Thursday, July 17, 2014

My Journey with Project Interfaith

written by guest blogger, Kerri Dietz-Pillen

Like me, have you imagined living in a world where people of all faiths, beliefs and cultures are valued, included and protected?
Like me could you get excited about it?

Would you like to believe that in your immediate community and eventually around the world everyone can be in a classroom where their faith or their culture is celebrated, every health care provider who sees a patient understands how that person’s specific belief system will affect their ability to receive and respond to care, and every business helps their employees of every creed feel understood and comfortable?

Working along with Project Interfaith to develop a world like this is exciting to me!

It excites me that Project Interfaith is right here in Omaha. I have been excited to watch this genesis, one person at a time, one business place and classroom at a time, one city at a time. I have been excited to see specific programs like the Education Trunk and RavelUnravel build interaction between people who likely not otherwise routinely interact with each other: people from different geographic positions, from different positions of affluence and power, from different positions of belief and culture, from different developmental positions in life.

Project Interfaith engages me. It engages all of us, using a variety of ways that people can interact with each other, all to produce this community of respect and relationships that has grown literally across the country and across the world.

It excites me to work with Project Interfaith because when I asked if I could help in any way they said, “Yes!” And every time Project Interfaith engages me in volunteer work they give me fantastic education and appropriate tools to do my job well, often including sessions after the event where we share our experiences with the staff and other volunteers.

Becoming a certified Project Interfaith speaker caused me to re-examine and rediscover the amazing structure and philosophy that led to PI being recognized internationally for their effectiveness in changing the world one heart at a time. In my studies to become a speaker for them, I revisited the Project Interfaith “Vision” which “strives to create a community and world where people of all faiths, beliefs, and cultures are valued, included and protected.” It inspired me to reassess everything in my life in those terms – Valued, Included, Protected.

My most exciting experience at PI has been that of being part of the RavelUnravel during pilot phase. Our teams went out to people in this area and personally asked and filmed the answers to four questions about their beliefs and the personal community experiences that have sprung from these identities. Now, after gaining the personal experience, I completely understand that if I were to visit the places of worship and fellowship of a wide variety of people I have never met, I would be very welcome and feel very comfortable. Despite this newfound knowledge, I cannot imagine another scenario that would have put me into meetings in people’s homes who are Baha’i or Sikh – or into a Pentecostal church or a synagogue… In these places I was able to learn what has inspired the person across from me to follow the spiritual path they have chosen, and these people were willing to share how others in this community have affected them in their journey.

This has been one of the most sacred experiences of my life.

Come join Project Interfaith in our journey! For you, too, it could be the first step in a journey of a thousand miles.

Kerri Dietz-Pillen is currently the owner of Bellevue Vision Clinic. A graduate from Ohio State University, Kerri has played a large role in volunteering for Project Interfaith throughout the years.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Mr. Farhad Panthaki Brings Light to Traditions and Beliefs of Zoroastrianism (Part 3)

written by Program Intern, Michaela Wolf. 

I think when I first heard of your religion, I made an assumption that reincarnation might be included, due to other mentions of rebirth and cycling. Can you explain why this is not so and what your belief regarding death and the after- life is?

In the Zarathushti faith, the soul is considered to be immortal, and death is viewed as a transformation for the soul from the physical to the spiritual realm. It is believed that on the fourth morning after death, the soul is self-judged at an allegorical bridge to the spiritual world and is drawn into Heaven or Hell depending on if the soul generated more good thoughts, words & deeds. It is believed that through the collective good acts of humanity, at the end of time, all evil will be eradicated and all souls from heaven and hell will have to pass through an allegorical river of molten metal to be cleansed of any imperfections and then will be reunited with their resurrected original bodies in a perfect state. These beliefs are not consonant with reincarnation. Also, there are annual prayers performed for remembrance of the departed soul, which would be pointless if the soul was reincarnated.

Do children learn Avesta today? What role does it have in your contemporary practice?

No. Children today do not learn Avesta. It has not been a spoken language for a really long time. We do pray our prayers in the original Avesta language, on an individual level for the daily kushti prayer and on a community level at communal thanksgiving Jashan prayers. However, we typically use books that have English translations of the Avesta prayers.

Honesty appears as a pillar in your practice. Can you explain how this shapes your life and the role it carries socially? Can you describe a time when this came up in your life and what you did?

