deceived about that. Right? If I deceive myself about my own nature because I’m reacting to something you did, then it’s a bad way to say it, but I’ve let you deceive me about me, not about you. And it’s probably fair to suggest that for each of us in our lives, we’ve encountered a person or a circumstance whose presence has evoked something where we forget why we breathe.  And that moment is a crime that we’ve committed against ourselves.  

This is an interesting story for a reason that’s apparent in the telling, and there’s also another  reason that I’ll tell you after I’ve told it. The story is this. Somebody from outside the community comes to the Buddha and spits on him.  And the Buddha says, “What next?” And the man has no answer and is perplexed, so he leaves. Over the course of the evening the perplexity sinks in very deeply, and he feels a certain degree of remorse.  So he comes to the Buddha the next day, and he bows to him. And as he stands from the bow the Buddha says, “What next?” And he has the same perplexed look. So the Buddha says, “Many things have transpired between yesterday and today, and things constantly change.  The person you spit upon yesterday is no longer here. So to whom would you repent? And equally for you — many things have transpired between yesterday and today, so the person who did the spitting yesterday is also no longer here, so who is there to repent? The man had some kind of insight, and he became Buddha’s disciple.   

This is an inherently interesting story.  This is not a story about Buddha. The subject is Buddha, but this story didn’t happen.  The person who told the story was Osho (Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh) who, if you know him, was a spiritual fraud.  He harmed many people. He was very charismatic, and I actually know somebody who spent a lot of time studying with him, felt deeply moved and then deeply betrayed, and eventually became a teacher in our school, partly because that happened to her.  But nonetheless, this very moving Buddha story was told by a fraud. So should we revile him and therefore dismiss the story? And refuse to learn what it has to offer? Because it was told by somebody who doesn’t merit the kind of respect that he says he does.  Will we be deceived?

Somebody came to Buddha (this is in the sutras) and insulted him.  And Buddha said to him, “If you come to my home and I prepare a feast in your honor and then you don’t eat the food, then to whom does the food belong?”  The man said, “Then the food would belong to you.” Buddha said, “Similarly, if you offer me an insult and I don’t accept it, then it belongs to you.”

That was the whole story.  So who does harm to what, how?  When we create a space like this Zen Center,  there’s an intention, and there’s a commitment, and there’s an effort, and there’s an engagement, and perhaps there’s some kind of transformation.  But that’s supported by the space, because we create these spaces to make those kinds of things easier to do in spaces that support it, so when we leave those spaces we can do the same in spaces that we don’t recognize as spaces that were made to support it.  Like a NYC subway, or maybe the New Haven green. But if the thing that this was created for lives in you, then it’s portable. Then it’s alive, and it has eyes, ears, a heart, and a voice that travels any place and responds with wisdom to circumstances, because it lives anywhere, not just here.  So an act that defiles a sacred space is an act of ignorance. If we respond to that act of ignorance with hatred or aggression, then we’re affirming the ignorance, which doesn’t seem like a wise thing to do.  

So there are a couple of angles as it were.  We had someone practice with us for a while who was a first-contact anthropologist.  She went to places where no outside people came. One of the communities she visited, somehow the culture never cultivated aggression, so there was a certain peacefulness she said they all seemed to have.  But they lived next to another community that had done very well cultivating aggression. So periodically, they would raid the first village, rape the women, and kill the children. She said the people in the first village would react as if it were an act of nature, like a lightning bolt, or a flood or an earthquake.  That’s interesting. The things that are most important to you are harmed by your neighbors, and it doesn’t evoke the wish to destroy your neighbors.

What does a community do when harm has been done to it?  And what do your neighbors do when harm has been done to the community next door?

My guess is, if it happened next door, you would go next door and ask, “How can I help you recover?”  So maybe if we’re communities of spirit and our sisters and brothers have been harmed, we may want to help them get back on their feet, and help them respond in the way that restores the spirit and restores the space.  And that’s an act of faith, and an act of commitment, and restoration, and in a way an act of resistance. There’s something that can’t be harmed because it’s not a harm-able thing, and if we live in the middle of that thing that can’t be harmed, we affirm it.  And if we find a way to affirm it with our harmed neighbors, then we affirm the spirit of the enterprise together. And the community that’s engaged in restoring the enterprise together is a community that can’t be harmed in that way. Certainly physically we can be harmed, but spirit is something that can’t be harmed.

