My commentary in The Indianapolis Star

I was invited to write the following commentary for The Indianapolis Star’s Faith Forum column on Saturday, August 11, 2012.  The positive feedback has been tremendous; I’ve already been told that it was discussed at length at a local Quaker meeting, and a professor at the Christian Theological Seminary in Indy will use it as required reading for his class on dialogue!

Dialogue deepens, not weakens, woman’s faith
Jordan Denari

“Are you converting to Islam?”

This question was addressed to me multiple times during my freshman year at Georgetown University, and I wouldn’t be surprised if people still asked it now, three years later — given that I’ve been a board member of Georgetown’s Muslim Students Association (MSA), lived a Muslim living-learning community, and worked at an Islamic advocacy organization.

In reality, however, I’m far from converting, and feel more rooted in my own tradition, Catholicism, than ever before. And, that’s not in spite of my engagement with the Muslim community, but because of it. Rather than pulling me away from my Catholic faith, interreligious dialogue with Muslims has deepened my faith, enriched it. Dialogue — which isn’t only formal discussions, but also lived engagement with those different from oneself — helped me fall back in love with the Catholic tradition in which I grew up.

At the beginning of college, while struggling with my Catholic identity and wondering if another religion like Islam might provide me with the connection to God that I was missing, I formed a close friendship with a Muslim girl in my dorm, Wardah. She taught me more about Islam than books ever could, because she simply lived her religion. When we roomed together as sophomores, she woke up early in the morning to pray and often stopped in the middle of homework assignments to pull out her prayer rug. Lacking commitment in my relationship with God, I wanted that kind of consistency in my own prayer life.

Wardah brought me to Muslim students’ events, like an iftar, the fast-breaking meal during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan (which this year is being celebrated from mid-July to mid-August.) I was struck by the sense of community and solidarity I saw among my new Muslim friends, and realized how much I craved that, too.

Finding these things in Islam — prayer and community — reminded me that they also existed in my own Church, and I wanted to find them again. I signed up for a Catholic retreat with the intent of improving my daily prayer habits, and I joined a small Catholic bible study that provided me with a community with whom I could reflect on scripture. My relationship with God began improving, and my appreciation for my Catholic tradition increased.

My re-embracing of Catholicism would not have been possible without my exposure to Islam and my immersion into the Muslim community. But this process occurred differently than many might expect. People may assume that, after being exposed to Islam’s beliefs and practices and not liking them, I ran for the hills–the familiarity of Catholicism. Instead, Islam provided me with a critical reference point from which I could see my own tradition more clearly. Before, I had been too close to really notice the beauty of Catholicism.

That’s why I continue to stay involved in the Muslim community. Not only are they are good friends, but their devotion to their religion constantly motivates me to re-examine the way I live out my Catholicism. And, it’s why I’ve led efforts at Georgetown to provide religiously-diverse students with opportunities to dialogue with one another. Students find that their stereotypes of others are shattered, and they identify similarities and crucial differences, which I would argue, are a positive thing worth discussing. Differences in creed and ritual show us the diversity of forms in which believers understand their relationship with God, and help us identify the unique position espoused by our own tradition.

This kind of dialogue challenges the assumption held by many believers who feel that engaging with people of other faiths forces us to sideline aspects of our practice, water down our doctrines, and drop our distinct identities. But the dialogue in which I participate and promote doesn’t ask us to compromise on or abandon our differences; it thrives on the sharing of them.

I often say that I have Islam to thank for helping me reclaim my faith — and for making me a better Catholic. I hope others can say this about their experience of dialogue, too.

Bio: Jordan Denari, an Indianapolis native, is a senior at Georgetown University. She has been published in America, a Jesuit magazine, and her efforts at building interfaith relationships have been featured in other Catholic news outlets. She writes about Muslim-Christian relations on her blog, Witness (jordandenari.com).

 

Searching for our own Edward R. Murrow

Today, New York Representative Peter King held a second round of Congressional hearings concerning “Muslim radicalization in the U.S.” In an era when anti-Muslim rhetoric continues to spew unchecked from the mouths of presidential hopefuls and talking heads on cable, many others and I fear that these hearings are evidence that a new McCarthyism, one targeting Muslim-Americans, is taking root in America.

