How Each Branch – Alvin Tan

how each branch
of a tree
seeks its own path
in space
any other                          —-Bijan Jalali




Each branch

We each have our own journeys, our own paths. Yet, like branches, we have a common origin, a common source; whatever you may call that source to be, the divine, a shared humanity, or both.

A common misconception of the interfaith movement is the perception that “interfaith” is all about saying “we are the same”. I think that the interfaith is about what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls “a dignity of difference”. Rabbi Sacks asks, “Can we hear the voice of God in a language, a sensibility, a culture not our own? Can we see the presence of God in the face of a stranger?”

Of a tree

A tree derives its nourishment from its surroundings. It is entirely dependent on the soil, water, and the air. Yet, it cannot claim ownership of the soil, water, and the air. A tree simply lives in the midst of the soil, the water, and the air. A tree simply is of the soil, the water, and the air.

In interfaith dialog, I seek to simply be present, to acknowledge and feel and cherish how someone else sees the world. I find it utterly meaningless and boring to talk about how different religions have different truth claims, and to focus on how those truth claims compete with one another, and perhaps that none of those truth claims might be true after all. Of course different religions say different things. Interfaith dialog is not just about finding similarities either. Interfaith dialog seeks to discover more than common ground. Interfaith dialog shows us how we share the sacred ground, and helps us be more rooted to that sacred ground. The more I learn about someone else’s faith, the deeper I find the roots growing within my own faith. And, in growing deeper, we find how our roots are intermingled within the sacred ground that we share.

Seeks its own path in space, unlike any other

My journey into interfaith dialog has not been without conflict. I got into interfaith dialog after I left my church over dispute. I had left my church because I had witnessed in it the abuse of religion to put down others, specifically the LGBT community. Because I had seen the potential of religion to destroy, I now engage in interfaith dialog to explore how religion can be used as a force for good in the world.

Fruit and seeds

I had once invited a friend from church to interfaith dialog. She viewed my invitation with suspicion, telling me that she couldn’t help but think that I had ‘an agenda’ behind the invitation. We have not talked since.

One of Jesus’ sayings is that you will “know them by their fruits.” I am convinced that good interfaith dialog bears good fruit. Good interfaith dialog is never about debate, and is never about conversion. Good interfaith dialog has to be nourishing, constructive, productive, and practical. Interfaith dialog is meaningless if it is not transformative. It is meaningless if people don’t walk away with a better understanding of someone else. Interfaith dialog does not end at the conversation. Perhaps, after a stranger becomes a friend, we can partner with them to do Good. Perhaps, after learning about others, we can educate people in our own religious communities who have misgivings about others.

Fruit is the service that a tree provides to its community. We who have had the privilege of engaging in interfaith dialog are to be of service to our communities. Like fruit, we nourish our communities. Fruit is also a vehicle for change. After the fruit has nourished others, its service is not done. Fruits contain seeds. Let us plant seeds of change.

Postscript: I learnt this poem by Iranian poet Bijan Jalali from the late Rev. Dr. Yap Kim Hao. He included this poem in the signature block of his emails. I did not think much of it at first, but this poem has struck greater resonance with me after he died, for I can no longer talk to him. If heaven gave email accounts, I’m sure he would have continued to include this poem in his signature block. He has been a great inspiration in interfaith work, and supported me as I delved into interfaith dialog. I miss our lunches, discussions, and jokes.

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