Photos and videos courtesy of DANIEL EPSTEIN, Portraits in Faith
by BEATRICE S. PAEZ
To see the face of God is to see the face of the other gazing back, says Daniel Epstein, a Toronto-based globetrotting marketing expert moonlighting as a video producer.
A practicing Jew, Epstein finds that although “the other” holds a different set of beliefs than he does, they can share similar expressions of faith.
It’s a perspective that Epstein has carried with him since starting his project, Portraits in Faith, an online repository of oral histories on the power of faith captured on video and collected from 400 people in 27 countries, including Canada, Japan, China, Singapore, Korea, Philippines, Malaysia and Turkey.
A young woman’s decision to dedicate a year of service working as a janitor in the Baha’i World Center in Israel may not be entirely different from another young woman’s ultimate choice to cloak herself in a hijab, the videos reveal.
Even in the absence of parental pressures, these deeds express their willingness to honour the religious culture they were exposed to growing up or that they found on their own.
What becomes apparent in the video diaries is the individual’s need to belong to an entity greater than his or her more intimate circles.
Daniel Epstein, Founder of Portraits in Faith
As a Jewish kid raised in Atlanta, Georgia, Epstein felt like an outsider, even among Catholics and Christians he considered friends. He encountered flares of anti-Semitism and felt that his religion was teaching him to be wary of people trying to convert him, which locked him in defensive mode.
“I was so protective and defensive of my religion, I could never really value other people’s religious experiences,” says Epstein of his childhood experience.
With Portraits in Faith, a faith-finding mission, he acquired a fresh pair of eyes that elevated his appreciation for religious diversity. “I learned to honour much more deeply the spiritual experiences of the other.”
It began as he describes it, as a “selfish,” spiritual exercise to restore his faith and sense of gratitude. Deeply dissatisfied with his outlook on life, he reached out to others, in the hope that their words would alter his perspective on faith.
“I could barely scrap up enough faith to keep going,” he recalls. “I wanted people who seemed to have faith to tell me their stories, about how their lives changed. In hearing them, my life began to change.”
His return to faith ultimately saved him and made him more self-assured in his abilities. He went from struggling in his personal and work relationships to striking unexpected connections with unlikely strangers in unfamiliar places.
From interviewing a young Imam in Malaysia who has preached before a sultan, to a mother in Dubai who lost her daughter, Epstein has uncovered many narratives revolving around the impact of faith in a person’s life.
The mobility that came with being the former marketing director of Procter & Gamble, gave Epstein the opportunity to boost the project’s portfolio.
Nine years in the making, Portraits in Faith grew out of his desire to share his encounters with others, especially as a source of healing for those caught in a crisis of faith. Every week, a video from his archival footage is released online.
Going digital was the most effective way of ensuring each person’s story is honoured, Epstein explains. Otherwise a book or film would have been too condensed in its treatment.
Initially conceived as a one-off assignment for a personal storytelling class he was enrolled in, the project expanded beyond its scope.
It was an encounter with a church custodian that made him rethink his approach in focusing only on spiritual leaders. “The first church I went to, I couldn’t find the minister. The only person I could find was the janitor, till it finally dawned on me,” he said. “Service does not only come in the form of the clergy.”
The result is an assortment of confessional interviews – of individuals revealing intimacy, candor and vulnerability.
“The overall objective of the project is to help heal the world by bringing people together in our common spiritual journey,” he explained. “There’s no possibility that we’re disconnected from each other.”
If you strip away the names that we use to identify God and the symbols of the divine, focus less on the details that differentiate us, and lean more on the ways faith calls us to action, a common ground emerges, says Epstein.
The project is neither about religion as an institution, nor is about opening up an interfaith dialogue. Epstein sticks to questions that gently prod people to reflect and meditate on their experiences with adversity and doubt.
“Religion is problematic because it’s open to so much dogma and ritual, that it becomes disassociated with underlying spiritual needs,” he says. “If we look only through the lens of religion, we can only help to see the differences.”
If there’s a lesson to be learned from viewing these videos, it is the importance of surrendering your ear to the other, says Epstein. “What’s needed now is a lot of internal processing, not more dialogue of a polite kind.”