Interfaith Friends and Deep Gratitude

Interfaith Friends and Deep Gratitude

John Inazu

Photo by Chris Berry and BenRosePhotography

Interfaith friendship means finding common ground with others even when we differ in our beliefs. This requires clarity about our differences and charity across those differences. Religious differences are not trivial, like our preferences for sports teams or ice cream flavors. Rather, they concern the ultimate questions of existence, with serious implications for how we choose to live our lives.

The weight of religious differences means that I do not actually revere all the beliefs of my interfaith friends. I do not have “holy envy.” But I do have a genuine appreciation for these friends and their influence on my life. Let’s call it “deep gratitude.”

Respect for individuals can exist where beliefs diverge.

I have deep gratitude for the counsel and example of my dissertation advisor, Jeff Spinner-Halev. Jeff is Jewish, which means that his faith commitments differ from mine as a Christian. But we share academic commitments in what we write and how we write. Throughout my graduate work, Jeff demonstrated an ability to blend a commitment to excellence with a willingness not to take himself too seriously. But more than that, he never hid his faith or the obligations that flowed from it. To the contrary, Jeff’s integration of faith and work modeled for me the kind of scholar who bridges different worlds without neglecting any of them.

I like to think I’m a better husband and father from conversations with my Muslim friend, Eboo Patel, the founder of Interfaith Youth Core. Despite our religious differences, Eboo and I experience common pressures in balancing travel and speaking engagements with family commitments. We have spoken together around the country and are currently co-teaching a class at Washington University. I always enjoy debating issues of pluralism and religious difference with him. But the defining moment of our friendship came during a walk around a park where we talked about our families. In that moment, and in many subsequent ones like it, Eboo encourages me as a person of faith and a human being to care for my family, to guard against pride, and to take seriously my own commitments.

My atheist friends challenge me with their honesty and eagerness in probing weighty questions. I won’t name these friends because they do not publicly identify as atheists. But they do not shy away from that label in our private conversations. I admire their willingness to articulate fear and uncertainty, which I sometimes find lacking in Christian friends who mask rather than confess their own doubts. This does not mean, however, that I think doubt and unbelief are good things. As a Christian whose hope is rooted in the life and death of Jesus, I wish that my atheist friends (and friends of other faiths) could share in that hope. But I value their depth of thought in our discussions about the difference between optimism and hope (the latter requires an object toward which it is directed). And I admire the integrity of their reasoning, though ultimately it can have the effect of leaving them without hope, absent a belief in God. This is a costly honesty, but honesty nonetheless, something that is missing in many of our social interactions. And their openness to share it with me signals trust, vulnerability—and friendship.

Interfaith friendships personify differences in a way that softens our assumptions and stereotypes. They allow us to experience charity that is rooted in relationships with real human beings. I do not think abstractly about Jews, Muslims, and atheists—I think of Jeff, Eboo, and other friends whom I have the privilege of knowing. And I thank God for each of them.

John Inazu is the Sally D. Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law and Religion at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference.

Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.

Holy Envy: A Christian Sings Shalom Amid the Darkness

Holy Envy: A Christian Sings Shalom Amid the Darkness

Hannah Marazzi

I remember my first Shabbat dinner. The smell of challah baking in the oven transports me back to that “oh holy night” in an instant.

It was a cold night in Krakow, Poland and I shivered against the air in a small room off one of the city’s main squares, waiting for the cantor in front of me to signal we were ready to begin.

I had just spent the day at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial, stumbling alongside a Holocaust survivor who described in great detail the horrors he had experienced because of his faith, because of his identity.

We had walked through the rows and rows of bricks, the models of barracks, and rooms full of shoes belonging to those who would never again walk on this side of heaven. Each step seemed to fill the group with uneasy silence and pushed us closer to hopelessness, closer to a horror that seemed impossible to shake.

We emerged from the day with cold in our bones and the sense of an evil too palpable to bear, one not defeated by a mere prayer muttered by the countless who lined the train tracks around the former concentration camp’s perimeter.

Shabbat, shalom and the practice of rest and renewal — a religious practice rooted in peace — was the last thing on our minds as we left Auschwitz-Birkenau that day. And yet there we were, mere hours later, seated around long tables at sundown, sitting in silent, rapt attention to the prayer we had been promised would come.

Suddenly the silence was broken and the still strong voice of the Holocaust survivor, himself a cantor since boyhood, filled the room. He lifted the kiddush cup, “Vay’chulu hashamayim v’haaretz v’chol tz’vaam” (translation: “Now the whole universe — sky, earth, and all their array — was completed.”) The candles were lit: “Baruch atah, Adonai, Eloheinu, melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.” (translation: “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to kindle the light of Shabbat.”)

Tears and questions filled the space, silence was replaced with prayer. If the man in front of us who had witnessed the horror of evil and death could answer the ancient call of faith to take hold of rest and peace, so too could we.

“Shabbat Shalom,” we greeted one another. These words, this blessing, put to song began to dance throughout the room, building a sense of anticipation. Slowly, a sense of peace and belonging re-entered the space. The challah broken, the prayers sung, the candles lit. God still with us, peace still possible and shalom still present.

I have since experienced Shabbat dinner several times since that holy evening. While I come from the Christian tradition and a denomination that does not undertake the tradition of Shabbat dinner or Havdalah, I returned from that evening, determined to restore the gift of Shabbat to my own spiritual practice. I remember reading the words of Rabbi Sacks who reminded people of faith today that “Shabbat is where a restless people rested and renewed itself.”

In that moment, I was reminded that I too am told as a Christian to rest. I too am called to live the invitation of true Sabbath shalom. I too am told by Exodus 2-:8-10 that the “seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God.” I too am reminded in Hebrews 4:9-11 that “here is a special rest still waiting for the people of God.” I am reminded that since the beginning of time, we are a people who are constantly called back to a place of rest; we are commanded to be a people defined by peace regardless of how dark and hopeless the world appears to be.

Each week I now make a practice of marking the Sabbath in my own way. So if you arrive at my front door on a Friday night, do not be surprised if you smell freshly baked challah right out of the oven. I will look at you and we will both remember this story of when I first witnessed light piercing through the dark. And I will invite you to remember that no matter how dark the world gets, God is still with us, peace is still present, and Shabbat and shalom are still possible.

Hannah Marazzi is a writer and marketer based out of Ottawa Ontario. She is passionate about community, dialogue, and empowering the next generation of young people to belong to their communities. Hannah has worked in the human rights, multi-faith, and communication sectors and was raised in a Mennonite Community in British Columbia. She is believes that faith is an integral part of the public sphere and continues to seek out conversations regarding the intersection of faith in common and public life.

Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.

Holy Envy: What One Muslim Woman Learned From Mormons about Centering Her Children in the Faith

Holy Envy: What One Muslim Woman Learned From Mormons about Centering Her Children in the Faith

Asma Uddin

Holy Envy: What One Muslim Woman Learned From Mormons about Centering Her Children in the Faith
“Terrorism dominates the news, anti-Muslim sentiment is rising and American Muslim kids are bullied by young people and adults alike. As parents, we wonder: How do we make our children feel safe even when we don’t? How do we make them feel safe about their faith?”

I wrote that in an opinion-editorial for The Washington Post a few years ago, co-authoring with a friend, a young mother like myself, who was confounded by the same question. In the piece, we interviewed several other American Muslim parents, all expressing similar concerns about protecting faith and spirituality in an age of politicized religion.

Each of us shared practices we implement to buffer our kids from outside spiritual threats. There have been plenty of times when I have rushed to turn off CNN when my daughter walked in to hear politicians declare “Islam hates us” or to video footage of the latest horrific terrorist attack.

But buffering can go only so far. We need tools to help youth stay firmly rooted in their faiths and remain conscious of God’s presence even when—especially when—the outside world threatens to rip away their spiritual wonder and certainty. Many of the parents I interviewed for my op-ed said their solution was to ground their children first and foremost in the basics of Islam.

What else can Muslim parents do? And is there anything from other faith practices that might work for us, too? Based on my interactions with believers from other faith communities, I am certain there is.

Mormon practice, in particular, fascinates me. This is partly because The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with its history of religious liberty persecution, provides models of perseverance for American Muslims today. It also has a uniquely American flavor at a time when American Muslims are still struggling to strengthen their communities and build institutions. In this moment when such institutions are few and far between, I envy the organization of the LDS Church, particularly for its effects on youth.

One sociologist, Kenda Creasy Dean of Princeton Theological Seminary, has found that Mormonism is uniquely successful in cultivating youth “who firmly understand what they believe and why their faith needs to have a claim on their behavior.” She identifies four elements of this success:

  1. Mormon youth know their faith, and they know it well. They don’t learn it from media or from friends outside their faith community. They aren’t fed generalities or what Dean calls the “feel-good stuff.” And there’s both an institutional and home dimension to their teaching. Classes happen in both venues, helping to connect what happens outside the home to what happens in the kids’ safest, most intimate spaces.
  2. Mormon youth are taught to articulate what their faith is and why they participate in their religious practices. By translating knowledge into testimony, they acquire key skills, like leadership, storytelling, and the ability to connect with others personally.
  3. It’s not all talk — action matters too. Mormon youth define their goals and work toward achieving them. Contributions start small but early — tithing, volunteering for service projects, and Church building upkeep.
  4. Purpose isn’t defined in earthly terms only. The ultimate reason and hope of religious life is to be successful in the life that comes after death.