Generally, when my generation learned in school about McCarthyism in the 40s and 50s, we understood it to be a shameful period in our country’s history.  Looking back now on the McCarthy hearings, (which unfairly targeted thousands of Americans, labeling them falsely as Communists,) and the general tone suspicion that permeated our political and civil environment, we recognize that American leadership was acting in response to fears that were purposefully manufactured and inflated in order to be exploited for political gain.

But at Monday night’s GOP debate, the McCarthy hearings were referenced in quite a positive light as Newt Gingrich implied that the U.S. government should subject Muslim-Americans to the same kind of scrutiny that so-called Communist sympathizers experienced decades ago:

“We did this when dealing with the Nazis, and we did this when dealing with the Communists, and it was controversial both times, and both times we discovered after a while, ‘You know, there are some generally bad people who would like to infiltrate our country, and we have gotta have the guts to say, No.’”

In this context, as fear mongering and McCarthy-style hearings seem to be coming back in vogue, the words of Edward R. Murrow are all the more important to share and remember (see below).  Advocating for a return to reason and the abandonment of unnecessary fear, Murrow, a journalist, spoke out against the fear and suspicion encouraged by Sen. McCarthy and other public figures.  If we substitute Rep. King’s name for Sen. McCarthy’s in the following clip, Murrow could just as easily be speaking to us, the Americans of 2011, instead of the Americans of 1954.  Take a listen–let’s hope our own Murrow shows up soon.

Modern day prophets

The theme of this year’s Ignatian Family Teach-In is “Prophetic lives: Caminando juntos (Walking together).”

Romero's assassination

This idea is taken from the words of Oscar Romero, the former archbishop of San Salvador who was murdered while saying Mass in 1980.  During the brutal civil war, he advocated for the protection of the poor in his country, but was left unaided by the Church and foreign governments.

“Cada uno de ustedes tiene que ser un profeta./ Each one of you has to be a prophet.” –Oscar Romero

Again, the delegation of Georgetown students was asked to contemplate this quote and the conference theme in anticipation for the IFTJ.  Is God calling us to be prophets?  And what does that role entail?

I look to Isaiah, Jesus, and Muhammad for guidance in answering these questions.*

All three men were misunderstood in their own era, their words ignored or marked as radical or blasphemous.  Isaiah urged the Israelites to turn back to God, but they continued in their sinful ways.

Isaiah as depicted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel

They were outsiders whose positions on issues of God and faith were ahead of their time.  Muhammad called for greater increased women’s rights in a world dominated by men, and in polytheistic Arabia he pushed the notion of a single God.

Muhammad, written in Arabic calligraphy. In Islam, religious figures are not depicted in art.

They challenged the status quo, made a community among the ostracized of society, and criticized unjust social structures and practices—always at their own peril and sacrifice.  Jesus broke social norms and dined with sinners, ultimately losing his life.

Jesus and Veronica

Though their messages were shunned during their own time, looking back, we realize that God was speaking through them, that their messages—which God wanted us desperately to hear—were taking root.  Today, billions of people of many faiths revere these men, seeing them as perfect or near perfect examples of a servant of God.  Isaiah, Jesus, and Muhammad may have had a difficult time seeing the fruits of the religious and social progress they initiated, but their work was crucial to beginning the process of change.

So can we too be prophets?

Admittedly, we are not as holy as Christ or the founder of Islam, but despite this we are called to fill a similar role.  When we see injustice in our communities, we must be the mouthpiece for God, challenging the social, religious, or political status quo.  We may be misunderstood, ignored, or even persecuted by those in our society who are afraid of change, but we know that we have the support of God, who is working through us.

Being a messenger of God requires a lot of humility, and a willingness to learn and question.  We cannot assume that we as humans can find the solutions to problems on our own.  Rather, we must listen to God and discern his message, using our talents to share that message with the community that needs to hear it.  We are only the vessel through which God works; in order to be filled, we must empty ourselves. (I take this idea from the prayer, “A Hallowed Space to Be Filled” by William Breault, S.J.)

