An Interfaith Breakfast at UUA General Assembly

By Jane Greer

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Interfaith history was made on Friday, June 24th on the 25th floor of the Westin Hotel when leaders from two great faith traditions met with UUA President Peter Morales over breakfast at General Assembly. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a renowned American Muslim cleric and spokesperson, also known in the media as the force behind the Ground Zero Mosque, and the Rev. Kosho Niwano, President Designate of the Japanese Rissho Kosei-kai, met in Morales’s suite to share a meal and talk about their different approaches to spirituality and the possibilities of greater interfaith cooperation. Imam Feisal was accompanied by his wife Daisy Khan, a Muslim leader and spokesperson in her own right, and the Rev. Niwano brought a translator, assistant, and press people. The Rev. Eric Cherry, Director of the UUA’s International Resources Office served as host. The breakfast was marked with formality. After everyone was seated, the Rev. Morales and his wife Phyllis Morales, entered the room and the Rev. Cherry made formal introductions. After eating, Cherry led a brief discussion, asking the guests what sustained them spiritually. Imam Feisal, who was born in Kuwait, grew up in England, and then lived in Malaysia, before moving to the U.S. at the age of 17, answered that question by talking about his search for a personal identity. “My looking for meaning and purpose, and the question, ‘does God really exist,’ helped me in my own spiritual search,” he said. “It helped in finding true identity. The idea of being a creature of God put me in a space that made me feel at one with humanity.” The Rev. Niwano is the granddaughter of the Rev. Nikkyo Niwano, the founder of Rissho Kosei-kai, a Buddhist organization, which follows the Lotus Sutra and has two million member households in Japan as well as in other countries. UUA President Dana Greeley formed a fast friendship with the Rev. Nikkyo Niwano in the late 1960s, a relationship that started an ongoing dialog and partnership between the UUA and the RKK that continues to this day. The Rev. Niwano said that her relationship with her grandfather was the basis of her spirituality, saying that she learned the importance of having faith from him. However, her faith was tested—and changed—this year as a result of the earthquake and tsunami in March, which killed 15,000 and displaced many more. “I used to think that everything existed forever,” she said. “But I learned that everything can change. Through this experience, I’ve learned more about what’s important.” She added that it was important to recognize people’s spirituality under severe conditions. Talk turned to interfaith cooperation. Imam Feisal said that he thought that all of the world’s great religions had a lot in common. “There’s an underlying common reality to spirituality,” he said. “They’re different languages that talk about something we have in common, whether we’re Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Buddhist. If we can identify our role as spiritual players, we can identify what is true of the spiritual condition.” The Rev. Niwano grew up in a household that emphasized inter-religious dialog. In a talk given to the General Assembly later that day, she reminisced about her grandfather who instilled in her the value of interfaith cooperation. “Founder Niwano would often talk to me . . . about his dream of and passion for world peace, as well as the joy he found in pursuing the steep path toward it. Whenever he talked about world peace, he would mention that he and Dr. Greeley were walking that path together.” The Rev. Morales expressed the fear that individualism might undercut a broader worldview for Unitarian Universalists. “In our religious tradition, we have a history of individualism,” he said. “It’s now the spiritual disease of our time. This plays out in congregations. We’ll struggle with how much of a right does someone have to disrupt proceedings. We sometimes lose sight of the whole.” Discussion concluded on a lighter note: food. The Japanese delegation talked about eating sushi in Charlotte, and the Imam promised to take N.Y.C. visitors to his favorite Mexican restaurant. The meeting ended shortly thereafter with the taking of photos and an exchange of gifts. -- by Jane Greer
Feisal/Niwano/Morales Breakfast