“You don’t have to give up your truth in order to understand someone else’s.”
I encountered this statement during an interview that ran on NPR shortly before our journey to all 50 states began. Megan Phelps-Roper, a former member of Westboro Baptist Church, was being interviewed as she shared her journey out of a life of fear and hate into a newfound place of curiosity, acceptance and love.
These very simple words have stuck with me through this journey across America, and were especially helpful this week as we met with individuals whose faith and beliefs differ from my own. I was curious and excited to explore friendships and commonalities with members of the Mormon faith as well as the Muslim and Hindu faiths. You could say it was “faith week” for Undivided Nation.
Our time kicked off with an invitation to attend the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable’s Expressions of Light art exhibit in downtown Salt Lake City. The exhibit is a collection of stained glass window fragments collected after WWII from places of worship across Europe. The fragments were tucked away in envelopes inside a trunk for over 50 years before they were implemented into a breathtaking exhibit designed to tell the story of each fragment’s place of origin.
We arrived with our kids in tow to a room filled with individuals representing a wide range of religions who have been gathering since 2001 when the group was originally commissioned to create places of worship for athletes attending the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake.
Following the Olympics, the roundtable continued to meet, purely out of a mutual desire to stay connected and create opportunities for people from diverse religious backgrounds to come together.
I had the chance to meet a beautiful Muslim woman from Eastern Europe, a retired attorney from the Mormon faith and a remarkable couple who created a community of worship for the local Hindu population in their own basement. The Hindu couple’s faith community grew so quickly after they began gathering in their basement, they were desperately in need of a larger space. With support from the city and from fellow faith communities in the area, the Hindu community was able to acquire land and build a beautiful Temple.
As the wife Indra shared this story with me about how their Temple came to be, I immediately fell in love with her passion and zeal. She shared her personal journey from living as a successful business woman in Southern India, to arriving in Utah, one of the most homogeneous states in the U.S. with her husband, Neale who came to pursue his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering.
As I sat with Indra, I began to realize how much we share in common. Clearly on the surface, I am a blonde, blue-eyed Protestant from Texas, and she, adorned in her full traditional Hindu regalia hails from another culture, another language and a totally different set of religious beliefs. Despite all that difference, our hearts connected at a deep level.
We discussed the beauty and the necessity for interfaith friendships. We talked about the fine line between freely loving a person of a different faith vs. agenda-based friendships rooted in the need to proselytize. She blessed and encouraged us on our journey and even invited us to visit their temple for a personal tour, which we gladly accepted.
The next morning we met her husband Neale who gave us a full introduction to the Hindu faith before welcoming us into his most sacred space of worship where we met his priest and learned about the origins of the various shrines and their meaning. It was a deeply moving experience of learning and honoring something held sacred by millions across the world. The piece that most deeply impacted me was the priest’s explanation of the divine being found in all of creation. It was an incredible experience for all five of us.
I’m sure as the novices we are, we didn’t follow the temple protocol to the letter, but Neale, the priest and the other worshipers there were so gracious and welcoming to us. Now I have a deep desire to go to India and experience this colorful, passionate and vibrant culture full on.
Our time that day continued with a meeting between myself and a beautiful mom and entrepreneur named Vanessa Quigley. Vanessa and her husband Nate launched Chatbooks a few years ago with a desire to provided families with a convenient and meaningful way to collect photos and memories in books that the company produces and mails out to clients through a simple and easy-to-use app.
I was so inspired by Vanessa’s passion and how the entire idea for the company was birthed out of a moment she shared with her son when she realized how important it is to get to hold memories in your hand and not just digitally on a cloud. We connected on a really deep level as moms, even as we acknowledged that our faith backgrounds differ. We realized it is faith that inspires us both, and is a vital and constant driver in all we do.
So in closing, I want to thank Megan Phelps-Roper for sharing her wise words and for her brave move to leave the familiar and operate in line with her deep inner convictions. It takes an incredible amount of faith to do what she did, yet what awaited her on the other side of that decision was a lifetime of diverse, meaningful relationships that she would never had known if she had remained in her cocoon of fear-based ideologies.
Our world, though not as intense as Westboro by any stretch, was to a lesser degree, a world of fear-based ideologies that could have held us in a pattern of blindly rejecting our unknown other. But we said yes to exploring the lives and truths of our others, and not only have we not had to sacrifice our truth on the alter of those friendships, we have discovered a breathtaking a world of mutual understanding where ultimatums and conditions for acceptance are a thing of the past. Love is found in the freedom to accept someone at face value. Agreement is cheap. Love on the other hand, is a deep, rich and powerful well where disagreement is allowed plenty of space, because love, after all, can handle it.