The Dynamics of Interfaith — Charlie Wiles
Rachel Koehler launches her series of interviews — The Dynamics of Interfaith —with CIC Executive Director Charlie Wiles.
Headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana, the Center for Interfaith Cooperation (CIC), works to create an environment for meaningful engagement and peaceful dialogue between and among a wide variety of faith communities. This podcast seeks to record the stories of CIC Board members representing the Jain, Sikh, Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Pagan, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Buddhist, Baha’í, Catholic, and Hindu religious traditions. Each individual brings a unique, enriching story, so tune in to begin “de-othering” unfamiliar faith communities.
Music: Alex McGrath “Run Away (Stay With Me)”
Charlie Wiles is the current Executive Director of the Center for Interfaith Cooperation. He also formed this organization in 2011 with help from other board members. In addition, he adds a Catholic perspective to the interfaith dialogue and is very open about his faith journey as he details informative stories, which have influenced his desire to build bridges and encourage peace amongst differences.
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Interview with Charlie Wiles
Rachel: Hello, everyone. My name is Rachel Koehler here, and we’re starting our first episode of the podcast, and today I have the executive director of the Center for Interfaith Cooperation, Charlie Wiles, with me, and to start things off we’re going to get a brief history of the Center for
Interfaith Cooperation and the purpose behind it. So welcome Charlie!
Charlie: Thank you, Rachel, and it’s really an honor to be here and to be starting this podcast where we can really collect people’s stories for what religion means to them and how that religious identity intersects or interwinds with other people’s religious identity.
Rachel: Yeah definitely. I know I’ve enjoyed my time with the Center for Interfaith Cooperation and I would love to hear more about the history and the purpose that you see behind it.
Charlie: Great! I was the director of an organization called Peace Learning Center, prior to the Center for Interfaith Cooperation, where we really explored conflict in a lot of different dimensions, so where conflict comes from, how we manage conflict successfully or not. We always said that violence was one way to address conflict. But what are other ways, and what are the consequences of trying to engage other ways, and what can we learn and how would that benefit our own lives and also benefit the communities we live in? So from that experience, I became very interested in religion and what role religion plays particularly in conflicts around the world, but also just in own personal conflicts as we try to understand. I would say religion gives us an opportunity to really try to explore what is our relationship with the cosmos; why are we here; why were we born; why do we die; what is our relationship with our sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers; and then when you look collectively, what is our relationship with the community at large with government; and then how do we relate to the other faith communities that are in our community? So that’s essentially where it started – where does religion and conflict and how we organize ourselves as people, where do those fit together?
Rachel: Interesting. And what part of your story do you think shaped your interest in interfaith and understanding this conflict and getting through it with people who may have different views than yourself?
Charlie: Well that’s an excellent question. I think it started with my grandparents. So I was born – my mother had a grandfather who was from Lebanon in the Middle East, a beautiful country that didn’t become Lebanon until the end of the Ottoman Empire around the end of the First World War. But I was always fascinated by going to my grandfather – his name was George Parker. His family name was Abu Faisal. So I did a lot of exploration and understanding – when did his father come to the United States, why did they come to the United States? I learned a lot about Lebanese culture, particularly through the foods. Whenever we would have a big meal at grandpa Parker’s house, there was a lot of what I called “ethnic food” at the time when I was a child growing up. It was just like it was normal, right? Everybody had a Lebanese grandpa, and on my father’s side – my grandmother and grandfather on my father’s side – my name is Wiles which is kind of Scottish and Irish, and their family history didn’t go back too far. He was a big fan of baseball. He distributed beer, lived on the southside of Indianapolis. Grandpa Parker and grandma Parker Genevieve were different. So I think that was the beginning part of understanding diversity just within my own family, and then as I grew older and recognized that other kids didn’t have Lebanese grandfathers or grandmothers; their lives were a little different; the foods that they ate were a little different; and so that, I guess, started to be part of my identity. And then as I grew older and started at a Jesuit high school on the northside of Indianapolis, I met some Jewish friends. And I would go over to their house and then I would hear stories about the Middle East that were much different than the stories that I heard at grandpa Parker’s house about the Middle East. And growing older I got involved in politics and got interested again in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular, but really the Middle East as a whole, and how that all fit together. And I was always curious about identity. It wasn’t until I was twenty years old that I actually traveled to the Middle East, and I was fascinated by the people I would meet. Some would begin telling me their stories through their religious identity. Some would begin by talking about their ethnic identity, whether they were Arab or Jewish or Phoenician or Turkish. And then others would begin by talking about their national identity – “I am Israeli.” “I am Lebanese.” “I am Jordanian.” And so those identities, I think, really struck a chord, and I again began to explore my own identity and my own faith tradition. I grew up Catholic, so I started to take that a lot more seriously and wanted to understand the history of that and why did I end up becoming Catholic and exploring that with my parents and my family. And so I think that’s kind of the birth at least for my own curiosity and why I was interested in forming something called the Center for Interfaith Cooperation.
