Interfaith worship or awkward voyeurism?

(I recognize that I talk about two things here: interfaith worship and incorporating other religious traditions into services.  Just go with it?)

Yesterday I went to church at a UU church I had been to once before. Upon leaving I texted a few friends, saying the following: OMG it was “question the Muslim’s” day at church. Literally. And there was a “demonstration of Muslim prayer.”

It felt like a spectator sport. It was really awkward. It felt like “watch these strange people do something strange and foreign.” Voyeurism doesn’t have a place in worship.

I’ve done a lot of activism/organizing and pretty much whenever we’ve been able to pull out some kind of worship service we have. Sometimes it’s beautiful and respectful. Sometimes it feels like somebody reached into a grab bag labeled “various religious practices” pulled out a few, read the wikipedia article so they had a vague understanding of what to do, and threw it into an order of service. But it doesn’t need to be that way. There’s a process to making interfaith worship beautiful and fantastic. This is a one step process.

Step 1: respect

It is best if you have somebody helping with the planning who knows and understands the topic from living it, not just from reading a website or even a few books about it. If the point is truly interfaith understanding and making a worship service for EVERYONE, and not just for the people who are new to a certain tradition, then having somebody who understands a topic from life experience is absolutely key.

If you are looking to teach people about Islam/Wicca/Judaism/etc? Then that’s not an interfaith worship service, that is a introductory lecture to Islam/Wicca/Judaism/etc and should be treated as such. And, y’know, maybe don’t hold it as a worship service. Hold it as a Tuesday night lecture. That may sound harsh, but what I am trying to say is that many people come to services at their normal time and place to worship. To learn, to an extent, but to worship first and foremost. I know I don’t necessarily want a lecture on Hasidic Judaism is when I am expecting to come and worship.

Don’t try to “adapt” various traditions to mesh with your religious views. This one is best explained with an example: Handfasting is a sacred and beautiful ritual – it shouldn’t be scrubbed, sanitized, wrung out, trimmed to fit, and stuck in an order of service as a way to “bind” a congregation together. If you want to tie your congregation together with 150 meters of hot pink thread then, hey, have at it! That’s not handfasting. That is tying your congregation together with 150 meters of hot pink thread. It’s also really scary if it is somebody’s first time to a congregation, but that’s another topic.

A few interfaith worship services I feel went well:

Trans day of remembrance in Los Angeles a few years ago. Six faith leaders from around the area each offered up a prayer or spoke for a few minutes on how violence is not acceptable. If they wanted or needed participation from the group they briefly explained. We then did the candlelight vigil and had sometime for silent reflection, and one of the leaders closed out the service with a call for us to treat the world with love and peace. Simple, to the point, perfect for what it was.

July 29th service in Phoenix. Speakers from any faith tradition that wanted to participate it seems. And no matter who was speaking at least some people were paying rapt attention to whatever was going on. Not all of it was directed at me, and that’s OK. Not all of it was directed at anybody. Everyone heard what they needed to hear that day, and that’s what is important.

“Women Who Worship” or something equally cheesy sounding. This took place somewhere in DC four or so years ago. I forget who dragged me along. But it was fantastic. A bunch of female faith leaders led a service that was… flawless. There was singing and prayer and meditation and everyone was swept up in what was going on. There weren’t long breaks to explain what was happening. Enough explanation was incorporated straight into the service that people felt included. And while I feel safe saying that some people walked away feeling that they learned something it wasn’t an educational event. It was a time of worship.

So I want to know: what do you think makes for good, interfaith worship? How do you feel about incorporating rituals from other faith traditions into your services? What efforts does your congregation make to be inclusive but not appropriation-y?

And, most of all, what do you think I have said wrong now? What do you want to bitch at me about? What did I say wrong? That’s everyone’s favorite thing to tell me!


2 Comments to “Interfaith worship or awkward voyeurism?”

  1. I definitely agree with you about not allowing the blurring of the line between worship and religio-anthropological lecture/ demonstration. Not that there cannot be an aspect of demonstration in a worship service. But it cannot dominate. It cannot be what the service is about.

  2. I completely agree with you! I think that UUs should always ask the question, “Why should WE be doing this?” If the answer is, deep down, “because we think it makes us look cool” then we really need to pause and think twice. If the answer is “because we have someone in our congregation who comes from this religious group or is legitimately affiliated with this religious group who wants to share this ceremony/practice with the congregation.” Then that is a fantastic reason to do it. There are probably other respectful examples as well. But too often we do things for the sake of being perceived as cool or diverse. This, I think, actually alienates the people we are mimicking. Would you feel welcome in a congregation of white people who like to play cultural dress-up with the sacred aspects of your heritage? I wouldn’t.

    You may want to check out our minister’s recent thoughts on this on his blog here:

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