Editor’s note: This Q&A has been adapted from the podcast “Interfaith America with Eboo Patel.” Patel is a Deseret contributor.

I first met john powell in 2019. We had lunch near the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, where he is a professor, and I was taken by the combination of his kindness, his calm demeanor and his wisdom. Simply being in his presence made me want to be a better person, not in a way that made me feel bad or guilty, but in a way that made me feel the possibilities of being human, of the things that we are all capable of. 

For john, who spells his name with all lower-case letters, the most important of those things is bridging, connecting with other people in a way that helps them feel like they belong and helps you feel like you belong, because being human means we belong together. 

The unique spelling of his name is john’s way of signifying that we humans are part of the universe, not over it. That seems fitting in his work as the director of the Othering and Belonging Institute at U.C. Berkeley. 

We know each other through a variety of groups that focus on bridging, including New Pluralists where john is viewed as an Obi-Wan Kenobi figure to people who want to be Jedis when building bridges across our difference. When he was a guest on my podcast, we talked about the religious ideas that underpin his commitment to bridging. I also asked him about his father and the really tough things they experienced together. 

His father’s rigid understanding of faith excluded him at a very tender time in his life, and yet john does not end up rejecting his father or faith. Instead, he realizes how powerful a force faith can be, and he seeks a type of faith that expands the circle of belonging rather than contracts it. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Eboo Patel: What was the crux of the rupture with your father? 

john powell: My father was a minister of Church of Christ, and the church was not something he did on Sunday; the church was his life. Religion worked for him. You see someone who talks about religion, but you don’t see it manifest in their life. It really was how he experienced his life and the whole family. 

I was born in the church. I didn’t join it, I was born in it, but I was also very curious — what we might even call intellectual, but I didn’t think of this as intellectual. I was curious about the world, curious about people and an early reader. When I was 8 or 9 years old, I started reading about the Chinese and other parts of the world. From my reading, it became clear to me that they were not going to be part of the Christian faith. 

I lived in Detroit in a Black community, so I’d never even seen a Chinese (person) in real life. I had this deep concern, and it’s like almost a billion people, that they were going to go to hell.

At the end of every sermon at the church, every Sunday, the minister or person giving the sermon would say, “Does anyone have any questions?” Later I would come to understand that was a rhetorical question … no one had ever asked a question in my entire 11 years of being in the church as I can recall. I stood up, and there was an audible gasp, and the minister, he said, “That’s all right, that’s all right, Brother powell, what’s your question?” I said, “What’s going to happen to the Chinese?” He fumbled around for about five minutes trying to find something in the Bible that helped assuage my concern. It ended up, he said, “Don’t worry about it.” I never went back to church. 

EP: Sounds like the beginning of a rupture. 

jp: That was the rupture, and my father, to him, as he understood the church doctrine, if someone fell away, you were not supposed to have fellowship with them. Literally for the next four or five years, my father and I did not have fellowship. That was very painful and very important in terms of my growth, and so I’m at a very critical stage in my life in the sense that I had been in this cocoon of love and relationship, and very close to my family, and it was ruptured. 

There were periods of time when I didn’t even know if I would emotionally or psychologically survive. It took years to heal, but when I came out of it, when he came out of it, I was a different person. In a sense, I had grown up in the house with my family, but not with my family. On Sundays they would run to the car for the church and they would leave me a list of chores to do to make sure that I wasn’t just enjoying myself. It’s like a bad movie in a sense. This is, again, a family that was just deeply grounded and embedded in love. 

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EP: Is this the beginning of john powell, the bridge-builder? 

jp: I think it was, and in some ways, my first response, which you might imagine was just being (angry), not bridging at all. But also still searching, and so in a way, having been pushed out of one set of ways of approaching life and not having a community where community was extremely important, I started searching, not just for people, but for some ideas, some ways of experiencing the world that made sense to me. 

It’s not that (the Chinese) were going to hell; from my perspective, it’s that they never had a chance to doing anything different. They never had a chance to actually even adopt the Christian faith. If that had been the case, I don’t think I’d have ever left. I wasn’t overly concerned about, “the sinner” that was going to hell who lived down the street from the church but choose not to go, but I was very concerned about a whole group of people that I never knew personally. 

EP: You come to the world with a mindset of “I insist on seeing your gifts.” Does a spiritual practice help you to cultivate that? 

jp: Sure. It’s interesting. One of the roles of religion is to help give meaning and purpose to life. My meaning and purpose had been disrupted. As I got older, I started looking, like a lot of people. I tried peyote. (I thought) there has to be more than what’s presented to us. I ended up going to India, to Thailand, to Japan. I started looking at different religious and faith practices, and ended up incorporating some into my own life. Part of my practice is what we would call meditation. I’ve been doing that now since 1968, ’69. I’m a vegetarian, partially because of my understanding of life and trying to do the least amount of harm. I know we will do harm in life; we exchange life and death as we live, but I try to do the least amount of harm. In these various practices, I’ve met really, really profoundly loving and wise people. I’ve met people who are a little further on the path than I was or I am. 

EP: You say, at one point, “Black Lives Matter is another way of saying we belong.” The set of people, white people, who are concerned about the cultural changes in the nation as it becomes ever so slightly more equal and dramatically more diverse, that concern and anxiety we ought to take seriously because they belong, too. 

You say this in a way that doesn’t make people mad. How do you do that? 

jp: In a sense, I think people can feel love. Even if you don’t say it. We all want to be seen, and we have capacity sometimes, to acknowledge that we’re seeing someone else. Seeing someone doesn’t mean you agree with them and doesn’t mean you can necessarily like them.

In the Black community, sometimes when someone says something, someone says, “I feel you.” It’s the same thing: I feel you. When a person is felt, what they’re saying, then it’s like, I can exhale. 

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EP: That’s cutting against some of the ethos of our times, which is if you feel unseen, you don’t have to see people. If you feel walked on, you don’t have to lay yourself down. You don’t have to do that kind of work. You are telling us we should do it.

jp: Bridging is actually essential, not just with our families, but we talk about long bridges and short bridges. The short bridges — our family, our friends that we’ve had a falling out with — it’s relatively easy. Not easy, but relatively easy. Long bridges are really hard. I think in some ways where we define the place where we won’t go any further in terms of bridges, we define the boundaries of our growth. I’m not going to bridge beyond here means I’m not going to grow beyond here. 

Let’s remember: We all want to grow. The essence of our spiritual and religious practice is about growth. It’s about being not away from the world. 

Eboo Patel, the founder and president of Interfaith America, is a contributing writer for the Deseret News, the author of “We Need to Build: Field Notes for a Diverse Democracy” and the host of the podcast “Interfaith America with Eboo Patel.” The full episode of this podcast is available on Interfaith AmericaSpotify and Apple.

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