Rachel: Yeah definitely, that’s really cool. So looking at Catholicism and interfaith, do you think that you have this basis of Catholicism that has then been shaped by various faith traditions or how does this community, I guess, shape your faith, and the way you perceive others?
Charlie: Another good question because as I explored my Middle Eastern roots, I talked to my father. He actually converted to be Catholic. His grandparents were Seventh-Day Adventists, or his grandmother was – he said his grandfather didn’t want to have anything to do with religion. We just had this conversation the other day, but his grandmother was very devout Seventh-Day Adventist and they study the Bible. In fact, she could quote the Bible almost verbatim at any time, and he was very impressed by that. He would go to the Bible study meetings. He remembered they always had really good food and a lot of good fellowship. And so even though he never took a real deep interest in the Bible, as I said, when he started elementary school, he was at a Catholic school downtown Indianapolis and he converted to Catholicism. My mother on the other side, the Lebanese side – my great grandmother was Maronite Christian, and they are a sect in the Middle East that identifies with the Vatican. The Pope is not their patriarch, but they do identify with the Vatican. And then my great grandfather was an Orthodox and the Orthodox have their own way of organizing that’s outside of the Catholic Church or the Pope. But everyone in the family said great grandma Parker – actually her name is Susie Freije – had the strong will, and when they came to the United States, that’s why they ended up following the Maronite tradition of connecting with the Catholic community rather than an Orthodox community. And so that story always fascinated me. So I was really curious about my Catholic roots. When I was fourteen I stopped going to Catholic church. As a child, I was enamored by Native American culture and I always romanticized Native Americans. I loved moccasins. And I loved being outdoors; I built tents in the backyard; I built fires; I love camping and hiking. I just love nature. And I thought Native Americans were identified very much with nature. I even moved to Arizona to go to college when I first started college in Flagstaff, Arizona. But I stopped going to church, and it wasn’t until I came back, honestly, and after I started doing the interfaith work and became interested in people’s identities, how their relationship to the cosmos was formed by their religious identities. And even the Native Americans that I lived in a group home with – several different Native American friends – when I was in Arizona, I was fascinated with their creation stories and their rituals and their practice and how that informed how they lived their lives. And so it wasn’t until my mother died five years ago that I actually started going back to Catholic church on a regular basis. I became what I call a “practicing Catholic.” And my interfaith experience really did help form that because I was very curious about the liturgy – why do we start our prayers like this; what are the sacraments; where do they come from; how historically? Going to visit some of my Jewish friends going to the synagogue, a big thing the Center for Interfaith Cooperation does is host what we call “sacred places tours,” and we go to different houses of worship. We typically have a docent or someone knowledgeable, clergy, that will lead us on a tour and answer questions. And so I was very curious about the Torah and the Ark of the Covenant which is on the bimah in a synagogue and to be able to go up and open that and see, this is where our story begins as Christians through the story of Abraham, or honestly through Genesis through Adam and Eve and then through Abraham, through Exodus in the day of Abraham. And so I just found that very fascinating, and watching a Shabbat service gave me a lot of insights into how Christian services are organized because there’s just a very deep connection. And so that has just really enriched my journey. I’m really fascinated by the Hebrew Bible – I say the “Hebrew Bible;” some people say the “Old Testament” – and how the Hebrew Bible connects through the prophets to Jesus Christ, the Messiah. I became much more of a follower of Jesus Christ through my interfaith work and then reclaiming my Catholic identity and going to church with my father which I’ve been doing faithfully for the last five years.
Rachel: Interesting, so it sounds like your work with interfaith has strengthened your faith as a Catholic which is interesting. Have there been moments where it’s challenged what you’ve thought and made you question your faith and your beliefs?
