Interfaith about community, not conversion – Commercial Appeal

For a number of years in the holy month of Ramadan, I have joined my Muslim friends in the “breaking of the fast” dinner.

I am not Muslim, and neither were half of the 500 Memphians gathered last month at the Esplanade Banquet Hall for the seventh annual Memphis Interfaith Dinner hosted by the Muslim Society of Memphis.

Joining us were community leaders, saffron-laden Tibetan Buddhist monks, black-collared Catholic priests, Baptist ministers, and rabbis, as well as political dignitaries, Congressman Steve Cohen, and Mayors A C Wharton, Mark Luttrell Sharon and Goldsworthy.

In her keynote address, Rev. Cheryl Cornish of First Congregational Church described herself as a “WASP” from rural Nebraska and recalled a recent family gathering where over half of her family members are now non-WASPs. “Nearly half of Americans will marry outside their faith,” she noted.

This made me realize the importance of interfaith and ask myself, “What is interfaith?”

From the speakers I learned that interfaith is not about converting others or being converted by others. It is not about asserting that my religion is better than yours, which is akin to saying my father is better than your father. It does not mean wavering about one’s own faith.

Rather, interfaith is having a deep sense of recognition that faith or religion is an essential part of our lives, and that we must learn, respect and understand other people’s faiths.

Sitting in the packed hall, we listened to the rhythmic verses of the Quran from voices of believers who truly follow it and not those who use it for political gain. I recalled a few years ago when a Florida pastor threatened to burn the holy book.

I began to think about the dearth of knowledge we have about each other’s religions. A 2010 Pew Survey found that only half of Americans knew that the Quran is the holy book of Muslims and that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist. Ironically, atheists and agnostics were the most knowledgeable about religions.

At the Ramadan dinner, a panel of speakers from various local agencies spoke about how we can work for the common good.

Nika Jackson, manager of Wharton’s Office of Community Affairs, spoke of the city’s support for interfaith activities. Leaders of the Community Alliance for the Homeless, the Mid-South Food Bank, MIFA, the Memphis Police Department and Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare, spoke of the work being done to end homelessness, prevent hunger and provide access to health care.

At our table, the speakers’ remarks initiated a conversation: “Where do we go from here?” The gathering was festive, the food delicious, and the company amicable, but how can we move from an interfaith gathering to an interfaith dialogue and then to interfaith activities?

How can Memphis become the interfaith model for other cities in the country?

As another holy month of Ramadan nears an end, we don’t need to look far for answers. The Memphis Friendship Foundation has developed a joint venture of the Heartsong Church and the Memphis Islamic Center. The two Cordova neighbors are building a park together.

Interfaith is hard work because it challenges us to leave our comfort zones and learn and accept others of varying faiths in a nonprofessional setting.

Interfaith will not solve global problems in the short term. But it serves a basic purpose for us today. It brings families and our local community together.

Source : Commercial Appeal