I see my work as a writer, journalist, and advocate as prophetic work. I believe God has charged me to promote a message of understanding between religious groups, particularly Muslims and Christians, during a time when demonization of “others” is deemed acceptable and goes unchallenged by many.  I realize that my positions regarding religion are considered radical by many in my community, and that many are unwilling to listen.  Yet I know that my work is important and necessary. “God has created me to do Him some divine service.  I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next,” as Cardinal Newman says in his famous meditation.  I am confident that though I cannot see fully the effects of my labor—and never will—God has called me on this path of prophethood.

During times when I’ve doubted what impact I can make, Oscar Romero’s famous prayer has encouraged me to continue, and reminded me of the divine significance of my small contributions.

The Prayer of Oscar Romero

 

 

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.  The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,

it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
in realizing that. This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well. It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

Amen.

 

Questions for reflection: Do you see yourself as a prophet?  What message has God given you to convey?

Additionally, you may be interested in a recent article by Jesuit James Martin about how we can follow the example of the saints.

*My Biblical history is lacking so if I made any mistake in recounting the lives of the three prophets please let me know.

Images from Iraq

Along with its series containing leaked information about the Iraq war, the New York Times published these two slideshows–one depicting civilian deaths and one illustrating detainee abuse by Iraqis (and overlooked by Americans.)

Civilian deaths: Watch the slideshow here. (Lynsey Adarrio for the NYT)

Prisoner abuse: click here to see the slideshow. (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

If we saw these pictures of war every day on the news, I think wars would be much less frequent.  The carnage that they cause is immense, but it often hard to realize its scope when we don’t see the pictures everyday.

Though we as Americans are not exposed to these pictures, many are.  Middle Eastern media more frequently publishes these photos, no doubt causing anger and sadness and horror in viewers, and even more importantly contributing to their (often justifiable) negative view of the U.S.

In American media, which is influenced so heavily by politics and those who benefit from the enterprise of war, we don’t show these images.  This is a disservice to American citizens, who deserve to know as much as possible about the conflicts in which we engage.  I encourage the American media to be courageous and provide us the images we so desperately need to see.

 

Click here to see an interactive map of civilian and military deaths in Iraq from Al-Jazeera English.

Later this weekend or this upcoming week, I hope to post about this week’s Fast-a-thon at Georgetown, in addition to a reflection on the Prayer in Daily Life retreat I attended this week through Catholic Campus Ministry.  I also may post a reflection on the firing of NPR’s Juan Williams.

Examples of empathetic journalism

This post is about the importance of “empathetic journalism.”  This past summer, I spent a considerable amount of time writing about this topic, but I was never happy with anything I’d written.  During the past few weeks and months, however, I’ve stumbled upon a few great examples that discuss empathetic journalism, so I’ll post them here along with some of my own reflections.

“Nicholas Kristof: Journalism and Compassion”

I recently listened a program about New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof’s unique view of journalism.  For him, journalism should be about more than fairness, objectivity, and truthfulness–it should also be about empathy.  As journalists we must work with an empathetic attitude if we hope to better connect with our subjects and better tell their stories.  Additionally, we want our readers to connect empathetically with the subject, which requires us to present the story in a more personal way. Empathy isn’t only the mechanism but also the end goal, too.  Bringing empathy into journalism is necessary if we want journalism and the news to really inform and change our actions.

Nick Kristof

This quote from Nick relates well to my writing on this blog:

“I think that you’re more persuasive when you acknowledge that you have changed your views and you explain how that process happened.”

He acknowledges that admitting you were wrong is a little embarrassing, but that in the end it helps others consider your position if they don’t initially accept it.  You can show the reader that you were once in their place and that we don’t have to be afraid to change our minds. We don’t have to cling on to our old views, even if they seem safer.

I have written in this way on my blog–talking about how my views have changed–but I wasn’t all that conscious about how this kind of writing could enhance my ability to persuade.  Thanks to Kristof’s advice, I’m going to write this way more often.  By admitting my own past misperceptions and trying to uncover the ones I still have, I give license to others to do the same.

Kristof makes some other important points that I will only mention here.  If you want to hear more, listen to the program!  He talks about…

…how stories about particular individuals engender the most compassion–and therefore, action–in a reader.

