Monday, December 3, 2012

IFC Concert Preview: Israel Baptist Mass Choir

Members of Israel Baptist Mass Choir participating in our rehearsal. The time has come!

This year’s 33rd InterFaith Concert will feature many diverse artists who all hold a great musical talent. In the Israel Baptist Church Mass Choir, this talent includes individuals for whom music has been lifetime devotion.

Dr. Ola H. Gathers is the Minister of Music for the Israel Baptist Church. Though she has only been in the Israel Baptist Mass Choir for two years, she has a long history of musical involvement. “All 72 wonderful years of my life,” she says with a radiant smile. “Music is my life. And I have been involved in church music since I was 8 years old.”

“My faith comes from music because I am so into church music,” says Dr. Gathers. “And if it’s not Biblically sound I don’t do it. So, when the music is presented it is actually presenting the Bible musically to me. And it feeds my soul and it enhances my faith.”

Dr. George G. West, who will be playing the organ on Thursday, has also been involved in music throughout his life, about 60 years he estimates. He was Chairman of the Piano Faculty at Southern University and has performed and worked with a number of prominent musicians, including Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin.

“I see myself as a vessel, as being used by God,” says Dr. West. “There have been some very exciting things that have been happening to me recently. Angelic voices have been singing songs to me in my very head. And as they sing them I write them out. So I have a large number of pieces that I’m getting ready to publish and record, and that was given to me by other sources. So I see myself as a vessel.”

The Israel Baptist Mass Choir will be performing a traditional hymn and a spiritual for the concert. “They present two different needs, for lack of a better word, but at the same time a strong message,” explains Dr. Gathers. The song “Holy is the Lord” is about giving absolute praise to the Lord, says Dr. Gathers. On the other hand, the spiritual “City Called Heaven” is “about going through trials and tribulations in life,” she says. “But the ultimate goal is that one day we won’t have these trials and tribulations. We’re going to a city called Heaven. So that’s why I selected those two.”

What do they hope the audience gets from their performance? “We hope that they get a spiritual message. That’s the goal of the church choir,” explains Dr. Gathers. “That we send a message that the people will receive, and as a result of receiving it, they will come into the church. And they will learn to love God as we learned to love God. Secondly, that there will certainly enjoy for what we have done. That they will love the harmony, the dynamics, and they will love everything about it. And that they will see the excitement that we have when we sing our music.”

IFC Concert Preview: DC-Area Baha'i Drum Circle

Members of the DC-Area Baha'i Drum Circle on Thursday 

This year the 33rd Annual InterFaith Concert will feature a DC-area Baha’i Drum Circle. I was fortunate to talk to Carroll, Leroy and Abdu’l-Karim who will be three of the nine members performing at this Thursday’s concert.

“A group started some 20 years ago and that group, as they grew, incorporated drums into their praying session and devotions. So it’s primarily a part of our devotional program and none of us are really performers. We just do it in a devotional sense,” explains Carroll, who has been in the drum circle the longest, about 10-11 years. Two other members, Leroy and Abdu’l-Karim, have both been involved about 5-6 years each.

In the Baha’i tradition music is described as a “ladder for the ascent of the soul,” says Carroll. “So what it means to me personally is that it truly lifts the spirit. It brings you to a higher state of spiritual consciousness.”

Both Leroy and Abdu’l-Karim mentioned this idea of an uplifting feeling or elevation of the spirit.

“Something about the drumming strikes a soulful tone,” says Leroy. “Not that it has a spiritual base, but it clearly is very uplifting.”

Abdu'l-Karim, Leroy & Carroll

“While working one day I sang some songs with some not-very-good lyrics, songs from off the radio. And my energy level was very low,” says Abdu’l-Karim while describing the difference he experiences in his spirit when singing different forms of music. “And then I started singing prayers later on and my energy level was very high. I thought this was odd so I did this several times throughout the work day and I noticed repeatedly that, when I put myself into a state of prayer through song, I was better than when I put myself into a state of distress through song. So the concept of music being a ladder for the soul is not simply a theoretical or metaphysical concept. I think that is very real. That we can put ourselves physically into harmony or out of harmony with what God wants for us in this world.”

What would they like the audience to gain from their performance on Thursday? “We want to inculcate our little piece of the Baha’i drum circle into the overall mix,” says Leroy. “And that's what makes this program so vibrant, so beautiful.”

