At times we underestimate the power that love has. Not just romantic love, but a love rooted in compassion, respect, understanding and hope for people you know as well as those you may never meet.
This love embraces our commonality by appreciating, first, our differences. This is the love I felt while sitting next to Pope Francis during the interfaith service for peace on Friday at the 9/11 memorial in New York City.
I can’t remember ever seeing such excitement for a religious figure. Or the last time the world had such a religious figure in its midst.
Pope Francis’ appeal stems from his desire to bring humanity on a whole to a higher level of mindfulness, and his willingness to demonstrate this in word and action.
This is a man who chose to be with the homeless rather than to dine with politicians during his trip to Washington. This is a man who went off-script and opened his remarks at St. Patrick’s Cathedral with prayers for the 700 Muslims who died and 900 who were injured while on pilgrimage in Mecca earlier that day.
This is a man who, when addressing the United Nations General Assembly, took the time to thank the security guards, the maintenance crew, the cleaners and the cooks for the important work they do. This is a man who at age 78 is traveling all over the world, taking no stops or breaks, to be with the people he serves.
Pope Francis, to me, is a religious man; a man with whom I might not share a faith, but one whom I was quite nervous to meet and definitely intimidated to sit next to. I hope that my heart acquired something from that experience that stays with me beyond the moment, so I can one day live with the same selflessness and love, to bring understanding and peace to a world that right now is so very much in need of it.
Religion and faith are vehicles for good. Our issues with religion today stem not from critics and skeptics deconstructing and disproving religious belief, but the way we approach it ourselves. Religion has become too mechanical, and the mechanics are all that we know. For many of those who practice a faith, the rituals become legalistic and habitual, held not in our hearts but expressed in rote gestures through our limbs.
We find ritual to be an end in itself, rather than a means to something bigger. When our faith loses lived compassion, love and hope, the potential of religion to be transformative, a catalyst for positive change, diminishes.
That potential weakens even more when religion is used as a tool to push people down. We see that today when leaders use religion to tell people only what they cannot do or have. A love for power takes precedence over the power of love. We justify our ill treatment of society’s underserved and underprivileged, those of different racial, ethnic and social classes, those who simply are different from us, by claiming that is what God wants us to do.
We say this without embodying God’s unconditional love, compassion, or mercy in our actions.
This is why Pope Francis is so important today. Where governmental apparatus at times unfortunately fails, people of faith, people like Pope Francis, can play a pivotal role in challenging the social injustice and disparity so prevalent throughout the world.
The Pope helps us to understand that changing the world begins by taking a pause and changing the world within us. We cannot give peace to people if we don’t have peace inside ourselves to give in the first place.
By Imam Khalid Latif – Islamic Chaplain at NYU and NYPD