Interfaith panel agrees on building bridges of goodwill

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, April 21, 2016

“It is up to us to build a wall, or to build a bridge.”
—Romesh Anand

The words of the late Chief Walking Buffalo, globetrotting goodwill ambassador of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, were echoed throughout the evening.

Look at the forest, he’d say – the trees, the bushes, the flowers. In their diversity there is a unity of beauty. One tree doesn’t say to a tree of a different species, “I’m better than you,” nor does the cranberry bush say to the moss, “I don’t need you; get out of my forest.”

And so it is in our lives together as human beings, he’d say. In all our diversity, we need each other; we need what’s known in the Stoney Nakoda language as wazin îchinabi, “oneness.”That’s the way the Great Spirit made us, and that’s the way life as a whole can be beautiful.

Stoney Nakoda Elder Sykes Powderface shared that story at the 8th Annual World Religions Conference held at the Cochrane RancheHouse on April 19. He was one of six panelists addressing the topic, “Building Bridges of Mutual Respect and Goodwill.”

The well-attended public event, organized by the Ahmadiyya Muslim community of Calgary, brought together representatives from Hinduism, Aboriginal spirituality, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Baha’i Faith.

Serving both as moderator and as representative of a Christian viewpoint, I opened the evening with Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan was a religiously marginalized “other” whose care for a total stranger of a different religious group – a robbery victim who had been beaten up and left for nearly dead along a busy road – provided an answer to the question raised by a religious scholar of the day: “Who is my neighbour?”

Clearly, the mutual respect for the wellbeing of each other on the basis of our common humanity amidst our diversity outweighs our religious differences.

This priority was affirmed by Romesh Anand, Hindu, a restaurateur and award-winning bridge builder among the Calgary-area’s diverse South Asian religious communities.

Romesh shared the story of how a very long bridge of Indian antiquity was built, not with steel and heavy machinery, but by hand, and stone by stone. The same stones used for building walls can be used, instead, to build bridges, he said.

When we pick up stones, “It is up to us to build a wall, or to build a bridge.” The choice is ours, he said.

Dr. David Lertzman, Assistant Professor of Environmental Management and Sustainable Development at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business, shared a Jewish perspective on the topic.

Bridge-building must follow the lead of First Nations traditional teachings on our relationship, not only with each other, he said, but with the land, as well. We’re “at a crossroads on Mother Earth, consuming more than the planet is able to produce.” And in human relations, “the same kind of prejudice that formerly was focused on Jews is now against Muslims,” he lamented. “We are being called upon to stand up for and with one another.”

Dr. Michael Bopp, Baha’i, picked up on Sykes’ lead about the Creator’s love of diversity. Too often, however, some religious people have taken that diversity as grounds for fear and suspicion, the co-founder of the Four Worlds Centre for Development Learning said.

“We need to create a moral understanding for a different world” that rises above dogmatic divisions and ignorance of the sciences for the sake of our collective humanity motivated by spiritual teachings. We have to get beyond an “I’m right and you’re wrong” relationship with each other. “This requires real love.”

Yes, love, said Maulana Taha Syed, Imam at the Ahmadiyya community’s Baitun Nur Mosque in Calgary, whose motto is “Love for all, hatred for none.” God created our diversity of appearance only so we could recognize each other, he said, not as barriers against each other.

He is appalled to see some so-called Muslims doing such terrible things in our world right now. Speaking as a representative of the conference’s organizers, he said that the evening was an attempt to show another way. We all have the ability “to bring about positive change.”

Or, as Gandhi put it, I added in my concluding comments as moderator, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”


© 2016 Warren Harbeck

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