I had the opportunity recently to be in the company of Oprah Winfrey and then Pope Francis over the course of one week.
Auburn Seminary's President the Rev. Dr. Katharine Henderson and I joined over 200 faith leaders from all over the United States in Santa Barbara, California. The focus was to screen the first two episodes of a weeklong series entitled Belief. These are seven, one-hour TV shows funded by Oprah to be aired on the OWN network in mid-October. These shows use compelling storytelling to look at the importance of spirituality and faith as an opportunity for individual and communal transformation. Afterwards, we were shuttled to her home where we were graciously hosted by Oprah for drinks and dinner. Before dinner, our host shared how meaningful this project was for her, so important that she fully funded the effort. It was truly an evening of inspiration and gracious hospitality.
I also had the honor of representing Auburn at "ground zero" surrounded by over 500 faith leaders as we welcomed Pope Francis to NYC. As we made our way to our gathering place, I saw many Metro New York City colleagues and friends from various faith traditions. The buzz in the room was about how different this pope was from others -- his deep commitment to justice for the poor and marginalized along with his willingness to speak a truth that is grounded in unconditional love and inclusiveness. There was a sense of excitement and anticipation from Jewish, Sikh, Muslim and Protestant colleagues. It was a multi-faith "happening." As he then spoke, he affirmed the need to pray and work for peace. The real work of faith is not about death and destruction, but peace and reconciliation.
It is fascinating to me that two such influential leaders -- Oprah and the Pope -- demonstrated an understanding of and commitment to the power of working across faith traditions. Individual and/or societal transformation must include multi-faith engagement. But are there other leaders who are able to help bring us together, in the same room to the same table, to bridge our divides? Our theological and philosophical differences, egos, suspicions all impact the ways that we do our work. And vulnerability is often avoided for fear of losing the respect -- and support -- of our constituents and trusted allies.
I was recently conversing with a few college classmates, and I suddenly found myself inundated by a barrage of political questions. What struck me was not so much our difference of opinion, but the depth of mistrust and anger fueled by the belief that "the left" is morally questionable, unfair and inconsistent. When I asked one classmate "Where do you see signs of hope?" he stated that he saw none. I could feel his fear and distrust of those with different views.
I believe that this is one of the greatest challenges we face as a nation is creating a public dialogue less focused on extremes, and instead, able to reconcile differing views. After all, most of us live in this moderate "grey area."
This week, unlikely allies Oprah Winfrey and Pope Francis issued a call to action to religious leaders. Their multi-faith gatherings were driven and shaped out of a deep sense that faith, and even religion, can still make a difference in our individual and communal lives. Fear of difference will not have the last word. Their call to action shines a spotlight on us as faith leaders and reminds us of that we have the power to change things in a meaningful and powerful way if we are willing to trust our fellowship together despite differences.
One colleague at the Sept. 11 memorial looked around and said to me, "We should just lock the doors and see if we can make some decisions today."