Wellspring of Peace (As-Salam)

Wellspring of Peace (As-Salam)

A couple years ago, I was contacted by a gentleman with questions about the 99 Names Project, and wanted to know if he could reference it in a festival he was putting together.  The gentleman is David N. Sterling–writer, volunteer, and master treehouse builder–and over time I have come to learn about the wonderful work he and his friends do building a better world in Minnesota, at The Mall of America.  Every Thanksgiving, he and his friends on the Mall Area Religious Council organize events celebrating the many paths of faith our neighbors share, and he took some time to answer some questions about his life journey, the Religious Council, and his continuing volunteer efforts.

1.                  What is the Mall Area Religious Council (MARC) and how did it start?

MARC is an interfaith organization formed to bring a spiritual presence to the Mall of America (MOA) in Bloomington, MN, initiated even before the MOA opened some 21 years ago. MARC grew out of an earlier ecumenical Christian organization called Workplace Ministries serving businesses on the “494 Strip” (part of Interstate Highway 494 surrounding the southern and western half of the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area). MARC too was originally an ecumenical Christian effort but within only a year or two of its formation it became truly interfaith in its intentions and outreach. Workplace Ministries has also since grown from being ecumenical of one faith (Christian) to interfaith (open to if not already including all faiths as active members).

2.                  What is your position on the Council, and why do you serve?

I became a MARC volunteer when I first learned of this group some 20 years ago and was invited to serve on its board of directors shortly there after. At that time I was representing both the Baha’is of St. Paul, MN, and the Twin Cities Chapter of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. I serve because I am committed to promoting and establishing understanding, mutual respect and cooperation between the diverse peoples of the world. Lasting and meaningful world peace depends on love and unity between all the people of the world. As a child born during the early months of WWII I sought the path to world peace from my earliest years. Witnessing other people of “faith” keeping themselves separate from folks of other faiths and condemning them I knew this was not the path to world peace. We all need to do the exact opposite of this and I have given support and membership to this (MARC) and a number of other interfaith organizations and efforts in the spirit of that conviction. Seeking the path to world peace is what brought me to the Baha’i Faith and the Baha’i teachings of the oneness or universality of all religions is what guides me in embracing all the major world religions and their Prophet Founders with equal reverence all of which leads me to associate with the followers of all faiths in love, concord, unity and respect. For me, as with all Baha’is, there is no other way. To read the Baha’i statement on “The Promise of World Peace” go to: http://info.bahai.org/article-1-7-2-1.html (Released Oct. 1985, on the eve of the UN International Year of Peace).

3.                  How many faiths are represented, and what kinds of things does the Council do?

Like many other interfaith organizations MARC has been open to and invitational to all faiths but has struggled to include and maintain full active membership of all faiths. At least MARC can state even those few faith communities that have not subscribed to full membership with us or maintained their membership they have still included themselves in nearly all of our activities and events over the years. We also struggle to keep our web-site (www.meaningstore.org) up to date. A visit to it would suggest that we do indeed have full active membership maintained with all faiths which otherwise does include all of the mainline Christian denominations, Baha’i, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Unitarian-Universalist and Native American spirituality. Mormons call themselves Christian and we accept that (we have Latter Day Saints among us in Community of Christ).

One of our proud accomplishments is that we have helped to establish a prayer and meditation space for MOA employees near their break room. We hope to one day create an additional prayer and meditation space for MOA shoppers and visitors which could well become a reality what with the Mayo Clinic coming to MOA with their holistic healing and alternative medicine (see Mayo Clinic Healthy Living at: http://healthyliving.mayoclinic.org which includes reference to spiritual healing).

As our MARC web-site suggests we hope/intend to establish a store relating to the meaning of life as seen/promoted by all faiths. Short of that we have had for half a year a kiosk we called Oasis back in 2000-2001.

Over the years we have maintained a display rack titled Where to Worship where visitors can pick cards of the different MARC members and their times and places of worship. MARC volunteers weekly re-supply depleted cards. The next phase of this Where to Worship display will be an electronic print-out kiosk.

In the past we have held a Youth Expo and an Elder Expo at separate times. These took extensive organizing and expense and though we have no current plans to repeat them we will likely do the likes of them again or something similar some time in the future.

We have had an electronic newsletter in the past and monthly gatherings at the Mall for spiritual reflection and sharing. There is every intention of reinstating these as some time. Once we have established a store front (The Meaning Store) and/or a mall shopper/visitor meditation/prayer room such reflection and sharings would return on a regular basis.

For 20 years we have held an annual Holy Days and Holidays of Thanksgiving Around the World event at MOA (described next in question #4).

