So where is faith, exactly? What is the 411? Where can we see the role of religion in our lives and communities? The answer, of course, is pretty much everywhere. Religion, it seems, is all over the place, even in our relatively secular “modern” society. But where should we look if we want to understand the religious traditions of our neighbors? What kinds of things should we focus on?
These are some of the questions posed both by NYPL’s exhibit, Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and by a series of panel discussions now being held at neighborhood public library branches in conjunction with the exhibit. The series, entitled “The 411 on Faith: Communities in Dialogue,” was organized by the Interfaith Center of New York and The New York Public Library, and runs through February. (See below for the 411 on the remaining panels.)
The 411 series offers public library patrons a set of intimate conversations with local religious leaders—an opportunity to meet their neighbors from diverse religious traditions, hear their New York stories, and learn about their lives and beliefs. And by virtue of its overambitious title, it also promises to give the 411 on faith—to tell New Yorkers where, exactly, religion may be found.
This is an impossible task, really, but during a recent panel at the Parkchester Public Library, in the Bronx, Shaykh Moussa Drammeh, the principal of a nearby Muslim school, suggested one good place to look: at the many points where timeless religious traditions meet the everyday realities of life in New York.
Shaykh Drammeh discussed a brief chapter of the Qur’an known as Al Ma’un, or “Common Kindness.” The text reads: “Have you considered the person who denies [the final] judgment? It is he who pushes aside the orphan and does not urge others to feed the needy. So woe to those who pray but are heedless of their prayer; those who are all show and forbid common kindnesses.”
In his comments, Shaykh Drammeh linked the quranic reference to “push[ing] aside the orphan” to the challenges facing children in New York’s overburdened foster care system. The failure to “feed the needy” spoke to him—and his audience—of the many neighborhoods in our city that lack affordable healthy foods. And his scripture’s call for “common kindnesses” suggested the respect due to our neighbors, regardless of race, culture, or religion, on the basis of our common humanity and community.
This was the voice of the Qur’an in Parkchester, speaking to issues facing all New Yorkers. And this, I think, is the 411 on faith: where sacred texts meet city life.
The Three Faiths exhibit is a remarkable exploration of the first half of this equation, focusing on Jewish, Christian, and Muslim texts. Its stunning collection of illuminated manuscripts, hand-drawn calligraphy, printed volumes, artworks, and scrolls shows how religiosity thrives on the page—in the narratives and doctrines these texts convey, in their stories of Abraham and divine revelation, in the calligrapher’s devotion and the artist’s inspiration. There are good reasons for this focus, given the central role of scripture in the Abrahamic traditions, but it’s not the whole story.
The “411 on Faith” series tries to complete the picture by exploring the everyday lives of religious New Yorkers—introducing library patrons to the readers and interpreters of these texts. The panels have focused on the ways that religious leaders put their traditions to work in their engagement with the city. Our conversations with these leaders have touched on a wide range of social issues—from the challenges facing immigrant families to the history of African-American activism in Harlem, from the debates surrounding the Park51 Islamic community center to the changing roles of women in the Catholic Church. We have painted a picture of faith in action, of religious traditions as spiritual toolboxes, rather than static bodies of doctrine and text.
Taken together, the exhibit and 411 panels offer a range of places for New Yorkers to explore the role of religion in American society—in sacred texts and city life, and above all in the traffic between them.
Remaining “411 on Faith” Panels:
Mulberry Street Library
10 Jersey Street (Between Lafayette & Mulberry Streets), Manhattan
Wednesday, January 5, 6:30 p.m.
St. Agnes Library
444 Amsterdam Avenue (at 81st. Street), Manhattan
Thursday, January 13, 5:30 p.m.
1465 York Avenue (near E. 78th Street), Manhattan
Thursday, February 17, 6 p.m.
5540 Mosholu Avenue (at W. 256th Street), Bronx,
Tuesday, February 22, 6 p.m.