InterFaith Conference invites you to experience the uplifting spirit of the Baha’i faith on December 6, 2012 at the Washington Hebrew Congregation. Concert starts at 7:30 and tickets are available online, by mail-in order, or by calling (202) 234-6300. 

Author: Misha Davies

Sunday, November 18, 2012

IFC Concert Preview: Meet the Zoroastrian Avesta Performers

Avesta Performers hanging out before rehearsal, 11/15/12

This past Th­ursday I was fortunate to get a glimpse of the upcoming 33rd InterFaith Concert. Members of the Zoroastrian Avesta group rehearsed, with performers ranging in age from younger children to early twenties. The group members met through the same Sunday school and have been practicing for several months for this and other performances.

When asked about the reasons they got involved, 13-year old Yasna answers, “I love singing and I think it’s important to show people about Zoroastrianism because not many people know about us.” Ten-year old Bita, also on the ensemble, already does chorus in her school and wanted to support her community through the choir. They agreed that music and dance are important to their culture.

“Music is a universal thing,” says Garshasb, 17. “It helps expose others to our religion.” Garshasb has played the ethnic drums for 3-4 years, but a few months ago he started learning the daf, a Zoroastrian hand-held drum. He will play it during the concert.

Avesta musicians, with Garshasb playing the daf (center)

Being one of the lesser-known religions in the US, I asked the kids what they thought people should know about Zoroastrianism. Immediately, Garshasb and Gordiya, also 17, start to dispel many misconceptions of Zoroastrianism that they’ve come across. “We’re not fire worshippers. We don’t have two gods, we’re very monotheistic,” says Gordiya.

But the most important thing, it seems, was a phrase that was repeated by both the kids and their parents: “Good Thoughts. Good Words. Good Deeds.”

“What is good is left up to the interpretation of each individual,” says Garshasb.

“There is no one sin or special thing,” adds Gordiya. “Everyone has good and evil inside and everyone faces a constant struggle with individual choices.”

The importance of decision-making was also emphasized by their parents when I asked about the lessons they pass on through their faith. “It’s important to make your own decision and think for yourself,” says Shahrzad, a mother of two. Behnaz, another mother, agreed. “[We teach them that] every action has a reaction, so make the best decision.”

Shahrzad also says it’s about telling them where they come from and about their culture. “Living in the US, it is hard to keep all traditions. So culture is more important than tradition, at least for me.”

On-stage: Dancers and singers put together the finishing touches for Dec. 6th

For the 33rd InterFaith Concert the ensemble will perform “Khan Ashem Vohu,” roughly translating to “Praise be to righteousness/seeking of the truth.”  The title is from the ancient Avestan language but the lyrics are in Persian.

“There is real community initiative in the song,” explains Anne Khademian, musical director of the group. The piano music, lyrics, and composition were all created by different members of the Zoroastrian faith over different periods of time. “We chose the song because it is joyous and representative of our faith. The song is core to our faith – very traditional and central to prayers. It celebrates the honor, dignity and wisdom of the faith.”

InterFaith Conference invites you to come watch this joyous performance of the Zoroastrian faith on December 6, 2012 at the Washington Hebrew Congregation. Concert starts at 7:30 and tickets are available online, by mail-in order, or by calling (202) 234-6300.

Read more about Song and Music in Zoroastrianism by Anne Khademian in our InterFaith Connect Newsletter.

Author: Misha Davies, IFC Communications Intern

IFC Concert Preview: Meet the Ignatian Choir of Holy Trinity Catholic Church

Holy Trinity Ignatian Choir at rehearsal, 11/15/12

This past Thursday I was fortunate to get a glimpse of the upcoming 33rd InterFaith Concert. Rehearsing that night was the IgnatianChoir of Holy Trinity Catholic Church. Walking in promptly at 8pm, the group set up fast and began to rehearse multiple times through their song choices. Music director Dr. Kathleen DeJardin led the choir full of energy. At one point, she instructed everyone to speak in a humorous high-pitched voice. “It’s very funny but our singing always sounds better after this, doesn’t it?” she said, speaking to the choir in a high-pitched, elf-like tone. The choir chimed back in the same manner.

Following the song rehearsal, three members of the choir were kind enough speak a little about their involvement with the group and what music means to them and their faith. A choir member for three months, Micah Johnston is the newest of the three. “I joined because singing brings me deeper into worship and it’s a gift that I can give to my community. God connects us in many different ways and the more ways we can find to connect to God, the better. It’s another way to do that.”

