This picture, taken by Jason Pickering, is the most popular picture I have ever posted to Facebook. I even have cats, who I photograph often, but not even my kitten pointing longingly at Jesus matched the likes and shares. Contrary to your first impression, no, we are not supermodels, though I would argue we are all fearfully and lovingly made by our Creator.
We are real religious leaders. Rabbi Anna leads the Glebe Minyan in Ottawa; Imam Mohamad Jebara is the scholar-in-residence and chief imam at the Cordova Spiritual Education Centre in Ottawa; Elder Albert Dumont “South Wind” is a Algonquin elder, activist, storyteller, healer, and author; and I am the Anglican-United Christian chaplain at McGill University and the Montréal and Ottawa regional youth and young adult minister for the United Church of Canada. It was staged in the sense that we scheduled a time with the photographer and went to his studio, but our journeys as faith leaders, our actual personal interactions with one another, and the friendship and reconciliation work amongst the communities we represent are all very real.
They say a picture is worth a 1000 words. A compelling argument not to write this blog, I suppose, but knowing how it came about does not and should not diminish what this image means, both intended and the just-as-true meanings others have found in it.
One gentlemen who shared this on Facebook captioned it, “what a wonderful world it COULD be”. I agree with his hopefulness. I agree with his idealism. But I want to note: this is not an image of only what could hypothetically be. It is an image of what already is. For those of us in the picture, we are not dreaming of a world in which people of different faiths and backgrounds come together in peace and friendship. We’re doing it. We are not doing it perfectly, and we have not finished it. But it is happening. And it is not just the four of us doing it. We are stand-ins, leaders deliberately dressed as ostentatious, conspicuous representatives of thriving communities of people already doing the work of neighbourly love and cooperation. I want this image to promote interfaith cooperation as something which must be done better and more, but which is already happening.
Last spring, the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa organized a youth weekend and invited Imam Mohamad, Rabbi Anna, and I as speakers for a question and answer period called “Faith Leaders in the Hotseat.” Teens were invited to ask us anything. The depth of the questions, both deeply intimately personal and broad questions of global issues, was astounding.
I mentioned that those of us in the picture represent larger communities. One way this was patently obvious is that we did not know one another before this youth event last spring. We met because Anglicans living in Ottawa hold already been engaged in the interfaith community enough to know a rabbi, to know an imam, to a know youth ministry-focused guest preacher from Montréal. We met because people of faith were in connection first.
As that youth discussion unfolded, Anna, Mohamad, and I quickly developed a rapport of humour and friendliness. We did not and do not agree on everything. Speaking at least for myself, that was never a goal of mine. But what talented and insightful storytellers and thinkers they are. I was honoured to be on a panel with them.
A few months later, I read about a Belgian postage stamp featuring a rabbi, bishop, and imam:
I told Imam Mohamad, let’s make a Canada version. He immediately and enthusiastically agreed. I liked the Belgian stamp, but it was only men, and not all religious leaders are men! It was important to us that our “Canada version” be a bit more diverse, and having already had a great interfaith experience with Rabbi Anna, she was the first rabbi we asked!
In interfaith work, because of intertwined histories, common stories, and the conflicts that are so prominently in the news, we three monotheistic Abrahamic Faiths or People of the Book sometimes forget the other faiths. We wanted a simple picture that showed interfaith cooperation, but no one image can represent all good intentions. Nonetheless, Imam Mohamad said that any “Canada version” ought to acknowledge whose land we stand upon. We all agreed enthusiastically, and Elder South Wind agreed to participate!
As an aside, the Facebook comments have been overwhelmingly positive, but some have lamented that ours still has too many men, or not enough religions. We have four religious traditions. We have only one woman. We have some racial diversity. The picture includes one immigrant. (And I suspect some may be prone to guess the immigrant incorrectly. It is actually the white Christian who was not born in Canada!) I hope those critics will do what we did about the Belgian stamp: Make more art! Take more pictures! Find more people! The simple message of love and peace cannot be overdone.
After the photo shoot, South Wind headed home, but Mohamad, Anna, and I went to Mohamad’s home for tea. The most sacred moment I experienced that night was not with four religious leaders in a photography studio. It was with a small snack and an imam’s children. I spent my drive home so emotional from that simple time at Mohamad’s table that I had to pull over to type this Facebook status:
May we all learn to hold hands and give thanks for one another.
I was sitting around my friend Imam Mohamad’s table with his children and our friend Rabbi Anna. There was Middle Eastern ginger tea and fruits and roasted chestnuts and Mohamad asked, “Who would like to bless these gifts?” But it was not going to be the imam, the rabbi, or the pastor. His little daughter said, “I will!” and promptly I was holding her hand on one side and the rabbi’s on the other as she said a child’s prayer–sweetly grateful but enthusiastically succinct so that she could go on and eat the things for which she thanked God.
It was this brief perfect moment, so gentle and right and happy, that I cannot find the words that are sad enough, angry enough, passionate enough to say what blasphemous sacrilege every grotesque anti-Muslim stereotype and horrific racist, xenophobic, irrational policy proposal are against our fellow children of God, against such holy moments, against the faith of a child.
Perhaps it is naive to think the world can be viewed through the lens of holding a little girl’s hands in interfaith prayer. But I cannot think of a better place to start.