WITNESSING WORSHIP: How can the arts serve as a catalyst for community dialogue?

Overview:

Witnessing Worship: Connecting through the lens of faith used photographs to ask the question, “how can we live well together in difference?” The exhibit, by photographer Nina Tisara, featured images of over 70 local congregations of differing faiths engaged in worship from 1985- 1995; an online project where participants from around the world shared their own photos of worship (link); and an interfaith meal for local clergy called, “Breaking Bread” to create a generous space for conversation, rest and mutual encouragement. In addition, Convergence covered the outside wall of the church in a 24’ x 20’ banner featuring one of the exhibit photos and included the exhibit as the focus of our worship throughout its presence. We contacted all of the congregations included in the exhibit and partnered with the Alexandria Black History Museum, The Alexandria Commission for the Arts and a local interfaith organization, ALIVE! to invite diverse groups into a space for listening and reflection.

Originally shown in 1985, the photographs were taken as a way for Nina Tisara to try to connect to her son’s beliefs through the lens of her camera. “Although I have long been interested in the subject of worship,” Tisara explains, “the compelling motivation for the project was that my son David had become a Bible-quoting, ‘born-again’ Christian. I had been brought up in a nominally Jewish home and as an adult, joined the Unitarian-Universalist Church, which significantly, has no sacred text. It was very hard for me to communicate with David, the chasm in beliefs was so wide, and I hoped that witnessing the worship of others with an open mind and open heart would help me understand him and bridge that chasm. Though David and I reached a place of peace (love was never in question) neither of us changed our beliefs. David died of cancer in January 2008.”


Our Approach:

In 2016, our congregation was searching for a way to respond to the growing sense of fear, distrust, and hatred in public discourse and on social media. We were inspired after listening to an interview of Pádraig Ó Tuama of Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland and his question; “How do we find the capacity and skill, generosity and grace to live well together?” “Agreement,” he reasoned, “has rarely been the mandate for being in relationship.” Our inspiration was to acknowledge and observe the differences between us; to cultivate a “generosity of listening.”

After engaging in a period of prayer and conversation, we felt compelled to create space to simply listen and observe “the other.” Rather than seeking immediate solutions we found value in trying to unify diverse faith groups around the challenges. For instance, the Breaking Bread lunch was designed as an opportunity for clergy to come together with others in the same position and rest from the pressure to have the answers. This was particularly significant because they were of different faiths and perspectives.

A key element of this project was that it put the artist’s story and her work in a prophetic position of opening up a much deeper reflection on a series of complex and difficult topics such as racial injustice, religious intolerance, political differences, use of social media and public discourse.

The matter of diversity in beliefs seems ever more relevant today and with it comes the opportunity for strength and healing by opening our hearts and minds, reaching out and holding hands.”

Nina Tisara
Results:
Together, we were able to:
  • Create an outlet for positive and ongoing response on social media through the Witnessing Worship online photo project.
  • Create space for those skeptical of different faith traditions to “witness” the worship of others in a space, non-judgmental space.  
  • Find a new calling as a congregation to become a permanent place of listening and questioning; shaping our ministry for the future.
  • Learn about different practices of faith.
  • Bring together diverse faith organizations in our city.

Additional Resources:
  • https://ourconvergence.org/people/witnessing-worship-connecting-through-the-lens-of-faith
  • https://www.facebook.com/VergeNow/notifications/?section=activity_feed&subsection=mention&target_story=S%3A_I100015868955398%3A478871972651764
  • https://onbeing.org/programs/padraig-o-tuama-belonging-creates-and-undoes-us/