Interfaithing BY REYNOLD RUSLAN FELDMAN, PH.D
Last night, the final evening of the 2011 Ramadan Fast, Cedar and I were watching a 2002 History Channel documentary called Inside Islam. It seemed an especially appropriate activity given that both of us had been doing aspects of the Fast. In the video a kindly-looking, well-spoken California rabbi with a New York accent explained how close Judaism and Islam in fact were. As a Jewish-Christian Subud member who has now fasted 37 times for Ramadan, I could identify. Let me explain.
As a kid during World War II in Great Neck, New York, I had been blessed with an African American housekeeper (we used the term “maid” back then) called Florine. She stayed with us from when I was one-and-a-half until I graduated from high school. Flora was a strong person and good Christian in the mold of Constantine in The Help. I came from a secular, non-observant Jewish family. Enforced Orthodox Judaism traumatized my dad as a boy. As a result, my sister and I got no closer to the tradition than bagels and lox and occasional trips to Grandma Ida’s place in New York City, where Orthodox practices and deflavorized food were the rule. So Florine was my first spiritual guide. In fact, when I went to kindergarten, I came home with a note to my parents that I had a speech problem. Apparently, I had been so impressed by that something Florine had inside her—something no one else in our family had, even though Florine was a working-class Black woman and we were well-to-do—that I had taken up her way of speaking. A blond-haired, blue-eyed Stevie Feldman speaking Eubie English just wasn’t cool in a Great Neck elementary school anno 1944.
Later in boarding school (Peddie School, Hightstown, New Jersey), where I happily spent my four high-school years, we had required daily chapel, Sunday church, and Sunday-night vespers. Jewish or not, we were required to go. I joined the choir and fell in love with Protestant hymnody. (Truth be told, I often fell asleep during the sermons.) Later at Yale I would attend Christ Church (Episcopal), a High Church Anglican establishment with “smells and bells” and a rector from Hartford, Connecticut, who intoned the Mass with a British accent. I would also sometimes attend the Jewish Hillel Friday Shabbat services and Sunday Congregational services at Battell Chapel, especially when the Rev. William Sloan Coffin, our chaplain who would later become famous for his Civil Rights work, would be preaching. At Hillel I even had my first encounter with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the Hassidic reb who was to be the principal founder of the mystical, universalist branch of the faith known as Jewish Renewal. Reb Zalman was our guest speaker at Hillel one Friday night. My most impressive teacher at Yale was Professor Alexander McLaren Witherspoon (Reese’s great uncle), a lovely man and a strong Presbyterian believer. When he read literature, it seemed like the Voice of God was speaking. During my junior year abroad in Germany, then, I would attend Catholic and Lutheran services, frequently for the free live-music concerts of Bach and other choral church music. Meantime, I was dating girls of a wide variety of faiths or of none.
In May 1961, a year after receiving my B.A. in English, I was opened in Subud. That took place in Chicago. At the time I was also attending the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Hindu Fellowship near where I lived. Back at Yale Graduate School that fall and an isolated member, I began studying Indonesian and hanging around with “people who looked like Bapak.” It wasn’t until the fall of 1969 in Honolulu, with Mas Prio Hartono a recent houseguest, that I first tried the Muslim Ramadan Fast. It was challenging, to say the least, with world-class headaches appearing every day by three. But with Muslim students and professors at the East-West Center, where I was working, for companions, it was a dramatic experiment for me—one that I have since repeated 36 times.
My road to active interest in interreligious matters was less direct. As an assistant professor of English at the University of Hawai`i at Manoa and, for a year, as intercultural activities officer at the adjoining East-West Center, I was tapped by the Lutheran campus pastor to serve on the University’s interfaith council as a faculty member representing “Team Lutheran.” Then, as assistant director of the University’s experimental School of the Humanities, “New College,” I co-taught an interfaith freshman seminar called “Gods and Men.” By this time I had already been reading widely in the world’s great religions and could spout technical terminology and explain some of the main concepts of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism as well as Judaism and Christianity. I also liked listening to Hindu and Christian classical music.
In 1980 my wife, Simone, our young family, and I spent six months back in Hawaii on an academic sabbatical. (We were living and working in Chicago at the time.) Officed at the East-West Center, I did most of the research and writing for a book called The Exotic Mirror: Non-Western Images of the Educated Person. Naturally, this project required me to learn still more about the major religious traditions, including Shamanism, since most of the educational theories and practices were solidly based in the realm of the Spirit. Although the book was never published, several articles based on it were.
My desire to convert to Christianity took place at Dwight Chapel on Yale’s Old Campus on September 2, 1966. I have told that story in detail in my memoir (Stories I Remember—My Pilgrimage to Wisdom: A Spiritual Autobiography. Honolulu: Wisdom Foundation Publishing, 2009). Suffice it to say here that an inner voice instructed me to be baptized with my older daughter, then a day old, and gave me a dramatic sign that afternoon which convinced me to do so on March 4, 1967.
In the mid-90’s I began teaching a course called “The Literature of Wisdom: A Cross-Cultural Exploration” at Metro State University in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. This I did twelve times, during which we read a whole spectrum of sacred texts from around the world and down the ages. That course led me to write or co-write three books on wisdom, all subsequently published, and found a non-profit called Wisdom Factors International.