Second is this.  I’m recalling an interview that was on NPR some years ago.  Somewhere in the deep south there was a black Mississippi blues musician who was on a circuit.  He’s playing in a bar, and in between sets, a white guy comes up to him and says, “You play our music pretty well for a black guy.”  He mentions Bo Diddley, and he starts to name a bunch of white musicians who had a reputation for this kind of music, and that’s what he listens to.  So the musician says, “Can I give you a lesson in music history please?” And he starts to name the 4700 people who have done this for 100 years. And the white guy was thinking, “I didn’t know that.”  “Well that’s why I’m telling you. I didn’t mind telling you. How would you know it? But I know it, so I wanted you to know it.” And he was receptive. And he said thank you. But then he said, “I shouldn’t stay here, because I shouldn’t be seen talking to you.  He took out a card and it said something like “John, Grand Wizard, KKK”. The musician continues on the circuit, and many months later he winds up at the same club. And the same guy is there. And he has something wrapped up in a package. The musician asks, “What is it?”  He says, “It’s my KKK robe and I can’t wear it anymore.” So when the musician was on the circuit, he looked for these people and he engaged with them. At the time of the interview he had 200 robes. I don’t know anyone else who could do that. And it makes me wonder: those people who committed those acts of hatred… among them is there someone who wants to have coffee?  And who knows who walks through the door and what they’ll talk about? One would think when we follow our teachings, the response to hatred is to promote peace. This would be one way.

When I was walking a few years ago home from the bank, there were three guys.  There was probably a racial element to it — One, a Puerto Rican man, was in an aggressive karate stance.  The other two were African American friends — one in a boxing stance; the other in an I’ve-got-your-back stance.  They seem serious, and they’re mouthing off to each other. My first inclination was to walk by, because it’s not my business, and I’m chicken.  Then I saw the fruit stand guy, and he seemed worried, so I didn’t walk by. I walked close, and I said, “Do you guys want to get a cup of coffee?  And the boxing guy said, “Yeah!” And the I’ve-got-your-back guy said, “Uh.” And the karate guy upped the ante and started speaking more aggressively, so I asked him directly, “Do you want to get a cup of coffee?”  And he said, “OK.” I’m walking down to the McDonald’s with the karate guy. And as we’re walking down the hill, they’re all shouting to each other what they would have done to each other, if I hadn’t been there. This dies down, as we keep going.  As we walk down the hill, I ask the karate guy how his family is doing in Puerto Rico, because it wasn’t that long after the hurricane. He said they were all OK. Then he told me that they used to call his grandfather “Coffee.” The way he said it, it was as if it were some cosmic event that I’d shown up and asked him for coffee – like I had just parachuted down from the heavens.  Then we went to McDonald’s; I got him coffee, and we went our separate ways. This wasn’t my plan for the day. My plan for the day was to meet my colleague at a bar to share a meal. But she was okay with waiting. She liked the story.

One way I treat my practice is that I try to take all sentient beings as my teacher.  Because everybody teaches everybody else about the space they occupy. It’s important to learn how they occupy their space so you can be able to co-shape it.  So if I’m balanced and alert, perhaps I can respond to that space.

Now I’ve certainly had experiences in NY where I couldn’t do anything.  But sometimes you can. And sometimes collective wisdom is how you can help that kind of thing emerge.

So there is no Zen approach to anything.  In the sense that our teaching is to lose your attachment to the vehicle of the path, and then to own the path for yourself.  So the particular teachings of the Buddha and the particular practices and traditions of Buddhism are to help us walk the path.  The vehicle has a particular flavor, because it resonates with those of us who take this on. But the external portions in a sense are an architecture to cultivate the internal sensibilities.  And granted, this is a terrible way to say it, but that’s kind of what happens. There’s something that we put in place to help our wisdom grow and to help compassion grow, and that doesn’t have a specified shape, because then it wouldn’t be wise; and it doesn’t have a specified shape, because too much architecture gets in the way of responsiveness.

So my hope about some harmful event coming to pass in the future— my hope is things don’t transpire that way.  And on the other hand, as the poem says, things are tough, and we’ve all participated somehow in the toughness.  This isn’t to say it’s my fault, but we’re all here living here and breathing together. But if something like this should come to pass, maybe we want to get together shortly after it passes and say how do we support each other, how can we repair, how can we open the gates, whether or not anyone walks through.  And how can we not neglect the need to protect ourselves if we have to, and what do we risk to do that? Because not to factor that in would also be unwise. Our temple rules say, if a snake drinks water the water becomes venom. If a cow drinks water it becomes milk. If you cling to ignorance you create life and death.  If you keep clear you become Buddha. Actually what it should say is if you keep clear you are already Buddha, and your Buddha nature manifests itself.