Some of these overlap with Muslim practices, particularly the focus on life after death — as the Prophet Muhammad advised, “Be in this world as though you were a wayfarer.” Life is entirely about journeying to the hereafter. This sort of focus can’t help but buttress one’s spirituality.

But other areas of overlap show how the modern experience of Islam can learn from Mormonism. Consider, for example, the second element above: articulating one’s faith. In our current political climate, every young American Muslim is expected by the larger society to serve as a spokesman for the faith. Yet, unlike the Mormon articulation of faith, this spokesmanship tends to focus on apologetics and political talking points. Even worse, it begins to chip away from the experience of Islam as religion.

When it comes to learning the faith, there is also room to improve. So many young American Muslims today learn about their faith through media. For us, learning has all too often become a matter of reaction: What are others saying about Islam and how do we respond? How do we defend our practices from ugly accusations? Again, I lament the spiritual emptiness that comes with politicized religion. Meanwhile, the beauty of Islamic beliefs is inviting to be discovered more richly.

I realize that so much of what I envy about Mormonism is its ability to extract itself from its surroundings and focus inwardly. The Church has faced and continues to face challenges from without, but it keeps its adherents firmly centered on substantive beliefs translated into concrete, impactful actions. In my own experience of faith, particularly as I transmit it to my kids, the Mormon model of centeredness is something I seek to replicate.

Asma Uddin is the founder and editor-in-chief of She is also a lawyer and scholar specializing in American and international religious liberty.

Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.

Olympic Faith

Olympic Faith

Heidi Bennett

Olympic Faith

The Olympics have deep religious and spiritual roots. “For the ancient Greeks, the sport of the Olympic Games was quite literally a religious exercise — a display of religious devotion and worship,” scholar Paul Cartledge writes in History Today. According to the Religion News Service, “Athletes paraded into the stadium past a line of religious officials and often dedicated their performances to a patron god. Even the prizes were religious — crowns of olive leaves made from trees in a sacred grove dedicated to Zeus.”

When the modern Olympics were organized in 1894, the International Olympic Committee was founded on the idea that the Olympic athlete “would embody a personal kind of sacred temple … he would be his own representation of the sacred body of followers” (Anthony Moretti, quoted in

Fast forward to PyeongChang 2018, where we have seen history in the making as we witness the touch of divinity in all athletes by their execution of talent, hard work, passion, dedication, and faith—faith in oneself as well as faith in a higher power.

Here is a sampling of athletes at PyeongChang who rely on their faith in a higher power.

Shannon Abeda, an alpine skier who competes for Eritrea, relates what many athletes must feel after a setback: “Sometimes you must have faith, having faith despite whatever odds are unsympathetically stacks against you, whatever curveball is being thrown and even at your lowest of low there is always a way. When the forecast is dim, overcast and no sight of sun you must believe with that small light in your heart. Try again, and again, again.”

A.J. Edelman, an Orthodox Jew who competes in skeleton for Israel, finds strength in his faith: “There’s a lot of emunah (faith) that goes into the whole journey. Before every time I go down a run in competition, I say a shir hamaalos (psalms), I think they are appropriate to say as I’m looking at mountains.”

Two members of the American women’s hockey team, Gigi Marvin and Nicole Hensley, share more than just a jersey, they share a love of Jesus Christ and His word.

Gigi Marvin told the Religious News Service, “I’m back on the ice, proudly wearing the ‘USA’ across my sweater and representing my country,” she said. “But my mission is more than winning another medal or championship. It’s about sharing Christ and leading others to Him.”

Goaltender Nicole Hensley tweets out Bible verses and writes them on her face mask. She told The Hockey Writers, “Hockey has put me in some situations where I kind of wondered either ‘why am I doing this?’ or ‘why am I here?’ Or even, ‘I don’t want to be here – why is God making me go through this?’ And in the end those reasons are some of the reasons that I have been able to get to where I am today. Looking back with 20-20 hindsight, obviously He had a plan in every single place that He put me. It is easy to say that now, but really it’s just taught me that through the hardships you have to trust in your faith. You have to be willing to be uncomfortable to either grow in your faith or grow as a person or player as well.”

Korean alpine skier Kim Sohee finds strength in prayer. Before every race, she prays, “God, please hold on to my arms and legs.” She developed this practice early in life: “I was a 6th grader in elementary school when I first entered an international competition. For the 40 days before the competition, I went to early morning prayers. My mind became very peaceful, and I became brave. Since then, I always pray before games.”

For American figure skaters Alexa and Chris Knierim, their faith in Jesus Christ helped them through an illness that threatened Alexa’s life. For them, just being at the 2018 Olympics is a success, and their bronze medal is a bonus. But this victory has not gone to their heads—quite the opposite. The husband and wife team speak about their relationship with Jesus Christ and how they have given all of the glory to Him: “Here at the Games, it’s no longer about me…I am a true believer in the Lord and I’m trying my best to shine his light and let people know that it’s okay to promote him and do things for him.”

Freestyle skier David Wise (USA) shares the Knierim’s faith that the Lord will support him: “I don’t have to worry about what’s happening or the outside influences as much because I feel like I can trust God, and he’s going to see me through. I can look back on my path and realize that God had a pretty significant part in taking care of me. It takes the pressure off and I can enjoy it.”

American cross-country skier Noah Hoffman finds that cross-country skiing and his Jewish faith have something in common: a strong sense of community. “Supporting each other and supporting the community is really important to the Jewish community, and it’s a big part of athletics in general and the cross-country skiing community in particular,” he said. “It feels like a tight-knit network that is really founded on supporting each other, and that’s one important connection that I make between the two.” … “Life in general is about community and shared experiences,” he said. “Having many different communities is a privilege, and the Jewish community is a huge part of that. I feel so lucky to be a part of so many things that are bigger than myself.”

American skier Nick Goepper also enjoys the community aspect of faith. There are many Christian athletes on the slopes, and that helps Goepper stay focused and grounded. “It’s never fun to do it by yourself,” he told Beliefnet. “It’s good to have other people that are on the same path as you. In 2014, Goepper said his favorite Bible verse is, “I can do all things through Him who gives me strength. “I kind of envision me skiing and God is kind of like an eagle right next to me screeching in my ear that everything is going to be all good,” he said then. “I just try my best and that’s all I can ask for.”

When Simidele Adeagbo tried out for the Nigerian skeleton team, she said, “I just continued to push forward in faith that this was possible,” she said. “And here I am.” Her reliance on the Lord becomes evident when she steps onto the track and begins the process of hurtling down headfirst at speeds greater than 70 mph. “This sport is a faith sport,” she said. “You have to have faith when all you are is just you and this sled. You have to let go and let God drive it in a partnership with you.” All along, she’s watched God put everything into place, little by little, to help her achieve her dreams. When asked, “What’s next?”, Adeagbo responds, “I don’t know. But I know God will continue to guide me.”

Mormon speedskater Jerica Tandiman finds that faith helps keep her grounded. She told the Deseret News, “[My faith has] helped me through a lot of hard times in training and skating,” she said. “Being an elite-level athlete, there are a lot more lows than highs, there are a lot of disappointments, setbacks and hard training. And having that religious background helped me to get through those hard times. I don’t know if I can say why, but it does. Knowing I have that religion, that life isn’t all about my sport, there are things that I can turn to that help me get through those hard times.”

Good friends helped American snowboarder Kelly Clark find faith in God. “They loved me because of who I was and not what I did,” Clark said. She also read The Purpose Driven Life by pastor and Christian author Rick Warren. “That book laid one of the best foundations I ever could have hoped for,” Clark said. Once Clark understood Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and death on the cross and His resurrection for humanity’s salvation, she reflected on what she read, learned and experienced. She asked herself two questions: Could she wake up another day and not think about God? And could she wake up another day and pretend He wasn’t real? He was very real, very present in my life,” she said. “I gave my heart to the Lord that day.”

American skeleton athlete Katie Uhlaender told Religious News Services, “To be a good human, to be a good Christian, I have to focus on what I can control, and set the example. That’s what a lot of athletes are trying to do, is focus on what we believe and the good in the Olympic movement.”

For Nigerian bobsledder Seun Adigun, faith is the secret to her success: “When you ride on faith, you’re able to live in that element of selflessness. You’re able to live in that moment of fearlessness. I don’t attribute any type of individual success to myself, but more so to God’s will to put me in places to allow things to flourish for opportunities to present themselves.”

American bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor and her husband Nic Taylor (who is an alternate on the men’s bobsled team) find that their faith affects how they approach competition. Elana told the Christian Sports Journal, “The Lord calls us to love everybody. Every day it’s a challenge. Within this sport, I’m called to love everybody. That means that every single German or Canadian that I want to beat, I still have to love. That means competing the way God wants me to compete.”

American speedskater Maame Biney recognized God’s power in helping her reach her goals. She wrote in an Instagram post, “I want to start off by thanking God. I am so sure that none of this would have happened if it wasn’t for him. If God hadn’t given my dad the strength to wake up, and take me to practice, I wouldn’t be here today. I also want to thank God for giving me the passion to do this.”

What a weekend!! I’m still in awe that I’m going to the Olympics😱!! I want to start off by thanking God. I am so sure that none of this would have happened if it wasn’t for him. If God hadn’t given my dad the strength to wake up, and take me to practice, I wouldn’t be here today. I also want to thank God for giving me the passion to do this🙏🏾. Daddy. I know that I can be a pain at times and not appreciate what you’ve done for me. I do appreciate you. When I’m older I want to be just like you. Wanting to help people, having an amazing heart, being dedicated, and being the best parent ever. Scratching the surface to any one of those things would already make me a great person. Thank you for letting me push myself, Werid, right? But it worked. And b/c of you, I will keep pushing myself. Hehe I love you Daddy❤️ This one is to my host family. Letting me stay with you guys for 6 months have been amazing! You guys have really made me feel like part of your family! Mrs. Melissa, you really have been a mother to me and I will forever love you and keep you close to my heart. Mr. Robert, hehe thank you for those Cafe Rio trips😂And Abby. I’m so happy that I’ve been able to become your big sister. Love you guys always and forever🧡 This one goes out to the whole skating community! You guys have made a huge impact on my dad and I. @dominionspeedskating I love you guys tons! We’ve been through so much together. Tears, laughter, and everything in between. I honestly can’t thank everyone who has helped us b/c there’s SOO many people. You guys know who you are😋much love💛 This last one is to my friends (from school) who got that I couldn't do anything b/c I had a goal. I’m so happy that you guys didn’t abandon me😂. I love how you guys tried to understand. It really means a lot to me💚. Also, to my church family for praying for me for years!! Without your prayers for safe travels and successful competitions I honestly don’t believe that my dad and I would have made it this far💙 It’s been an amazing journey and I can’t wait to see what happens!! Hehe I’m super excited to go to PyeongChang, Korea and represent USA with the rest of the team🇺🇸🤟🏾😆!!

A post shared by Maame Afua Biney (@biney.biney) on

Heidi Bennett is a California native who now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with her husband and son. She is addicted to learning new skills and can be contacted at

Holy Envy: A Mormon Learns to See by Jewish Lights

Holy Envy: A Mormon Learns to See by Jewish Lights

Betsy VanDenBerghe

Holy Envy: A Mormon Learns to See by Jewish Lights

A long time ago, back in the 1980s, I found myself getting depressed on east-coast subways. Their dank ambience and indifferent passengers, some of them crazy and yelling nonsensical rants, made certain commutes feel dystopian.

After exiting the train into a particularly gloomy station one night, I looked up at a billboard looming over the scurrying crowd below. Meant to encourage Sabbath observance in the Jewish community, the placard showed a serene woman hovering over the luminous glow of a Shabbat candle, shining a light in my subway darkness. I stared and absorbed its warmth while the horde passed me by.

That year the publishing industry in which I worked was overtaken by Jay McInerney’s poignant and funny breakout novel Bright Lights, Big City. But the lights in that book only dimmed the protagonist in cocaine-infused sleep and re-emerged as the sun’s harsh rays aggravated a hangover. All around, the city seemed a murky place.

How much more the radiance of that Shabbat candle lifted my spirits over the drab neon of urban streets. How grateful I was, in a moment of holy envy, for what the Jewish tradition had offered me, a Mormon, through the joy and cohesion I’d witnessed in communities many consider rigid. Even more lasting, how richly modern Jewish writers (from a variety of branches) have taught me not only about navigating the tension between secular pursuits and religious loyalty, but also about finding light when the world seems darkest.

Like many who outwardly observe Hasidic Jewish communities — men in dark suits, women in head scarves, day-to-day life constrained by more dietary and moral restrictions than even we Mormons grapple with — I considered certain sections of Jerusalem, where I lived during a semester abroad, oppressive. Then, some fellow students and I ended up at a Hasidic dance venue. Accompanied by an ecstatic musical ensemble, a group of men burst into a glorious dancing frenzy that emitted a joy so palpable my flesh stayed goose-bumped and my head awash in serotonin for hours. This paradox of highly restrained living co-existing with deep passion captured my imagination.

Later, living in a Jewish neighborhood in Boston, I watched families walking to synagogue on Saturdays. What a reversal, I thought, from my own upbringing in Utah where we were the ones walking to church on Sundays while those not of our faith watched me. I felt strangely jealous, even though my Sabbath was only a day away.

Appreciation of my own religious enclave, with our similar tight-knight communities, matured in important ways thanks to Chaim Potok’s novels. His Jewish characters navigated between the sacred obligations of their religion and the creative affinity they felt for writers, thinkers, and artists that the good world offers beyond the purview of the synagogue. While most modern and postmodern authors throw religion under the bus of a secular worldview, Potok remains wary of the nihilist and relativist directions those buses tend to move in. He recognizes that the gifts of belonging to what scholars call “intense” religions (interestingly, the kind that continue to flourish over declining “moderate” religions in this country) also entail the demands of high expectations and the irritations of communal idiosyncrasies.

Those who barricade themselves heavily within faith communities, Potok suggests, miss out on light and truth beyond the enclave. But those who discard their religion for the world risk losing meaning, a connection with the Divine, and a faith community, however flawed, to help them along the way. Perhaps balance is not only possible, I gleaned from Potok, but imperative.

Reading Holocaust memoirs sometimes left my connection to the Divine shaken. Elie Weisel wonders where God is as he witnesses an Auschwitz group hanging that includes a young boy whose light weight keeps him flailing helplessly in the noose. This and other biographical encounters with the unthinkable gave me a low-grade fever of religious malaise for a time. But other Jewish authors helped heal it, including Victor Frankl, who, in one of his concentration camp moments of despair hears a voice tell him “Yes” to his question about ultimate purpose. The confirmation was quickly followed by a light in a distant farmhouse glimmering on the horizon “as if painted there,” he writes. “Et lux in tenebris lucet — and the light shineth in darkness.”

Gerda Weissmann Klein signed my beloved copy of All But My Life after a public lecture. She survived not only the camps, but a thousand-mile winter march that started with four thousand girls and ended with two hundred. She survived because on the hot summer morning when she was to report for transport, her deeply religious father looked up from his Bible and told her to wear ski boots.

Before the departure, this father found Gerda in a sober mood, secretly contemplating suicide, and put his hand on the back of her neck, saying, “Whatever you are thinking now is wrong … Promise me that no matter what happens you will never do it.” Gerda makes a sacred vow, but the spiritual and physical impoverishment of the camps takes its toll and, given an opportunity, she yearns to throw herself under an oncoming train. “At the precise moment,” she writes, “when death seemed the only solution,” she feels a strange sensation on the back of her neck reminding her of the promise, and goes on living.

I also have a nostalgic copy of Bright Lights, Big City signed by Jay McInerney. Chapter Four includes a brilliant subway encounter with a group of Hasidim from Brooklyn. The protagonist, wracked by existential despair, sits beside one who is peacefully reading his Talmud. “This man has a God and a History, a Community,” he realizes and goes on to contemplate religion’s gifts of transcendence, hope, and community — gifts he’s never known. “Wearing black wool all summer must seem like a small price to pay,” the secular man thinks of his subway mate. “He believes he is one of God’s chosen whereas you feel like an integer in a random series of numbers.” But the insight passes quickly. After inwardly laughing about the Hasidic haircut, he disembarks and the partying continues apace.

“We religious believers, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, are often mocked as people who have lost touch with reality,” observes scholar Ulrich L. Lehner. “But I think the opposite is true.” According to Lehner, authentic religion invites us to not only accept the reality of our failings and those of the world around us compared to the greatness of God, but also to re-focus our desires and give certain things up. I’m grateful for the gifts of my Jewish friends, in books and in person, who have helped me understand that even the best the world has to offer is not worth the loss of my faith, which promises that “thou wilt light my candle: the LORD my god will enlighten my darkness.” (Psalm 18:28)

Betsy VanDenBerghe is a writer based in Salt Lake City.

Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.

What Makes Ash Wednesday So Powerful

What Makes Ash Wednesday So Powerful

By Mary Rose Somarriba

What Makes Ash Wednesday So Powerful

Have you ever noticed how packed churches get on Ash Wednesday?