Charlie: Very much so. I used to say, when people asked, I used to say, “oh I come from a Catholic community. I’m a product of a Catholic community.” Because I wanted to give a lot of credit to the way my parents raised me and to the faith of my parents. And now I say, “I’m a Christian that practices a Catholic tradition.” Because I see all the different denominations, Christian denominations, whether that is one of the mainline Protestant — Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal — or Catholicism, or the underlying evangelical movement. We’re all followers of Jesus Christ and he is our teacher. I call him our guru. He’s the one who teaches us how to live our lives particularly through his example and through the Word. I love the
concept of ‘the Word became flesh’ through the gospels. Quite often I’m challenged by the Catholic Church as an institution. And one thing I’ve learned about my interfaith, Rachel, is that all the different faith traditions are human institutions, right? We had a wonderful nun, Sister Norma Rocklage, she was one of our first Center for Interfaith Cooperation board members — and at one of our trainings she said, “I’m pretty sure God was here before there was ever a mosque or a synagogue or a church or any temple that was there to worship him,” and I can even use gender-neutral language. I don’t think God… I think God transcends gender from my perspective. Again, a big part of how I follow my Christian understanding is I don’t have a firm grasp of who God is or how God represents. I look at almost every part of creation and say, “that’s a miracle that was given to us by God,” so I see God in everything. But I have a hard time actually articulating, “This is God. This is the message.” The one thing I love about Jesus Christ and his teaching is the other thing that Jesus said was so important when the scribes challenged him was “to love God with all your heart, soul, mind” but he also said, “love your neighbor as yourself.” And that’s the part that I can take to heart and I can go out and love my neighbors and my neighbors of all faiths, of all stripes, of nonbelievers and believers and try to understand this massive creation that I’m a part of. And so that’s how I try to understand my relationship with Jesus Christ through my relationship with my neighbors. And so it helped me shape it because in the Catholic Church time and again there are very challenging and troubling things that come from the Catholic Church – most recently, all the abuse scandals and how they’ve been covered up. And so that human institution, I have a lot of concerns about, doubts about, but I decided that I would like to be a change agent from within the Catholic Church, as opposed to outside, being critical. So I am a Catholic. I own that. I want to make the Catholic Church a better institution, truer to the Word, the way I understand the message of Jesus Christ. And so I picked Catholicism as a vehicle for me to try to understand and live my relationship with Jesus Christ.
Rachel: I completely understand that. I feel like I come from a similar viewpoint of just being uncertain in my faith which I’m completely comfortable with. And the fact that my faith… there’s no way, in my opinion, to know that it is the complete truth, that there’s a heaven, like being a Christian and all of this. But saying that somebody else is wrong… I just don’t understand how you can do that if it’s just built on uncertainty. I think that’s the point of faith in general: to take that step and invest in something that is so uncertain. Once you become certain about it, then it’s no longer faith.
Charlie: I call it “mystery.” When someone asks me, “Who is God? What is God?” I say, “that’s the mystery, right, that I’m trying to unfold and trying to unfold it again by following the example of Jesus Christ.” And of the two messages that he said were most important or the two laws that were most important, the one that I can follow is “love my neighbor as myself,” and I fall short every day. But that’s why I love, for instance, the Lord’s Prayer which again was handed down through our Jewish tradition. Jesus Christ was a wonderful follower of the Jewish tradition. He was a good adherent of Judaism when he lived here on the earth, so I’m sure that prayer – when the disciples asked him, “How should we pray to God?” and he gave them the Lord’s Prayer – came from Jewish tradition, so again part of that lineage and I love it: “forgive me for the things that I’ve done that are wrong and the things that I’ve failed to do that I could’ve done much better.” And that is a daily lesson for me.
Rachel: I completely understand. And then too, so some listeners may or may not have access to an interfaith community to uncover these differences and interconnectedness too, like with the Lord’s Prayer, so what would you say to somebody who sees somebody of a different religion as an “other,” and coming from a Catholic perspective, what would you say to de-“other” Catholicism, if that makes sense? What are some common misconceptions?
