By Saumya Arya Haas, 04/25/11 09:45 PM ET
I never learned much about religion until I started hanging out at Muddy Waters Coffee Shop on the corner of Lyndale and 24th in Uptown, Minneapolis.
I was raised to be a priestess (of Hinduism), grew up surrounded by world scripture and philosophy, and was taught by learned scholars and mystics. But my religious education didn’t really begin until I started talking — and listening — to other people from other ways of life. I had a great foundation but it had to evolve beyond what I could experience as an individual. Understanding is a journey, and it’s nice to have company if you can get it.
When Muddy’s opened in the late 80s, it was grungy, grubby and the bathroom was frightening. The only food on the “menu” was Pop-Tarts and SpaghettiOs. Punks, goth kids and all the other wonderful misfits of Minneapolis risked splinters from the rickety picnic tables to enjoy caffeine and conversation in precious Midwestern sunlight. I would come with my friends but talked to everyone. I got over my fear of homeless people and started seeing them as just people. Some reminded me of the wandering sages of my almost-native India, people who lived by choice or necessity on the fringes and accumulated hardship wisdom the rest of us shied away from.
All the scriptural education in the world is not worth one good hour-long conversation with a stranger about their beliefs.
My friends and I didn’t only talk about religion, of course, but we circled back to it again and again. We surprised each other. We had bitter intellectual and philosophical disagreements, some which continue to this day. We learned what we each believed, and why. Of course, that kept changing. We faced the inevitable tensions in our varied religious upbringings, observations and experiences. We agreed, disagreed, misunderstood and challenged each other and sometimes laughed till coffee came out our noses. That’s religion at its very best, in my opinion.
We are all engaged in interfaith work, all the time. Our family members, colleagues and friends have different views and beliefs and we encounter them in a variety of ways. Long sunny afternoons or quiet cool evenings at a coffee shop with honest conversation brings those ideas into focus. Take the time to do with intention what we do thoughtlessly every day: Be who we are. Talk. Think.
Talking about our beliefs does not only help explain them to others, it helps us understand them ourselves. Inchoate faith deepens and sharpens when we try to talk about it.
Christian, Hindu, Wiccan, atheist, Jewish, agnostic — all these definitions become fragile when you really listen to what each person believes. Talk long enough and formal labels eventually curl up and fall off, and you’re left with just a person. Even if people wear their labels with pride, they still want and deserve to be seen as a person. We won’t know what that means until we find out who they are. Until we talk to them. And at the very least, we know we can at least agree on coffee. (I’ll take tea, too. What’s the harm?)
It is harder to generalize about “Christians” when you’ve spent an afternoon listening to four of them bitterly disagree about pretty much everything you thought all Christians believed in.
If we are each the ambassadors of our own views, then coffee shops are the embassies of that everyday diplomacy. Coffee shops have a democratizing effect on conversation. Talking in public also dampens our worst impulses to snap judgment on someone; we keep civil and maybe that helps us listen a little better, express ourselves a little more respectfully. Put our egos aside and give another person the benefit of the doubt. You don’t have to believe in their God; just believe in the person across from you. You don’t have to agree, but you might be able to understand.
Muddy’s has grown up now: all the chairs match and the menu evolved to include things like brie and hummus. It’s still my favorite place to go to church, but I am a coffee shop pilgrim (in some parts of the world you’ll find me at chai stands, too). Satsuma in New Orleans is my second home. I spend so much time there that I call it — and honestly, use it as — my NOLA office. It is another hotbed of interfaith hubbub. Last time I was there, a homeless lady talked to me about how Jesus looks after her and keeps her safe on the streets. Twenty minutes after that, someone invited me to hear a Tibetan lama speak. Twenty minutes after that, we were talking about the various Voodoo houses in New Orleans. This is the interfaith dialogue we all experience all the time. It’s just talking, to friends or strangers, about what matters to us. About what we think, feel and believe. Those things always change, so there is always something new to share and explore.
There is a lot to see in the world, and I love to travel. I advocate for travel! See the world if you can — it’s terrible and lovely and worth the inconvenience, expense and risk. But there is a lot of insight to be gained by what’s in front of us, by what’s around our own corners. We don’t have to journey to far-off lands to learn about other people. To learn about ourselves. Religion (if that’s what you call your beliefs and philosophies) is not divorced from the rest of life. It is not detached from the other things we do. Everyone has the authority to speak for the authenticity of their own experiences. Scripture and ritual traditions have their place, but above all, our place is the world, alongside other people. You don’t even have to like coffee.
I was distressed when I recently learned that my beloved Muddy’s was moving. It felt blasphemous. But they are only moving a few blocks away and evolving a little more (wine bar!). I’ll follow them of course; I need to. I’m a pilgrim, and I have a long way to go.
Saumya Arya Haas, Executive Director of Headwaters/Delta Interfaith, advises local, national and international inter/faith and social equity organizations including Hindu American Seva Charities and The New Orleans Healing Center. Saumya is a Hindu Pujarin, Unitarian Reverend and Manbo Asogwe (Priestess of Vodou). She writes, blogs and lectures about religion and is an ALB candidate in Religious Studies at Harvard University.