Growing together, enriched by dialogue
Participants in Neighborhood Interfaith Conversations practice emotional, not political, correctness
By Sarah Mundell and Susanne Janssen
The quiet neighborhood is suddenly crowded with cars on this dark winter evening. There is a warm welcome at the door, inside a very diverse group is vividly chatting, discussing and exchanging ideas with one another. A table with eight chairs, and people from three different religions are sitting around and enjoying dinner together. And more people are filling the living room. This is not a one-time event but a monthly happening in Westchester County, just north of New York City: Neighborhood Interfaith Conversations.
Munazza Afzal, originally from Pakistan, puts the goal in a few, focused words: “I came because I wanted to know more about other religions, because my children played with Jewish and Christian kids. Then, we became friends.”
Like her, other participants wanted to know more about other faith traditions because they were growing up in towns and neighborhoods where they were not exposed to different cultures. Others, like Ellen Greeley, have multiple faiths in their own family.
The group started in 2013 as an outgrowth of ExodusConversations.org, a website that explores how the story of the Exodus speaks to Jews, Christians and Muslims. David Arnow, one of the authors of the website, helped organize a program using material from the site to start an interfaith conversation. He wondered how people could connect with others of different religious traditions in a way that would broaden their usual circles.
“Everybody enjoyed it so much that we decided to meet monthly,” recalls Arnow, now the coordinator of the group. Around 20 people usually attend, and 50 are on the email list. “We are not looking for a much larger group,” he explains. “We want people who are interested in talking about themes that are important to us, and we want to build real relationships.”
Each time they choose a topic, like forgiveness, stewardship of the Earth or recent events like the shooting in San Bernardino, California. Then some members prepare some texts or a prayer from their faith tradition to share with everyone.
Michael, another member of the group, emphasizes the value of these connections: “We can learn from each other.” Sometimes, he confesses that he feels a “holy envy” about positive aspects of other religions, “for example, the hospitality of the Muslims — I wish it would be like this in my culture, too.”
Yasser joined just two months ago, and says he will definitely stick with it. “I am originally from Morocco, and I like to talk about my religion and understand the faith of others. It was always easy for me to talk to Christians, but I was afraid to talk to Jews because of the Palestinian conflict.”
Then he met David, and they talked about the role of suffering in their religions, how it is to lose loved ones. The fear disappeared because of the dialogue. “Here I felt I can talk to Jews and ask questions, and I learned that a lot is related to politics, not to faith.” He can even start a discussion now about difficult matters, without getting angry, while listening to what someone from another faith has to say. “We cannot just cry for justice somewhere else; we can bring justice with our own hand where we are,” he says.
Tom is also happy about the atmosphere: “You can ask anything, there’s no need for political correctness. It’s the emotional correctness that counts, and that guides the discussions.”
“Emotional correctness” is a term being used more and more to refer to the compassion and respect with which a person communicates his or her ideas.
John thoughtfully describes his experience of the last few years. “We grew as a group. We are more open now than in the beginning.”
On this journey they have discovered how many things they share in common. “Just a few elements are really different,” says Dolores, “but most people always focus on the differences.”
Chuck, a religion teacher at a Bronx school, advises against feeling superior. “Don’t compare your best with the other religion’s worst,” he says. “It is better to ask a believer of another tradition than to speak about them.”
The influence of the group has grown beyond it: members played a key role in working with AJC (The American Jewish Committee) to organize a community memorial service in 2014 at Manhattanville College for three Jewish teenagers and a Palestinian boy killed in Israel. This spawned several more interfaith prayer services, each attended by more than 300 Westchester residents.
One member of the group is the president of the Westchester Coalition against Islamophobia, whose motto is “put humanity first — not tribalism.” Another member, Dr. Mahjabeen Hassan, recalled an email sent around by another group member during a moment of tension. “It helped me, and I was grateful to know people who care, that we stand together.”
Together they share encouraging news, such as that of Dr. Hassan, who tells the other members that 60 rabbis from different synagogues signed a petition to support Muslims, as well as how a group of Moroccan Muslim leaders had clearly distanced themselves from ISIS and any kind of terrorism.
They all underline that society is much more polarized than even 10 years ago.
“We need a balance,” says Tom; otherwise, people are not able to talk to each other anymore. Munazza agrees. “Here I can be open with no fear of being judged. This is important. Unless we ask questions, we can’t learn from one another.”
This is their model against phobic or hate speech and threats further magnified by some of this year’s political discourse. “All our religions have the Golden Rule ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ We should treat people in a more positive way,” says one member, and everybody agrees. It helps them to face comments filled with hatred and fear.
“Because of this group, we can now say with differing degrees of certainly, ‘I know this is true because there are people here that I believe and trust that say this,’” affirms Tom. In every piece of so-called religious violence in the news, there’s often not Islam, Judaism or Christianity behind it, but people who are practicing a deviant way that gets mixed up with politics.
Topics for discussion and sharing at the next meeting abound. First of all, they all feel free to ask; they are eager to learn; they turn to their sacred texts to find responses to today’s challenges; and they are now friends, open to extend their friendship to whomever wants to enter into their enriching dialogue.
More information at exodusconversations.org
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