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“I firmly believe that whether you’re building a company or leading a country, a diverse mix of voices and backgrounds and experiences leads to better discussions, better decisions, and better outcomes for everyone.”

In the week following Republican candidate Donald Trump’s loathsome proposal to stop all travel in and out of the US based on religion, until “we figure out what’s going on” with “terrorism,” there have been a number of voices raised in protest. Finally. Trump’s brand of nationalistic fascism is nothing new,  and we’re seeing a resurgence of it around the world as crisis and change make people afraid. But Trump has hit a new low for Americans, at least since Japanese-Americans were interred and stripped of all possessions and dignity in the panic following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December , 1941.

One of the most eloquent voices is Google’s CEO Sundar Pinchal, who speaks with the voice of experience and authority. It’s worth the read for anyone who is concerned about allowing everyone from different cultures the possibility to be respected and to perform their best.

Let’s Not Let Fear Defeat Our Values.

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An interesting experience over the weekend. In the course of last week a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door. Young fellows with an appearance that would be familiar anywhere in the world: white shirts and ties, short cropped hair, youthful. We had good conversation and afterwards I asked them if it was possible to join them in their service. As regular readers of this blog may know, not only am I busy with intercultural dynamics in businesses, I’m also active in interfaith activities. I’m slowly becoming acquainted with various faiths and their forms of worship.
Last Sunday was their gathering at the Kingdom Hall in Almelo. I was a few minutes late and even though the parking lot was full, there was nobody to be seen. The security gate securing the lot was shut tight, but a walkway fence was unlocked, so I walked my bike inside the immaculately kept grounds. At the main door there was, again, nobody in sight and I tried the door: locked. Even before I let go of the handle, though, a clean cut, smiling young man bounded towards me and welcomed me inside. On leading me into the building I realized why his timing was so good: he was sitting behind a bank of security cameras which monitored my arrival.
 
I was asked to wait in the foyer and was then introduced to a smartly dressed gentleman, my age. He asked me a few questions and after determining my intent was benevolent, showed me to a seat near the front of the main hall. A group of maybe 75 equally smartly dressed, freshly scrubbed churchgoers of all ages sat listening to a handsome young man giving a sermon. I glanced around the room and noticed that everyone there was neat, clean, good looking and well dressed. A diverse group, probably one of the most diverse gatherings I’ve ever seen in Almelo. The average age was somewhere in the late 30s, which is about half the average of the parishioners at our St. Georgius Catholic Church. I was joined by Wesley who was one of the young men who came to my door, and he stayed with me during the nearly 2-hour service.
 
It was very interesting, the service. After the sermon (which, I learned, is performed on a rotating basis by any number of fellow parishioners – apparently JWs believe in a very flat organization), there was an interactive reading of an article from “The Watchtower.” Parishioners were called on by a moderator to contribute, and most of the responses included relevant quotes from the Bible. What it lacked in spontaneity was made up for in thoroughness and preparation. Nearly everyone in the hall contributed at some point, from 5-year old kids to seniors well into their 70s.
 
Afterwards, a great number of people came up to me, welcoming me to their church. In addition to Wesley’s entire family (mother, father and brother), the most interesting was a family from Armenian background: they had just returned, 3-days earlier, from a month-long holiday in Glendale, California, where they were visiting family. A great number of Armenians in Almelo, including Anton who cuts my hair, have family in Glendale. The most interesting comment of the day came from Gert Hollander, the my-age man I initially met in the foyer. I told him my very positive impressions of the service while sitting on my bike in the parking lot upon leaving. He said, “You know, if more people were open, like you, and would experience our service just once, the overall impression of Jehovah’s Witnesses would be far different in the world.”
 
I guess the same could be said for all religions and cultures, couldn’t it? 

I had a meeting with the Imam yesterday in our city. Another  major step in getting local support for my Interfaith Dialogue initiative. Even though he is clearly a busy man in an important position, he was very generous with his time. For more than an hour we sat, drank tea and had a conversation about my idea for establishing an interfaith dialogue in Almelo. He was enthusiastic about the idea because it enhances his own mission. He said that even though his primary duty is to his followers, reaching out to the non-Muslim community is also an essential part of his responsibilities. Coincidentally (or not ;-)), I arrived at the same time he was giving a presentation about Islam and the mosque to a group of about 30 bureaucrats from City Hall. He regularly does the same with schools, civic organizations, other churches and the like. He said, “Even though we don’t proselytize, we do find it important to instruct others in our faith. After all, Mohammed (PBUH) was also surrounded by non-Muslims: Jews and Christians. It was also His responsibility to tell others about His faith.”