4.                  What is the Holy Days/Holidays Festival?

On Nov. 17th, 2012, we held our 20th annual Holy Days and Holidays of Thanksgiving Around the World event at MOA. This event originally was a volunteer attended information table about MARC and its member organizations held for three days in Nov. or Dec., a Fri., Sat. and Sun., in Mall public spaces. Four years ago Mall management asked us if we would like to expand our Holy Days/Holidays event. In short order we were able to propose and organize a two day stage event with the addition of the sub-title of “Spirituality of the Visual & Performing Arts”. The first of these was held on Nov. 21-22, 2009, where we scheduled seven stage events each of the two days featuring Tibetan Buddhist monks chanting a prayer for world peace ; The Saint John’s Bible, “Illuminating the Word”; The Prodigal Son Art Collection of Jerry Evenrud; World Champion Fancy Dancer Larry Yazzie ; Partners in Praise Girls Choir; and a number of Christian church choirs. In 2010 we held a similar two day event. For 2011 we dropped to a one day stage event which included The Modern Indian Dance Academy; Indonesian musicians and Community of Christ choir.

In 2012 we featured Andrew Kosorok’s 99 Names of Allah art glass creations; Mark Ochu, a Baha’i concert pianist and lecturer; a Sufi whirling dervish; a Native American prayer and of course as with every year several Christian church choirs. Besides the stage performances I put together a panel display of diverse spiritual art representative of several faiths in 46 separate images. That display we intend to rework electronically for the MARC and other web pages with perhaps a dozen additional images.

Including Prof. Kosorok’s 99 Names of Allah art glass in our 2012 event deserves an additional comment. I used to work at the Mpls./St. Paul Intl. Airport assisting travelers with special needs but also was a volunteer to the airport chaplain by keeping the airport chapel neat and clean, supplied with prayer books and scriptures of all faiths and a current interfaith calendar on the wall. One of the wall hangings was of the 99 Names of Allah which inspired me to go on-line to learn more about them. That search brought me to Andrew Kosorok’s web site and I was so intrigued by his work that I e-mailed him about my personal interest and the work of the Mall Area Religious Council. Our communication has developed into a genuine friendship which I’m sure will now last a life time.

5.                  How has it grown over time, and who gets involved?

Some of our growth has already been described in answering the questions above. Otherwise we grow by inviting area faith communities to join us as members or just to take part in our activities. Others come to us on their own when they learn of us other than by an invite from us. We’ve also grown by successfully applying for financial awards from various grants.

6.  Could you share an anecdote or two about how your work has directly impacted other people, not of your faith?

(Coming soon)

7.   How has your work with so many different faiths impacted your own beliefs—is your faith diluted or strengthened?

My own beliefs have only been confirmed and strengthened by my work with people of other faiths. As a child I was turned off to all religion by the hypocrisy of some believers and the perversions they held of their claimed faiths. Today wherever I re-encounter that same hypocrisy and perversion only encourages me to be all the more loving and accepting of all of humanity and the original truths of their religions before the man-made changes of dogma, superstition, miscon-ceptions and misinformation corrupted their understanding and outlook.

8.        Where do you see your work, and the work of the Council, going into the future?

As a Baha’i I see the Promised Day of All Ages unfolding before us. The old world order of man-made laws and institutions are either falling away of their own weaknesses or they are being transformed into divinely inspired ones of true justice, fairness and equality of all people. Surfacing is the ending of wars and poverty and the coming of the wellbeing of us all. This is a slow coming but it can be brought about all the sooner the more that people come to believe it is possible and diligently work toward it with loving patience. MARC as well as all other interfaith organizations can be and are a significant part of that growth, maturation and transformation. The other interfaith organizations that I have given my time and energy to focus individually or separately on such issues as world peace, environmental protection, racial justice, human rights, economic equality or simply respect and understanding. All of these are equally important and the North American Interfaith Network in particular helps each of them to be aware of all the others and to be supportive of each other. The Baha’i Faith as a single organization works on all of these issues and more: universal compulsory education; equality of women and men; the harmony of science and religion; elimination of all forms of prejudice; elimination of the extremes of wealth and poverty; agreement of a universal auxiliary language; protection of cultural diversity. These are all required to bring about peace and unity in the world and need to be worked on equally and simultaneously to achieve the world peace promised by and waited for by all of the world’s religions. It’s all about the oneness of the entire human family. To read “The Principle of Oneness” by Shoghi Effendi in “The World Order of Baha’u’llah” go to: http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/se/WOB/wob-22.html.

Photography of Artwork by Hawkinson Photography