Interfaith Inspiration

POEM: a call to you who is me 


On the weekend of October 13-15, over five hundred academics, students, funders, non-profit leaders and organizers gathered at the 9th Annual National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation in Atlanta, Georgia.

I was asked to help kick off the opening plenary and offered a personal reflection and prayer for our work and our work ahead.  

Read the poem below or listen to Kevin Coval read it in the audio version.

a call to you who is me  


i want to take a deep breath  

a step back  

or i want to jump back 

and kiss myself  

as James Brown adlibs  

on Super Bad 

i got soul 

meaning light 

the divine spark  


Jews call this spark Ayin 

the eternal flame 

which each carry  

a bit of it and return  

to the source once 

we are done with this  

physical existence 


Muslims think of it as breath 

as Ruh – the divine breath 

Allah exhales into each of us like a flute 

like Eric Dolphy, Yusef Lateef and Nikki Mitchell  

for all my jazz heads 


i want to care for that spark 

the divine breath in all, in each of us 

care for it in others 

which means  

i must also care for it within myself 




i want to commend you  

for your courage  


in being  

and being here today 

to return to this work 

and reconnect with oneself 

and one another  


it’s time to gut check 

and reapply first principals 


go back and remember  

why we started building 

dialoging in the beginning 


for me 

it was the block i was born on 

Jews in sea of Black folks and Puerto Ricans 

New Town it was called on the Northside of Chicago 


my pops saved the neighbor’s dog who was hit by a car 

the neighbor was a general of a Chicago street organization called The Latin Kings 

he blessed my family to have safe passage after that 

and i walked a neighborhood over  

to my Jewish day school 

and thought the world could be a bridge 

because there was one in my life 



the far poles of extremism curl back toward each other. 

a purity of race or a purity of thought – both fascistic  

as if there were no grey 

no jumbled messy brilliant middle  

where there are questions and discovery  

where there is patience and misunderstanding 


we have been ushered into an era of radical un-listening 

social media is neither social  

nor media 


and i am no conspiracy theorist  

but who benefits from our divisiveness? 


i am struggling and reflecting on this today: 


why are we so afraid of a conversation? 


afraid to sit and breath and break bread 

and build with someone not exactly like ourselves 


could it be  

we are afraid to learn  

we might be wrong  

our view limited  

our foundation challenged 

everything we know or knew  

shook –  


like when i found Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States 

in the public library – thank the Most High for the library – for public institutions  

where ideas are FREE and free – and i read  

sitting cross legged that Columbus was on some f— shit 

after all the sail the ocean blue indoctrination  

dude was not the one to point us in the right direction 

and i was like dayyyyyyum 


so which way are we going? 



i call upon our bridge builders 

our peace makers 

renew your vow  

to what you are called to do 


there is difficult work ahead 

and the world needs you NOW 

to show up in a big way 

and hold the humane middle 

we cannot let the loudest shout us away from our principals  

or deter us from our path 


it is dangerous to build  

to reconcile  


listening can get you in trouble  


recommit to extending the conversation  

invite more people in  

to listen and listen. and talk and listen  

and gather.  


at Interfaith America  

the org – i work with and helped to start over 20 years ago 

our vision is a potluck nation 

where everyone brings a dish to the table 

with their own flavor and spices 

their own style and masala 

where we are feed by the diversity of the plates  

people unlike ourselves offer 


it is our job to build the table 

to invite people to gather  

and sit and bring a dish to share 

and not poison those you are feeding 


a Nation is not just the differences we like 

there will be some tastes at the table we may find off putting 

some offal that’s awful  

foul by our standards 

which means we might not we have to eat it 


but can we build a stomach for it  


can we at least focus on the sublime key lime coconut pie someone’s Auntie made? 


there are radical differences between us  

and yet there are universal moments and feelings and desires 

we do share.  

a prayer, a laugh, a hope, a hug 

a desire to sit in your grandmother’s kitchen with something warm on the stove. 


i call upon the story tellers 

the peace makers  

the bridge builders  

to articulate our specificity  

in order to glimpse our universality.  


remind us of the small l in the liberal ideal.  

there are things we all want and need 

and desire and deserve. 

each of us 

all our tribes and peoples 

across the board and border. 


and i can’t believe i’m going to say this shit 


i do think there are good people on both sides 

and i think good is subjective 

and relative 

and our work in part  

is to understand the parts 

and whole  

and holy 

and that good itself 

is a false duality 

as the Buddhist brothers and sisters have taught me  


we are a wild spectrum of humanity 

we are fluid, complex imperfect creatures  

who obliterate the binary  

who exist beyond the polarities 


extremists seek to keep us divided  

on some cointelpro shit 


but we are universes on to ourselves  

each of us going through the known 

and unknown  

isolated until we reach out 

until we ask  

or talk  

or sit with someone to confide 

and not hide our hand or our heart. 


it is dangerous to say peace in this climate 

to build in this climate   

and suggest our future is wound together 

that we are connected  

that we are inter-connected 

our being an Inter-Being as Thich Nhất Hanh might say. 


there is an elephant in the room  

and there are other animals in the zoo. 

perhaps we try to gather and not talk  

about what harms us from jump street.  

perhaps we try to build 

we try to bridge 

we try to look in each other’s eyes 

and see ourselves.  

yourself a reflection  

or refraction of my self 


why do we think water reflects the sky 

or is it the other way around  


people are not their governments 

not the extremist groups that falsely represent them 


we are more 

we are much more 


now is the time  

to accelerate our work  

as bridge builders  


we are the doctors of this moment  

not the patients  


we ask for patience. 

we see and seek humanity  

everywhere and offer a conversation  


to try to ensure shit like this doesn’t happen  


or at all. 


we want to put people in relationship to one another  


diverse identities and divergent ideologies.  

we don’t have to choose between false dualities.  


i see you  

i hear you  

i see you  

i hear you & i to want to be seen. 


i am distrustful of those who do not show kindness & compassion.  

compassion a key ingredient of this work. 

our humanity is being lost in the encampment and balkanization of the polarities 


our imagination can offer a better world  

a more just and humane society  

a democracy for all.  


the town center is crumbling  

we need to talk with those not in the choir 

see them as humans with histories  


get offline  

get into a third space  

the dwindling American institution 

and be relational with people not like yourself. 


twitter finger warriors 

how easy it is to destroy  


our job is to build 


or as i was taught in Hebrew school  

Tikkun Olam  

to repair the world 

to make it whole and holy 


As Salam Alaikum 

Shalom Aleichem 


and make peace  

and peace  

and peace  

and peace  

Kevin Coval is a Senior Advisor at Interfaith America.