In reflecting upon Black History Month, the interfaith/interreligious aspect of the struggle and the fight for civil rights can be overlooked.
But the connection is there, and it is strong and easy to identify.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched from Selma to Montgomery. King was inspired by the idea of “soul force” and nonviolent resistance championed by Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu. The labor leader A. Phillip Randolph, who often identified as an atheist, worked with Bayard Rustin, a Quaker, to organize the March on Washington. These are but a few examples.
What often lead in the news are the stories of interreligious intolerance and violence. While such conflicts need to be addressed, we at Interfaith also see the fruits of interreligious cooperation on a daily basis, whether they are the many groups who support our Meals-on-Wheels, volunteer with our Refugee Service programs, or who partake in interreligious dialogues, programs, and other events.
In Houston, the bedrock for contemporary religious cooperation was laid by three men who still can be found working together. Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza, Rev. William Lawson, and Rabbi Sam Karff come from three different traditions: Christian (Catholic), Christian (Baptist), and Reform Judaism. They worked together (and still do!) not in spite of their religious differences, but because of their religious principles. Each of these leaders possess deep religious conviction; they live and breathe their faiths. I, as many others, have had the privilege of meeting and working with them, and you can sense that their lives are shaped by a deep relationship with the Holy.
A September 2013 Houston Chronicle article states it well: “Trio quietly guides Houston conscience and policy.” They have worked together on ending homelessness in Houston, addressing fair housing standards, and speaking out against bigotry. They are thought leaders as much as religious leaders, bringing to bear their faith, their intelligence, and their will.
While all three leaders are still active in the fight for justice, I have also heard each of them call for the “next generation” of religious leaders, leaders committed to the way each unique faith calls forth grace, truth, and respect for all, to work across religious and racial lines to make Houston a better city.
During Black History Month, let their example inspire us to reach across religious differences, not only to understand one another, but to work on solving common problems. The faith communities in Houston are some of our region’s greatest treasures and assets; to use an image from the Christian tradition, let us not hide our light, but let it shine to illumine a path of justice and mercy for all.
The Rev. Gregory Han
The Rev. Gregory Han is the Director of Interfaith Relations for Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.