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Walking Arm in Arm with Others

Mitch Albom wrote a book titled Have a Little Faith.  Mitch grew up Jewish, but as he left for college and started a career in sports writing, he left many of his Jewish roots behind.  Years later, his rabbi approached him with a special request.  From page 1 of his book,

“Will you do my eulogy?”

I don’t understand, I said.

“My eulogy?” the old man asked again.  “When I’m gone.”  His eyes blinked from behind his glasses.  His nearly trimmed beard was gray, and he stood slightly stooped.

Are you dying? I asked.

“Not yet,” he said, grinning.

Then why—

“Because I think you would be a good choice.  And I think, when the time comes, you will know what to say.”

Picture the most pious man you know.  Your priest.  Your pastor.  Your rabbi.  Your imam.  Now picture him tapping you on the shoulder and asking you to say good-bye to the world on his behalf.

Picture the man who sends people off to heaven, asking you for his send-off to heaven.

“So?” he said.  “Would you be comfortable with that?

The book is a great read.  Mitch tells the true stories of the interactions with his rabbi, as well as a pastor of a homeless church in Detroit.  I wanted to share a few stories that I found especially touching.  In preparation for the eulogy, Mitch met with his rabbi regularly for 8 years.  The rabbi is a remarkable man.  One of their conversations is detailed on page 158,

Soon we had tumbled into a most fundamental debate.  How can different religions coexist?  If one faith believes one thing, and another believes something else, how can they both be correct?  And does one religion have the right— or even the obligation— to try to convert the other?

…[jump to page 159]

Is there any winning a religious argument?  Whose God is better than whose?  Who got the Bible right or wrong?  I preferred figures like Rajchandra, the Indian poet who influenced Gandhi by teaching that no religion was superior because they all brought people closer to God; or Gandhi himself, who would break a fast with Hindu prayers, Muslim quotations, or a Christian hymn.

…[jumping to pages 160-162]

“Ask yourself, ‘Why did God create but one man?'” the Reb said, wagging a finger.  “Why, if he meant for there to be faiths bickering with each other, didn’t he create that from the start?  He created trees, right?  Not one tree, countless trees.  Why not the same with man?

“Because we are all from that one man— and all from that one God.  That’s the message.”

Then why, I asked, is the world so fractured?

“Well, you can look at it this way?  Would you want the world to all look alike?  No.  The genius of life is its variety.

“Even our own faith, we have questions and answers, interpretations, debates.  In Christianity, in Catholicism, in other faiths, the same thing— debates, interpretations.  That is the beauty.  It’s like being a musician.  If you found the note, and you kept hitting that note all the time, you would go nuts.  It’s the blending of the different notes that makes the music.”

The music of what?

“Of believing in something bigger than yourself.”

But what if someone from another faith won’t recognize yours?  Or wants you dead for it?

“That is not faith.  That is hate.”  He sighed.  “And if you ask me, God sits up there and cries when it happens.”

He coughed, then as if to reassure me, he smiled.  He had full time help in the house now; his home care workers had included a tall woman from Ghana and a burly Russian man.  Now, on weekdays, there was a lovely Hindu woman from Trinidad named Teela.  She helped get him dressed and do some light exercises in the morning, fixed his meals, and drove him to the supermarket and synagogue.  Sometimes she would play Hindi religious music over her car stereo.  The Reb enjoyed it and asked for a translation.  When she talked about reincarnation, per her faith, he quizzed her and apologized for not knowing more about Hinduism over the years.

How can you— a cleric— be so open-minded? I asked.

“Look, I know what I believe.  It’s in my soul.  But I constantly tell our people: you should be convinced of the authenticity of what you have, but you must also be humble enough to say that we don’t know everything, we must accept that another person may believe in something else?”

He sighed.

“I’m not being original here, Mitch.  Most religions teach us to love our neighbor.”

I thought about how much I admired him at that moment.  How he never, even in private, even in old age, tried to bully another belief, or bad-mouth someone else’s devotion.  And I realized I had been a bit of a coward on this whole faith thing.  I should have been more proud, less intimidated.  I shouldn’t have bitten my tongue.  If the only thing wrong with Moses is that he’s not yours; if the only thing wrong with Jesus is he’s not yours; if the only thing wrong with mosques, Lent, chanting, Mecca, Buddha, confession, or reincarnation is that they’re not yours— well, maybe the problem is you.

One more question? I asked the Reb.

He nodded.

When someone from another faith says, “God bless you,” what do you say?

“I say, ‘Thank you, and God bless you, too.'”

Really?

“Why shouldn’t I?”

I went to answer and realized I had no answer.  No answer at all.

I wanted to share one more story, where I take the title of my post.  From pages 70-71,

“What’s wrong?” the Reb asked.

Apparently minutes earlier, Gunther had been outside, overseeing the parking, when the Catholic priest came stomping out and began to yell about all the cars parking by his church, because it was Sunday and he wanted the spaces for his members.

“Get them out of here,” he hollered, according to Gunther.  “You Jews move your cars now!”

“But it’s High Holiday,” Gunther said.

“Why must you have it on Sunday?” the priest yelled.

“The date was set three thousand years ago,” Gunther replied.  Being an immigrant, he still spoke with a German accent.  The priest glared at him, then uttered something almost beyond belief.

“They didn’t exterminate enough of you.”

Gunther was enraged.  His wife had spent three and a half years in a concentration camp.  He wanted to slug the priest.  Someone intervened, thankfully, and a shaken Gunther returned to the sanctuary.

