Hillary Taylor Last semester, Buddhist professor Dr. Tara Doyle taught a World Religions class on the life and works of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. Before the class began, she asked me if I would work as a teaching assistant for the class, serving as a bridge between our mostly Protestant Christian context and the very Tibetan Buddhist material. I had taken her “Socially Engaged Buddhism” class the year prior, and was eager to learn more about the Dalai Lama’s interfaith work while improving my own teaching skills. I was also excited to know there would be another teaching assistant, a practicing Sufi Muslim named Rose Deighton (a PhD student in the class of 2020). Rose and I both taught classes on interfaith dialogue between Buddhism and our respective traditions, but as the class went by, we realized we wanted to do more than simply talk about interfaith dialogue: we wanted bring our diverse religious traditions into the classroom to create sacred space as students and teachers.

It all began when we read The Book of Joy by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, one of our main readings for the class. If you haven’t read it yet, the book chronicles a conversation between these two faith leaders about the significance of joy in science and religion (specifically within Buddhism and Christianity), and how their interfaith friendship has taught them much about the ways joy can be experienced…especially in times of despair. I was particularly touched by the chapter where His Holiness shares his most sacred meditation rituals (Bardo Thodol) with the Archbishop. In return, Archbishop Tutu shares the Eucharist (reserved for baptized Christians in Anglicanism) with His Holiness.

Then it hit Tara, Rose, and me: What if we did something like this at Candler? What if we created a way for different faith traditions to celebrate their similarities, while also highlighting the beautiful pieces that make them different from one another?

Enter the idea of an “Interfaith Love Feast.”

Most people know about Love Feasts because of the Moravian services that appear around Christmas time. But those familiar with United Methodist history know that a Love Feast isn’t just for the Advent season: it is a Christian fellowship meal emphasizing community, sharing, and fellowship enjoyed by those who profess Christ as savior and Lord. It’s similar to the ritual of the Eucharist, but there are no elements of communion. It is simply an ordinary meal of bread and drink, with scripture readings, prayers, hymns, and a short message. Because it doesn’t require an ordained minister, we figured this would be the perfect type of service to use in a classroom. All we had to do was make it “interfaith,” which is a lot easier than it sounds…

Given that this was a class on the Dalai Lama, the obvious theme of the service was “Compassion.” But planning an Interfaith Love Feast is incredibly tricky, especially when you want to include three of the world’s major religious traditions AND honor many of the diverse expressions of Christianity within a classroom context. As Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian practitioners respectively, our teaching team had to be incredibly honest with each other about the Order of Service: Are there too many elements of a certain tradition? Do we need more varied texts with a different message? Can we put these items on the altar together, or is that disrespectful/idolatrous to any of our traditions? For about a week, we crafted the service in secret, until November 7, when we would share this ritual with my the rest of the Dalai Lama class.

On the day of the Love Feast, my classmates filed into the classroom (quietly confused) and sat around a colorful altar in the center of a circle. The altarscape was a mix of Muslim, Christian, and Buddhist symbols, with roses on the corner of the table. In the center was a wrapped loaf of allergy-free bread. And just like that, we convened the service.

love feast classRose began by reading Rumi poetry. Tara played an opening Chöd song, a tantric melody meant to welcome "hungry" souls into the worship space. I read from 1 John 4:16-21. Each of these parts was intermixed with silence and the sound of gongs of a Tibetan singing bowl to transition us to the next part. In the middle of the service, we passed around the bread, offering each other blessings from scripture, from saints, and from the heart. My classmates gingerly gave and received bread and blessing with joy and thanksgiving (and a few with tears in their eyes). We ended our service with a song composed by my classmate Liz Byrd 18T, a reading of “Surah Alaa” from the Qur’an in Arabic by Rose, and the Buddhist benediction from the Shantideva from Tara.          

When we had finished the service, we began to debrief our experience together. Everyone agreed that the room felt like a “thin place,” like the divine was within reach. For most of us, it was the first time we had heard the Qur’an read aloud in Arabic (and by a woman, at that). Over and over again, my classmates kept saying, “This is exactly what we needed, and we are so glad it happened now and not closer to exam time. This has given us new life for the rest of the semester!”

Tara, Rose, and I believe this service was successful because we brought each of our own traditions, authentically, without a desire to outshine the other. It was a sharing of wisdom and love from across traditions. There was truly something sacred about it. For hours afterwards, our hearts felt full and content.

They say when you go to seminary, the professors and classes will “try to take away your Jesus.” I have never found this to be the case. Seminary experiences are supposed to challenge our preconceived notions of the Triune God and the Church universal. If you listen carefully to those professors and classes, what you might find is that Jesus has more in common with the Buddha and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) than he does with some modern day Christian leaders. We discovered this truth during our Love Feast, just as Archbishop Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama have discovered.