…why he doesn’t oppose sweatshops in the developing world.

…why you shouldn’t always believe the claims of victims.

You should also check out Kristof’s columns and blog on nytimes.com.

Al-Jazeera English

A few weeks ago, I attended a discussion at Georgetown entitled, “Reporting from the Front Lines: Covering the Human Side of Conflict.”  Three reporters for Al-Jazeera English shared their experiences about reporting from conflict zones like Gaza, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and specifically discussed the importance of covering the “human stories” that enfold–sometimes invisibly–amid conflict.  Other broadcast outlets, especially Western ones, often avoid covering individuals’ stories (for a number of reasons I will not address here) but Al-Jazeera English makes that its mission.  AJE is trying to fill a void left by Western media by increasing coverage on the ground of global issues; giving voices to the powerless by focusing on the human story; and providing viewers with an opportunity to empathize with others and get a glimpse into their daily lives.

One of the panelists was Sherine Tadros, whose reports I have watched.  One of the few journalists inside Gaza during the winter 2008-2009 war, she was tasked with finding the stories of individuals to accompany the more general breaking news pieces produced by another Al-Jazeera colleague, Ayman Mohyeldin.  Her assignment, which often manifested itself in visits to the dead and wounded in hospitals, required a lot of empathy and made it impossible for her to shut out her emotions.  Curious about how I might deal with these kinds of situations if I’m every lucky enough to do foreign correspondent work, I asked her how she dealt with the emotional lows.

Al-Jazeera, "the Island" in Arabic

She told me that during her assignments she was able to hold it together, but that when she returned to her hotel in the evenings she would get very upset.  Rather than letting that hold her back, however, she used her sadness as motivation.  It drove me to wake up earlier or work harder to tell the story better the next day, she said.  I tucked that little piece of advice away if I should ever need it, remembering to channel my sadness and anger and fear into something productive, something that will–directly or indirectly–help those suffering.

If you’ve never gone to Al-Jazeera for your news, I highly recommend it.  You can also get daily email alerts called “News You May Have Missed,” which contain stories that often go uncovered by American or mainstream Western media.

City Stories

This summer I worked for City Stories camp, a journalism and story-telling camp for low-income elementary school students in Indianapolis.  Along with another co-

Teaching camera basics

counselor and eleven current and former Y-Press journalists, I organized and led two-weeks session that gave kids not only the ability to document the people and places in their communities, but also the opportunity to look at those things empathetically. Camp was also a lesson in understanding and empathy for us as leaders.  As we immersed ourselves in these communities that are often labeled as being “bad neighborhoods” or “dangerous places,” our initial misperceptions were eliminated as we got to know shop owners, community members, and most of all, the campers.

I strongly encourage you to check out the extra-ordinary work that the campers and counselors did this summer.  You can find the audio slideshows (multi-media pieces combining photography and in-depth interview audio) on the Y-Press website or by clicking this link.  Some of my favorites are “317 Ink,” “Big Sam,” and “Carniceria Guanajuato.”

Storyboarding

I also wrote a two pieces about City Stories camp for What Kids Can Do, another organization I worked for in the last year, in addition to producing two audio slideshows featuring the counselors’ voices.  (The first, more general piece about summer learning can be found here along with the audio slideshows, and a more detailed story about City Stories here.)

Final quotes for thought

“This empathetic mission gives the writing a warmth, and–not incidentally–it helps…all these writers get away with saying certain unflattering things about their subjects, because it’s clear the overall project of their writing is not a malicious or demeaning one. I like that.  And as a reporter, I understand it.  I have this experience when I interview someone, if it’s going well and we’re really talking in a serious way, and they’re telling me these very personal things, I fall in love a little.  Man, woman, child, any age, any background, I fall in love a little. They’re sharing so much of themselves.  If you have half a heart, how can you not?” -Ira Glass in the introduction to The New Kings of Nonfiction

“The personal narrative of a human being is the way to create empathy on the other side.” -Robi Damelin, an Israeli woman whose son was killed by a Palestinian.  She now works to bring Israelis and Palestinians together through their shared experiences of loss.

Some of the campers and counselors at a City Stories event in August.