So we transform the air we breathe and we transform the water we drink by virtue of the posture we have.  And these practices help us have good posture.

We wanted to leave some time for questions and discussion, so why don’t we open up the floor.



Participant:  I think we’re chewing on it.

Master Jok Um:  If you can’t chew you can’t digest.

Keith:  There was no canned type of response to this type of question.  Like someone spray paints the house, and you clean it. We found it very challenging.  I found it difficult to put this in a box: if a hate crime happens, what do you do? It was an interesting thing when Jaimee brought us the question.  We were supposed to have a five minute talk about how we’d talk about it, and it went on for about 45 minutes.

I think part of it too is we haven’t experienced it.  That’s the plain truth. Western Buddhist groups haven’t been picked on much, so it’s not our experience, whereas others have.  Certainly being there to support— and we have had that experience here in New Haven. Paul Bloom is not here tonight but he is very active with other groups in the city and has been active with responding.

Participant:  I’m thinking now and in the past year there were a whole series of black churches, I think in Alabama, that had been firebombed.  And they were opportunities even from afar to offer messages of support. But I can just imagine the first response is fear. It’s so dramatic.  What if we’d been in the church? Can you say a little bit about when the first reaction is fear? It feels to me something so alive right now in the world.  You talked earlier about it before during the meditation. It helps if I at least notice: why is my body doing this? At least I can put a name to it. It’s less likely I’ll lash out if it’s fear than if it’s some other emotion.

Master Jok Um:  My son went to Spain in the summer between junior and senior year in high school.  He went to take an immersion Spanish course. I got a phone call about 1 1/2 weeks into it.  “How are you?” “OK.” “Why are you calling?” “The Basque separatists bombed the building next to us, so we’re taking a break.  It harmed our building too, and two of my friends died.” “Are you OK?” “I think so.” “What’s the school doing?” “They closed classes for a day and they’re bringing us together to see how we are.”  “What do you want to do?” “I don’t know.” “Well, if you’re concerned about your safety and you’re concerned about your stability, come home if you want. If you feel confidence about things you can stay.”  

This is a different kind of event, as the separatists only need to bomb a building once—and then they wait a couple of years and they bomb something else.  It makes a political statement. But it had that sense of shock and it had that sense of concern for safety. And I think that shock and concern for safety— if it follows the course of collective concern— it brings people together this way. Because the intention is to scatter them.  Right? So if somebody threw a bomb through the window or came in here with a gun, we’d probably scatter. And when in danger, the natural thing is to look for safety. In the moment that the anger has passed in terms of the immediate palpable danger itself, the issue of safety has passed in a literal sense – it’s over – and the next thing is how do we heal?  If we continue to disperse, that’s the intent of that kind of action – to cultivate fear – in the sense of ongoing imminent harm.  

So the spiritual challenge is in the face of harm, how do we pull together and where do we find our safety?  There is not an easy answer. It’s like the honey with the shards of glass. There’s something and there’s something else.  It’s like finding the refuge with no roof.  

Also:  where do we find refuge in the face of danger?  I don’t know if this has happened here or not. So it would be disingenuous of me to say something more specific than I’ve said, as I don’t have that personal experience, and I don’t want to insult those who did by suggesting I know something they could that I myself haven’t done…  But if it has happened to YOU, what do I do? And if we look at it as an act of nature— not in the sense that there wasn’t a human agent, because clearly there was a human agent, but we’re also agents of nature— in the sense that if you follow the thread of ignorance, delusion, and hatred, at some point it ripens like this— it’s a natural ripening of a toxic intention.  Natural – unpleasant – but natural in the sense that poison tends to move in this direction. So the way that we would respond if a tree fell on somebody’s house, or somebody you cared about died of cancer, or got struck by a car or something, my sense is as people to whom it didn’t happen, we ought to find a way to connect and support those in pain.

In terms of the Buddhist practice response:  one thing we do is chanting. Not to generate energy over here to send over there, or I’ll do it because I feel better.  It’s neither of those, but it is a couple of things. One is our natural sensitivity to these kinds of things is jarring.  And that feeling of being jarred can throw us off balance, and then wisdom is hard to find. You find wisdom by living in the space that you occupy.  So the chanting practice is restorative of that in a way. And by chanting, you’re already close to the suffering, so you’re already close to the heart of the experience.  I think it’s an important thing to think about, because if we don’t voice that kind of thing, then it seems like something far away. It far away geographically, but it’s close; it’s already in our hearts.  It’s wiser for us to touch it and feel it and find the wisdom in it; otherwise it goes out to sea.

