My job is a bit of a treasure. I get to explore and visit religious communities of virtually every stripe. I meet great people, see amazing architecture, experience ritual, and even savour wonderful food. At the same time, the work contains something vital – namely, helping people to “encounter” those different from themselves to foster connection, comfort, and understanding.
When people ask me about religious diversity, I often address things like “understanding” and “education.” I hear similar language from others working towards achieving greater diversity, equity, and inclusion. However, there is something else that I think about and, yet, rarely address. I never hear others in my field mention it and, in truth, I am perhaps slightly hesitant to say it out loud. But I want to break that silence today because I think it really matters. Specifically, I refer to beauty.
Encountering religious communities exposes you to beauty. You can encounter this beauty in many ways: the grandeur of an immense Hindu temple; a powerful First Nations chant as singers beat a large drum in perfect unison; the haunting rhythm of Jews saying the mourner’s kaddish; and sometimes the sheer inner beauty of my friends Imran Ally and Bhaktimarga Swami.
Beauty is not superficial. It compels us to stop and drink it in and opens us to wonder. It’s no coincidence that, for centuries, religions have used the power of beauty in words, music, spaces and ritual as an invitation. Through my work with Encounter I’ve seen people be awed and often overcome by the beauty of their experiences, and I have watched the disarming power of beauty work its magic as it opens us to connection and inspires a shift in perspective. Beauty’s real power is that it stays with us, and in so doing, protects us from the objectification and discrimination that constitutes stereotyping. Long before COVID, I described these moments of beauty as an inoculation against hatred.
As I work helping people understand diverse religious identities, often in corporate or organizational settings, it occurs to me that the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion industry and the people we are trying to help, might be better served if we make space in our conversations about the importance of finding beauty in one another, in our customs and beliefs, and in our stories. In our good intentions to present ideas in digestible chunks of knowledge, we might be missing out on the disarming power of beauty to soften us and invite us to explore with open minds.
Being open-minded does not mean agreeing with everything someone else does but rather staying open for all that might be there. At Encounter, we create engagements with the people, places, practices, and philosophies of religious communities because there is so much there, so much to learn, to see, to discover. The result is to encounter sometimes surprising and arresting moments of beauty. And that beauty can change you and change our society.