From Buddhism to Baha'i: Black Faith Spreads Across All Religions

Most African-Americans have historically embraced Christianity as their religion. But host Michel Martin hears stories that show the broad diversity of faith experiences for African-Americans.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's turn to Faith Matters now. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of religion, faith and spirituality. It's Black History Month, so that got us thinking about the importance of faith to African-Americans throughout history and to this day. But a recent piece in the Huffington Post's religion section also got us thinking about how that faith practice is much more diverse than many people might realize.

The editor solicited comments from people who practice everything from Orthodox Judaism to Paganism, to Buddism, to the Baha'i faith. Of course, we wanted to know more so we called a couple of the people featured in the piece and asked them to describe their spiritual journeys. We got in touch with Timothy Conley, who's a member of the Baha'i faith, Buddhist meditation leader Gina Sharpe, Jewish rapper Yitz Jordan. But first, we hear from Debbie Goddard, who calls herself a humanist.

DEBBIE GODDARD: When my family moved to the suburbs when I was a teenager, I stopped hanging out with black people. My suburb was primarily white. So I looked forward to going to Temple University, in Philadelphia. It's a very, very diverse campus. I made black friends again. Then I tried to start an atheist club, basically. And I asked some of my black friends if they'd be involved. And that's when I got the most pushback - when my friends who were involved in African-American studies told me that atheism and humanism were harmful, eurocentric ideologies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GODDARD: And I had no response at the time. Everything that I had learned about humanism and atheism, all the faces that I had seen in the magazines and the books I was reading, were white men. And that really shook me. I thought maybe I'm wrong, maybe I've been snookered. (Laughter) And in some conversations with a couple of my close friends, you know, they basically said that if I accepted humanism, then I was turning my back on my race. And that was very upsetting to me. (Laughter) I actually am quite upset.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TIMOTHY CONLEY: My name is Timothy Conley. What attracted me right away about the Baha'i faith was the thought process of unity in some of the major Baha'i principles. And that was very different from what I grew up with. It was the first faith tradition I had discovered that felt that all the different major religions of the world are connected through divine teachers who had come to this world, such as Muhammad or Jesus or Buddha or in the Baha'i tradition, Baha'u'llah - etc., etc. So those were very attractive things to me. And I was looking for a faith tradition where I could really study and learn, and I felt that the Baha'i tradition was opening that bridge for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONLEY: I jokingly say I still know how to speak fundamental and evangelical. I mean, it's the world I came from. I was - at one point, when I was 19 years old, studying to be a minister while briefly attending the University of Oklahoma. I was in the Bible Belt. So it was easy for me to be surrounded in that energy. But for the family members that I've discussed it with, they've pretty much only asked me questions. They call it my Baha'i thing - (Laughter) - you know, whatever that means.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GINA SHARPE: Hi, my name is Gina Sharp. I teach Buddhist meditation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHARPE: I encountered the teachings of the Buddha decades ago, and essentially fell in love with the possibility of transcendent transformation that they offered. When I say transcendent transformation, what I mean is to be able to see into the causes of suffering in my own life. And so the teachings of the Buddha essentially bring us back to being so attentive and so connected to the way we're moving in the world, that we have the possibility of shifting and transforming our relationship to what is happening in such a way that we're not causing our own suffering or the suffering of others.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS UNITY")

YITZ JORDAN: Yitz Jordan.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS UNITY")

JORDAN: I grew up listening to hard rock and heavy metal music, predominately. Hip-hop, for me, was something that was on the radio. And also, being gay, that kind of exacerbated that because the hip-hop community in the '90s was the most homophobic place. You were persona non grata in the hip-hop show, if you were out and gay at the time.

So hip-hop, for me, wasn't even something I really considered until conversion. And then my first year in yeshiva, the guy that they gave me to learn with was a rapper from Long Island, and he and I began to freestyle as a way to learn Talmud better.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS UNITY")

JORDAN: My mother passed away in 2004. And when I was growing up, my mom would say a lot of the things that I would hear in the hood - you know, you'll never be accepted by the Jewish community; they'll never consider you one of them. And to a certain extent, she was right. Like, I had to deal with a lot of racism in the Jewish world when I first became Orthodox. It took me a long time to find an apartment; it took me a long time to find a job; there was a lot of discrimination.

But ultimately, how much did the Jewish community accept me? In 2004, it would be the donations from the Jewish community which would pay for her funeral. So not only did they accept me, they accepted her too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS UNITY")

JORDAN: Before, anyone who was a black Jew was considered as having bridged two communities; that these were two mutually exclusive identities, and that there were people who were bringing them together. Now, you know, with that "Black and Jewish" video that made its rounds on YouTube, everybody's seen Drake's bar mitzvah, now you can get kosher chicken in Crown Heights. Black Jews have become just as much of a subsection of the Jewish community just like Ashkenazi or Sephardi Jews or Israeli Jews, or anything like that. And our culture is starting to be celebrated, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS UNITY")

MARTIN: That was Yitz Jordan. You just heard his track "This is Unity." We also heard from Debbie Goddard, Timothy Conley and Gina Sharpe, telling us about their faith journeys.

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