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If necessity is the mother of invention, then loneliness may well be the fountainhead of leadership. At least that was the case for me.
I went to college on a pre-professional track, was awakened to the range of problems and possibilities in the world, graduated early and came here to Chicago wanting just to do something good.
I moved into the St. Francis Catholic Worker House on North Kenmore Avenue and took a job as a teacher in an alternative education program, the kind of program that was created for students who had left traditional high school or been kicked out. Some of them were older than me, and no doubt smelled novice blood.
After a month or so, I had to confess that I wasn't built for the radical day-to-day life commitment required of a Catholic Worker, a realization that only made me admire that movement more. (Reflecting back, it was an early interfaith lesson.)
For a few hundred bucks a month, I rented an apartment in what was then the open territory between Lincoln Park and Logan Square, and resolved to grow in the craft of being an educator.
Gone was the immediate community I had in college of other people my age experiencing the same awakening -- dozens of them, literally just outside my door. Gone too were all the people somewhat older than me -- people who had had their own awakenings, and like Bodhissatvas who have the opportunity to enter nirvana but choose to stay on earth to teach compassion to other sentient beings -- these people made it part of their spiritual practice to listen to ramblers like me at all hours of the day and night, and assure me that my ideas were sparkling.
It was only after I graduated that I realized that was their job.
(Actually their vocation, vocation being the term for work that you are employed to do and get paid very little for but would probably do for free because you feel in your bones it is of cosmic importance. And precisely because it is of cosmic importance, a civilization in its right mind would value it properly -- but that is a subject for a different time.)
None of this existed in my new life. Hence, the loneliness.
One evening, somewhere on or around December of 1996, I reached out to three or four friends from college who were similarly situated -- doing intense work that helped the world during the days, and spending most evenings alone. Bring a delicious dish and an interesting friend, I told them, and I'll make my mom's famous masala potatoes.
That first Tuesday night we had maybe seven people. By spring of the following year, when we commemorated the passing of Allen Ginsberg in a solemn soulful ceremony, we probably had forty. By the summer, there must have been near 100, with dozens of delicious dishes, drums and guitars and the occasional horn, and countless intersections and conversations, all in a modest two-bedroom apartment with a single bathroom and a small front yard. Somewhere along the way someone said, "I live for Tuesday night potlucks -- and I think we ought to find a way to do this every night of the week." And so, the idea of the Stone Soup Cooperative was born. I'll return to that later in this talk.
So, also, was the inkling for me that a potluck dinner is a pretty good symbol for a diverse democracy -- certainly better than the "melting pot" metaphor.
I mean, what a nightmare if you brought your best dish to a potluck and you were met at the door with a giant machine that melted it into the same bland goo as everybody else's best dish.
The whole point of a potluck is the diversity of dishes.
Potlucks are a celebration of pluralism. They rely on the contributions of a diverse community. If people don't bring an offering, the potluck doesn't exist. If everyone brings the same thing, the potluck is boring.
Potlucks respect diverse identities by enthusiastically welcoming the gifts of the people who gather. They facilitate relationships between people by creating a space for eating and socializing and surprise connections. And they cultivate in people the importance of not just the individual parts and the connections between them, but the health of the whole. Everybody benefits from a clean kitchen, enough dishes and cutlery, and a safe and open place to eat and socialize. When it comes to a potluck, these are the structures of the common good. Everybody plays a role in their upkeep.
And while there is no one-to-one connection between people's ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds and the dishes they bring, it's probably the case that a potluck with mostly South Asians is going to have a somewhat different spread than a potluck with mostly South Americans.
Ideally, you'd have both South Asians and South Americans -- and people from North Africa, the Middle East and the West Indies and all sorts of points beyond and in between, bringing all sorts of dishes, everything from recipes they learned from their grandmothers to things they just made up.
Because, actually, the point of a potluck is not just the different identities in one place, but the connections between them. The way things click. I mean, how great is it if you bring your amazing dip, a centuries-old recipe, and someone else has brought their awesome home-baked crusty bread.
Sometimes these things are prearranged, and sometimes they just happen. The best potlucks are like that -- a little bit planned, a little bit haphazard.
A potluck is sensitive to identities, but in a pragmatic rather than an ideological way. As the demographics of the group change, the dishes on the table are likely to reflect those changes. Moreover, people have to be generally aware of what the gathering does and does not eat. If there are plenty of people coming who don't eat pork for religious reasons, probably you choose to bring a different dish. If there are people who are gluten free or don't eat dairy, you make sure to carefully label things. Some of this might guide how the gathering at a potluck takes shape. Maybe the gluten free folks find themselves hanging out with one another, at least at first, because they've gathered around the same dishes. Zones for identity communities to thrive are positive. But barriers between identity groups are not. At a good potluck, there is plenty of free flow that facilitates people from different identities meeting one another.
