I'm not going to tell a lie: One of the reasons I left my home state back in 1983 was religious intolerance. That makes it all the more ironic that I have found a deeper faith than I could have imagined in the years since I've returned.
Put another way, it took coming home to Mississippi for me to truly witness the depths, varieties, strains, beliefs and practices that real, progressive, active, loving people of faith display every single day.
What is it they say about looking all over the world for what it waiting at home in your back yard? The light was right here all along.
Now, these displays of faith weren't always evident in my Baptist church in Neshoba County. The one where the preacher bashed his wife on the pulpit. The one where the deacon cheated on his wife and flirted with 13-year-olds. The one where we were told that anyone who practiced a different faith was going to burn in hell. The one where race hatred was as thick in the air as the words in the green hymnals.
That was the kind of religion that turned me off and drove me out.
Now, though, I am humbled and overjoyed by the faithful people all around me eight years after I returned home. The word "progressive" has taken on a whole new meaning for me here. Living and working and trying to help people in Jackson, I work every single day with people of deep faith. Sure, they came in various religious stripes: Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian, Buddhist, Hindu, and Christians of all sorts: Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Catholics, Methodists, yes, my peoplethe Baptists.
All the people of faith don't agree, and they don't all agree with me. Not on everything, anyway. But I've learned that people of real faith do come together on the things that matter, the outcomes, the goals. And they always involve healing, mending and helping the less fortunate. Always. No exceptions.
Wonderfully, the people I know with deep faith aren't judgmental of people of other faiths or backgrounds. Not a single one of them. They get up in the morning and gather and toil with people who get to the same place a different way and often with different rituals. They bridge gaps, they reach out, they start things, whether an art program for homeless people or an after-school program for needy kids or a movement.
These kinds of people don't care as much about someone's politics, except when that person is using their faith as a political weapon or to spread hate.
It wasn't simply the progressive people of faith I've grown to know and love since I returned who opened my eyes, though; it was the reading, studying and listening I've done in recent years that completed the cycle for me.
For one thing, I listen to "Speaking of Faith" religiously, pardon the pun, every Sunday morning or via podcast or both. Through these intellectual and compassionate discussions about the best of faithall faithsI've grown to understand that what matters the most is what different religions have in common, what must be at the root of our belief systems. I do further study on the thinkers I discover there and elsewhere; after all, I am a newspaper editor, and people of all faiths read my newspaper. I owe it to all of you to represent you best I can.
As a result, I've discovered thinkers and dreamers like Sir Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reinhold Niebuhr and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Heschel was the topic of a recent program that captivated me due to his belief that "no one has a monopoly on the truth about God." Although the rabbi died years ago, his teachings and beliefs live on. I'm already a huge fan of the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, the social-justice requirement of being Jewish. (Ironically, I didn't learn about it from my Jewish friends in New York City; I learned this beautiful belief right here in Jackson).
But Rabbi Heschel took it further for me, delving right into the heart of what I have slowly grown to understand since returning to Mississippi: You can (and must) honor your own faith and that of other people. You give up none of your beliefs in order to see the beauty found in all faiths. The rabbi put it this way: "God is speaking through people of all religious traditions, not just one."
As a younger skeptic, I used similar reasoning to denounce religion: That is, how could God deny the "other" people of faith and only honor one type? Made no sense.
I get it now, though: God doesn't deny any true faiths. Not as long as they are used for good or, put another way, to honor God's will
of doing good. Rabbi Heschel liked to say that "God is waiting on humans to act." And with the variety of humans on earth, obviously it's going to take a multitude of tools to get us to wake up and act.
I've also been delighted to have my faithincluding my faith in others' faithstrengthened by my now near-obsessive reading of Buddhist writers and teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh. I love the concepts behind Buddhismthe ideas of mindfulness and compassion and loving kindness. I even like the part where we're not supposed to show idiot compassion to people hurting themselves and others. I also enjoy thinkers like Marianne Williamson ("A Return to Love") and Eckhart Tolle ("The Power of Now").
Now that I'm paying attentionone might call it awakenedI'm seeing exactly that it takes all these different faiths and spiritual pursuits to make the world go round, and the trains run on time, and to return us to love. My reading of Buddhism and Tolle's ideas have actually helped me see more beauty in our traditional texts like The Bible.
All faiths worth embracing really do have one thing in common: love. They all ask us to love and forgive, stop judging and actively engage in the world around us. They tell what not to do: hate. And that includes people of other faith. They also tell us how to help people of various beliefs not turn to the dark side that lurks just outside all faiths: Love them. Teach them. Help them. Forgive them. Reach out to them. Show them a better way. Turn on the light. Let it shine.
I'm not here to preach to anybody, or try to teach you anything you don't know already. It's the readership of the Jackson Free Press and this remarkable community that has taught me what faith really means and how to act on it. I write this to salute you.
Keep the light on for me, folks. I'm off to read the Bhagavad Gita.
I believe in religious tolerance too. As long as I know so little from a personal standpoint, I'm neither judging or condemning others. Until I see some perfection in somebody, I'm not making them or their God the Almighty. I pray the Almighty forgives us all for all the confusion about who he or she is, it's not our faults, and I choose to try to love everybody.