Participant:  How do Buddhists handle healing from trauma?

Master Jok Um:  I can share my point of view.  Several things: medically, if something happens to your body – a strong physical jolt, a bruise, a laceration —  that’s called an insult. There’s something internally that wants to heal the wound, and good medicine promotes that something.  Depending on what the insult is, different supports are necessary. If it’s just a bruise that turns black and blue I may not need to do much, or I may need to put something over it.  Or I might need some kind of rehabilitation. Or if it’s a cut then other things are necessary. So it depends on what has happened. What is the nature of the insult, in the sense above, are they responding to?  What kinds of supports are possible? There’s not one set answer. Everybody’s temperaments are different. One response from the dharma is being intimate. Being close helps you see more specifically what to do, as opposed to following some general codified response.  That’s one thing.  

Second thing is that our formal practices promote a return to our original nature, and original nature has room for healing within it.  So if we’re doing practices that involve sitting meditation, and the intent is to restore or reaffirm the spirit, there’s something that promotes healing and is receptive to it.  So I would see that as a good thing. That creates a receptive space, but it might not be a sufficient space in itself for healing to take place. There are many approaches to trauma and healing.  So there’s something in a sense that helps one from the inside out, and there’s an architecture from the outside in, and I think it’s really important to have a combination of those.

Also, cookies and juice and fruit promote fellowship and healing.  There are cookies, juice and fruit, and the tea is made from roasted corn (it’s a Korean thing).

Participant:  I’ve been waiting an entire year just for the tea.

Q:  I do a lot of volunteering with the homeless.  I wonder if you could say something about the various kinds of ways to be in those experiences.

Master Jok Um:  I worked with homeless for a while.  But I didn’t have the voice then that I have now.  But everybody has something interesting about them.  And people tend to get interested if you’re interested in them.  If you’re sharing that space together, you’re both being human. It’s just finding somebody interesting who is potentially interesting.

Also, two subway stories.  One day I’m on the subway, and a woman gets on, and she starts ranting and raving, and it’s kind of hard to make out and follow what she’s talking about.  She keeps going on, and it’s not clear who she’s talking to or what she’s talking about. And people are responding nonverbally, and it doesn’t look great for her.  At the next stop somebody gets up from a seat that she’s not so far from, so I look at her and I look at the seat, and she sits down. She’s still ranting and raving, but now she’s in a confined space.  At the next stop, the person next to her gets up from the seat and she looks at me and she nods. (Laughter). So now I’m in trouble. (Laughing.) So I sit next to her and she continues ranting and raving, and she’s kind of looking at me.  But at least now it’s just us, instead of everyone. I wasn’t intending any of this, but this is how it happened. So I looked at her and I said, “I think you’re making perfect sense. I happen to agree.” And she looked at me, like which one of us is crazy now.  (Laughing.) Then I said, “If I’m following you, they keep raising the fares for the subway, and the service keeps getting worse, so where’s the money going? And shouldn’t we be protesting? And yeah I think we should— I don’t know where the money’s going just like you.”  And she kinda nods. I continue, “But the way you’re saying it scares people. But what you’re saying makes sense. But if you yell like that people won’t listen because it makes them back away.” And then she looks at me and says, “Maybe I should stop drinking.”

Later that day a guy gets on the subway—  it’s very cold outside— and he’s wearing an Under Armor shirt, a short sleeve shirt, and Under Armor shorts— and he’s got a tattoo and earrings, and he’s got a can of Pepsi and he’s singing loudly.  And what he’s singing is “Go away leave me alone, go away leave me alone.” And I believed him. So I let him have the space. The second person was looking for a way of creating space and he was very good at it, and I respected his skills.  So people will tell you in some way or another what they need and about the space they occupy.

A Biblical Prescription for Responding to the Coronavirus Crisis

These are uncertain days and social isolation has been commanded.  While we must not panic, it is acknowledged that there is a global health crisis.  I’d like to offer a lesson from the biblical scriptures to demonstrate just one possible response — importantly a nonviolent response— that many of us can take on no matter what one’s belief system.  I offer this in light of recent closures of restaurants in several states.  I imagine this will create even more demand from the supermarkets and may further compel a competition for resources.  We all have a burden now to act together, to protect one another, and to stay centered.  We will get through this, and here’s one practice from the scriptures that may help.

The Hebrew Bible, as context, provides many examples for how to best respond to a crisis; and when I say “best”, I mean specifically without violence — no blaming, and no destructive rivalry over power or goods.  What we find in these texts is counter to what the western cultural imagination typically teaches, and so they are of even greater import to understand and learn from. 

