Different faiths build on common concerns

Ohioans break down religious stereotypes through education and service projects.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

After a quick buffet lunch, the Saturday afternoon crew in hard hats pauses for prayer, offered on this shift by Mike Hill, a Unitarian. The diverse group then heads off, hammers in hand, to their common task: framing a brand new Habitat for Humanity house for Ara Jane Halsey and her son, Nicholas.

This is the fifth year that the MultiFaith Council of Northwest Ohio has partnered with Habitat for a six-week home build. The spring project is a popular activity of the grass-roots lay organization, which brings together people from 16 different religious traditions.

"When you urge people to get on board with interfaith work, that's the piece that really grabs them," says Judy Trautman, cochair of the council. "You start working together on a common cause, and it's fun!"

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For Ms. Trautman and her husband, Woody, the spark plugs behind the council, it's about building relationships among Toledo area residents who might otherwise never know or come to appreciate one another. As America grows more religiously diverse, faith groups tend to build close-knit communities complete unto themselves, Mr. Trautman says. With religion a flash point today and misperceptions often holding sway, that "doesn't bode well for the country's future."

A city built around manufacturing, Toledo has many ethnic groups. "It's a little Chicago in terms of diversity," Judy says. Since 9/11, more people are recognizing the need for greater interaction and understanding.

With its founding in 2002, the council began to develop educational projects to offer accurate pictures of the various world religions, and social opportunities where people could break bread together in nonthreatening situations.

Local Muslims, for instance, see it as an opportunity to interact with others in a positive environment. Emmett Kadri, whose father came from Lebanon in the 1940s, has been active in the council for three years.

"This is my way to meet and share with people who are interested in learning about Islam," says Mr. Kadri, a systems analyst at Detroit Edison. "Problems arise because people are ignorant, and, in the outside world, some can be nasty. But those involved with the council are open and inquisitive and try to understand."

Nazife Amrou, who grew up in Turkey, agrees: "Today we are in a difficult situation, and it's an opportunity for us to meet individuals and for them to get to know us." She enjoys sharing ethnic food and attends the council's social gatherings each year, including the Thanksgiving Celebration, New Year's party, and summer picnic.

Ms. Amrou brought five volunteers to help on today's effort. "Building a house is a noble cause, and charity is very important in Islam," she explains.

Joint projects

For the Habitat project, participants from the faith groups – Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Baha'i, Episcopal, Christian Science, Religious Science, etc. – contribute funds as well as hands and take turns providing food and prayers for the two daily shifts. They sport matching T-shirts with the council logo and symbols for each group.

The activity "has enormous value, exemplifying Christly oneness and caring for others," says the Rev. Barb Walley, of the Religious Science community, climbing down from a perch inside the house.

On this April weekend, two youth groups have joined in, speeding the progress. Under a brilliant sun, the volunteers are already nailing siding on the frame, ahead of schedule.

While the service projects are a big draw for some, others put great store in opportunities to learn about others' perspectives. One of the first council projects – a six-week seminar on teachings of the major world religions – drew 150 people a day. The council is considering a third seminar series on the topic.

In a 2002 collaboration with a local community initiative called Erase the Hate, the council offered workshops on how to achieve peace, from the standpoint of various religions. More recently, it has sponsored youth poetry and video competitions for Erase the Hate.

Currently, says Srini Srini­vasan, a council vice chair, a committee is planning a course for next fall on religion and critical issues (from politics to science to cultural concerns). "We're going through an intense reading phase (including the recent Einstein biography, for example) to help us define topics for the course," he says.

Raised a Hindu in India, Mr. Srinivasan is not practicing a faith right now, but values the exploration and camaraderie the group fosters. "The differences melt away when you know people as individuals and deal with them on a day-to-day basis," he adds.

Unexpected similarities

Many members appreciate the unexpected commonalities they encounter. "I like the informal gatherings most, the potluck dinners, because I enjoy talking about religion and culture," Kadri says. "I've learned that Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish cultures are very similar in some ways."

Despite the value members place on its activities, the council faces a variety of challenges as it tries to expand community outreach. Some religious groups reject participation altogether.

"They have said – almost this bluntly – 'I dare not be part of a multifaith group because it would indicate I condone something I know is going to lead you to hell,' " Judy says.

The council requires that all who join be respectful of other traditions and that they not proselytize or promote a political agenda. A "members covenant" states: "I vow to intentionally grow in the compassion and understanding that will encourage me to live peaceably with all my neighbors."

Yet some members would like to see it get involved in politics. "Our mission is not to solve the Middle East strife or say who's right and who's wrong," Judy insists. "We are in Toledo, we are neighbors; it's how we can understand one another."

Some fear homogenization, conversion

They also find that some religious groups worry that allowing their young people to get involved in council projects could open them up to conversion or to a "homogenizing" of religion. A Jewish group and a Muslim group have vetoed youth involvement. "There is a fear that mixing will diminish their kids in their faith tradition," Judy says. Yet "experience shows that when kids talk about their tradition with others, it strengthens their own faith because they've had to think about it more."

The new emphasis on youth is the outgrowth of a "visioning" project the council conducted in 2006, during which it interviewed 120 community leaders of greater Toledo on the area's most significant needs. The youth priority involves two projects: a Youth Film Festival and a Youth Service Learning Project. On Saturday nights, the film series brings teenagers together for food and a thought-provoking movie that allows for a discussion of values. This month's film is the Oscar-nominated "Whale Rider."

Inspired by the Interfaith Youth Core based in Chicago, the council has formed a multifaith youth core to engage in interfaith dialogue and community service projects, including the Habitat build. At the council's annual banquet on April 22, a panel of Catholic, Sikh, Unitarian, and Muslim youths described their faith-inspired motivations for serving others.

Funded solely by members and donations, the council is run by a 10-person board and has no paid staff. Yet it has grown from 20 founding members to a regular mailing list of 350. Woody and Judy (a retired electrical engineer and a high school technology instructor, respectively) are now focused on "growing leadership."

"My hope is for each faith group to realize the future of our country depends on ... sharing enough time in our own agendas to meet and mingle and understand the other person," Woody says. "Every faith group should say '10 percent of our scheduled time is going to be spent with people of other faiths.' Otherwise, they'll stay to themselves, and, all of a sudden, like global warming, we'll find we have a problem."

When people do mingle frequently, fresh ideas often germinate. This month, for example, a local rabbi, imam, and priest plan to offer classes that explore how the three monotheistic faiths understand "scripture, worship, and acts of kindness."

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