What I found most remarkable about our conversation was how learned the Imam was about Christian beliefs. And clearly how much respect he has for other faiths. In his presentation to the city employees, I found him somewhat defensive, without prompting explaining how the Islam is a peace-loving religion and the acts of violence committed in the name of Islam were perverting the teachings. Even though it’s understandable that he would do this, considering the amount of demonizing around the faith, I found it unfortunate. During our one-on-one, however, he was nothing but gracious, generous and supportive. I’ve clearly got the Imam in my corner.

It was interesting, even though the meeting went as expected, there were some interesting surprises. The first is how young the Imam is. A young guy, maybe in his early 30’s. When he was saying prayers and later in front of the group of city hall employees he was dressed in his ceremonial robe and headwear he projected an air of religious authority. But when he met with me he was wearing a simple business suit with tie, giving him the air of a junior associate with an accounting firm. I guess the thin, scraggly mustache didn’t help (no beard, as is the custom of most Turkish men). The second surprise, though it shouldn’t have been surprising, was that he spoke little Dutch. He is relatively new in his position, having been sent by Istanbul to Almelo for this assignment relatively recently. We had an interpreter, a young guy in his early 20’s. We got by, even though we weren’t able to converse on the level I was hoping to. Whenever the sentences or ideas became complex, the kid was a bit lost. He performed admirably, nonetheless. It was interesting to hear that every time he would translate for the Imam, he would, without fail, preface his text with “The Imam says . . . “.

A most amazing blog post on Saturday, 11 September by a certain Pam Geller praising the speech Geert Wilders gave at the site of the WTC in NYC. The caption to this photo was “The Dutch Parliamentarian and freedom fighter Geert Wilders gave a magnificent speech.” My response to this caption: “Wilders is anything but a ‘freedom fighter,’ unless you mean that term to be someone who is fighting to take away the ideals that freedom, liberty and the ‘Dutch tolerance’ stand for.” I was promptly viciously, and personally, attacked by the rabid right-wingers who populate the site.

My further comments regarding this speech:

As an American who lost a dear friend at the Pentagon on 9/11, I can’t think of many things more irrelevant, inappropriate or offensive than Geert Wilders, of all people, giving a speech at Ground Zero and continuously using the inclusive pronoun ‘we.’ As in ‘We are gathered here to draw a line [against Islam].’

It reminds me of that joke:
The Lone Ranger and his faithful Indian companion Tonto are riding on horseback through a narrow canyon, when suddenly they see hundreds of enemy Apaches lined up on the ridges above them.
“It looks like we have a problem, Tonto!,” exclaims the Lone Ranger.
Tonto replies, “What do you mean ‘we’, white man?”

The point being: don’t include me in your ‘we’, Wilders. You have no right to subjugate for your own nefarious purposes my right to freedom.

رمضان مبارك, Joyeux Ramadan, Happy Ramadan, Selamat Berpuasa, Feliz Ramadan, ماه رمضان مبارک – To all my Muslim followers.

It’s been interesting following the “trending topics” on Twitter, especially when there is something of value (i.e. NOT “Justin Bieber” or the latest Disney film). Last night it was the beginning of Ramadan. Even though I’ve read about Ramadan, this was the first time I’ve heard in detail from those who are practicing it. It was fascinating to read that nearly every practitioner who was writing about it saw this time as an opportunity to deepen their spirituality and their relationship not only with God, but also with their families and themselves. A typical posting, this one from @NomadicEmpress, reads:

“I am in complete happiness! The beautiful month of Ramadan is here to bless and cleanse us all. May we all benefit from the month of mercy.”

Reading these filled me with such a feeling of joy and happiness for my Moslem brothers and sisters. Suddenly all the noise about the “Ground Zero mosque,” Geert Wilders and other anti-islamists appeared to me to be shallow, hateful, self-righteous and intolerant.

I also felt a small twinge of envy. As a practicing and faithful Catholic, we have our own season of self-denial and spiritual examination in the Lenten period before Easter. Feeling the depth of the experience reflected through social media made me realize how much deeper an experience it can be.

Thank you, my Moslem brothers and sisters, for sharing a glimpse into your faith. I wish you strength, health, happiness and a deeper spirituality during this time.

Ramadan Mubarak.

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Leo Salazar

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