The practice I will talk about here is fasting, and there is a great example of why and how fasting is effective in the Book of Esther.  For those unfamiliar with the story, in the Book of Esther, Queen Esther faces a situation in which her Jewish community faces imminent extermination.  The Jewish community, aware of the edict for their extermination, is beset with grief; specifically, they are “dumbfounded” and “in turmoil.”

Next in the story, Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, calls upon Esther to act and save her people.   Esther takes a moment and then responds.  Her response is unusual, though, and I venture not what one would expect.  Esther calls for all the Jewish people to fast for three days, which she will do also, as a period of praying and waiting before she seeks the king’s favor.  

But fasting is not just for seeking out God’s favor.  Fasting was used in biblical times specifically for periods of communal crisis, most of the time for droughts or famine, and was practical as much as spiritual.  Fasting, for example, I infer as having been prescribed to communities in times of crisis to avert the violence that would come from competing for scarce goods.  Fasting is a break from habitual response and the opposite of hoarding goods in a crisis.  Fasting as a community, in addition, functions to unite the group so that internal rivalries do not tear the people apart in times of high emotions and fear.  

In the Book of Esther, fasting indeed “organizes” the Jewish people, unites them in a purposeful, nonviolent action, and focuses them on their mutual and communal vulnerability.  Fasting keeps in-fighting at bay and slows things down physically as well as mentally.  Fasting, also, if one is a believer, makes ever-present how utterly dependent we are on God, and gives us hope for the future.  Who knows if a world fasting in prayer may achieve unprecedented relief.  Fasting is an intensely smart practical response just as it is an indispensable spiritual practice.

You must of course feed your kids, feed the elderly, feed the infirm.  Feed yourselves if you are unable to fast.  Do be sure you have some food put away.  But consider that this spiritual practice is one of the most logical, most peaceful, and most advanced spiritual ways to respond to our current crisis.

What is Sharing Sacred Spaces (SSS)?

SSS involves religious and spiritual communities coming together in partnership to visit one another’s sacred spaces, learn about each other, extend hospitality, equip themselves with some of the tools of interfaith dialogue, and build an interfaith community.  The Sharing Sacred Spaces (SSS) program is designed to engage religious diversity within a safe and tested format, and to widen participation in interreligious activity, education, and skill across each geographic context.

In each location where we launch the initiative, we first develop a core SSS team representing 6-10 congregations.  This team meets once per month to engage in design and planning activities, and to dialogue on commonalities, values, stereotypes and bias, and community and/or civic life.  Ultimately, this core team will develop a vision, design an interreligious response to a civic need, and implement a democratically-chosen project.

Meanwhile, we engage in the site visits to each other’s sacred spaces.  These visits are open to each congregation as well as to the wider public.  Each visit will contain specific elements: an architectural/religious tour of the space, educating on the meaning discerned through the space and the specific community’s history; an introduction to the religion; sharing from members; a dialogue or a shared activity; and a shared meal.  Each visit is thus more than a ‘tour’ or ‘open house’; it is an experience.

Sharing Sacred Spaces creates understanding through embodied “spatial” experiences, and it is this sense an entirely new approach to interfaith relatedness.  The program’s focus is ultimately to build trust across difference, generate goodwill, and foster a greater sense of community together.  The program culminates with the development and implementation of a joint, interreligious civic action designed by the core team, but with the support and resources of the full spectrum of our participating congregations.

Solidarity Ceremony Welcome Speech

Welcome to this very special event where we celebrate and honor eight congregations from across New Haven who have worked intensively together for the past 12 months.  These eight congregations, from different religious traditions, have done a tremendous job; they have put in a lot of work, and a lot of great effort. I think it bears a moment to recap all that they– that you — have done:

You have each hosted uniquely-tailored educational interfaith events at your houses of practice or worship; you have welcomed each other into your spiritual homes with warmth and hospitality; you have shared:  spiritual journeys with one another, the elements of your communal history, your important rituals, and, perhaps most importantly, your tremendous faith; you have provided meals to share, music, textual study, transformational conversation, and tours of your spaces and artworks; and you have embraced questions and provided caring, open responses in turn.

I congratulate you all.

The people sitting up front here are, in particular, celebrated and honored for their leadership in making this very special process of education and relationship-building possible.  This group met together outside of our site visits, every month for the past year, on their own time. They not only planned out and reflected on the visits, but also engaged in deeper dialogues on bias and stereotypes, diversity, and local community challenges; they engaged in dialogues on religion in society more widely, and on religion in public life.  They also identified common values and a common vision for an ideal world. We have spent a good deal of time together, I’ve grown to respect and admire each of them, and will consider them lifelong friends.  

