A Note from the Executive Producer

When people ask me what I do, I have several choices. I can say author, producer, pastor, musician, or painting contractor. Since none of these apply to what I do all the time I created a category that does: spiritual anthropologist.

Once I utter those words, their eyes light up and they typically ask, “What’s that?” to which I respond, “I’m curious about how people navigate life spiritually . . . or not.” Being an amateur spiritual anthropologist provides me the opportunity to inquire into subjects people don’t get to talk about enough. Think of me as a spiritual sleuth.

In my capacity as a spiritual anthropologist, I’m particularly interested in people who are attempting to expand the definition of spirituality to include something more than beliefs. Beliefs alone are inadequate to sustain spiritual development. What’s missing, it seems, are practitioners—people who do things, try things, take risks, test limits, and open themselves to criticism from keepers of the status quo.

As a provocateur I’ve made a habit of encouraging people to explore unconventional ideas, go where they’re not comfortable, and think thoughts they’ve never thought before. It was this muse that motivated me to ask an Atheist named Matt Casper to join me in writing church reviews (think movie or restaurant reviews) for a book I wanted to write—Jim and Casper Go to Church.

It was that book which prompted Pastor Jim Powell in Peoria, Illinois, to call me in May of 2016. He had read Jim and Casper Go to Church and thought I might be interested in hearing a story about an unlikely friendship between himself and two other spiritual leaders in Peoria, Rabbi Daniel Bogard and Imam Kamil Mufti. It turns out that Daniel, Jim, and Kamil share a relationship that’s as uncommon as the one I share with my Atheist friend Matt.

As a producer I take meaning makers public, so when I heard Jim’s story I knew I had to be involved. I also knew that telling this story properly would require more than just writing a book.

In the past, even the very recent past, most of us would discover a story like this by picking up a book at a bookstore. Today that engagement typically begins on a smartphone. We read a Facebook post that one of our “friends” posts with a short video clip. We watch the clip and click on a link that says “Tell me more.” That click has replaced the trip to the bookstore and has become the first step on the new media path we travel as we click our way toward the book.

That’s why I called my production team together. I wanted to see if they agreed about the viability of this story—the importance of it. I wanted to see if they were willing to take a quick trip out to Peoria to meet Daniel, Jim, and Kamil (a.k.a. the Peoria Three), to shoot a few interviews, take some notes, and see if we thought we could put together a documentary film, a book, and a show.

We’d originally agreed to take on this production as a side project. My team and I have other clients and projects requiring our time and attention. We decided we would get to it as we had time, and figured it would take about twelve months to complete. However, as the political environment heated up and the anti-Muslim rhetoric and general fear surrounding immigration increased, we felt it was irresponsible not to take this story public immediately. In this story we called NO JOKE (a rabbi, a preacher and an imam walk into . . .), we saw an opportunity to provide a compelling counter narrative to the cacophony of fear spewing out of the national media. Since most of the negative storylines are linked to religion, with the Peoria Three we saw an opportunity to make religion good again. That’s why we decided to shrink our production schedule from twelve months to twelve weeks. That meant we would produce a feature-length documentary film, write a book, and prepare a live show (the premier of NO JOKE) inside ninety days.

During the filming of our initial interviews, I kept hearing Daniel, Jim, and Kamil use a word that is just beginning to gain traction in our national dialogue. That word is otherizing. They used this term to capture the human tendency we have to compartmentalize those who disagree with us, whether it’s religious, ethnic, cultural, economic, or political disagreement. Or, put more succinctly by The Onion, “stereotypes are real timesavers.”

Here’s the musician in me coming out again. There’s an intriguing relationship that goes on between songwriters and singers. Their dependence upon each other’s skill is inextricably linked. Many singers have no ability to write music people want to listen to, but they can sing a song in a way no songwriter can hold a candle to. Put them in the right combination, add a little luck and some good timing, and you sometimes get what, in the business, is called a hit!

I’ve been working on a song for about ten years. Like most songwriters, I’ve reworked both the tune and the lyrics numerous times. I’ve tested parts of the song to see if people respond to the “hooks”—those parts of a song you wait to hear over and over again. Think of “Louie, Louie” (actually, no, don’t think of it unless you want it stuck in your head all day).

My song is not a musical composition; it’s an idea—three practices anyone can start using immediately to help them navigate polarized relationships. I call it Otherlyness.

In watching Daniel, Jim, and Kamil interact, it became apparent that, while we didn’t use the same language, we were singing the same song. I suggested to them Otherlyness might be the antidote to otherizing. We explain them in greater detail later in the book, but here are the three practices of Otherlyness:

1. I’ll practice being unusually interested in others;
2. I’ll practice staying in the room with difference;
3. I’ll stop comparing my best with your worst.

We use three pieces of the media path to tell this story: a documentary film, a book, and a live show. Each piece is choreographed around these three practices of Otherlyness. These practices are the takeaways people can put into action.

Daniel, Jim, and Kamil intuitively live these practices, which is why we want to give the world a look inside their unthinkable friendship.

—Jim Henderson