Faith Matters: Affirming a more inclusive identity: There is great virtue in those who cross over to identify with other communities, other paths

Ben Tousley on the Greenfield Common.

Ben Tousley on the Greenfield Common. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ


Interfaith hospice chaplain, Cooley Dickinson

Published: 09-08-2023 1:42 PM

Raised by a Catholic mother and going to the Sunday school at the Unitarian church my father attended, I experienced two very different traditions: the clear glass windows, upright wicker chairs and open-ended questioning of Unitarians and the stained glass windows, incense, bells and Latin mass of the old Catholic Church.

Sadly, religion became a flash point in my parents’ marriage which eventually led to their separation. My mother had been open minded enough to let her four children attend the Unitarian Sunday school. My father, who had signed a pledge that his children would be raised Catholic, unfortunately held on to a resentment toward the Catholic Church. His Unitarian minister, Dr. Jacob Trapp, saw that my parents were having marital troubles and took it upon himself to not only hear my father’s perspective but to visit and talk with my mother at our home. He saw that people were far more than their religious identity. He understood that how you live your life is more important than what you say you believe.

And he knew that we children, who contained both mother and father, were hurt in this struggle and seeking a way to affirm our unity and love for each other.

In 1983, I went on a pilgrimage to peace communities in Northern Ireland. The often violent clashes between Protestants and Catholics known as the Troubles would claim the lives of over 3,600 people with thousands more injured. I identified with the conflict that was tearing people’s lives apart and stayed with both Protestant and Catholic families in Belfast, a city which saw some of the worst violence.

One day, I climbed a hill on the outskirts of the city and looked down on the towering metal walls and barbed wire that divided the Protestant Shankill neighborhood and the Catholic Falls neighborhood.

From that vantage point, it was hard to tell any difference between them. On both sides of the wall there was poverty, unemployment, drug addiction and grief from sectarian murders. It was plain to see the two sides entangled in that conflict had more in common than what was separating them.

The prophets of the Abrahamic religions led their followers from a provincial tribalism to a more unifying vision of one God and one people. Moses had grown up in Egypt and later lived in Midian before returning to lead a motley band from different tribes to unite in what would become the Jewish people. Muhammad journeyed from Mecca to Medina and produced the Quran which would bring people of all races and nations together in Islam. Jesus would cross over to non-Jewish places like Samaria to proclaim a new gospel of love and peace among neighbors.

In my chaplaincy work during the past 20 years, I have witnessed a growing number of people who either claim no religious affiliation or say they draw upon more than one spiritual tradition. Many have been drawn to non-traditional communities which have a vital activity at their center: soup kitchens, meditation centers, 12-step recovery groups and the like.

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There is great virtue in finding and committing to a single community with a spiritual path which can deepen our faith. And in a country and a world which more than ever needs to overcome differences, there is great virtue in those who cross over to identify with other communities, other paths.

The African tradition of ubuntu (I am because you are) is often cited as a vision to bind together members of a similar group such as a team or a nationality. And when we cross over to a fellow human who is outwardly unlike us and find, in our meeting, a common humanity, we may be transformed all the more by uncovering a vital part of ourselves that had been kept hidden. We may find for ourselves, and perhaps for our children, a more inclusive identity.

A number of years ago, I was asked to be a witness for the marriage of my friends Chris and Lucy. Chris is Dutch and Protestant, Lucy Jewish and American. Neither wished to “convert” to the other’s faith. Side by side at their wedding, a rabbi read from the Talmud and a minister read from the Gospel. Side by side, Jews and Christians joined together to affirm the union of Chris and Lucy, that their love for one another was deeply rooted in the one God who made and loves us all irrespective of race, nation, gender or creed. Their children were raised in both traditions and encouraged to affirm a larger faith that embraces differences.

We live in a time when people are coming to see a less binary world of black or white, male or female, this religion or that religion. We are coming to see that to be human is to contain both masculine and feminine, that much of the world is of mixed race and mixed culture. And we are coming to appreciate that many of us can affirm a more inclusive identity as whole human beings.

Ben Tousley has worked as interfaith hospice chaplain for over 20 years on the North Shore of Boston and in the Pioneer Valley for Cooley Dickinson. He was adjunct professor at Springfield College for 23 years as well as working as a folksinger and storyteller around New England. Ben lives in Greenfield.