Interfaith Dialogue Strengthens Faith and Tolerance
Washington — Learning more about other religious faiths helps strengthen one’s own, say a minister, a rabbi and an imam.
“It limits the experience of the sacred to only put God in a ‘box’ that comes around one’s own tradition only,” says the Reverend David Gray, pastor of the Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Maryland. “So many people in other parts of the world have been struggling, thinking, praying, experiencing God and the sacred in a variety of ways. And so I become more creative, I think, about my own faith by seeing how others have experienced the sacred.”
Greater knowledge about religions, according to Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer of the Bethesda Jewish Congregation in Maryland, “can also lead us to a new level of honesty about our own faith.”
“I understand very clearly, of course, the Jewish message, and I am able to explain that to someone else,” the rabbi said. “But we also have to face as we go into this deeper dialogue of our own tradition, the darker chapters. And we all have them.” He said all people must acknowledge the dark passages of their individual traditions as a first step toward committing to overcome errors of the past.
According Imam Abu Nahidian of the Idara-e-Jaferia Mosque in Burtonsville, Maryland, “Ignorance is the biggest problem” causing interfaith friction.
Moses, Jesus and Muhammad are the descendents of Abraham, making the followers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam “cousins,” he said. “The law of Moses is the same as the law of Jesus is the same as the law of Muhammad,” Nahidian said. “All of them said the same thing: Don’t fight each other; don’t bicker with each other; don’t’ say ‘I,’ ‘me,’ ‘myself’ — say ‘us,’ ‘we,’ ‘Him, the creator of the whole universe.’”
The minister, rabbi and imam came together November 14 — as they have each year for the last five years — to celebrate a joint interfaith service of thanksgiving. This year, the service, followed by a luncheon and discussion, drew at least 200 people from the three congregations. The Islamic component of the annual interfaith service is relatively new, having been born from the desire to reach out to American Muslims in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But the relationship between the more than 600 members of the Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church and the 400 members of the Bethesda Jewish Congregation (BJC) goes back to 1967, making it one of the longest-lived partnerships of its type in the United States, according to Schnitzer.
The relationship started as a landlord-tenant arrangement, with the BJC renting space from the Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church. But it grew into a true partnership, with both sides raising funds to build a jointly used building known as Covenant Hall for a variety of activities. Ten years ago, both congregations signed a covenant, pledging, among other things, “to offer a prophetic vision of interfaith partnership in a pluralistic world.”
“May this union of spirit and space spark a flame of respect and understanding throughout the world,” the covenant says. But keeping that flame alive requires constant work — at both the grass-roots and leadership levels, Gray and Schnitzer said.
“We are not going to solve problems by singing ‘Kumbaya’ around the campfire,” Schnitzer said. “Politics and world events are going to challenge us in these kinds of dialogues.”
Terrorist attacks and rising anti-Semitism, especially in Europe, are “very disappointing, and we can’t control them,” the rabbi said. “But we can control our reaction to them. So we need to learn new ways to react, and it’s a long process. It will take a generation or two, but I believe it is inevitable as the world grows smaller and smaller.”
Gray emphasized the need to deal with fear.
“The fears that come from misunderstanding breed stereotyping between peoples of all religious backgrounds, and that is to our detriment,” Gray said. In an effort to combat the “Islamophobia” that arose in the United States after the terrorist attacks, the congregations arranged a well-attended conference discussing the effect of fear on American life that received considerable media attention, Gray said.
Both Gray and Schnitzer said that interfaith activities such as those of their congregations are not unusual in communities across the United States.
Echoing the commonality among the three great faiths expressed by the imam, Schnitzer said: “By finding our commonality, that’s how we’re able not just to survive together, but really thrive together.”
See the Covenant Between Bethesda Jewish Congregation and Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church on the website of the Bethesda Jewish Congregation.
(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://www.america.gov)