If you think about it, what often gets churches packed on Christmas and Easter—besides often being obligatory for practicing Christians to attend—is that many families are bringing along family members who may or may not be practicing Christians to attend with them.
You’d almost think it’s Christmas or Easter how packed churches get on this mid-week day that’s traditional yet optional for all range of Western Christians to attend—from Methodist to Lutheran to Presbyterian to Anglican to Catholic to Western Orthodox churches. But, on Ash Wednesday, nearly each man or woman has arrived on their own—often by themselves!

This year, the webmaster of my church was pleasantly surprised when she looked at the web analytics: the site had more users on Ash Wednesday than any other day of the year. Which actually seems to support the sense of non-churchgoers in attendance: it’s those who aren’t getting the bulletins and announcements each Sunday who need to look up the service times online.

I observed this a couple years ago when attending a service in Washington, DC. During the standing-room-only service, I saw faces I never saw on Sunday that day. My husband even recognized an old teaching colleague who was not a church-going Christian at the time; nevertheless she felt compelled that day to attend. “I just felt a pull today,” she said, after receiving the burnt ashes of last year’s palms on her forehead.

So what is it about Ash Wednesday that makes people remember it and show up? It certainly isn’t just to get a black smudge on their foreheads.

I think there’s something about Ash Wednesday that reminds us of something essentially human. If there’s something we can all relate to as human beings, it’s that we’re sinners. There’s something universal in this sense that we’ve strayed and we know it. There’s something beautiful about this honesty and willingness to show up and say so.

For Christians, Ash Wednesday is the start of the 40 days of Lent, preparing for Christ’s death and resurrection, during which Christians are called to pray, fast, and give alms to the poor. Many also give up something like sweets, or add a spiritual practice to their daily routine, as an effort to focus more on letting God work in our lives.

But, giving up chocolate or not, the pivotal part of Ash Wednesday is what perhaps most resonates with those making the greatest turnout. It’s the call to repent, to change our lives.

Of course, that’s what all Christians attending on Sundays are aiming to do as well—returning to keep refocusing our eyes on the goal, lift each other up, be nourished, and try again for another week. Because it’s true these 40 days, each Sunday, and Ash Wednesday that we’re all sinners. We all desperately need what we don’t deserve. It’s mercy, and it’s available for the taking, direct from the source of all Love, in limitless supply, every week and every day. All we need is to come and ask.

Unfrozen: Thawing My Faith

Unfrozen: Thawing My Faith

Kim Webb Reid

As winter arrives, I want to delight in flickering candles, fuzzy socks, and good books. But my biology doesn’t seem to agree with the season, no matter how much I try to convince my mind of its charms. I spend these dark months fighting to stay alert longer than the sun’s low pass across the sky and wishing to be free of all the stifling, extra layers. Humans aren’t created to hibernate, but at the same time, it’s hard for some of us not to.

Sometimes my faith behaves the same way.

I don’t always notice autumn creeping into my religious life at first, a cooling of my heart toward my neighbor or an increasingly drowsy approach to spiritual practices. Other times, a blizzard barrels in with such a disorienting crisis, my faith gets buried before I can find my bearings. In times like these, I know better than to think my faith is gone. But it isn’t safely preserved, either, like something I’ve stuffed in the freezer. It’s more like the hibernating polar bear growing more emaciated as it sleeps beneath tundra snow. Without sustenance, it will die.

After a few spiritually dormant seasons, I’ve learned to identify choices I can make to melt the ice encasing my faith.

1. Remember. I may not be feeling much, but I can still decide how to use my mind. I ponder the gifts that belief has given me in the past, including a calmer way of seeing the world and less frenetic striving for meaningless things. What was I doing differently then than I’m doing now? How were my prayers more heartfelt? Why did I stop? Sometimes the truth is simple—I’m lazy. Other times the answer is more difficult: I’m angry.

2. Surrender. I believe God is good, so sometimes I pretend to be okay with His will—choosing aloofness over authenticity whenever life disappoints. I’ve had to learn that God is strong enough to handle my real feelings, even when they’re hurt, but I’m not strong enough to bury resentment. When I try, it doesn’t disappear. It grows cold and crusty around my heart. I have to acknowledge the baggage I don’t want to keep before I can surrender it.

3. Get a physical. Medical issues can cause the most vibrant faith to feel frozen. If I see no obvious changes in my life but feel blah toward God, I have to consider if I need a checkup. For years, I thought I was becoming weary in my faith when really my body was telling me it was allergic to everything I was eating. Since faith is lived in a physical body, it makes sense to nurture my health to keep faith alive.

4. Be mindful. When I sense my faith going cold, I try to notice the words I hear, think, and say. Too often I’ve become a passive absorber and repeater of noise. I can be a proactive sifter instead, noticing each word’s effects on me—which ones are enlivening and which ones benumb my believing heart.

5. Be still and trust. Writing from the perspective of a fictional adversary bent on faith’s destruction, Christian author C. S. Lewis penned: “Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do [God’s] will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”[i] Choosing faith, even when it’s frozen, is powerful. I know that as long as I’m listening for God’s voice, He’ll speak in His time. He understands better than I do that patience is a part of thawing faith too.

As much as it’s hard for me to admit, I know winter has a purpose. Through these cold months, I’ll pray, seek, and wait. If I’m still not feeling the warmth, I’ll light a few candles, cozy up with the best books and most truthful voices, and trust that spring will come.

[i] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 40.

Kim Webb Reid is a fiction writer, personal essayist, and former magazine editor. She especially enjoys writing for young readers and visiting the kids’ section of the library with her daughter.

Holy Envy: What Confucianism Taught Me about Mourning

Holy Envy: What Confucianism Taught Me about Mourning

Michael Ing

I have studied Confucianism for nearly 20 years. More specifically, I research Confucian ritual and ethics dating approximately 2000 years ago. Many of these rituals deal with death and how Confucians mourned for those who passed away. During my studies, I have been struck at how texts written long ago in a foreign place and in a foreign language could speak about grief and loss so poignantly.

One of the texts I work on discusses burial customs. It explains that the dead should be entombed with the things he or she enjoyed while alive. So if our loved ones enjoyed playing musical instruments like a flute or zither, they should be buried with such. However, the instrument they are buried with is significantly different from the instrument they played while alive. The buried instruments, the text explains, should not work. The holes of the flute are not to be carved, and the strings of the zither are not to be tuned. This is because, according to the text, our loved ones are in fact dead and will not actually play them, so there is no use in making them work. However, we should still put them in the tomb, because our loved ones are not entirely gone from us.

This is a remarkable attempt to make sense of the world after the loss of a loved one. To continue living as if nothing has changed is to deny the reality of the loss. To view the loss as something completely severed from our lives is to deny the reality of the relationship we had with the deceased. “Death,” writes one scholar, “marks both an end and a terrible new beginning.”[1]

My grandmother died several years ago, quite unexpectedly. Despite living far away (in Atlanta), she was an important part of my childhood. I grew up spending several weeks with her each summer. She taught me how to swim, fish, and play video games. Her death, in many ways, marked the complete end of my childhood and the beginning of my life as an adult in a world without Grandma.

Confucians practiced elaborate forms of mourning; and mourning is differentiated from grief. The latter is a feeling that comes upon us when confronted with loss. We are “stricken” with grief, often unexpectedly. Mourning, on the other hand, is what we do to cope with grief. In my faith tradition — Mormonism — we often suppress our grief and give it the shortest life possible. We comfort ourselves with reminders of the rewards in the life to come, consoling each other that families are forever, and hope this will remedy our grief. But I believe we could benefit from more constructive ways of mourning.

I am not discounting the consolation that an eternal family brings. At the same time we must not forget, as grand as these promises are, they do not always meet the immediate needs of the mourner. They may not, for instance, help the widow whose three children have come down with the flu and who now must navigate between work and sick kids at home with no one else to watch them. They may not hearten the widower who had been with his wife for 60 years and is now lying in bed at night unable to sleep. Nor will they soothe the friend who now has no one to talk with in her time of need.

It is the mundane parts of life that suddenly become significant when we lose someone. Yet all too often we pretend that the grand parts of the gospel make up for these ordinary moments.

I have learned from my studies that we can change the way we handle grief. Rather than seeing it as a problem in need of a remedy, we can view it as a constitutive part of a meaningful life. This may not lessen the amount of grief we feel, but it will open the door for more fruitful ways of processing it.

Early Confucian tradition had a custom similar to what we call a funeral procession. One text explains:

In following [the funeral procession to the grave], mourners were expectant and anxious as if they were following after [someone alive] but could never quite catch up to him. When returning, they… were hesitant and uneasy as if they sought after [their loved one], but did not find him. As such, when mourners follow [the funeral procession] it is as if they long to see [the deceased still alive]; and when they return it is as if they are bewildered [in not being able to find him].

Regardless of where they sought him, he could not be found. They entered the door to his home, but did not find him there. They ascended up into the main hall, but did not find him there. They entered his personal quarters, but did not find him there. Alas, he was gone; only to be mourned, and never to be seen again!

