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Methodist summer community has become a site for interfaith unity, respect

The community of Thousand Island Park, N.Y., founded as a Methodist retreat and revival center is also the gathering point for followers of Swami Vivekananda, one of the early promoters of interfaith unity and respect.

This summer, at the 150th birthday of Swami Vivekananda, the Rev. Jim Brown, pastor emeritus of the Market Square Presbyterian Church in Harrisburg, Pa., spoke of “the marvel and mystery of universal sisterhood and brotherhood in the midst of the gaping wounds of the world.”

Interfaith Community at Thousand Island Park, New York

Swami Yuktatmananda, the Rev. Jim Brown, and Swami Kripamayananda join in service celebrating the influence of Swami Vivekananda during his four years in North America.

So in the midst of people on summer vacations—as happens at camps, vacation Bible schools, retreat centers, assemblies and other gatherings—there was a call to bring healing and mercy to the world.

Jim said Swami Vivehananda saw faiths “as different streams mingling in the sea” and “different paths all leading to God.”

Swami Kripamayananda, the spiritual leader of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center in New York City, prayed that God “lead us from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light and from death to immortality” so that there will be peace for all.

He recalled that Swami Vivekananda’s presence at Thousand Island Park 117 years ago left a spiritual legacy.  He was in the United States from 1883 to 1897, starting at the Parliament on World Religions at the World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, and then lecturing through North America and establishing the center in New York City.

In 1895, he came to Thousand Island Park for respite from his lecture schedule, bringing 12 students, giving classes to share the “deep nectar of spirituality,” sometimes teaching until dawn.

Jim spoke on the words of Polish-American Jewish theologian, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “No religion is an island.”

“Religious isolation is a myth,” said Jim, noting that the awareness of that truth is “dawning slowly, because it’s easier to cling to our own faith as the only way.”

He said Swami Vivekananda was a prophet ahead of his time at the Parliament of World Religions, which was more an ecumenical gathering than an interfaith one. English-speaking Christians gave 152 of 194 papers. 

 Other religions represented included Confucianism, Taoism, Shintoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jain, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, plus religious movements of Spiritualism and Christian Science.

Jim said it was an early attempt to create global dialogue among the faiths.  Swami Vivekananda, 32, representing India and Hinduism, spoke on the first day and two other times to thousands, saying that his faith taught both tolerance and universal acceptance.

Even though Presbyterian John Henry Barrows headed the organizing committee, his church’s General Assembly in 1892 passed a resolution against the gathering.  Many in the European Roman Catholic hierarchy and in North American Evangelical churches opposed it, as did the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury.

The parliament sought to show the common and differing truths of various religions without seeking any formal unity.

Jim said Swami Vivekananda pointed to the “ultimate reality in all religions,” and said this was a turning point, inviting the western world to enter into an understanding of pluralism.

Thousand Island Park, once the Mecca of Methodists, became a place of pluralism,” Jim said.  “Some questioned that pluralism was relativism.  Instead it is a prerequisite for interfaith dialogue.

“Each participant has to have a strong faith to share it in dialogue,” he affirmed.  “We can see God’s love shining in the face of others and have reverence for those on other paths, yet remain loyal to our own religions.”

The value of sharing the heart, face, voice, hopes and fears of one’s faith is to strengthen one’s capacity to understand, he said.  “I thank God for the tradition of pluralism rooted in Thousand Island Park.  Here, we can come face-to-face with each other.”

Swami Kripemayananda, spiritual leader of the Vedanta Society of Toronto, Canada, said Swami Vivekananda as a world teacher sought to “melt the suffering of the world.”

He taught:  1) non-reality of reality; 2) divinity of the soul through service and spirituality, 3) morality vs. materialism and 4) the unity and harmony of religions.  He also taught that love never fails, challenging people to love and serve their brothers and sisters as part of seeking God.

Swami Vivekananda taught that countries rise or fall based on their emphasis on spirituality and morality, recognizing that souls change as people are prepared to suffer and care for “the afflicted and poor of all races.”

Clayton Butler, author of Thousand Island Park: The Story of an American Eden, described the development of Thousand Island Park in the era of camp revival meetings after the Civil War, to save souls in “the cathedral of nature,” where people improved spiritually, mentally and physically.

“By the time Swami Vivekananda came, Thousand Island Park was a hub of non-dogmatic religious programs,” Clayton said.  “It was a community of Sunday school teachers, students, thinking men and women, and mission society members.

“Swami Vivekananda wanted to make each expression of faith better,” he said.