Charlie: So how could people be comfortable trying to learn from and understand Catholicism, and how would a person who follows a tradition deeply and faithfully engage someone else and learn about their tradition? I think a lot starts with curiosity. We’ve been talking about this a lot lately because of the heated rhetoric that’s in our society and some of the divisions. And we’ve seen god-awful violence, that’s been created, some people say, “in the name of religion,” whether that comes from Muslim tradition or Catholic tradition or Jewish tradition. And we see it everywhere. It’s just so disparaging. But I think one thing – and this is something I’ve noticed about most of the folks – we have nine different distinct faith traditions on the CIC board of directors and then with denominations, we probably have twenty-five different denominations, so it’s a rich gathering of people from all different traditions. But I think the one thing that’s required – and you mentioned it earlier – I think if your faith doesn’t teach you humility, then you probably would not have much interest in learning about other faith traditions or being part of a Center for Interfaith Cooperation. But I do feel like one of the first things I learned from my faith is humility – that I am a mortal human being, that I have a limited time on this planet, to be in this dimension of creation. And then again, to love my neighbor as myself requires humility. So I think that’s one of the ways that you could approach learning about someone else’s faith tradition. And just simply asking, “What is the joy of your tradition? What are your rituals? Why do you practice them? What does that mean when you put…” you know the Hindus put a Bindi, a small dot on their forehead. And if you can approach someone with humility, I think they can really tell that you’re curious and you just want to learn. I just went to a Diwali celebration on the request of someone who had visited one of our programs and said, “Come, come to the Diwali.” That’s the Hindu New Year. It’s the festival of lights – a lot of food. And it just felt so warm and inviting to be inside their temple, to see all these amazing sights and sounds and colors and all the different statues and how they see the divine manifest on this planet. And they offered me all kinds of wonderful vegetarian food, and I just sat down and ate and I soaked it all in. I think that’s probably one of the first steps: to be curious about someone else’s tradition. And then once you’ve built trust and relationship, I bet they’re going to be curious about what motivates you and your spirituality and your faith journey. And I think that there’s just so much to learn and to gain from one another if you can approach it that way.
Rachel: Yeah, so looking at Catholicism from your view, how would you define it?
Charlie: Catholicism. So I think there was a big split in the twelfth/fourteenth century. A church was not always defined as a brick and mortar building. The traditions of priest, I think, came along sometime late, maybe a millennium ago. So I think to go back to Catholicism, just go back to Peter, and how just spreading the Word and building a church is having organized groups of people. I truly believe in Luke’s story, the Easter story, the resurrection story, where Jesus came back and told the gathering, “Where two or more gather in my name, that’s me.” So when I try to understand the Trinity, I see God again as this infinite being with no beginning and no end – and again something I think I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to understand and comprehend – and the beauty all the creation provides; Jesus as a messenger; Jesus as the ultimate prophet; Jesus as, again, the guru, someone that you can model your life after and follow his example. And then when we put our hands together when we put our hearts and minds together and try to create a better community, a better society, when we try to help someone else, then we are the active Spirit that’s part of that Trinity. And so that’s how I see the Catholic Church. Now, when it started to form in Europe during tribal times before there were nation-states before there were governments, people gathered around the church as the way to build community, a way to keep records of births and deaths, as a way that you would be able to provide charity, or the way that you would be able to get atoned for your sins, and in a way to organize your life and understand “what is my role as a human being on this planet? Again, my relationship with the cosmos?” So I think the church in general and the Catholic Church at the time became the dominant force for
that, and as they started to build big temples with gold and high spires and everything, I think that was just a very attractive force, and still is today. People try to build bigger churches or bigger mosques or bigger synagogues to attract people. And particularly you think before there was any type of entertainment, right, what did you do? The church was the attractive thing, and that’s where righteous people went. So I think over time – and this is where I think it got a little corrupted – that became powerful; that became the source of power; that became the source of the money and the finer things in life. And you can almost look back at some of the legacies of some of the popes and I think human beings are easily seduced by power and money and all the things that that can bring in this planet. And so, far be it for me to judge people, but I kind of see that’s how people organized and how power was wielded back in those days. At some point, nation-states were formed, the Treaty of Westphalia, you know, the history of Europe coming out of the Middle Ages, in the terrible wars that were fought because of all of that and the power structures. So I think that’s where the Catholic Church has failed sometimes when they got too far involved in politics and government. But I do feel the message has always been the same. One of my favorite parts of our church services on Sunday is when we clasped hands. In our church, we still hold each other’s hands. I know my dad’s going to be on one side. I don’t know who’s going to be on the other side, and I always find that kind of exciting. And we recite the Lord’s Prayer, and the fact that that prayer has been recited again for millennia, for thousands of years, makes me feel connected to a tradition that goes back to Peter. And so that’s how I like to use the Catholic Church. Now, the Vatican and Michelangelo and the Sistine chapel and all that… I think those are all beautiful things. I think those are creations that human beings have made to try to glorify God. I think if you put too much stock in that, here for me and for my spiritual journey, that’s not the path that I want to follow. I want to follow the tradition where human beings come together in God’s name and try to create a better community.
Rachel: I like that focus on humanity. I think that’s important because often I struggle with seeing these institutions and, more or less, corrupting religion for their own gains and their own agendas. And sometimes that’s where I lose faith. The shift of the focus just causes me to rethink my own Christianity and everything of that sort, so that’s interesting that you brought that up, too. But looking at, just in general, faith and Christianity, are there some times that you may disagree with the institution or the faith itself or looking at what leaders of these faiths are speaking towards? And how do you reconcile with the differences in your own beliefs and the other adherents of these faiths?