As mentioned earlier, Truth & Righteousness is considered to be of paramount importance as highlighted in the Ashem Vohu prayer. We try to live by these ideals to be an example to our children at every opportunity possible. One evening as I was pulling towards the curb to park to pick up my kids after school, my vehicle clipped the corner of a parked vehicle and the corner light broke and was hanging by the wires. With dread and visions of increased insurance premiums, I quickly looked around and no one was there. So, on instinct, I ran in and picked up my kids. As I was sitting back in the car, I saw thorough the rear view mirror the driver of the other car with his child looking at the broken light, but I just sat there, frozen. Later, that whole evening, I felt really terrible until I resolved to call the other car owner. I looked up the last name from the directory (I asked the kids who else left at the same time they did), called the owner and apologetically explained everything, and gave him my insurance information. I suddenly felt extremely relieved, like a huge burden was lifted. It really drove home the old adage “The truth will set you free.”

How do you consider biomedical technologies aimed at extending the lifespan of humans?
I personally believe that quality of natural life is way more important than the lifespan.

Can you speak about the role of dualism in Zoroastrianism?

The dualism that is described is the continuing conflict between Good (Spenta Mainyu) & Evil (Anghra Mainyu) at a cosmic and individual level. Humans are enjoined to always actively promote good to collectively assist in achieving the ultimate triumph of Good over Evil. So, personally, at an individual level, it represents an ethical choice.

How does this impact your life and perspective?

It reminds me to always weigh the consequences of my words and actions, and attempt to always strive to make the right choice.

Is there anything else you would like to share about your religion or beliefs?

I wanted to thank you for your interest in the Zarathushti faith, and want to emphasize that I am also a student of the religion. Therefore, in order to provide the best information, I have relied heavily on the following two sources: a book titled “The Zarathushti Religion – A Basic Text” and a pamphlet titled “ Zoroastrians (Zarathushtis) Followers of an Ancient Faith in a Modern World”, both published by FEZANA (Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America).


Michaela Wolf is the program intern at Project Interfaith. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies with a focus in Biology and a minor in Sociology from the University of Nebraska- Lincoln. She currently attends Clarkson College, pursuing a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing. Her interests include reading, writing, running, the outdoors and art.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Mr. Farhad Panthaki Brings Light to Traditions and Beliefs of Zoroastrianism (Part 2)

written by Programming Intern, Michaela Wolf

Can you describe to me the relationship of fire, sunlight and light to Ahura Mazda in Zoroastrianism?

Asho (righteous) Zarathushtra called God by the name Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord or Lord of Wisdom). A consecrated Fire is considered the physical manifestation of Ahura Mazda and the focal point of worship for Zarathushtis. It should be noted that Zarathushtis do not worship fire in and of itself; rather, fire is revered as a physical symbol of the Enlightened Mind and Truth. Since ancient times, fire has provided sustenance for humans in the form of providing warmth and comfort as well as light (synonymous with knowledge & wisdom) by dispelling darkness (synonymous with ignorance). In the absence of a consecrated fire, Zarathushtis pray facing towards the direction of grandest light of Ahura Mazda’s creation, the sun.

Many of your angels are also related to agriculture. Is there a prevailing land ethic in Zoroastrianism, and if so, can you explain it?

I am not sure what you mean by angels related to agriculture. The prevailing occupation of the time when the religion originated was farming and agriculture. Therefore, allegorical descriptions and metaphors in the teachings often utilize references from nature and the agricultural society of that time. The teaching for reverence of the land is no more or less than that for the other creations on Earth, and Zarathushtis are enjoined to value and take care of all the creations.

Can you speak about the six gahambars (or gahambars) and how you celebrate them?

The Zarathushtis traditionally celebrated six gahambars or seasonal feasts spread throughout the year in honor of the Skies, Waters, Earth, Plants, Animals & Humans. They were traditionally celebrated over a period of five days each with prayers followed by a communal feast during the different seasons. Over time, the practice of celebrating each gahambar has reduced substantially. Locally, we celebrate the Ayathrem Gahambar in October of each year with a thanksgiving Jashan prayer ceremony followed by a communal dinner.

Is there one gahambar or an aspect of the gahambars that you enjoy most?

