What a joy, to travel the way of the heart. ~ Mevlana Rumi

A month ago I was invited by the Centre for Christian Studies to their 130th Anniversary celebrations in Winnipeg. The theme of the evening was Diversity, Transformation and Hope. I was to substitute for a great speaker Joy Kogawa, poet and author who could not make it, and I was terrified that I would never be able to fill her shoes. But when I heard the title, it was like a calling. This is me, I thought and said yes immediately.

I was thrilled to find out that I would be in dialogue with a Native elder, Stan McKay originally from Fisher River First Nation Reserve in northern Manitoba. As a child he attended Fisher River Indian Day School and the Birtle Indian Residential School. Stan’s adult life has been focused on teaching and spiritual guidance as a source of healing for individuals and for communities. He is known widely as a wise teacher and elder, striving to educate Canadians about the consequences of colonialism in Canada, and especially the policy of assimilation and residential schools, and to bring about healing to the deep harm caused to Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians alike.

I left on this journey asking as always for signs. I took this opportunity to carry my books on Rumi as I do most of my reading on long flights. It was a beautiful, bright autumn day with a blue sky and cumulous clouds and I saw many formations of crosses as I have been wont to do for many years. (I’ve finally concluded that its’ God sending me kisses!) I arrived at my hotel in Winnipeg and was dumbstruck to see the telephone number being the numerical code for Bismillah – I begin in the name of God. (Front Desk: 1-204-786-7011)  Furthermore the stationary in the hotel room had the words hope embossed on them. I had my signs and any trepidation I had about entering a new place, new people, doing my first ever speaking stint without written notes, was allayed. I felt rejuvenated, inspired, anxious, and hopeful all at once.

Rightly so. When I reached the venue of the event, I was amazed at how many people I knew from my 15 years of interfaith work across Canada. We met and hugged like old friends. Stan and I met privately in a room to connect. And connect we did. As tradition deems, I had taken Stan a gift of tobacco and I gave it to him privately but he decided to inform the audience as he was so thrilled. The audience was primarily women, mostly Christian but with a smattering of Native youth, and later I discovered some Muslims.

I had decided to take Rumi as my muse and Stan brought a book of reading titled ‘God is Red” which he is mailing me as a gift. I also took a CD of Sufi chanting which was played as people came into the hall. We were supposed to be in a facilitated dialogue but as we sat facing each other and started talking, the 250+ audience faded away and it seemed we were two souls speaking as one. Facilitator and friend Betsy Anderson from Emmanuel College found herself with nothing to do – Stan and I clicked heart-to-heart and shared ruminations, readings and Rumi.

I read a universal blessing from Rumi and Stan shared a story about dreams. I have been fascinated since my arrival in Canada with the Native ethos, which to me corresponds deeply with the spiritual message of my faith, drowned in the din of dogma. Stan shared that the native communities are very diverse and there is sometimes very little intra-faith dialogue although inter-faith dialogue thrives and I was able to tell him the same for our communities. He asked me about diversity within the Islamic faith and he and the audience were surprised when I explained the different denominations and sects in Islam as they did not know. We agreed that unity does not mean uniformity and that diversity is a divine blessing. However we also agreed that people can’t be forced to ‘like’ each other and move into a group hug as long as differences are recognized and respected.

I shared the following reading on diversity from Rumi:

Every war and every conflict between human beings
has happened because of some disagreement about names.

It is such an unnecessary foolishness,
because just beyond the arguing
there is a long table of companionship
set and waiting for us to sit down.

What is praised is one, so the praise is one too,
many jugs being poured into a huge basin.
All religions, all this singing, one song.
The differences are just illusion and vanity.
Sunlight looks a little different on this wall
than it does on that wall
and a lot different on this other one,
but it is still one light.

We have borrowed these clothes,
these time-and-space personalities,
from a light, and when we praise,
we are pouring them back in.

Stan and I then shared our thoughts on transformation. Stan spoke of the painful experiences of Colonization and the residential schools. He shared that the wounds have been deep leaving much conflict in the Native communities, especially among the youth who are angry and need to find ways to channel their anger, a concept that resonated with me. He spoke about his own transition from anger to hope and peace. The key here is recognizing that a wrong has been done in history, creating awareness of it and then working towards forgiveness. The official movement for this is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which I have been part of and not a co-incidence, their pin is also a circle.

Stan told a wonderful story about a grandfather who tells his grandson that each one of us have two wolves in our being. One is good, the other is evil. Grandson asks, which wolf is the stronger and wise grandfather replies “the one you feed”. Wow – I loved the story as I am trying to share stories with my own grandsons, a tradition we have forgotten but over time I’ve collected many stories so they listen in fascination. It was a reminder to me that we need to bring back a story-telling tradition, one found among the Sufis.

I shared that my life has been a journey of change and transformation. I am not the person I was 25 years ago and much of my journey towards spirituality has been in Canada as I find myself free to pursue the different paths that lead to the same Creator. Change is positive, we agreed and since the world is changing so fast in so many ways, if we want to be part of the larger change, we need to transform ourselves as well. The journey for both of us is an ongoing saga in our lives, bringing hope, hostility and happiness. But as Rumi says:

If you could, what could you do? This being human is a guest-house.

Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary

awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

Who violently sweep your house, empty of its furniture.

still, treat each guest honorably.  He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

On growth Rumi says “If you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?” How can we learn, live and grow to become our greatest aspirations if every opportunity for growth is an irritant? Not that it is easy to be on the receiving end all that polishing. But the result, ahh the results, they are the reason we pursue situations where we can be polished”

We spoke of hope and I shared that I’m an eternal optimist and for me the glass is always half full. Stan works in healing circles and shared his hopes. The concept of circle is universal. The logo of the CCS is a circle, the Aboriginal people are very circle oriented and the Sufis embrace circle as the circle of life. Our connections were getting stronger by the moment. Stan asked me to share stories from the Islamic faith about the environment and I felt so blessed to be able to share the spiritual message of my faith, which most in the audience had never heard, thanks to hysteria and news about the extremists taking over the news. Stan felt exactly the same has happened in his life and we were honoured to be able to showcase the spiritual messages.

By Allah, we must always have hope. Faith, itself, consists of fear and hope. Someone once asked me, “Hope itself is good, but what is this fear?” I said, “Show me a fear without hope, or a hope without fear. The two are inseparable.” For example, a farmer plants wheat. Naturally he hopes that wheat will grow. At the same time he is afraid some blight or drought may destroy it. So, there is no hope without fear, or fear without hope.

After an hour of interaction, we stopped for Q & A, although we felt we could have talked all night long. Later there was a reception at which a young Iranian girl came up and said how inspired she felt.

When there’s no sign of hope in the desert,

So much hope still lives inside despair.

Heart, don’t kill that hope: Even willows bear

Sweet fruit in the garden of the soul.