Remarks from Father John P. Fitzgibbons of Regis University on April 13, 2021
Today, we come together -- even while we remain physically separated by this pandemic -- to celebrate religious freedom and fellowship in our great state of Colorado … and wider, in our great country, the United States of America.
Lately, and especially in our political arenas, we haven’t felt so united. Our great halls of justice -- in our state capitols and in our nation’s Capitol -- have been besieged by bitterness and rancor. Bipartisanship seems a noble calling but deeply in the past. There is a great political divide in our nation. I don’t have to tell you this. You see it. You read about it. You feel it. Maybe you even participate in it.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. As religious leaders and religious people, I am proud to stand with you - maybe not literally today, since we’re on Zoom and Facebook Live - but stand together we do as conduits of love, togetherness and peace. Faith is a sacred value in our world.
Today, on Colorado Religious Freedom Day, we can show our brothers and sisters how to come together in community, how to love thy neighbor who might not think as we do and who may hold views and beliefs that are different from ours.
We are all related. We descend from one tribe. My Jesuit Catholic beliefs challenge me every day to ask, “How ought I to live?” And let me tell you - it’s not in finding fault and acrimony with my neighbor.
I - we - are to be United in our Diversity.
This idea -- and the challenge to maintain Unity in Diversity -- is older than the Republic itself. Much of the nation was founded on the principle of Unity in Diversity, and so it remains our charge today. As religious, peace-loving, diversity-embracing people, we are charged to seek Unity in our Diversity.
There are a couple of stories from another two states, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, that I think illustrate our best and worst impulses in this area. These two stories show us that the road to a better world isn’t without a few historical potholes, but we do get it right more often than we get it wrong.
If you’re a student of American history and religion, as I am, then you’re no doubt familiar with the name Roger Williams. He’s celebrated today as the founder of Rhode Island, and the Baptist church he started in Providence, Rhode Island, still stands today.
But how did he come to found a new colony?
He was tossed out of Massachusetts. Banished. Exiled.
What was his sin? He advocated for the bold idea that civil authorities had no business telling a person how to worship. He advocated tolerance, a position he came to honestly after seeing religious separatists persecuted in England before he fled to the New World.
To his fellow Puritan ministers in Massachusetts this idea -- tolerance of another’s beliefs -- was too much to bear. His erstwhile colleagues referred to it as, “Satan’s policy to plead an indefinite and boundless toleration.”
So, Roger Williams, an early believer in coming together United in Diversity, was cast out on the cusp of winter 1635 into the arms of the Narragansett Indians who saved his little band. It’s no wonder he called his new home Providence.
Fast forward 155 years.
It’s 1790, and the nation is only months old. The Constitution has only recently been ratified. And George Washington decides he needs to visit Rhode Island to patch things up with the crankiest state in the Union -- Rhode Islanders were the last to approve the Constitution (they had some gripes).
Never forget: Washington was a shrewd politician, and his ulterior motive for this visit was to campaign for what we call today The Bill of Rights. He met with the citizens of Newport, including members of the oldest synagogue in America, the Touro Synagogue. An exchange of letters followed. Washington’s response to the Jewish community of Newport was brief -- only 340 words. But it cemented forever the sort of nation we were to become in matters of faith.
Here is the key quote: For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
That was music to the ears of the Jews of Newport, of course. With these few but pointed and salient words, the Father of our country laid down a marker, and he did it early. Be good citizens. Worship as you please. And you’ll get no trouble from us. You may have fled persecution, but you’re safe here.
United in Diversity indeed. It’s this nation’s super power. I pray we never forget it.
Opening prayer offered by Tamara Boynton of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado on April 13, 2021
Holy One, we come before you in awe of the many ways you speak to us. Through our religious traditions, our faith, our communities, and our very lives. We come before you grateful that you have gifted the world with so many different ways to understand your presence. We come before you knowing that our own traditions can only find respect when we respect the religious and faith traditions of others.
God, we celebrate that our founding document, the United State Constitution, outlines a right to religious freedom. We celebrate that that right is an equal protection for all people in our country. We celebrate that we are called to bring forward the values from our own traditions, and always challenged to resist the urge to impose our values on others. We celebrate on this first month of the first day of the holy month of Ramadan, that this freedom is not just for the most common, most numerous, or most familiar religious traditions in our country. But it is for all of us, and is central to our identity as a pluralistic, inclusive and free society.
Holy One, we know that humankind has used religion throughout history to justify harm, to discriminate against those who think or do differently than we do, to sanction prejudicial treatment, and ultimately, as the crucifixion reminds us, to kill those who threaten the religious status quo.
Today we are reminded that the very people who fled persecution in their home country centuries ago came to this land and promptly began persecuting those already living here. Ours is a complicated history, God. And yet, the Easter story also reminds people across our nation that oppression, control and even death are not the end of your story, God. As we pursue, life, liberty and happiness in this country with great strengths and great work to do.
On this day in celebration of religious freedom, as we joyfully gather with others from traditions different than our own, to listen, and learn, and continue to build the world we seek, to unite in our diversity we admire the diversity of you presence and your voice, God. And we know you are bigger than any of us can imagine.
May the freedom we find in our faith traditions guide our celebration today and in all the many ways we pray, I pray in the name of Jesus the Christ, Amen.
Remarks from Rabbi Emily Hyatt of Temple Emanuel on April 13, 2021
This past Saturday, Jewish communities all over the world read from the Torah portion called Shemini, in the book of Leviticus. The word Shemini translates to EIGHTH, or the 8th day. The portion is called shemini, the eighth day - because it tells the story of how the preparations for the inauguration of the tabernacle, that crazy portable sanctuary that the Israelites hauled with them through the desert - took seven days - and the eighth day is when the use of the tabernacle begins. On the 8th day, the priests went in - and... they started. On the 8th day, the Israelites learned how to pray and how to worship. The EIGHTH day (the first day in the tabernacle) -- the eighth day - was the beginning.