The aspect of the Gahambars that I enjoy the most is the feeling of togetherness and community that is generated by the participation of the community members in numerous ways. Everyone tries to help in any way they can, by cooking, or bringing items for the prayer ceremony, or helping with the setting, serving and cleaning up after the dinner. Another aspect of the Gahambars that I enjoy on a personal level is during the Hamaspathmaedhem Gahambar, the last Gahambar preceding the Zarathushti New Year. During this time, it is customary to chant the Gathas and also offer our prayers and remembrance to the souls of our dear departed loved ones. The Gathas are divinely inspired hymns composed by Prophet Zarathushtra. When I chant the Gathas and read the English translations, it gives me a strong sense of peace and oneness with Asho Zarathushtra and my faith because it reminds me that I am chanting the very words chanted by Asho Zarathushtra himself thousands of years ago followed by Zarathushtis throughout the ages.

Has there been a time in your life when you felt the presence of this belief in a personal experience in your life, like an a-ha moment, or an unique experience of yours when you really felt a strong connection to your identity as a Zoroastrian?

My full time profession is engineering. However, I have been fortunate enough to have been ordained in India as a Zarathushti priest. This gives me the opportunity to provide services part-time as needed by our local Zarathushti community. These service experiences give me a true sense of peace and satisfaction and a strong connection to my identity as a Zarathushti. In addition, my role as one of the teachers in our monthly Sunday School program gives me the chance to interface with young minds to help them understand and internalize the teachings, values and traditions of our faith so that they can think about and apply them on a daily basis in everything they do. For me the connection is truly made when students or their parents tell me how something they learnt at Sunday School has helped them through difficulties or provided them with an important perspective.

What are successes and challenges you experience as a Zoroastrian in the USA?

Growing up in India, we took our religion, practices and customs for granted and did not necessarily make an effort to learn about them, since most people around us were already familiar with Parsees. The biggest challenge as a Zoroastrian in the US is being able to clearly explain our faith to a person usually unfamiliar with it, in a manner that is relevant to the everyday person. For me, ironically, the biggest success I have experienced has been borne out of the biggest challenge, that is the on-going process of discovery that has unfolded as I have learned and continue to learn more about the history, customs and practices of my faith.

How do practice these beliefs? What are some challenges you experience practicing in an urban US city? Do you see unique opportunities to being a Zoroastrian in a US city?

We practice these beliefs at many levels. On an individual and family level, we perform our daily kushti prayer along with other prayers. The kushti is a sacred cord woven from 72 strands of lamb’s wool which is tied with three loops around the waist to always remind a Zarathushti about the threefold Zarathushti ethic of Humata, Hukhta & Huvareshta (Good thoughts, good words and good deeds). The 72 strands symbolize the 72 chapters recited during the Yasna ceremony performed in the inner precincts of a Zarathushti Fire Temple. The core teachings of the faith, the 17 chapters of the Gathas, form the spiritual core of the Yasna. The kushti is worn over a sacred vest, the sudreh, a specially stitched cotton vest, white in color to represent purity and cleanliness of mind and body. The kushti and sudreh are first worn by a child at their Navjote (initiation ceremony). At a community level, we (ZAGBA) celebrate important days by gathering together as a community to celebrate days such as the New Year, Gahambars etc. with prayer and feasting.

Do you think social attitudes and policies are moving nearer to or further from the elements of respect for environment your faith holds? Do you feel especially invested in some public policy issues because of your faith or do you view them as unrelated?

Generally, I think that at a grassroots level, the awareness of respect for the environment may be increasing, with the recycling programs in many communities being a prime example. However, I am not so sure about the corporate/industry level, where profits usually drive the decision making process. I do not necessarily view public policy issues as related to my faith.

Can you please describe the role of cheerfulness and joyfulness in your religion?
The basic Ashem Vohu prayer in its essence describes the path to happiness as “Righteousness & Truth is good, it is the best, it is happiness; Happiness to the one who practices Righteousness & Truth for its own sake.” Therefore, true happiness is linked to making the right ethical and moral choices just because that is the right thing to do.
Look for the third of this four part series next week!

Michaela Wolf is the program intern at Project Interfaith. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies with a focus in Biology and a minor in Sociology from the University of Nebraska- Lincoln. She currently attends Clarkson College, pursuing a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing. Her interests include reading, writing, running, the outdoors and art.