Let’s give a hand for the effort they have made on behalf of all of us.

I want to thank everyone in New Haven who made this program so enriching, so inspiring, and so successful.  You are models of leadership, understanding, wisdom, compassion, and of being extraordinary.  

I also want to thank Suzanne Morgan, the architect of the program, who designed and built this process that becomes its own sacred space for people to inhabit and move through.  What she’s created is unique so far as interfaith programs go. No other interfaith initiative focuses so much on the power and symbolism of architecture, or builds a sustainable and committed local micro-community which, through its branches across religions and other forms of diversity, has the reach and the power to harness the energies and capabilities of the wider city itself. This year we will be revisiting each of our congregations to enhance and deepen our partnership before we turn, toward the end of the academic year, to discerning and acting, together, on a civic challenge.  Thank you, Suzanne Morgan, for being the architect of this force for good.

Finally, I want to thank Dr. Jennifer Herdt, Senior Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, and the Faculty Committee who invited me to bring students on board the program through my course here at Yale Divinity School entitled Sharing Sacred Spaces.  

In the course, we study sacred spaces from the perspectives of religious and liturgical meaning, from the perspectives of theology, neuroscience, sociology, anthropology and, of course, architecture.  What makes a space sacred? Is a sacred space something that is inherently so, or can it be built? Is a sacred space primarily geographic or is it made as such when a community gives it meaning? What function do elements, such as light, or darkness, beauty, shape, or nature, play in eliciting notions of the sacred?  How do sacred spaces generate or comment upon elements of power, aspects of identity, gender and class dynamics? What happens in sacred space?  And what, even more preliminarily, do we mean by “sacred”? 

We need at least our semester, if not a lifetime, to pour over such questions.  But what I can offer in the few minutes I have left today is a little bit about what happened inside of each of our distinct congregational spaces, and also inside the program process as a whole, that might indicate what sacred space does.  

First, each space, for each person, held different openings and tension points.  The Catholic tradition, for example, has long held that beauty, “pulchritude”, can open the heart to God. The Concluding Document of the Plenary Assembly of the Vatican from 2006 states:

This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair.

Beauty speaks directly to the heart, turning astonishment to marvel, admiration to gratitude, happiness to contemplation. Thereby it creates a fertile terrain to listen and dialogue…engaging the whole person— spirit and heart, intelligence and reason, creative capacity and imagination.

The beauty of Catholic architecture— from the strategic use of light, to the masterful renderings of biblical narratives, to the heaven-high domes and spires — and I point as well to the musical beauty that often fills this space —indeed — regenerates, brings joy, and similarly tears.  Indifference is perhaps to fail to perceive the beauty. (Scruton)  

Yet how do I feel as a non-Catholic sitting in the “nave” of St. Mary’s — the ship pointed head-on toward the salvation offered only through the life, death, resurrection of Jesus the Christ?  My faith is not in this space— I experience an embodied “faith-clash”.  The same might happen when a non-Buddhist considers the Golden Buddha, or a non-Hindu the goddess Saraswati, or a non-Orthodox the icon-screen of Eastern Orthodoxy.  Experiencing a faith spatially opens up understandings about how such spaces communicate, attract, and compel, yet also repel and present boundaries.

If we had to leave it at this, then I would have to conclude that “sacred” spaces are necessarily non-inclusive, even ambivalent.  

Yet it was each community’s self-awareness of these boundaries of space, and their intentionality in opening their spaces with hospitality, warmth, and welcome, that brought down any dividing walls.  This experience– of openness where there might have been protective boundaries— was described, in the words of participants, as “unburdening”.

  • The was unburdening in terms of relief and freedom to talk about differences.  
  • There was unburdening in that they felt affirmed in their own beliefs.
  • There was unburdening in the letting down of religious and also racial defenses.
  • There was unburdening in the shattering of stereotypes about others and a deep experiencing of one anothers’ humanity.
  • There was unburdening in the freedom to act in support of those of other religions, when occasions called for such.  
  • There was unburdening from the confines of the self— brought on through the experiences of commonality with others. 
  • There was unburdening, lastly, in seeing and moving past one’s own limitations and ignorance, as steps along the path of personal spiritual progress.

