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On the Origin of Interfaith Laughter Night
Thomas C. Willadsen

Planning my community’s annual interfaith Thanksgiving gathering brought me some surprises. My hope for the event was that it would include a wide variety of religious traditions, and in Oshkosh, Wisconsin variety can be hard to find. Eighty percent of Wisconsinites are either Lutheran or Roman Catholic. I started by meeting leaders of different faiths for coffee.

First I met Saad at Starbucks. Saad is a member of a small Islamic group in town. We drank our coffee and found that we have a lot of things in common. Both of us:

are married,
drink coffee,
are in our mid-forties,
have kids in public schools,
work too many hours,
graduated from Big Ten schools,
grew up in places that start with P. [Saad’s from Pakistan, I’m from Peoria.],
we are both active in faith communities.

Willadsen

And both of our faith communities bought funeral homes! In the case of my congregation, we were fortunate to have the money to buy the funeral home that had been next door to our building since 1915. They were losing business because they did not have an onsite crematorium. They built a new, modern facility on the far side of town, and my congregation bought their building, tore it down, and now we have “The Green Space” for congregational events.

Saad’s community bought a funeral home that was underused. It is on a busy street, across from a high school. The neighbors were very anxious about the Muslims moving in. The neighbors did not want to hear car doors slamming. Apparently people who attend funerals do not slam their car doors, but who knows about Muslims? The pastor of a church down the street from the funeral home raised questions about drainage. In recent years, Oshkosh has suffered several flash floods; drainage is on everyone’s mind. Still, I was baffled why the pastor thought this was a reason to block Saad’s community from purchasing the funeral home. “Do Muslims drain differently from Christians?” I wondered. There really is not a polite way to ask that question.

After spending two hours with Saad, we both decided to head home to our families. As I was putting on my jacket I said, “Saad, I’ve laughed a lot tonight. Are you always this funny?”

“Well, my wife does not think so.”

“Neither does mine! There’s something else we have in common!”

A few days later I met a Witch for lunch. I had never met a Witch before, though I am pretty sure that my high school English teacher who assigned Ivanhoe over Christmas break qualifies. I was not apprehensive about meeting a Witch, but I had my doubts about this particular religious tradition. Do Witches go to seminary? Are they licensed, accredited, ordained? As we tucked into our quesadillas and started to get to know each other, she said, “We tell jokes about ourselves.”

Snap! In that instant her tradition became authentic to me, and I trusted my new friend. We had a great time meeting each other. Before we returned to our offices, we wrote a joke together.

A Presbyterian minister and a Witch walk into a bar.
Minister says, “Gimme a brew.”
Witch says, “That’s my line!”

I was puzzled that telling jokes at one’s expense validated this religious tradition in my mind. It is not a conclusion that makes obvious sense. As I pondered this idea for the next few days I came up with some theories. People who can tell jokes about themselves can see themselves from other perspectives. They understand that to others their beliefs might seem nutty, and in acknowledging their own nuttiness they allow others to be nutty in their own ways. They are confident with their beliefs, but also tolerant and accepting of the beliefs that others hold. I like to think of this as 38 Special Theology, as those wild-eyed Southern rock star theologians sang in the 1980s, people who can take a joke “hold on loosely” to their identity, leaving themselves room to grow.

Being able to laugh at oneself is the best antidote to fanaticism. Usually when religion is in the news it is because of the actions of individuals who are certain that they are both right and righteous. It is not their sense of righteousness, but their certainty that makes their religion dangerous. I’m pretty sure no one ever shouted, “I could be wrong!” before detonating his backpack of explosives in a crowded market or setting fire to a stack of holy books.

As I met leaders of other faith traditions in my community, I started to expect that we would laugh. I realized that laughter was a way to build connections with people. After we had laughed together over coffee we were ready to plan our community’s Thanksgiving festival. Laughter has subtle power to bring people together. Laughter’s power can be used to harm others. Everyone has known the pain of being laughed at as opposed to laughed with. Ridicule and mocking can be as hurtful as verbal abuse so humor must be used carefully, even gently. But when used well, humor does so much good.

We held the Thanksgiving event at the Grand Opera House in downtown Oshkosh. It is a beautiful building, an architectural gem. It is the only building on the National Register of Historic Places that was once a pornographic movie theater. (In a small town one takes one’s distinction where one can.) Since “the Grand” is owned by the city, it is no one’s sacred space. A week before the event the Grand’s community-relations staffer called me and asked if he should open the concession stand.

“Wow, I don’t know, that’s really complicated,” I began. “See, I am not sure any priests will be taking part, and since this is an interfaith gathering…wait, did you say ‘confession’ or ‘concession’?”

“Concession.”

We managed to assemble leaders from eleven different faith communities on stage at the Grand, without concessions or confessions.

More than two hundred people attended the festival on a night when “wintry mix” was falling. The Thanksgiving festival was the foundation on which Interfaith Laughter Night was built.

 

The Rev. Thomas C. Willadsen is pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. This column is an excerpt from his recent book OMG! LOL!: Faith and Laughter available in September 2012 from Gemma Publishing (Reprinted with permission).

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