This is why mourners wail, shed tears, beat their chests, and falter. They stop doing these things only after they fully exhaust their sorrow.[2]

Much of this is foreign to us (and I am not necessarily advocating it) but is also profound. What I get out of this is a stark recognition that as hard as we try to live life as it was lived before the loss of a loved one, it cannot be done. Life before grief is never the same as life after grief. We need more ways to cope with our grief as we learn to live with loss. Death will never stop hurting, but as Confucian ritual teaches us, that hurt can bring new meaning to a new life.

Michael Ing is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University. He focuses on ritual, ethics, and issues of vulnerability as they relate to the human condition.

Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.

[1] Amy Olberding, “Slowing Death Down: Mourning in the Analects,” in Confucius Now: Contemporary Encounters with the Analects, edited by David Jones (Chicago: Open Court, 2008), 143. Olberding’s work on Confucian attitudes toward death informs my description in this article.

[2] Liji, “Wensang,” 36.1.

I Can Start Over Again

I Can Start Over Again

Daniel West

We’ve all been there. You’re hanging out with a group of people on December 31. Perhaps you’re talking to someone, you hit a lull in the conversation, and they ask “So, what are your New Year’s resolutions?” You pause, perhaps because you haven’t thought about that yet, and possibly because you have thought about it, but telling another person what your thoughts are forces you to commit. Do you even remember what your resolutions were last December 31?

If not, why not?

This hinges on two concepts with which people who believe in deity are familiar: hope and faith. In order to follow through with a resolution–New Year’s or otherwise–we need both. When we only hope for things, we want an outcome to be good, but we are unsure of what it is or what we should do to ensure the outcome occurs. Faith gives us the direction and focus we need to get the results we desire.

I had some Army training at Fort Knox, Kentucky this summer. There were many events that measured my Soldiering skills, one of which was a shooting range. On the range, we had to shoot at 40 silhouettes that would pop up for a few seconds at a time at distances from 50 to 300 meters. To pass the course, we had to hit at least 23. When it was my turn to shoot, my eye protection fogged up, (Kentucky is quite humid) I had trouble getting a proper sight picture, and I did not hit enough targets.

Thankfully, I had a second chance. I could have gotten right back in line, drawn more ammo, and hoped for a better result. I realized that this probably wouldn’t have worked, so I exercised faith. I knew that I was capable of shooting better than I did, and I took the steps to get the result I needed. I took some basic marksmanship advice from one of the sergeants, watched the targets for a while to see exactly how long I had to shoot at each one, and did one other important thing: I prayed.

“Heavenly Father,” I said “I know that you can’t make me a better shot, but could you please keep my glasses from fogging up?” I took what I had learned, as well as the extra strength that I gained from prayer, and went back to the line. My glasses remained clear, and I hit 35 of the 40 targets.

Another key part of having the faith to keep resolutions is to share it! Find someone you can trust, and tell them what you’re doing and why. Whether you’re writing a book, going to the gym, or learning a new skill, you are more likely to follow through if someone else knows. Finally, counsel with whatever god you believe in daily, and gain strength through prayer and meditation.

If you make a resolution for 2018, exercise faith. You have a book full of blank pages upon which to write the next chapters of your life. Have a sure outcome in mind, and make some solid goals and plans. As you trust in God, trust in yourself, and meet those goals one by one, next year you will be able to say that you resolved to do something and you did it.

These Grammy Performances on Faith and Hope Will Lift Your Spirits

These Grammy Performances on Faith and Hope Will Lift Your Spirits

Mary Rose Somarriba

Grammy Performance on Faith and Hope
These Grammy Performances on Faith and Hope Will Lift Your Spirits

After watching the Grammys last night I couldn’t help but be struck by the numerous faith elements, not just in thank-you speeches this time but in song. While many musicians today at award shows continue to speak out in political tones, this year’s Grammys showcased a remarkable number of references to raising our eyes and ears higher. In fact, three songs performed had the word “pray” in the song’s title or refrain.

Sam Smith sings a reluctant man’s plea in the song “Pray” from his new album The Thrill of It All. Admitting, “I’m not a saint,” “Turn my back on religion,” and “You won’t find me in Church [or] reading the Bible,” the singer confesses that his heart still hasn’t been satisfied and longs for something more. “There’s dread in my heart and fear in my bones / And I just don’t know what to say / Maybe I’ll pray… I have never believed in you / But I’m gonna pray.” Smith sings, “I’ll pray for a glimmer of hope,” culminating with the chant, “Everyone prays in the end.” This is one of those songs where its humility makes it all the more powerful.

Among the most powerful moments of the evening was Kesha’s performance of her redemptive ballad “Praying,” which includes clear references to her painful experiences and legal battle with producer Dr. Luke, in which she has alleged years of sexual abuse. Joined by a choir of female stars including Cyndi Lauper, Andra Day, and Camila Cabello, Kesha belts follows her painful recollection of being “put through hell” with notes that lean toward forgiveness rather than revenge: “I hope you’re somewhere praying / I hope your soul is changing / I hope you find your peace / Falling on your knees, praying.” One gets the sense that Kesha herself has found her peace on her knees. “I can breathe again …I found a strength I’ve never known.” Making the Grammy performance all the more powerful was watching the women surround Kesha with a hug—a beautiful reminder of how supportive community can be a sign of God’s love in our lives.

Also on Sunday, Lady Gaga merged two songs from the album Joanne in a memorial to her late aunt. The singer recently released a new piano version of the title song, in which she mourns for her lost relative, while admitting she knows she lives eternally: “Honestly, I know where you’re goin’ / And baby, you’re just movin’ on / And I’ll still love you even if I can’t / See you anymore / Can’t wait to see you soar.” Gaga followed her tearful “Joanne” with a return to her hit “Million Reasons,” in which she belts such lyrics as “I bow down to pray … Lord, show me the way.” Gaga’s music video accompanying “Million Reasons” includes a climactic scene when her sister gives her a gift of a rosary—a sign of hope and healing in the story.

Both Gaga’s and Kesha’s songs were nominated for Best Solo Performance at the Grammys. While there will always be performances about politics and fighting injustice in this world, it’s consoling at times to also hear the songs about looking above and seeking internal peace—especially when the world fails to provide it.

Mary Rose Somarriba is a writer and editor living in Cleveland. Find her at

Holy Envy: What This Catholic Learned About Missionary Work from Mormons

Holy Envy: What This Catholic Learned About Missionary Work from Mormons

Brian Grim

“Where did you serve your mission?” That’s a typical question Mormons ask each other. And it’s one I can relate to. I served missions in China, the Soviet Union, and the Middle East, and converted from Baptist to Catholic along the way.

For a married Catholic like myself with four grown kids, that is perhaps a one-of-a-kind personal history. And even Mormons might view it as an unusual mission background. But I think it’s one that many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day can relate to.

On occasion I’ve been asked what I might say to Pope Francis next time I meet him. If given the opportunity, I’d ask him a simple question: “How different do you think the world would be if every Catholic young person aspired to serve a two-year mission like Mormon young people do?”

It’s not just the time young adults spend serving a mission and the lives they impact that makes a difference. It’s also the years of spiritual, financial, and psychological preparation supported by friends, family and congregations that make a difference. This all adds to the spiritual and temporal strength of the LDS Church itself.

It’s not that Catholics don’t have mission programs. They do – FOCUS Missionaries (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and Maryknoll Mission Volunteers to name a few. The difference is that serving a mission tends to be the exception for Catholics rather than the rule.

Of course, there are aspects of the Mormon approach to spiritual and temporal affairs that make it more possible for them than for Catholics to field a global lay missionary force.

First, Mormons don’t have professional clergy. Their operations depend on volunteer lay leadership at the local level. LDS local pastors (what they call bishops) devote scores of hours each week to attending to the needs of their congregation, or “ward.” And at the stake level, what the Catholics might call a diocese, the leadership is also voluntary.

Second, they have special callings for people to take a break from their careers, often mid-career, and travel to different parts of the world at subsistence pay to head up the work. These mission presidents answer a call that requires them to put their professional lives on hold for three years in order to supervise hundreds of young Mormons getting their feet wet as missionaries. Catholics don’t have a parallel.

And third, active Mormons by-and-large tithe. They give 10% of their incomes as offerings to the LDS Church, which helps make the global missionary endeavor possible.

It’s not that Catholics couldn’t rise to the challenge – they do in countless ways – but such an endeavor would require a paradigm shift in how they approach missionary work.

Nevertheless, one potential advantage Catholics have is that their missionary endeavor is not centralized – not all mission callings need to go through the Vatican. That might seem like a disadvantage to many Mormons, but the closer an initiative is to the local beneficiary, the more likely people are to wholeheartedly support it. Just think of the tremendous benefit of Evangelical Christian missions such as the Gospel Rescue Missions. Their billion-dollar impact stems from the legion of volunteers that help in each city without any central coordination.

These days I’m not working as a missionary. Or, to be more precise, my mission is to promote freedom of religion and belief for all. In that task I’m happy to say there is more direct similarity between Catholics and Mormons.

The Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith said that anyone who “would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics.” In that sense, Joseph Smith was prophetic. We’re all in this together. In the 1960s the Vatican declaration on religious freedom – DIGNITATIS HUMANAE – acknowledged that it is the agency and response of each individual to promote salvation in Christ rather than rely on the government to defend what it deems to be “orthodox” beliefs.

Today, I’m heading the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, which helps businesses, governments, and civil society see the pragmatic benefits of religious freedom. It’s another area where Catholics and Mormons have a lot in common. But that’s an essay for a different day.

Brian Grim is a member of the Roman Catholic Church. As president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, he interacts with people of many different faiths around the world.

Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.

My Best Humility Teacher: The Balance Beam

My Best Humility Teacher: The Balance Beam

Erin Facer

“How did I get here?!” Surrounded by foam pits, balance beams and parallel bars, I found my less-than-flexible-self signed up for a semester-long course in gymnastics.

At some point during my college career I got the bright idea that I could learn more from my classes than what was outlined in the syllabus. A course on Scandinavian history taught by a 95-year-old man with a low gravelly voice, for example, could help me learn attentiveness and endurance. Every math class would undoubtedly test my optimism and patience. At the end of my schooling I didn’t want to just walk away with a history diploma; I wanted to walk away a better, stronger person. So, each semester my schedule included one class specifically selected to teach me a character-building attribute.

Hence, here I sat in a large gym, ready to embark on a journey toward–humility.

F is for Fail

Humility is perfect quietness of heart. It is to be at rest when nobody praises me, and when I am blamed or despised. – Andrew Murray

According to the above definition, my first day in humility 101 would have earned me an F. Mere moments after my arrival on the first day, the humiliation began. My teacher pulled me aside and said, “don’t you know you are too tall to be a gymnast?” I smiled and tried to brush it off with a joke, but as the other students discussed their prior experience in dance, tumbling and other gymnastic pursuits, I started to sweat. I had no quietness of heart. I was not at rest. My heart raced. “Do you think he knows I also can’t do a head stand, cartwheel or even touch my toes?”

If at First You Don’t Succeed…Hide from Your Neighbors

People of integrity do not hide their reactions or opinions, they do not manipulate others through deception and they do not pretend. – Unknown

Our class was organized around stations where we could develop specific skills. Stations included the bars, balance beam, and the vault. Eventually, we would all have to display our skills to the class for our final exam. All my classmates seemed to pick up skills quickly and attempted increasingly challenging stunts. I, on the other hand, worked on the same basic skills over and over again with little to no improvement.

What bothered me the most was not how bad I was, but others knowing I was inept. Each class I expertly sought out the station no one else wanted in hopes of hiding my abysmal attempts. It was lonely, frustrating and tough on my self-esteem.

Humility is Confidence

Humility is not self-deprecating, rather it is the quiet internal confidence allowing you to accept things as they are, especially yourself. – Casar Jacobson

All too soon, the day of our final arrived. I awoke feeling sick. I lay in bed and jumped through all kinds of mental hoops to try and justify why it would be okay to skip. “The test is not really important for the grade.” “There probably won’t be enough time for everyone anyway.” And finally the real kicker, “it will be humiliating!”

Then the obvious struck me, “of course it will be humiliating. This is your humility class after all!” In that moment I set my jaw, rallied my courage and marched to class determined to show what I could and could not do.

Well, as suspected, I was the worst, but it was not humiliating. Humiliating implies a loss of self-respect and in this instance my self-respect actually increased. It did not ultimately matter that I was bad at gymnastics. I would soon be done with the class and never have to attempt the balance beam again. What mattered was that I could face my fear of other’s derision head on. I could celebrate the success of others while acknowledging my own limitations. Despite a poor grade in gymnastics, I ended up with good marks in humility.

So, next semester, sumo-wrestling here I come!

Erin Facer is a graduate of Brigham Young University and proud southerner. Contact her at

Holy Envy: A Muslim Woman Celebrates Her Catholic Heritage

Holy Envy: A Muslim Woman Celebrates Her Catholic Heritage

Amira Alsareinye

Since birth I was exposed to two different, beautiful worlds — Catholicism and Islam. Likewise, my parents gave me two wonderfully distant cultures — Mexican and Syrian. To add to this curiosity, my parents met in Texas and raised me right there in the heart of the Bible belt. So, to say that I’m unique is an understatement. But I love my heritages in all their cultural and geographical variety.

My experience with two contrasting religions has enriched my spiritual life. Growing up I would mimic my Muslim father in his daily prayers, and my mother would come to my room at night and ask me to recite the “Our Father.” When we visited my grandmother at Christmas time, her house smelled of tamales and spices and her tree was covered in ornaments and candy canes. Oh, how I wished I could have a tree, or at least help decorate it. We didn’t celebrate Christmas at home, much less have a tree, so when we visited my Abuela it felt special.

The decorations, the family, the food, and of course the presents, all celebrated the Spirit of God, or as Muslims say Rooh-Allah. In more traditional Catholic circles, Christmas celebration lasts forty days and ends at the Feast of the Purification of Mary in February.

Muslims celebrate Eid at the end of Ramadan when gifts are exchanged with family, similar to Christmas. But the sharing was incomplete because my father’s side of the family lived far away in Syria, a place I wouldn’t see until I turned ten. I always felt so isolated from the other children. My family was different, my holidays were different, my culture was different, and my fellow Texans thought I was so odd. But surrounded by family who loved me, Christmas at Abuela’s made me feel accepted, even if they didn’t understand why I couldn’t eat the tamales (though they were pork-free).

Though I often felt conflicted by these two religions, I eventually decided Islam was the right path for me. How ironic, then, that years later I ended up at a Catholic university. Who would have thought the Muslim girl who wears hijab and prays five times a day would be hanging around the school chapel almost every day? Not me, that’s for sure. In my sophomore year at The University of the Incarnate Word (UIW), I discovered an interfaith student organization and was able to learn more about the Catholic faith, as well as many other faiths. I began inviting friends to the group and attending events with excitement.

At that time, the leader was nearing graduation and the organization asked me to take her place. I felt overwhelmed at first, but after careful consideration accepted. Not only did I become president of the organization, but I also began working as the interfaith intern in campus ministry. I went from a shy, quiet person to laughing and joking every day. My colleagues were like an extended family to me, so even if I wasn’t on the clock organizing events, I loved to just stick around.

When I wasn’t in the offices I helped the sacristan in the Chapel. He often cared for the place alone so I would go in and ask if he needed assistance. I helped raise the banners behind the altar, water the plants, and set up the area near the door of the chapel. When Advent season came, that little girl wishing to decorate at her Abuela’s suddenly emerged within me. So I rummaged through the closet and found pink and purple candles to put on the wreath.

I asked many questions about Catholicism and always learned something new. Decorating was one thing, but feeling comfortable enough to converse with an officer of the church gave me gratitude. And though I can’t speak for all Muslims, this experience made me wish Muslim clerics were as open. There are many Sheikhs willing to answer my questions, but the dignity of their position seems to require a certain reserve.

The opportunities I had to decorate this Catholic chapel prompt me to ponder the relationship between creativity and faith. God is the ultimate Creator. So when we, as His creations, use our resources to create something artistic, we move closer to Him. As Muslims we say that nothing resembles God — Laysa Kamithlihi Shay — but we strive to keep righteous actions to near ourselves to His presence. Surrounded by divine inspiration to create, we in turn can inspire others.

Mosques, brocaded with geometric shapes and beautiful calligraphy, are examples of this artistic inspiration. But I sometimes secretly wish that Islamic holidays came with the same kind of decoration and festivity as Christmas. This is okay because learning about the religious practices of others only helps me grow in my own faith.

I am proud to be a Muslim woman, but the Catholic heritage I received from my mother and grandmother continue to broaden my appreciation for humankind. Having lived between two worlds, I still feel the personal pull of both Islam and Catholicism and wish others could experience the beauty that I have.

Amira Alsareinye holds a Bachelor of Arts in biology from The University of the Incarnate Word (UIW). While attending UIW, she worked as the Interfaith Student Ministry Intern for Campus Ministry. She is currently busy caring for her two children. Her passions include art, science, and writing.

Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.

Fitness and Faith—The Connection Between Body, Mind, and Spirit

Fitness and Faith—The Connection Between Body, Mind, and Spirit

McCall Bulloch

fitness and faith. the mind, body, and spirit are connected

As a multi-sport athlete throughout elementary and high school, exercise was a daily habit for me and was ingrained in my lifestyle. However, at college, without the encouragement from coaches, teammates, and the competition—let’s be honest, I am that person that loves to win—I lost all motivation to workout. Unless we’re counting the multiple uphill trips I had to make each day between my apartment and campus, fitness had almost completely dwindled from my life.

