Opinion: Enjoy sacred times with respect and joy

Getty Images / Holy Days
Getty Images / Holy Days

As we approach this year's holy days, we know that faith can be a source of great inspiration. We also know that religion can also generate some of the most divisive forces on the planet. There are wars fought in the name of religion, as the Middle East demonstrates. Many people prefer to be in the "unaffiliated" or "atheist" categories rather than be associated with organized religion. But diverse religions are part of the world reality, and regardless of your faith or non-faith, ignorance of religions and religious traditions doesn't help anything. Religious literacy is a must-have when you encounter and/or work with people with diverse religious backgrounds and practices, whether they are fellow employees, friends or communities. Yes, it's a bumpy road, but well worth traveling.

My journey began decades ago when no one else wanted the job of directing inter-religious affairs for the American Jewish Committee in Chicago. I'm grateful for my mentors, but we all know that the best lessons are learned in the so-called School of Hard Knocks. When the Chicago newspaper called me for a quote about an international incident, I was exceedingly blunt and sarcastic, which caused board members to laugh nonstop at my naivete, or more aptly, my stupidity. There were many such lessons to learn -- religious diversity work has much in common with being a trapeze artist without a net.

This year, I celebrate 40 years of working with diverse faiths. My work has been both enlightening and challenging and is now recognized by the Religious Communicators Council. I'm amazed at the recognition and even more so at how deeply transformational my work has been. I learned some basic rules for working with diverse religions early on, and it's been life changing to refine them over the years: 1) Know your own religion in depth: Go beyond what you were taught growing up. 2) Know what to avoid: Don't try to resolve international incidents because you'll increase hostility, not grow relationships. 3) Know the basics of religious literacy and ask questions when you're unsure. 4) Know how to show respect.

Respect is the key, and holidays can provide a sweet spot for that. Every religion has holy days set aside for study, prayer or celebration. And many religions have calendars that go back centuries, embedding their sacred time deep into the community. There were even objections by some countries to a universal, secular (Gregorian) calendar for decades after its adoption in the mid-1800s. That's why religious calendars are retained. They may vary from the secular calendar each year since they follow the cycles of the sun, the moon or both. Yes, there are major differences, but the general concept of sacred time is common ground.

How do we show that respect for these sacred times and maximize the common ground? One strategy is to check online interfaith calendars before you schedule major events. And don't require attendance even at minor events if they coincide with sacred times. Spring is a good time to be respectful by demonstrating your religious literacy because so many holidays occur during this season. Acknowledge these sacred times, including the holy days of Christians (Easter), Jews (Passover), Hindus (Holi), Muslims (Ramadan), Sikhs (Vaisakhi), Buddhists (Vesak Day) and Baha'is (New Ruz).

Religious literacy can build relationships by adding food to sacred time. "Food," said Norman Wirzba, "is a gift of God given to all creatures for the purposes of life's nurture, sharing, and celebration." So pay attention to food taboos and fasting obligations. Be mindful of what food you serve, gifts you give and potluck items you offer. Learn about cherished food traditions, and let's all enjoy!

Contact Deborah Levine, an author, trainer/coach and editor of the American Diversity Report, at Deborah@AmericanDiversityReport.com.

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