What happened, therefore, in these boundaried “sacred” spaces were feelings of having been freed of boundaries.  Language became common; people’s humanity was recognized and affirmed; spiritual identities were openly embraced; questions and answers were not to close in but to expand; and knowledge became unchained.  Instead of fear and disorientation in the space of the religious Other, participants were reoriented toward trust, safety, joy, wonder, relatedness, and freedom.

The sacred architecture of this program, then, if I might call it such, uses boundaried spaces to elicit unbounded results.  And this, I offer, as one perspective on the paradox of the sacred as seen very practically through what the sacred does.

In light of these experiences of the sacred, the congregations today will sign a pledge of solidarity, and will speak their declaration of solidarity from each of their faith or practice traditions.

The New Haven Planning Committee





Preetham Bangera, Planning Committee Member, Muslim


Mahabala Salian, Chinmaya Saraswati Ashram-Devi Temple


Special mention and thanks to Saifuddin Hasaan, the people of Masjid Al-Islam, and Omer Bajwa, Yale University Muslim Chaplain.


Om, Shanti, Shanti, Shanti

 The Chinmaya Saraswati Ashram is located off a main street in Orange, CT.  One would never know it was there had a small “tent” sign not been placed to mark the territory.  One drives up a long, twisting, wooded path to the former brick schoolhouse, now home to this family-oriented Hindu community.

In our planning sessions, one of our Hindu members always teaches us that the Chinmaya Saraswati “Mission” (as I initially heard it called) is an “ashram” and not a “temple”.  This seems the first point of fundamental importance to understanding this sacred space. While a temple is more for deity worship, an ashram implies a spiritual environment of learning/living/practicing for extended periods of time.  Ashrams may not be central within cities (i.e., in India) like temples are, but they are perhaps something like a “cultural center” or a “monastery” on western terms, and most likely a combination of these two. Chinmaya Ashram, appropriately, has all the trimmings of such a spiritual/living/practicing space with its yoga and meditation floor, its multiple classrooms, its kitchen and its communal spaces.  It also, however, does have a sanctuary, even a resident priest, making it decidedly more than “just” an ashram, but a space verging on temple.

The difference between ashram and temple is just the tip of the iceberg.  People were eager to attend the visit to the Ashram because Hinduism seems, generally, to be less understood than, for example, Judaism or even Islam these days.  Our hosts at the ashram anticipated this as well, and in response provided not just a warm and wonderful event, but a highly educational one. Unlike most of our former visits, Dr. Saroj Kapoor and Mr. Venkat Gade, both revered teachers at the ashram, focused on providing an in-depth explanation of Hinduism, its scriptures, its symbolism, and even its divine truth, for the participants.

After my short welcome to open the evening, Dr. Saroj Kapoor, a Chemistry Professor at Quinnipiac University, opened with a presentation focused on Hindu deities and symbolism.  This was in effect our “tour” of the sanctuary — a gorgeous space bedecked with multiple gods and goddesses who would remain unknown to us without explanation. Chinmaya Saraswati Ashram features the goddess Saraswati as of course the main deity for whom the ashram is named.  Saraswati is the deity of Knowledge and sits in a position of prominence in the middle of the room. She is the focal point. The ashram, focused on ridding of ignorance to attain maximum happiness for the most people (to take the idea from their tagline), seems, indeed, focused on the attainment of true knowledge, Saraswati their vehicle and their guide in the effort.  The other deities around the space are: Lakshmi (Wealth); Durga (Energy); Ganesha (Remover of Obstacles); Hanuman (The Greatest Devotee); Rama Parivar (Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Hanuman); and the Shiva Linga (The formless God). Toward the end of Dr. Kapoor’s tour, she commented on the prevalence of mother goddess deities in the ashram, pointing to the love and devotion of motherhood, and the compassionate orientation and foundation of the space.

The evening of our visit was a Tuesday, and so we also were present for the Hanuman “puja” (ritual) that occurs there weekly.  Hanuman represents the greatest devotee and the deity through whom we can learn about the Hindu path of devotion.  

Venkat Gade spoke after Dr. Kapoor on a great wealth of topics in Hinduism and about Chinmaya.  After some essential facts about worship and educational offerings, Venkat talked about how the Chinmaya Mission became established in India in 1953 by devotees of Swami Chinmayananda, who was a skeptic and had worked as an investigative journalist during the 1940s.  While researching the life of a realized monk, Sivananda, in the Himalayas, he himself became a Hindu monk in 1949. Swami Chinmayananda soon afterward started a lecture series in english distilling the essence of spiritual knowledge from ancient Hindu scripture. His lectures emphasize the ageless wisdom of Advaita Vedanta, the knowledge of universal oneness.  His teachings took a strong hold and now there are 300+ centers all over the world that continue his spiritual, educational, and charitable activities. Venkat added to this history the mission statement of Chinmaya: it is open to everyone with the goal to provide maximum happiness to maximum people for the maximum time.