The next day, the Reb phoned the Catholic archbishop who oversaw the area’s churches and told him what had happened.  The following day, the phone rang.  It was the priest, asking if he could come over and talk.

The Reb met him at the office door.  They sat down.

“I want to apologize,” he said.

“Yes,” the Reb said.

“I should not have said what I did.”

“No, you should not have,” the Reb said.

“My archbishop had a suggestion,” the priest said.

“What is that?”

“Well, as you know, our Catholic school is in session now.  And they will have their recess soon…”

The Reb listened.

Then he nodded and stood up.

And when the school doors opened and the kids burst out for recess, they saw the priest of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church and the rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom walking arm in arm, around the schoolyard.

Some kids blinked.

Some kids stared.

But all of them took notice.

You might think that an uneasy truce; two men forced to walk around a schoolyard, arm in arm.  You might think a certain bitterness would haunt the relationship.  But somehow, in time, they became friends.  And years later, the Reb would be inside the Catholic church.

At the priest’s funeral.

“I was asked to help officiate,” the Reb recalled.  “I recited a prayer for him.”  And I think, by that time, he might have thought it wasn’t so bad.”

I loved the book, and HIGHLY recommend it to everyone.  I’ve only discussed the rabbi here, but there’s a fascinating story of a Christian preacher of the “I Am My Brother’s Keeper” church as well.  Your heart will be touched, as mine was.

I welcome debate here.  Sometimes tempers flare.  I hope we can follow the example of the priest and the rabbi, walking arm in arm despite our different beliefs, and I hope we can maintain these friendships, even if we don’t convert anyone to our way of thinking.

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5 comments on “Walking Arm in Arm with Others

  1. Great post, MH. I’ve been studying a bit about Hinduism lately and with the exception of the caste system, I really love it. I love its “live and let live” attitude towards religion and wish that every faith could adopt it. I’ve had my eyes really opened up to other faiths this past year and it’s given me a lot to think about. I do know some Mormons who are really quite good at living their religion while still being able to maintain a “live and let live” attitude toward others, but how many Mormons are willing to lay all their cards on the table, really sit down and study another religion with an open mind and heart in the way that we want non-Mormons to do with the missionary discussions? How many Mormons would ever read the Qu’ran, the Veda, or whatever, and pray to find out whether it’s “true?” There are very few, I think, and yet we expect others to want to do so with the Book of Mormon. Maybe we automatically dismiss the possibility of receiving a witness of truth within another religion. Or maybe there’s a part of us that is afraid of the possibility? And that’s why I think that for the most part, those who have a Gandhi or Mitch Albom-like view on faith will find attending the LDS Church excruciating. Yes, we can respect other religions and say that they have truth, but ultimately, they are all inferior to ours because we are the only church with the fullness of truth. And at this point in my faith journey, the “one true church” concept simply falls flat.

  2. FD, thanks for the comment. I have a feeling that my “feel good” post will not draw very much traffic. It does seem to apply with your latest post, as well as my post on Benson. I’m hoping the strong feelings over there can be mitigated a bit.

    I know hardly anything about Hinduism. Gandhi was an amazing individual, and I’m impressed that he seemed to follow the 13th article of faith: “if there is anything virtuous, or lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” It does seem that we don’t seek after all good things–only Mormon things. There are many virtuous, lovely, and praiseworthy things from people of all faiths, and we should celebrate these more than we do.

  3. Great post. I have read the Qu’ran and learned some Arabic. I absolutely love the Bhagavad Gita. In general, I find much more peace reading the Dhammapada than I do the Book of Mormon. I have found truth and peace and comfort and a closeness to divinity in all of these places. I’ve also learned much about myself reading Dawkins and Harris and etc.

    The upside: I feel my spirituality is much deeper than when I stuck to “LDS-approved” sources. I feel a kinship and love for everyone around me, regardless of their beliefs. I feel much more connected to the divine and the universe around me.

    The downside: I don’t know that I’d make a great missionary any more, as I don’t really know that I’d try to “sell” the JS story when I find equal (or more) beauty in other religions as well. I also don’t know that I will ever progress very far in the “hierarchy” as it’s hard to imagine a leader who can’t say “I know…

  4. MH
    You obviously summarize a great “feel-good” book, loaded with great examples of how people (not mormons or catholics or jews, etc.) should view the world and religion. This is all great stuff, but it does kind of smack the LDS culture in the face. FD, Mike S and even you, bring this up, however subtly. The LDS culture is an isolationist culture. It is a “come to us” vs “let’s get together” culture. It advocates censorship (“LDS-Approved sources”). To be fair, many other religious groups are the same way.

    I have to disagree with Reb on one point though. I don’t think all religions bring you closer to God. I think many do, but certainly not all. Of the major religions, I think Hinduism does the best job of teaching what Reb preaches.

    This is just one reason why I don’t believe there is a one true church.

  5. Mike, thanks for stopping by. I’ve enjoyed your perspectives over at W&T. I need to read the Koran. Maybe I’ll get to that book this year. I know Daniel Peterson from BYU has found some interesting parallels with the Book of Mormon.

    Yes, Bishop Rick, I agree that our church culture is quite insular. I hope that we can do a better job of embracing the good of all. I think we can adopt the “one true church” idea AND still embrace the good of others, and I think we as a church have done a poor job of that to date. People of all faiths have praiseworthy things that we shouldn’t be afraid to promote.

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