08/01/2014 02:25 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2014

'Out of Many, One'

In 1782 an act of Congress determined that the latin phrase "e pluribus unum" would become the motto of a fledgling nation. With a single act, a phrase which previously signified the diversity of articles published in a revolutionary magazine became epithet of a radical idea-The United States of America.

In the 233 years since then, the phrase has come to signify all manner of things, from a plurality of political perspectives to the more formal version of the "melting pot" idiom that is so often used to describe the remarkable diversity of people who have at one point or another considered themselves "American." In her book on the religious history of America, Catherine Albanese uses the idea of "out of many, one" to speak of "many-ness" and "one-ness" as a lens through which to understand the plurality and vitality of American religious experience.

It's been sixteen years since I read those words in an undergraduate religion class, but it has taken me at least that long to experience the fullness of this rich and profound idea. A few weeks ago I was fortunate to be a part of the Millennial Leaders Pilot Conference at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. I was one of a group of forty folks aged between 20-35 who are working across the country on a variety of issues and find a sense of calling or compulsion from some deep place of spirituality. Let me be as clear as possible-I do not believe it is possible to have a more diverse representation of the human experience in one age bracket in this country. There were Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Humanists and Atheist/Agnostics. There were people of diverse nationalities, races, ethnicities and sexual orientations. There were those working passionately for the environment and climate change, reforming the criminal justice system, racial and economic justice, immigration, workers rights, women's rights, interfaith collaboration and many more.There was a great deal of "many-ness"--so much so that under ordinary, random circumstances--say the people you ride the bus with or stand in line at the grocery store with--there should really be no connective tissue, no common purpose or identity. And therein lies the beauty.

Over the few days of intense conversation, study, song and reflection, the issues we each brought and the passion and ardor with which we brought them gave way to a collective identity. Hearing about solutions for persons struggling with homelessness in Oregon or healing practices with victims of domestic violence in New York became more than just a "Best Practices" meeting or a conference where you furiously scribble down ideas and websites to plagiarize and cannibalize programming from the people on the platform. It became a place for sharing stories and for recognizing a shared story-one of Shalom, wholeness, completion, "reminding the world of it's loveliness", taqwa. Many-ness birthing one-ness.

Let be completely transparent. This doesn't happen easily. It takes work and willingness to see past our own experiences. It is always a risk to encounter "other-ness". We risk being wrong. We risk making assumptions. We risk showing our bias, those unconverted corners of our own soul where experience and pain have generated cobwebs of resentment. There's a word for that kind of risk. It's called "learning".

And as we learn from the stories of others, something new starts to emerge. We start to create, to think, to dream. We focus more on what can be done with what we already have than on what don't have that we wish we did. We move from a place of scarcity to a place of abundance. We move from "I" to "Thou", from a sense of self to a sense of community.

This happened at this unique place and time because some leaders at Union Seminary felt that such a conversation was necessary in our increasingly polarized and exponentially derisive public discourse. It happened because people gave time and money and effort to make it happen. It happened because those who participated were willing to sit at the table and risk something new for something great.

In the best moments of this unique country, this same spirit is present. In the face of tragedy or crisis, many-ness often gives way to one-ness. But why is it only in times of crisis that this peculiar strength, this confederation of differences, occurs?

Why not talk about the large problems--the injustices and the inequities, the broken systems and the failing structures, the grieving families and the grieving planet--why not discuss these before the next shortage, the next victim, the next chemical spill, the next death? Why not start right now?

One-ness simply will not get us there. It never has. Isolation leads us to believe "good fences make good neighbors" but it cannot create community. It incubates fear instead of hope, scarcity over abundance, lack over potential. But another way is possible.

One of my mentors once said "What happens to you makes a difference to me." This simple shift--from one-ness to many-ness--is a central belief to my own Christian faith and yet it is equally central to my humanist, Muslim, Sikh, Jewish and Hindu friends. Together we dream a world anew. Together we build that world--one stone, one heart, one hope at a time.