A potluck is the ultimate democratic form. No mayor or general or governor commands people to potluck. People do it themselves. In fact, the genius of a potluck is similar to the genius of civil society in a democracy -- it is an activity that turns what might otherwise have been a random collection of people into a community because of what they do together.
People tend to bring their best dishes to potlucks -- the format encourages this. Also, you don't look for reasons to exclude people from a potluck, or to cancel the event. In fact, you hope that the nature of the activity actually helps you like people who you might otherwise dislike. Dorothy Day spoke about the Catholic Worker as a space where it is easier to be good. The potluck is a space where it is easier for people to get along.
In talking this way about potlucks, I am emphasizing the civic dimension of a diverse democracy, the part that Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about. De Tocqueville said that the "mother science" of America is "the art of association." I think of this as civic spaces that bring people together in shared activities, the kind of activities that welcome diverse identities, guide cooperative relationships and benefit all involved.
At its best, this is what America is about. You hear it in the speeches of Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln; in the black Baptist sermons of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and the civic sermons of Eric Liu; in the poems of Walt Whitman and Gwendolyn Brooks; in the songs of Mos Def and the Grateful Dead; you see it in the institutions built by Jane Addams and Rami Nashashibi. The basic message: America ought to be a place where people from the four corners of the earth, carrying a thousand different particular universals, come together to build a nation.
The great Catholic philosopher John Courtney Murray says that when we do this well, it's bigger than a nation, it's a civilization -- "people living together and talking together". Michelle Alexander talks about this as a river that courses through all human history that all people who love freedom and diversity belong to. It is, says the historian Jill Lepore, "a tradition waiting to be claimed, a challenge waiting to be met."
Maybe, this weekend, by you.
By the way, with all this talk of great Catholic figures like Alexis de Tocqueville, Dorothy Day and John Courtney Murray, you might wonder if I'm Catholic. I'm not. I'm a proud Muslim, an Ismaili Muslim to be more precise. But I have learned an awful lot from the Catholic tradition, and have great admiration for it, even though I don't believe everything that Catholics believe.
That, I think, is what interfaith work is all about. Learning about, being influenced by, cooperating with, and admiring diverse orientations around religion with which you are likely to have some disagreements. A culture of interaction makes those disagreements both more apparent but also less central.
The writer Marilyn Robinson puts this beautifully: "Democracy, in its essence and genius, is imaginative love for and identification with a community with which, much of the time and in many ways, one may be in profound disagreement."
She might well have been talking about an interfaith community -- indeed, this very space!
That's because diverse religious communities are, at once, the building blocks of our civil society and contending worldviews on ultimate concerns.
It is hard to overstate the contribution of these communities to American civic life. Many of you here go to a college founded by a religious community, most probably a community different from the one to which you belong. Think about how remarkable that is -- people inspired to build an institution based on their idea of the divine are responsible for the education of whole generations with very different ideas of the divine.
If you volunteer regularly in college, there is a good chance that you volunteer at a place founded by a religious community. If you work in disaster relief or at a food bank after college, your key partners in the endeavor are going to be diverse religious communities. They will include people with politics you like, and politics you don't. If you are in health care at any level and in any way, it will be impossible for you to ignore the spiritual dimension of people's lives, everything from the rituals performed when a baby is born to the moment that we declare someone departed from this world, and the notion of what comes after.
Expect disagreement, sometimes conflict. Diversity is not just the differences you like. But disagreement on some fundamental things does not cancel the possibility of cooperation on other fundamental things. In fact, the only way to have a healthy diverse democracy is to hold both those things together -- the recognition of disagreement, and the significance of friendship, and work together.
I hope you experience that here. After all, you didn't come all this way only to meet people who think like you. You came to learn from and build with a genuinely diverse community.
Some tests of a successful Interfaith Leadership Institute:
Did you make friends with someone with whom you disagree?
Did you learn something you admire about a religion or worldview about which you had been previously skeptical, or ignorant?
Did encounters here cause you to think anew about your own religious tradition, spiritual path or philosophical worldview?
You also came to become a better interfaith leader. Diverse democracies need interfaith leaders.