Charlie: Very difficult, it’s very difficult. And I think it’s a constant challenge. And that’s why I always try to go back again to what I say: “the Word became flesh.” I try to go back to the gospel. I always feel like – and this is what I gain from my Jewish brothers and sisters – we come to church and people go to synagogue to hear the Word and to share the Word and to celebrate the Word. Because I don’t know how your church liturgy is organized, but we go to Catholic church and we say a welcoming prayer and we kind of get established and everything. Everything leads up to when we open the gospel and read the Word together as a group. That’s the climax. That’s the penultimate reason for being there: sharing the gospel in a community. And then our priest… I like our priest. He does a very good job of trying to explain the Word and how that Word should help us become better human beings when we leave church and for the coming week, right? So that’s what I see as the good thing. The challenging thing is, like you said when it becomes about judgment. And I’m as guilty as anybody because as much as I want to say the institution is corrupted, I see how the institution can be very good, and I contribute to the institution. I do make a very modest contribution every year to keep the church walls up and
standing. But I do get so challenged when I hear the bickering that goes on, the accusations that are launched back and forth, the cover-ups that have happened because of the scandals, the fact that we will put more time and energy into trying to sustain an edifice or a church or a building and not put that focus on “how can we create a better society? Why can’t we share?” I love the edicts that come from the Pope about how budgets are sacred things and that there should be no reason that someone would go hungry or lack healthcare, lack proper shelter or education for young people. That shouldn’t happen in this planet. And so we’re not fulfilling our ultimate purpose, I think, which is to create a better humanity, and so that’s frustrating. I think the church could do a better job. I know I could do a better job. I think our society and our government could do a better job. I’m hoping that our religious motivations, our religious teachings from all different groups – because I think all different groups say similar things: we should be serving others; that’s our ultimate goal as human beings – can lead us to that point what we do form governments and we do challenge our religious and government leaders to say “let’s get about the real business, not building buildings or bigger armaments or building walls around our community, but building a better opportunity for everybody to have just a very basic reasonable healthy life where they can educate their children and contribute meaningfully and be taken care of when they’re no longer able.”
Rachel: I like that refocus, definitely. And concluding too, so looking at the Center for Interfaith Cooperation and say somebody wants to become involved. What are some of the best ways to do that?
Charlie: We have a website. That’s such a great way to communicate, and people can go on the website. It’s pretty thick. It’s got lots of things. One of our main mission statements is to promote anything in the community that’s going on where people can feel comfortable to go and learn about another faith tradition. So whether that’s a film – we do a film series, actually in conjunction with Butler University where we are today, and the films have some type of religious dimension to them. After the film’s over, we have a conversation. I know you led one of those one time. So we think that’s one way someone could be interested and learn and talk to other people about some of the things they’re curious about in their own spiritual journey and how they coincide with others. And we have everything even more in depth: going to visit houses of worship. We’re putting together a schedule for the spring where people can visit different houses of worship. We had two Spirit In Place events last week. One was religious women speaking out about women’s role in society and how that’s an evolving role and some of the challenges they’re facing. We had another one just about food, just about the food hummus and how hummus is shared by many different cultures and for many different religions and how that can be contentious and how that can be a very nice way to bring people together to break bread at a table. And we explored both. So we do take on some of the edgy topics, but we try to do it through a common mechanism, like food, like religious practice. We try to celebrate different religions. So I mentioned there was a Diwali celebration, the Hindu New Year. We have a very vibrant Hindu community in Indianapolis, and it’s a great way to visit and start a conversation with someone that might be Hindu or some neighbor or a coworker or someone at your school or someone on your soccer league or someone you might run into at the grocery store. So again we try to create lots of opportunities where people can start to explore the different religions that all call central Indiana “home,” and we really try to fashion it in a way where it can enhance your own faith journey. And I think to a person, anyone who visits and participates in our program says, “That was interesting. That made me more curious about my own faith journey.” It had them become a deeper adherent in their own religion and not necessarily challenge them to move to another. I think that’s a very very rare case when someone would visit one of our programs and then join a different faith tradition. But if they do, more power to do them. But that is rare. In fact, I’ve never heard it happen in the seven years we’ve been in existence.
Rachel: Very cool. Well, thank you so much for joining us. And I know I’ve really enjoyed my internship with the Center for Interfaith Cooperation and would recommend for anybody to come to any of the certain events that they put on. But again, thank you so much for being here.
Charlie: Thank you. That was good.Tags: charlie wiles, dynamics of interfaith, interview, podcast, Rachel Koehler