At first I didn’t notice a change. I was exhausted, anxious, and lacked interest in my faith, but I just attributed it to what my grandpa calls “the bird leaving the nest syndrome” as I tried to find that golden balance between studying, having fun, and figuring out who I was. About a year in, right before finals, mainly out of procrastination of all the things I had to get done, I went for a run. While I ran, I could clearly prioritize what needed to get done and I finished my run feeling energized and excited to start. I realized then that in losing my motivation I had also lost the connection between my body and mind that fitness gives me.

Studies show that exercise can play a huge part on our mental health by increasing blood flow to the brain. It raises our confidence and gives us a sense of well-being, leading to more happiness. Who doesn’t like to feel and look better, am I right? Working out also has major effects on the brain which can improve our memory and develop neuron pathways for better problem-solving. Released endorphins increase our mood and energy levels and can even fight off feelings of depression and repair damaged brain cells!

A routine again, fitness has also increased my faith. I show gratitude to God for my health, for this body by taking care of it. As the body overcomes physical restraints, the mind too overcomes mental obstacles. Working out allows me to enter a sort of spiritual ecstasy where I often receive answers to prayers and am better able to see myself through God’s eyes. My break from fitness also taught me that we exercise faith the same way we would exercise our bodies; with practice and devotion. When I am faced with challenges, doubt, or problems I try to remind myself that I can do hard things, that I am strong. Like my body learning to push harder or go further, I can learn to overcome by trusting God and living worthily.

These connections between the body, mind, and spirit are important and there is no doubt that we’re definitely connected. But are we connected in the right ways? We hear of news from across the world within minutes and encyclopedias of information are at our fingertips. We’re all guilty of a single ding or notification taking us down a deep, deep rabbit’s hole and it’s easy to be swept up in a current of emails, photos, and cute puppy videos. Fitness can be a way to unplug from the world. I find great joy in outdoor sports like hiking, cycling, skiing or rock climbing. Not only do they let me appreciate the beauty and blessings of this Earth, but they allow me to recharge and connect in a different way.

Perhaps you’ve already found what grounds you, that’s great! If not, try fitness. It can be in a gym, on a treadmill, outside, or within the walls of your own home. Whatever it is you enjoy, start small and be patient with yourself. Give yourself time to stretch your muscles and faith and gradually you will see the wires that connect your body and mind to God.

McCall Bulloch is a chronic Googler who is known to over emote when telling stories. She is afraid of birds and once cried when a flock of seagulls flew over her. She likes to ski, travel, and eat ice cream.

The Faith to Move Mountains: Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Faith to Move Mountains: Martin Luther King, Jr.

Michael Fitzgerald

Every year, an American holiday honors Martin Luther King, Jr., but do we really know his story? Streets are named for him in nearly every major city in the United States. Do we remember why?

The faith of Dr. King still moves millions. He had a faith beyond human endurance, but it was also a faith that moved a mountain—of segregation, of racial discrimination, of injustice. Here’s a story that proves that faith. It was a turning point in King’s life and maybe the history of the world.

A Threat on His Life

It was late one cool January night in 1956 when the telephone rang at the parsonage of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. King, who was Dexter Baptist’s 27-year-old pastor, picked up the phone. The voice on the line was menacing. “We’re tired of you and your mess,” the man said. “And if you’re not out of this town and out of your house in three days, we’re going to blow your house up and blow your brains out.”[1]

The “mess” the voice was referring to was the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott that had ignited the month before when an exhausted Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man.

After the call, Martin went into his kitchen with a heavy heart. He had a decision to make, one that would change the course of his life. At first, he just tried to figure out a way to get himself, his wife Coretta, and their baby Yolanda out of Montgomery without looking like a coward. Can you blame him?

Then it happened. As he began to pray out loud, he heard a voice calling him by name, a purer, stronger voice than the one he’d heard on the phone. “Martin Luther,” the voice said, “Stand up for truth, stand up for justice, and stand up for righteousness.”

That’s all he needed to hear. After that revelation in his kitchen, Martin Luther King, Jr. was all in. He never looked back or turned away from the mountain-moving faith that he needed to change the course of history.

House Bombing

Only three days later, at around 9:30 p.m., while Martin was away at a meeting, Coretta heard a loud thump on their front porch. She instinctively ran to the back of the house where Yolanda was sleeping, just as an explosion filled the front rooms with smoke and shattered glass.

After he got word by phone, Martin rushed home to find the front of his house badly scarred. Though his wife and daughter were safe and unharmed, a furious, armed mob surrounded his house, ready to hunt down and pay back the white community for what had happened.

Two Things to Be Free

But Dr. King believed that there are two things you need to be completely free. First, you have to forgive everyone for everything wrong they’ve ever done to you; and second, you have to be unafraid to give up your life.

Martin came out onto what was left of his porch and raised a hand. “We must meet violence with non-violence,” he said calmly. “Remember the words of Jesus: ‘He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.’ We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them. Jesus still cries out across the centuries: ‘Love your enemies.’ This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love.”[2]

Decades later, those words are still showing me the way. Because he was willing to forgive, because he was willing to lose his life in the struggle, King marched in a single direction from that day forward and changed the social fabric of America.

The King Legacy

King galvanized the Civil Rights movement. The boycott ended the following year, with a courtroom ruling that desegregated the bus system. Within a decade, Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech[3] during the March on Washington from the steps of the the Lincoln Memorial, and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed sweeping civil rights legislation into law. Those are just a few highlights from an overwhelming list of his accomplishments for the cause of freedom and justice.

Government harassment, attempts to publicly discredit him, and threats on his life could not deter King. Only an assassin’s bullet in August 1968 accomplished that.

But that legacy lives on. In a small, private way, it still lives on in me. Thank you, Dr. King, for all you’ve done to make the world a safer, more fair, more sane place. And thank you for what you’ve done for me personally. You quietly moved a mountain inside of me.


[2] Roger Bruns, Martin Luther King, Jr: A Biography (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2006), 42.


Because of his faith, Michael still believes there is plenty of good in this world. He loves his family and lives to write, read, run, and ski.

The Spirituality of Celebration

The Spirituality of Celebration

Brittany Beacham

Hanukkah. Kwanza. Ramadan. Diwali. Christmas.

Celebration is a core aspect of spirituality. The things we celebrate reveal a piece of who we are, a piece of what we value and believe in the most.

Life requires celebration – times of joy and rest. The modern rituals surrounding holidays often leave its observers that much more weary than when they started. And yet, from the beginning of creation to today, God has set aside for his people times of rest (Sabbath) and celebration.

Passover, the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Offering the First Fruits, the Festival of Weeks, the Festival of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement and the Festival of Tabernacles were times set aside for remembering the good things God had done for his people – pointing them to things He had done for them in the past, reminding them of His provision and mercy for them in the present, and the promise of what He would do for them in the future.

When He sent is His son, Jesus the Messiah, He too modeled celebration. Throughout the gospels, we see Him not only observing His traditional Israelite holidays but feasting with friends and using celebrations as illustrations in His parables. Not only that, Jesus’ first public miracle was rescuing a party host who had made a critical ordering error (John 2:1-11).

As a Christian, celebration is an important aspect of how I live my faith. Christmas is spent not just in shopping malls and rushing from one event to another, but in twenty-five days of scripture reading, reflection on the Nativity and an intentional practice of hospitality. Easter begins and ends not with a quasi-spiritual bunny, but with a week marked by remembrances: the highly public adulation-turned-betrayal of Christ, the agony of His crucifixion and the earth-shattering, curtain-tearing, eternal glory of His resurrection. Forty-days later we remember that the power of His Spirit has been given to us for the purpose of building his Church everywhere he may send us.

The core of celebration is God. His goodness and faithfulness in who he is and in our lives, celebration is meant to give glory to Him. Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost – our celebrations point to Christ and His saving work in our lives. We celebrate these things, and our joy in the celebration of the goodness of God gives him glory.

On the fourth Sunday of every month, our church gathers together and participates in what we call God-stories. We share together the things God is doing in our lives – the things bringing us joy, and the ways He is present with us in our sorrow. Ultimately, we celebrate. We tell God-stories and celebrate the ways God is at work around us. We celebrate, and we give Him glory.

I have grown to deeply treasure the celebrations of my faith. They remind me, first and foremost of the good things God has done for me, and secondly, that I serve a God who longs for His people to be filled with rejoicing, celebration and joy.

Jesus and Santa— in That Order

Jesus and Santa— in That Order

Sarah Shanoudy

When I tell people I am Coptic Orthodox, what follows is usually a blank stare or a polite head nod. Some people hear the word Orthodox and assume Jewish whereas others suppose since I am a second generation Egyptian American that I must be Muslim. I usually say Copts are like the Greek Orthodox, only Egyptian. That typically yields an enthusiastic “ohhh I see.”

