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Interfaith Immersion in the Big Apple

By Samir Selmanovic


Faith House Manhattan, where I serve as executive director, has announced a new turn in our work, a development I believe will be the catalyst for similar programs elsewhere. But first let me share the journey that led to this latest experiment with experiential interfaith work.

We founded Faith House Manhattan in 2009, after my family and I moved from California to New York, embarking on a wildly exciting, admittedly scary endeavor – founding a new organization, a community of communities, a co-laboratory. This was a significant departure from my previous work as a community pastor of a growing congregation of Seventh-Day Adventists. It wasn’t only about the challenge of living with my wife and two daughters in big, wonderful, dirty, and intense New York City, or about leaving a safe, gainful employment that comes with being an ordained pastor. It was about the challenge of a new type of leadership: How to lead people outwards while deepening the roots of their identities?

My own story begins in Croatia (former Yugoslavia), where I was raised by a family of nominal Muslims. Islam wasn’t a matter of belief for my family, but more a way of life, a culture, an identifying difference between us and our neighbors. It was during my obligatory military service, stationed in Macedonia, that I had my spiritual awakening. The only problem was, my spiritual coming-of-age did not come through the faith tradition of my family.

Returning home after converting to Christianity, particularly the Seventh-day Adventist sort, I began the long process of reconciling with my family, especially my father, who despite his own distance from faith found my conversion to be the ultimate catastrophe of his life.

It was a spiritual journey, from the Islam of my family and the Atheism of my society to becoming a Christian who worships on the Sabbath; and a physical journey from Croatia, ultimately to the United States, that made my calling clear and inspired me to write It’s Really All About God: How Islam, Atheism, and Judaism Made Me a Better Chrisitan. In the book the conceptual genesis of Faith House is outlined. All roads pointed to Rome, but instead of the City of Seven Hills, it was the City of Four Islands. New York here we come!

Starting a New Kind of Community

In 2009 a core group of leaders gathered, including Rabbi David Ingber of Romemu, Bowie Snodgrass from St. John the Divine, Jill Minkoff, and Rabia Gentile from the Nour Jerrahi Sufi Order. We began hosting weekly Living Room gatherings, where a guest host would lead this community of communities in a spiritual practice from their tradition, inviting but not obligating others to join them. We experimented with what it is like to hold one’s faith in a community where “the other” is always present, and where my group cannot control the questions, let alone the answers. Is it possible to deepen the experience of one’s own faith tradition through experiencing another?

We’ve had singing, prayer, dancing, meditating, and my favorite, eating. We made many new friends during the past three years, even while scaring a few of my more traditional Christian friends. In this awkward-for-some new space one must learn to hold strong beliefs lightly.

While we continue to grow and expand in New York, we’ve noticed a quiet rumbling from the distance. Many of our supporters, constituents, and friends are not in Manhattan, or even near New York City. Some aren’t even in the Western Hemisphere! While it had been our hope to grow and create branches of Faith House in other communities around the country and beyond, our operations in Faith House were proving to be more popular than they were financially sustainable. We had to cut back to one Living Room gathering a month. Anyone reading this who has founded an organization, started a company, or planted a congregation can identify with the difference between doing good work and funding good work.

Last year, out of curiosity and the urging of supporters, we did a survey of Faith House supporters and members from all over the country and abroad, finding out what they were most interested in. We found many people are eager to experience the richness of experience that religious diversity can offer. We heard how they live vicariously through our social media since they come from places that haven’t yet developed opportunities to engage with the other.

We also learned that people love to enter the religious space of the other, particularly when they feel welcomed, safe, and guided. Our Living Rooms, as wonderful as they are, typically are non-religious spaces. There’s a difference between lighting incense in an event space, and smelling 20 years of ceremonial incense burning during worship in a temple. Hymns sound different with the reverb of an arched ceiling high overhead. Witnessing the Maghreb prayers Muslims perform at sunset is different when you can feel the soft carpet squish between your toes. This inspired us to organize “the Tour Bus,” as covered by TIO just a year ago.

We also learned that people are willing to travel to have such unique experiences, especially to New York City. While New York is an obvious travel destination, too often the 50 million visitors who come each year miss the level of nuanced diversity here. From Kosovar Albanians to new Latino converts, New York City has the most diverse Muslim community outside of Mecca during Hajj. New York City has the highest Jewish population outside of Israel, the largest Chinese community outside of Asia, and the second highest population of Guyanese Hindus in the world, after Guyana’s capital, Georgetown. In short, New York is a mecca of religious diversity for us all, an urban multireligious pilgrimage destination.

We found inspiration in a number of interfaith experiments and organizations - IFYC, Patheos, Auburn Seminary, World Faith, Odyssey Networks, and many others . But we wanted to contribute in a unique way. So we ran with this idea: What would it look like to host guests from other places, for a short duration, high intensity experience in the rich religious diversity New York has to offer? Can we do this, and if we do, will anyone come? And if anyone comes, could we guide them through the intense experience in a way that will build bridges with the other while deepening their identity?

This summer, we piloted our first Faith House Immersion, part of the new Faith House Institute we’re launching in partnership with Union Theological Seminary. In a 72-hour period, we visited nine houses of worship during services, from the charismatic chanting of Sufis, friends at Park51, to the heart-shifting worship experience with a Jewish Renewal community, then a Roman Catholic Church in the Financial District, a Mosque in Harlem, and beyond.

It would have seemed overwhelming if we didn’t schedule respites to help our souls catch up to the whirlwind of the experience and time and space to discuss and process what was happening while digesting the delicious food included on our journey.

It was a success! Our first 12 participants, from a young convert to Islam and an aging Catholic nun to a young conservative pastor from Nashville, enthusiastically encouraged us in our journey, including one participant who shared,

As we traveled between sites, or stopped to rest and refuel, I spoke with various members of the group at length, and I was moved by their stories and the openness and honesty with which they shared them.”

We posted the pictures and made a BBC radio report of the immersion available on our website. This has become the future of Faith House, and possibly interfaith education; experiencing rather than merely analyzing the faith, practice, and community of our neighbors. Where do they warm their hearts? How do they stimulate their minds? What can they see that I cannot, and say that I cannot say? How can they help me understand my own faith better?

We invite you and your church, synagogue, mosque, university, seminary, or just your friends. Come and taste the rich experience of your neighbor’s faith. And we promise, if you come to the new space with all of your heart and mind, you will emerge deeper, discovering the new territory and treasure hidden in your own.