Coming together

More seeking to resolve conflicts under the growing umbrella of religious reconciliation

Warning. This article contains no news of religious schisms, scandals or violence.

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The organizers of two events coming to Atlanta next week are hoping people will be. While recent religion headlines seem dominated by conflict, another trend is quietly gathering momentum.

Reconciliation efforts are popping up all over the religious landscape. In the post-Sept. 11 world, the need for tolerance — between and within faiths — has become more urgent because religion-inspired violence can turn catastrophic, religious leaders say.

“More people are open to interfaith voices because we realize that this world is much smaller than we thought,” says Plemon El-Amin, imam of the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam in Decatur. “People’s problems and insanities on the other side of the world can affect us.”

But supporters of religious reconciliation efforts around the United States face two huge challenges: How can they make their movement, which has no fiery leader or juicy conflict, appealing to the public?

And how can they teach people that a person can be passionately committed to their own faith while still being open to the claims of another faith?

The two Atlanta events are designed to address both challenges.

On Monday, a group of Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist leaders will gather at the Cathedral of St. Philip for an interfaith forum. The 10-hour forum, which begins at 9 a.m., will devote itself to topics such as: Must faith divide us? Can we build beyond our common group?

And on Tuesday, a group promoting tolerance among Christians will hold its international conference at Hopewell Baptist Church in Norcross. “Reconciliation Now‘s” four-day conference will feature Christians who have engaged in violent conflicts with one another: black and white South Africans; Protestants and Catholics from Northern Ireland.

Interfaith forums are often perceived as “Kumbaya” public relations events where religious dignitaries light candles together, but supporting them is critical, some religious leaders say.

“If there is no peace among religions, there can be no peace among humanity,” says Rabbi David Rosen, an American Jewish Committee leader who is scheduled to speak at the Cathedral of St. Philip on Monday.

Getting the message out

Both events feature eloquent speakers, but it’s unclear how many people in the public will turn out. Leaders in the interfaith movement say religious demagogues hog the spotlight.

Rosen points to the tale of two Muslim leaders: Imam Warith Deen Mohammed and Minister Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam.

Mohammed, an orthodox Muslim who broke away from the Nation of Islam, commands more followers and international respect than Farrakhan, Rosen says. But guess who gets the coverage, Rosen asks.

“Mohammed is a man of peace and reconciliation but he’s not dynamic and he’s a genuinely modest man,” Rosen says. “Louis Farrakhan represents, at the most, 10 percent of black Muslims but everybody knows about Farrakhan and nobody knows about Warith.”

Despite the lack of media coverage they generate, reconciliation events — interfaith forums, services and symbolic events created to promote tolerance — have increased since Sept. 11.

Kim Baldwin, spokeswoman for the Interfaith Alliance, a national clergy-led group created to promote religious tolerance, says its membership has increased by 15,000 in the past two years and at least 20 new religious groups have joined.

The alliance also has had a twofold increase in calls from mosques and other groups asking for help in setting up educational events since Sept. 11, she says.

Holding a reconciliation forum is only a step, though. Making it work, another. Some fail because people just can’t communicate past cultural barriers, Rosen says.

“You’re dealing with people with different prejudices and perceptions of another and different levels of education,” Rosen says. “Some people are at ease with dialogue and have a capacity for self-criticism while others see self-criticism as hearsay or something that undermines their faith.”

Other efforts fail because they tend to gloss over religious differences. Religious leaders exchange platitudes about the universality of all faiths, inadvertently implying that all religions are the same.

Laurie Patton, chair of Emory University’s religion department, says a successful interfaith forum takes place when people of varying faiths meet to correct false assumptions and build long-term relationships.

Religious leaders say some of the most important work at reconciliation events takes place outside the meeting halls where people of varying faiths can see one another as human beings.

“To change a stereotype is in itself a spiritual practice,” says Patton, who is scheduled to speak at the interfaith forum at the cathedral.

But it only becomes a spiritual exercise if both people are not trying to convert each other, Patton says.

“You let them be who they are and you’re committed to learning from them,” she says. “Conversion is not important. The question of conversion and the idea of a single right religion is one of the biggest problems for all of us.”

Despite the lack of controversy generated by interfaith forums, Patton says its leaders must learn how to aggressively get their message out — just as the extremists do.

” I think the voices of moderation in the 21st century have to be very loud,” she says.

Overcoming mistrust

But people who expose themselves to all these voices from another faith run a risk — developing uncertainty about their own beliefs.

Charles Kimball, author of “When Religion Becomes Evil” (HarperSanFrancisco, $21.95), is an ordained Baptist minister but has spent the past 25 years working closely with Muslims and Jews.

Yet he’s discovered that learning about other faiths deepened his appreciation of his own.

“I’ve found many things that are beautiful, powerful and moving in other religions, but I’ve also found that those same things are present in my tradition but I never saw them before,” Kimball says.

Once, when Kimball was living in Egypt, he was fascinated by how much of ordinary life changes for Muslims during Ramadan, a monthlong period where Muslims fast during the daylight hours.

But then he realized that Ramadan’s implicit message that physical deprivation leads to spiritual enlightenment is also present in the Bible.

“I turned to the New Testament and here’s Jesus teaching fasting as a spiritual discipline,” Kimball says.

Leaders in reconciliation movements also confront another challenge. While religious reconciliation movements are gaining momentum, so are fundamentalist movements within varying religious groups, some say.

Kimball says fundamentalists — those who preach that only they know the truth — cling more tightly to their worldview because of fear of change.

That universal human need for stability can, however, quickly turn to intolerance. At worst, murder.

The Rev. Dale Cross is a leader in the Reconciliation Now movement. His group concentrates on building unity within Christian groups, but he says their work has become increasingly difficult in recent years.

“The spiritual life of the church has been taken captive by this exclusionary mind-set,” Cross says. “The trend is if you don’t agree with us, then we’re going to pitch you out of the circle rather than draw the circle to include you.”

Reconciliation Now tries to punch through walls of intolerance by introducing the public to Christians who have been traditional enemies — until they learned to overcome their animosity and mistrust, Cross says.

“Unity often means that you have to agree with me,” he says. “The stories we have of people coming out of South Africa and Rwanda are stories of people who not only disagreed, but have killed each other. But even after all those awful circumstances, some have come back to say this is not what Christ has called us to do.”

Those stories of reconciliation are the ones that people must hear more of in the 21st century, Kimball says. He says people have a choice: Let the extremists win or learn how to approach one’s own faith and others with an open mind and heart.

“My experience doesn’t exhaust all the possibilities,” Kimball says. “A measure of humility is also important. It would be crazy for me to think that my experience of God is the only authentic one.”

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