Being a Coptic Orthodox Christian is part of my identity yet in many ways, it is difficult for me to explain my faith. My parents always found it especially important to make sure we were faith-filled people. I have a vivid memory of when I was 6 or 7 telling my mother that I was going to be especially good that year. When she asked why, I answered because I wanted nice gifts from Santa. She immediately responded with an irritated, “You should be good for Jesus, not Santa.” Although she didn’t know it, those words weighed on me. I wondered whether it was possible to be good for both Jesus and Santa. This struggle to balance spiritual with popular culture has stayed with me long past the days of believing in Santa.

My faith is difficult to explain not because people usually have no idea what Coptic Orthodoxy is but because navigating centuries-old traditions in a modern fast paced world is a challenge. Many of the practices and traditions in the Coptic Church may seem outdated, antiquated, or quite frankly, unnecessary. Why do men and women sit on opposite sides of the church? Why do women cover their heads? Or take, for example, the length of our liturgies.

Sunday liturgies are three hours long. Gasp. There I said it. How can people possibly be expected to sit (or mostly stand) through a two to three-hour-long service in this day and age? (You don’t even want to hear how long holiday services are.) It is hardly feasible to assume that people do not have busy lives and full schedules that demand attention. I work full time as well as pursue my master’s on a full-time basis so setting aside one hour of the day is hard enough. Setting aside three sometimes feels impossible.

But what if I framed it differently? What if I told myself I was fortunate enough to set aside three hours during the week where I disconnect from my hectic life and plug into a different world—a much slower and deliberate kind of place? This is a place where I can leave all my stress, worries, doubts, and fears at the door. This is a place where I can think, reflect, and share in something with others that is bigger than myself. Three hours to simply think and pray. When I frame it differently, I begin to appreciate the gifts my faith brings me that technology cannot.

That’s not to say it is easy. Most days, it is very hard to find a balance. I don’t believe that technology or our culture is the enemy. In fact, I am a full blown iPhone using, Game of Thrones watching, wine sipping, lip gloss wearing kind of girl. I blend in with everyone else attempting to navigate adulting in our mid-twenties. However, by incorporating little acts of faith my life, like a three-hour liturgy on Sunday or even a daily morning prayer, I realize that, yes, it is possible to have both Jesus and Santa, in that order.

Sarah Shanoudy is a graduate student at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. where she is pursuing a degree in Communication, Culture, and Technology.

God is the Author of My Mosaic

God is the Author of My Mosaic

Jessica Lamprecht

god is the artist of my mosaic

God blessed me with a colorful life. His path for me led to the rural populations in the mountains of Idaho, the palm trees that dot southern Texas, the great plains of the United States and the beautiful, bustling chaos of Mexico City. The captivating people, beautiful sites and extraordinary experiences I’ve had come together turn my life into vibrant, full mosaic of adventures.

Looking back on the variety of people who’ve left their mark on my life, I’m reminded of the unique colors, brush strokes, and pieces that make up the mosaics and murals that cover the streets and buildings I saw in Mexico City. My life has been created much the same as those murals, piece by piece. It started with lessons I learned from my parents, and more pieces were added as I learn from everyone I meet.

My dad taught me the value of hard work as I watched him keep multiple jobs to support our family. From his example, I learned that nothing in life gets handed to us, so you better learn to work.

My mom taught me to face the seemingly insurmountable battles of life head-on with hope for a better future. There is nothing I cannot overcome if I use the resources God has given me.

My best friend in high school taught me to value the beliefs of everyone. After some heated discussions about religion, we chose to focus on the things we had in common and built a friendship that has lasted for years. He helped me learn that faith doesn’t need to become a barrier against acceptance and friendship.

My violin, orchestra, and piano teachers taught me how to express passion without words. True art comes more often from hard work than pure talent. Music isn’t only for the prodigy.

My first roommate in college infused our apartment with energy, laughter and wisdom beyond her years. When I found out the dark stains from her past I learned that no matter how deep the pit we fall into becomes, happiness is always within reach if we choose to take it.

Two other roommates that suffered from depression and anxiety helped to educate me on mental illness because they let me help them emerge from the dark days and move through panic attacks. Without their influence, I never would have learned the empathy I needed to support my family members who deal with the same challenges.

One of my favorite college professors taught me to turn my reluctance to learning media law into an appreciation for the diligence it takes to write laws that keep our country out of chaos. She taught me that to enjoy when you need to learn takes loving the process of learning first.

The examples above are major pieces of my mosaic, but I’ve learned that what truly brings the mosaics to life are the intimate unexpected lessons learned day to day. Those lessons come from things as simple as the phone calls from a friend, the innocence of a child, the smile from a stranger, the kindness of a classmate, and time spent with family.

These daily experiences remind me that God is the artist of my mosaic. The total beauty and value of my life doesn’t come from me. They come from the people He places, ever so perfectly, into my life. I’m excited for the day I get to see all the pieces and lessons arranged into the perfect mosaic of my life.

3 Steps to Build Faith

3 Steps to Build Faith

Maddy Stutz

image of a pen with a journal
You don’t just wake up one morning, light streaming in from the window, birds fluttering about, and jump from your bed with exuberance declaring “I have a faith!”

No, it’s more like a slow crawl from your bed as you try to slam on the snooze button one last time.

Getting faith isn’t easy, even though people put the phrase “have faith!” on repeat like it’s no big deal. It’s a slow, sometimes agonizing process that many people give up on, but in truth, it’s worth the wait. Having faith puts that pep in your step when you feel like you’ve busted a kneecap. It gets you to try one more time towards your righteous desires and keeps you smiling when all you want to do is crawl back into bed. Faith is the end result of a long journey, but makes the trip bearable.

But sometimes it can be hard to see the road to faith, or at least the end of the road. If you’ve found yourself in this spot, Martin Luther King Jr. has some wise words.

“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

So what is the first step? Honestly, it’s different for everyone. But if you’re having a hard time viewing that staircase, here are a few steps to get you started.

Identify the Doubt

What’s causing you anxiety right now? What’s making you worry? What’s filling you with doubt? Pinpoint an area of your life that’s weighing you down and take some time to ponder why it’s so hard. If you need to, find a quiet space to meditate or pray about the things that are bothering you, and ask yourself why these things are having an impact on your life.

Why are we doing this? Because in order to identify a solution, we need to identify the problem.

Find Your Mantra

Having a little saying you can repeat to yourself in times of trouble is a great way to dispel fear. Faith is a concept that’s been around since the beginning of mankind, and you can find motivating quotes across the religious or spiritual spectrum. Take some time to search them out and find a phrase or quote that speaks to you. Put this quote somewhere you can see it often, like your phone. Then when you feel that fear or anxiety begin to rise, just take a deep breath, and repeat after them:

“Having faith does not mean having no difficulties, but having the strength to face them, knowing we are not alone.” – Pope Francis

“If it can be solved, there’s no need to worry, and if it can’t be solved, worry is of no use.” -Dalai Lama

“For with God, nothing shall be impossible.” – Luke 1:37

Take Action

Now that we’ve identified the problem and have a mantra to keep us focused, let’s work on that solution. Write your problem down and start brainstorming ways to fix it, even the hard ones. What are the obvious ways you can fix it? The not-so obvious? Make bullet points until you have a solid list, then go through and find the solution that would be the most effective.

And now you’ll take action. You might be afraid, but that’s okay. Faith isn’t about not having fear, it’s about acting anyway. So take that solution and run with it, not looking back.

Faith isn’t a one-step process, and it’s also not a one-stop shop. In order to find and keep faith, you’ll need to practice over and over again. But that’s okay! With each step you’ll become stronger and stronger until faith is your first reaction to challenges, not fear.

As a writer, believer, and chronic Pinterest fail-er, Maddy believes that everyone has a unique message to share with the world, and enjoys finding new ways to strengthen her faith through different perspectives.

Faith, Cookies, and Acceptance

Faith, Cookies, and Acceptance

Alain Julian

My brother Alek likes to steal cookies from our church. It can be awkward when it happens. He’s twenty, and not particularly subtle when he does it, and he screams at the top of his lungs when you try to stop him.

When we were deciding which church to go to, we considered whether they were able to accommodate Alek. It couldn’t be that they just have a room dedicated to those with special needs. They also had to have a deep understanding of what people with autism require as well as a servant’s heart for those who are disabled. Basically, we had to make sure he would really be accepted as a part of the community. Luckily, we only had to go to one church before we saw exactly where God wanted us.

This was a blessing, especially in a society that doesn’t always truly understand disabilities like autism. Ignorance has lead to people making insensitive comments about how my brother acts and how we cope with his behaviors in public. While this was and is difficult to witness, thankfully my faith has helped me and my family. And this faith led us to our church — a church that sees my brother for who he is: a child of the Most High, fearfully and wonderfully made in the Image of God. And everyone, whether or not they work with the Special Needs Ministry, loves him in the way that Christ loves him.

My God is a God who comforts the mourning, heals the sick, and lives among those who live on the margins. And my church, as the hands and feet of Jesus Christ, acts the same way. It can still be a little awkward when Alek steals cookies from the hospitality booth, but now the people who work there set some aside for when he comes and visits. This loving acceptance is sweeter than any cookie.