I think, actually, the potluck metaphor fits pretty well here too. That's because the greatest potluck leader of all time -- a truly legendary, if mythical, figure -- illustrates some of the core tenets of interfaith leadership.
That would be, of course, the main character of the Stone Soup story (I told you we'd be returning to that!).
Perhaps you remember the Stone Soup story from kindergarten or Sunday School. It's mostly known as a children's story, but like a lot of folk tales meant for kids, it offers deep wisdom about what it takes to build a vibrant civilization. Allow me to tell it with my own interfaith, multicultural, civil-society building twist.
The story takes place in a village. The inhabitants are isolated from one another, and starving. They close their blinds and they lock their doors. I imagine a father telling his family that he doesn't like the family across the street because they speak English with a different accent. The mother from across the street tells her kids that she doesn't like the family around the corner because they call God a name she doesn't recognize.
Into this village comes a traveler, a woman with a pack on her back. She strolls into the town square, builds a fire, and carefully takes out the items she is carrying. A stone, a ladle, a cauldron. She takes the cauldron to the river and fills it with water, returns and places the cauldron on the fire picks up the ladle and begins, slowly, to stir.
Something else in the village is stirring -- the children. It seems like all the children in all the houses have sensed the presence of this traveler. They peek through the blinds. They whisper to their siblings. Finally, they can't take it anymore. Locks are snapped back, doors are flung open, and kids from across this village come flying through their doors into the town square.
They gather around the woman, a little scared at first, but feeling more and more comfortable as the minutes go by. Soon enough, some adults emerge. They pretend that they are just there to look after the children, but the truth is they are a little curious too.
Finally, one of the kids asks, "What are you doing?"
The woman looks up from stirring the pot, smiles and says, "Why, I'm making stone soup." She picks up the stone that has been lying by her side, and places it in the cauldron.
It takes a few minutes for one of the teenagers to work up the courage to say, "Listen, we're all hungry. Is it going to be done soon?"
The woman smiles and says, "Yes, of course. It's almost there. It just needs some carrots."
One of the adults pipes up, "We've got carrots." Everybody turns to stare. There's food in the village after all? The man has surprised himself with how quickly and publicly he made his announcement. He stands up and walks towards his home, locates the carrots in the place that he has hidden them away, and returns.
The woman chops up the carrots, slides them into the stone soup and keeps stirring.
Soon enough someone else asks, "Well, is it ready now?"
"Mmmmm," she says, "almost. Just needs some potatoes."
"We've got potatoes," says a voice from the crowd.
The pattern repeats itself. The soup is not quite done until every household in the village has made a contribution. Turns out that the inhabitants had more than they knew -- some people had vegetables, others had bread. Silverware and dishes appeared, as did tables and chairs.
Soon enough, the village is feasting -- with the resources that they had all along. And none of it would have happened without the traveler.
So what did she do that was so remarkable?
Well, the first thing she did was have a vision. She saw a starving village and imagined a community. Marcel Proust says that "The true journey of discovery is not in seeing new landscapes but in developing new eyes."
The second thing she did was to see people's assets, not their deficits. She just had a feeling that they every inhabitant in that village had a contribution to make, and that, with the proper format, those contributions would go well together.
Finally, she organized a concrete activity that served as that format. Note the central importance of the activity. She didn't simply roll into the village and shout, "Hey you idiots, don't you know that if you figured out a way to share the food you're each hiding you could create a feast and you wouldn't be starving?"
Right now, America is like that starving village. People are isolated, scared of one another, either refusing to listen or unable to find the words to communicate. We need leaders who see this tension but imagine a community. Leaders who know that, with the right format and activity, people can be nudged to deemphasize their disagreements and center their things they have in common. Leaders who have the courage to take the initiative and create those activities.
In a diverse democracy, if the people don't contribute, the community doesn't feast.
The political philosopher Danielle Allen says that a central act of leadership in a diverse democracy is talking to strangers. That's because the goal of a nation like ours is not really oneness, which requires a homogeneity that is neither possible nor desirable. In that way E Pluribus Unum is not quite right.
Instead the goal is wholeness -- the ability to create a sense of cohesion and coherence out of our multiplicity, while retaining the distinctiveness of the original diversity. When strangers are willing to build trust with one another, they have the chance to build a new wholeness. That is a process that involves a community, but is often catalyzed and curated by a leader.
I wish for you that experience here -- of deepening in diverse community, and of growth in your leadership.
I leave you with the words of the great poet June Jordan:
I am a stranger
learning to worship the strangers
whoever you are
whoever I may become