In September 1996 my late wife and I moved from Saint Paul back to our beloved Honolulu, where we had helped establish the Subud group in 1967. By this time there were a lot more interreligious activities happening at the grassroots level. I soon became part of the steering committee of and an occasional presenter at Honolulu’s Interfaith Open Table. From this participation I got a year-long consulting gig to help Honolulu become the venue for one of the Parliament of the World’s Religions’ periodic meetings. From all this local activity plus occasional pieces I wrote for the local newspapers—they once also did an article on me as a Jewish-Christian fasting with Muslims for Ramadan, a kind of one-man interfaith representative—I became known in the state as someone committed to interreligious understanding and collaboration. As a result, Dr. Saleem Ahmed, a Pakistani Muslim living in Honolulu and a strong spokesman for moderate Islam, recruited me to edit his book Beyond Veil and Holy War. Later I became a co-founder of an interreligious organization Saleem developed and now leads: The All-Believers Network (www.allbelievers.net). Among other things, Saleem and “Belnet’s” board are pushing to get the State of Hawaii to consider itself the Interfaith Capital of the World. To that end, Belnet will be holding an international “One Reality” Conference in September 2012, which the World Subud Association is considering co-sponsoring.
Back to my own spiritual journey, on Epiphany Sunday—January 4, 2004—I officially became Roman Catholic. During much of the next seven years I was a daily communicant, retreat and mission attendee, lector, cantor, and “extraordinary minister of holy Communion”—that it, I assisted the priest and deacon in distributing one of the elements of the Eucharist. After Simone died in September 2006, I spent 15 months as a voluntary Catholic chaplain’s assistant at Honolulu’s largest hospital, the Queen’s Hospital, praying with and giving Holy Communion to patients in the cancer, cardiac, and neurology wards. As of January 1, 2011, I informally left the Catholic Church and am now a member with my new wife, Cedar Barstow, of St. John’s Episcopal Church, a liberal, welcoming congregation here in Boulder. We also attend the Sunday services of the local Spiritkeepers Interfaith Fellowship, a “church” program based on the Sufi Dances of Universal Peace. Yesterday in fact Cedar and I did a presentation there on what we learned about Sufism and Islam during our six-week honeymoon to Turkey, Morocco, and Spain (mainly Andalucía).
So what am I doing on the interreligious front these days (August 2011)? First, I was invited to contribute an article about Subud to an Asian Indian scholarly journal focused on “practical mysticism.” My issue of the journal has meanwhile come out, and I’m looking forward to receiving a copy in the mail any day now. Second, I became active in helping a group of us, old Subud hands for the most part, develop an international theme-based Subud Forum, which is now to be housed in SICA. In that context I was named to head up the Forum section on Interreligious/Interspiritual Affairs and chair a group of about twelve Subud members from around the world with interest and/or expertise in this topic. Eventually we hope to have both internal and external meetings and to share our ideas about interreligious matters in conversations, articles, and books among ourselves and with non-Subud people as well.
In these very days, with support from the Guerrand-Hermès Foundation for Peace, Brighton, England, I am finishing a 53-organization World Directory of Interreligious Organizations. This Directory, once live on the Foundation’s website, will provide contact information, mission, vision, goals and approach, history, programming, and governance on all the organizations covered. The World Subud Association is one. As a result of this project, I am planning to invite the leaders or their representatives of all these organizations to attend a conference-within-a-conference, a kind of interfaith summit, at the 2012 Hawaii get-together to discuss how, by working together, we might further develop and heighten the impact of the interfaith movement that is currently quite informal. Along the same lines I intend soon to begin researching and writing a book tentatively called Interfaithing: People, Places, and Propositions that Helped Open the World to the Other. My purpose is to participate in beating the sword of intolerance, prejudice, and violence into the plowshare of understanding, respect, and collaboration. Since I am 71, this may well be my swansong, but to paraphrase the great Rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus: If not now, when? If not here, where? And if not me, who?
Bapak told me in 1969 that I might one day do something that would be recognized around the world. That statement threw me into a year-long crisis! Now I am no longer concerned about the recognition but do have a head of steam for putting into public practice the fruits of my 50+ years of faithfully doing latihan and fasting. I also have come to know that it takes a whole village to write a meaningful book. So if any of you reading this essay have suggestions for persons, places, or propositions (ideas) that have helped open the world to respect for and collaboration with “the Other,” especially those of different faith communities, please email your suggestions to me at this address: email@example.com. Many thanks in advance. If and when my book is published, I shall be sure to acknowledge your help.
Now I close with end-of-Ramadan blessings to all of you, whether you’ve fasted this year or not. God loves all God’s children, and I pray that we who have been graced with the spiritual exercise of Subud, our latihan kejiwaan, will someday be counted as not simply nice people, good citizens, or personally mature spiritual seekers, but as individuals who collectively helped the human family learn to live together in harmony, peace, and mutual cooperation. To that let us all say “awmain,” “amen,” “amin!”
Boulder, Colorado USA August 2011