Hinduism, however, is religion of such diversity that, as one scholar once put it, there are likely as many Hinduisms as there are Hindus.  Hinduism is indeed more a way of life than a set system. Nonetheless, there are beyond a doubt characteristics, scriptures, and beliefs that distinguish Hinduism from other traditions of the world.  Venkat was clear in this portion of the presentation to emphasize that, for Hindus, God is one, but Hindus call Him by various names. Some of these names are: ParamAtma (Divine Soul); The Trinity (Creator (Brahma); Sustainer (Vishnu); One, who ends the creation (Shiva)); and Creation (Prakruti).  He also talked about the Hindu Scripture as being God’s word – a vision written down by Sages over thousands of years– and broken down into the 4 Vedas (4), the Upanishads, and the Epics (including the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita).

Venkat then offered some further details on symbolism in Hinduism, which connected with Dr. Kapoor’s earlier tour of the deities.  Venkat explained that every deity represents certain attributes, the purpose of which is to focus our mind & bring our thoughts inward.  Prayers and songs aid this process. The eventual goal, however is to worship without a form and to realize the Self (soul, or “Atman”) is one and the same in every one, and indeed one and the same with Brahman, or God!  Venkat offered more mystical teaching than has been typical at our events so far by going even deeper into the original name of the deity as Sanathana Dharma (Eternal Truth or Righteous Living), the nature of dharma, truth, and righteousness, the response to the eternal question Who Am I? (not the body, mind, or intellect, but the soul within us), and Om (the mystical sound of creation from the imperishable truth or divinity).  

These symbolic and deeply mystical presentations were only made better by the sharing from members of the ashram and also performances of several of the children.  The following were those who presented their meaningful spiritual journeys, and who performed ritual devotions:

  • My Experience with Satsang (Study Group) ! – Nita Bulsara
  • Why I come to Chinmaya Mission? – Niharika J. (High School Student)
  • Recital of Bhagavat Geeta (Divine Song) – Satvik A.
  • Recital of Hanuman Chaleesa (Praise of Lord Hanuman) – Pavan & Akruti K.

After these lovely recitations and narratives, Teepi Reddy led the tour for the participants through the rest of the space, visiting the kitchen, meeting rooms, classrooms, and top floor meditation room.  The building used to be a schoolhouse as mentioned above– but it was a divinity school in fact– which creates a lovely spiritual continuity going back in time. The ashram is certainly both deeply mystical and educational.

After the tour, we all gathered for a wondrous meal of Indian food– several rice dishes, samosas, fresh fruits, and Indian sweets.  Yum! Mostly we engaged in unstructured dialogue during this time, and the feelings were warm as we enjoyed the home cooked meal. I learned that even the yogurt most of this community eats is homemade, and it is by far more delicious than what one gets in the store.  (I have a secret mission to get a lesson on how to make this at home.) We did eventually take some time for questions, though the focal points of this portion of the evening were more on the Peace Prayer and the Hanuman Puja led by the Priest back in the sanctuary. While some wandered back in to see the ritual and speak with members, the rest stayed back in the common room enjoying dessert, and being led in the warming peace prayer.   Our meal ended with a young Hindu woman singing the prayer, and teaching us: if we could only remember one word from the prayer to take home with us, let it be “Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.” Shanti means Peace.

After a moving experience in the common room, I wandered back to see what was happening with everyone else in the sanctuary.  Hanuman Prasad Arvapalli is the Priest who lives on the premises and performs ritual functions for the community. He does not speak much if any English, but he has a gentle and kind demeanor that communicates.  He spoons out prasad (ritual offerings) to all visitors and worshippers alike usually consisting of fruits and nuts.  There were several conversations going on between our participants and the Hindu community, and I made smiling contact with Prasad in greeting.  He then nodded, smiled back, and offered me an orange and a banana. I have yet to understand the meaning of being offered fruit within the Hindu tradition, and this is certainly something I’ll pursue understanding.  So pleased we will have another opportunity to attend here and everywhere else on this pilgrimage of the soul. What a delightful ending to our Sharing Sacred Spaces year. 

Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

Sarve Jana Sukino Bhavantu (Peace & Happiness to All)

“It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else’s life with perfection.”
― Anonymous, The Bhagavad Gita