Beth Hoffman, another member, has been involved since the spring of 2009. “Music is one of my main ways to connect to spirituality,” she says. “It’s a special kind of prayer and there’s a way in which just the physical act of joining your voice with someone else—attuning yourself to the sound of the person next to you, the sound of the choir, resonance of the space—that just connects you in a way that speaking, sitting, and reflecting…” She paused. “These are all different ways of being present, but singing connects you in this really physical way and it’s very beautiful and powerful.”

The longest attending member of the three, Barry Grinnell, has been in the choir since around 2000, but he’s been in church choirs since his 20s. “For me, [being in choir] brings it down to a more manageable group. Catholic Churches can be rather impersonal because they are large, and when I joined the choir in my late 20s it brought it down to a more human level. And it brought connectedness with fellow worshippers and people that come from all walks of life.” He sees music as an expression of his faith and the “hook” that keeps him coming to church.

For the 33rd InterFaith Concert the Holy Trinity Ignatian Choir will perform two pieces. “This is an interfaith service, so I really thought that “One Faith, One Hope, One Lord” spoke to everyone in the room,” says Dr. DeJardin. “It’s a very uplifting piece, so that’s what I thought we would all want to hear and to pray together.” The group will also sign Mozart’s “Ave Verum,” a classic piece and a favorite of Dr. DeJardin’s.

InterFaith Conference invites you to come watch this beautiful performance by the Ignatian Choir of Holy Trinity Catholic Church on December 6, 2012 at the Washington Hebrew Congregation. Concert starts at 7:30 and tickets are available online, by mail-in order, or by calling (202) 234-6300. 

Author: Misha Davies, IFC Communications Intern

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Death & Dying: An Exploration of Beliefs

Is this.... Heaven? / original by Telstar2000

By Misha Davies
IFC Communications Intern

A couple weeks ago, Newsweek released a cover story entitled “Heaven is Real: A Doctor’s Experience of the Afterlife.” Dr. Alexander, a neurosurgeon and a Christian, recounts his near-death experience (commonly referred to as ‘NDE’s) in which he describes what he believes to be the afterlife, or Heaven.

But what if Dr. Alexander wasn't a Christian or an American? What if he had grown up Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, or in a non-Western country? Would he have had the same experience, and would he have called it “Heaven”?

Today on IFC Dialogues we explore some of the beliefs about death through the eyes of our 11 faith communities. It should be noted that our brief exploration will focus on commonly held beliefs of each, and that further investigation should be done to understand the various differences within groups. Even if you do not identify with any of these groups or beliefs, we’d like to hear what you believe and how this relates (or doesn’t) to your personal religious beliefs or philosophy when it comes to death and the beyond.

            Daughter:     Where do they go [when they die]?
            Father:           Everyone has their own word. Heaven. Paradise.
                                    Whatever it's called, someplace beautiful.
            Daughter:     How do you know it's beautiful?
Father:           Because that's what I choose to believe. What do you believe in?

Prometheus (movie), 2012

Beyond the Body

It is interesting to note that the one common idea shared by all 11 IFC-member faith groups is the idea of an eternal “other” that exists outside of the physical being. Most call this eternal “other” a “soul,” though the characteristics each attributes to such a soul can differ widely.

For those in the West, it is safe to say that the common understanding of a soul is the eternal, non-physical part of our being that is still distinctly “us,” carrying on the characteristics and qualities attained in this life beyond our physical lives. But in Buddhism there is no concept of “us” or the “soul” in this sense. While one’s karma might carry into the next life, the subsequent being(s) that are affected by your karma are not considered to be the same person as your concept of “you.” has a great article “Reincarnation in Buddhism” in which Barbara O’Brien explains this concept between non-soul and karma more in-depth. She goes on to explain karma itself:

Karma is not fate, but simple action and reaction, cause and effect… Buddhism teaches that karma means "volitional action." Any thought, word or deed conditioned by desire, hate, passion and illusion create karma.

In simpler terms, karma is cause-and-effect: do something good? You will have “good karma,” or the effect of having goodness unto you. Eventually the end-goal is Nirvana, known both as an “enlightening” or “extinguishing.” Once Nirvana is reached, the cycle of lives guided by karma ends.