But Jews have a special relationship with the 8th day. You see, we’re living in the eighth day right now. What? Well, if we go WAY back - all the way back to the beginning - our tradition teaches that God created the world in six days - and then on the seventh day, God rested. And then, after that seventh day, came the 8th day - the day when God turned over the world to people, and asked them - asked US, all of us - to continue the work of creation, to make something special out of this world.
And so we do - we work hard each week to keep the amazing, insane, beautiful experiment of humanity going, using what we learned from God during the first seven days. You see, on the first day, God created light - our text says “and God said let there be light, and there was light. And the light was day and the dark was night, and the light was good - there was evening, there was morning, the first day.” And so it goes until the end of the week - where at the end of the seventh day, God taught US how to create light.
In Jewish tradition, we rest on the seventh day, Shabbat - and at the end of Shabbat, on Saturday night, we light what we call a havdallah (or a separation) candle to end the day of rest and come back to work. Every week, we use what we learned from God - that we begin by creating light, to separate between what was this day of rest and what will be a return to the eighth day - the return to OUR ownership of creation, a return to our partnership with God, a return to this incredible project of continuing to imagine what our world could be. We return to the challenges, the hard conversations, the impossible task of finding middle grounds or keys to coexistence. We return to the beauty of diversity and of difference and to the call to listen and to learn and to wrestle with how the heck we’re supposed to love the neighbor that we don’t understand -- and we discover that we love them anyway because they are human and because we believe that everyone - EVERYONE, even the stranger who we don’t yet know and even the sojourner who isn’t yet here, is created equal and is created in the image of God, whatever their God may look like.
When our founding fathers wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” I believe that those fathers meant that it is our job to defend these rights, because we are in partnership with that Creator. And here, during this eighth day, we know that the work of creation often means the REPAIR of our world - fixing the mistakes that we and those who came before us have made. So when those founding fathers then declared that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” that became the task - to learn from those came before us - those who defended this freedom and those who threatened it, so that we could build a society that allows each individual to wrestle with God on their own terms.
This is the eighth day. We have work to do, to defend those rights and fight for those freedoms. We do it by loving our neighbor, by welcoming the stranger, by learning about our differences and by opening our arms and our hearts and our minds to what is possible when the partnership with each of us and our own God is truly just between us and God - the wrestling, the questioning, the praying, the asking, the begging, the doubting and the believing - when it’s private. When it’s our own. When it’s safe. That’s when we are EACH responsible for the work of creation. We are EACH responsible for our own faith. We are each responsible for working to end the era when any religion stands for violence, hatred, judgment, persecution and pain - and we are each responsible for building a world where religion - if you choose one - and faith - if you want it - and God - if you believe in one - where those are not obstacles to peace but they teach us how to make it.
How do we protect our own religious freedom? By protecting the religious freedom of OTHERS. That’s how we walk into the 8th day each week - by welcoming those who feel outside, by making space for those who feel trapped, by making light for those who are in the dark - just like God taught us. God made light so that WE could make light. There was evening, there was morning - the 8th day.
Remarks from Pastor Michael Hidalgo of Denver Community Church on April 13, 2021
In 1953, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “… we all suffer from an ego-centric predicament. Our soul tends to confine itself to its own ideas, interests and emotions … it is precisely the function of prayer to overcome that predicament, to see the world in a different setting. The self is not the hub, but the spoke of the revolving wheel. It is precisely the function of prayer to shift the center of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender.”
I begin with these words as we gather together to contemplate what it will look like for people of faith, people from the Great Wisdom Traditions, to pray and to act in UNITY on behalf of our civic leaders. And we do so today, alongside one another, in a time marked not by unity, but in a time rife with great division. We see this in our local and federal government, it exists in our houses of worship, it is in our neighborhoods and, EVEN in our homes.
In the midst of this division, the wisdom of Heschel may illuminate for us a path forward: that we, through prayer, would overcome our ego-centric predicament; that would be those who shift the center of living toward self-surrender. It is this way of life we see modeled by Jesus on the night he was betrayed, when he went to a place called Gethsemane, and fell with his face to the ground and prayed: “Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” In this short prayer recorded by the gospel writers we witness the kind of shift, the kind of surrender, Heschel spoke of. Jesus surrenders, saying to God, “I am up for whatever you have in mind.”
If we are to be, and become, those who pray and act in UNITY - then we must be those who agree to move toward self-surrender. To be those who hold the power and authority given us with open hands, recognizing all that we have, all that we possess is a gift - a grace bestowed upon us. And should we become those inclined to self-surrender, those who live with open hands, then we will be those who are able to act together for the common good.
We will become those who act TOGETHER in a way that transcends our collective ego-centric predicament- AND I MIGHT ADD - in a way that transcends our partisan-centric predicament, our agenda-centric predicament, our policy-centric predicament. Maybe then, we, along with our civic leaders, will become those who learn to see we are only spokes on a revolving wheel - each invited to do our part in seeing the common good take root in our city, in our state and in our country.
This invites us to transcend merely agreeing to disagree or only working toward compromise or seeking common ground. Rather, the invitation is to give ourselves over to prayer, so that we may be transformed into those whose center of living is self-surrender, those willing to give everything for the sake of our world. Those willing to say to God, “I am up for whatever you have in mind.”
May it be said of us here today, that we were those who prayed and acted on behalf of our civic leaders. And may it be in that order. That we were first those who prayed. And only then, were we those who acted. For then our actions will reveal hearts of self-surrender, and in that place we will find - even amidst our culture of division - people from all walks of life working alongside one another. In all the holy name of God, may this be so.