In Lives to Come

Some might consider this cycle of rebirth in karma to be reincarnation. However, it is important to note re-emphasize that the lack of a “self” does not allow for worldly reincarnation of the same “soul,” unlike Hinduism. In Hinduism, one’s good acts in this life are rewarded in entrance to heaven, but this is not an eternal stay. Like a merit-based scale, once your good merits have “run out” so to speak, you are re-born into this world. Like Buddhism, escape from the cycle of rebirth is available to those souls who have overcome karmic consequences to reach Moksha, or “freedom, liberation.”

Jain and Sikh religions hold similar beliefs about the soul’s rebirth until it achieves a form of realization similar or equal to that of Moksha

Rebirth is not limited strictly to this realm of being. In the Baha’i faith there are many worlds beyond this one. They believe that the soul begins at conception in this realm and is immortal, living beyond its human life here on a journey of many subsequent worlds that will bring it closer to God. 

Heaven, Hell or Something In-between

Other religious traditions do not believe in the cycle of reincarnation, instead believing in judgments of one’s soul for entering eternal places of heaven or hell. In Zoroastrianism, a soul stays near the body for three nights in order to reflect upon its life. On the third night it receives judgment based on its thoughts, words, and deeds. Judgment can only be about the soul itself without any influence from other souls. If the good outweighs the bad, the soul enters heaven, and if it is less than the sum of its evil, the soul is sent to hell. Souls with equal amounts of each are sent to an intermediate place. However, at the end of the existence of evil, all souls will be reunited.

In Islam, one is also judged based on actions, behavior and faith for entrance into Heaven (Paradise) or Hell. Unlike Zoroastrianism, there is no intermediate place and all judgment is entirely God’s. But Muslims stress God as the “most Merciful and most Forgiving” (STAR, 2008). Protestant Christianity and Roman Catholicism are very similar to Islam, though some believe that faith alone will admit one into Heaven. In all of these cases, followers’ understanding of what Heaven and Hell are can differ greatly. Some believe in literal places of paradise and suffering, while others believe them to be measures of the distance of a soul from God.

For Latter-day Saints (Mormons), the focus of life after death is on a soul’s distance to or from God in the spiritual realm. When a person dies, his or her soul first enters the Spirit World, which is a place of development and learning. Souls who decide to accept Jesus Christ will eventually be reunited with their bodies eternally and become “heirs of God” and “joint-heirs with Jesus Christ” (STAR, 2008). But those who do not accept Jesus will still receive a reward of some kind according to one’s good deeds.

Doctrines Not Required

Adherents of Judaism don’t have any one understanding of what happens when we die. As a religion that is more “of-this-world,” there is not a significant focus on death or any official doctrine that gives authority to any one claim. Some believe that one’s eternal soul returns back to God, while others might believe that our bodies simply return to the ground and our memories are carried on by those who knew us and our deeds in this world.

Your Turn: Exploring Our Beliefs

There are doubtless many different ideas about what happens when we die and whether there is a possibility of life, in whatever form it might be, after this life. And like Judaism, not all adherents of a particular religion will believe the same thing.

We invite you now to share with us what you believe about death.

What do believe happens when we die?
How are these beliefs related to your religious or philosophical tradition?

*STAR is IFC’s Strengthening Teaching About Religion manual. You can order copies here, or learn more by calling (202) 234-6300.

Each section about our different faith communities’ beliefs used information directly from our STAR manual. The following list are the people who contributed to give their perspectives for each faith community that have been utilized in this blog:

  • Baha’i: Sovaida Manni Ewing
  • Buddhism: William Aken
  • Hinduism: Dr. D.C. Rao
  • Islam: Sanaullah Kirmani, Ph.D.
  • Jain: Dr. Sushil Jain
  • Judaism: Rabbis Fred Scherlinder Dobb and Alana Suskin
  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Mr. Ken Bowler
  •  Protestantism: Rev. J. Philip Wogaman
  • Roman Catholicism: Rev. Dr. Francis Tiso (USCCB) with Mike Goggin and Chris Byrnes (IFC)
  •  Sikh: Amrit Kaur
  •  Zoroastrian: Behram Panthaki with Kersi Shroff
A special thanks to Mr. Lance Walker, who helped review the portion covering Latter-day Saints. We hope to have additional individuals of our various faith communities contribute in the future!