Interfaith gatherings planting seeds for solidarity



The command is spelled out clearly in the New Testament in the words of Jesus, but it is first recorded in Leviticus 19:18, estimated to be written around 1,400 B.C.: "Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”

As current events show every day, that’s easier said than done. It can take effort. And for Rabbi Hillel Skolnik of the Southwest Orlando Jewish Congregation that verse became a marching order for change.

Stating that their combined faith and belief in God brought them together, shown left to right are: Hajji Hussain, Inayat Walli, Rabbi Hillel Skolnik and Rev. Josh Bell. The goal was to simply "get to know each other."

“I was thinking, it’s hard to love your neighbor if you don’t know your neighbor,” he said. “It’s tremendously important...you may share a religion with someone who does something extreme, but that doesn’t make you an extremist.

“There are some Jewish people who do things that make me wish they weren’t Jewish. For me, the challenge is getting that message out to people who aren’t always open to the message.”

That’s one reason he was delighted to receive a call last year from Josh Bell, lead pastor of the Spring of Life United Methodist Church in Orlando. The proposal was to have an interfaith gathering that would include Rabbi Skolnik and representatives from the local Muslim community.

The goal was simple: Get to know each other.

That started with a willingness to sit down and talk.

“I have been interested in interfaith through my entire ministry,” said Skolnik, who serves on the Faith-based Advisory Council for Orlando’s public schools and sits on the Faith Against Domestic Violence Task Force of Central Florida.

One of many ways Florida Conference churches are able to participate in interfaith activities are Habitat for Humanity Builds. In this photo, Jewish, Muslim and Hyde Park UMC volunteers work together Sept. 24 on an annual Faith Build project.

“There are so many instances where we may be scared of our neighbor, but we might be surprised to know they could be just as scared of us.”

Pastor Bell had his curiosity piqued when a member of his congregation told him about a neighbor who attends a mosque.

“That friend invited him to go to a service at the mosque with him,” Bell said. “He asked me what I thought about that. I said I thought it was awesome and that I would like to go too.

“Later, we had a conversation at our church about hosting an interfaith night. There were a lot of questions from the congregation. They asked if we were trying to say all religions are the same? We believe different things, so was our goal to convert the others to our religion? That wasn’t the goal at all,” Bell emphasized. “The goal was to seek to understand. I think of it as bridge-building. Jesus reaches out to the entire world in love, period.”

And so it began.

A crowd estimated about 100 people turned out for the evening in May at the Spring of Life church. It was a panel discussion with Bell, Skolnik and Sheikh Azhar Nasser from the Islamic Education Center.

The challenge was to dispel stereotypes that each might hold about the other worshipers’ beliefs. The first step toward doing that was to find common ground for three faiths that have fundamentally different views of God.

Discussing the topic of "faith and food" over lunch, a second interfaith gathering was held Jan. 24 at First UMC in Orlando. The luncheon, with food donated by Panera Bread, was said to have helped promote understanding, respect and relationships between members of different faiths.

“What we all have in common is the Abrahamic faith,” said Inayat Walli, president of the managing committee at Orlando’s Husseini Islamic Center. “There is so much overlapping in our histories. Our faith brings us together. We all believe in God.”

No one then could possibly have realized what was about to happen about a month later in Orlando. On June 12, 2016, Islamic fundamentalist Omar Mateen entered the Pulse nightclub and shot 49 people to death while wounding 53 more.

In the days that followed the slaughter, there were numerous threats of violent retaliation against Muslims and mosques throughout the country. This was the case, even though Orlando Muslims were quick to condemn the killings and worked to raise nearly $100,000 for the families of Pulse victims.

“It was clear we (as Muslims) haven’t done enough to promote our faith as a peaceful religion,” Walli said. “We have done food drives, blood drives and many things in the community. We are part of the fabric of Orlando. But we need to promote our faith as peaceful.”

The Muslim religion already was a major issue in the presidential campaign that was ongoing, with then-candidate Donald Trump calling at times for the prohibition of Muslims entering the United States and other sanctions.

The Pulse shootings flamed those fears.

“On the day that happened, I spoke with Rabbi Skolnik and (Muslim leaders) just to check in,” Bell said. “In the days that followed, I sought to combat the negative perceptions of all Muslims in the community.

“I think one of the problems is that most Americans don’t really know a person of the Muslim faith. If you don’t know a Muslim person personally, you just rely on what you hear.”

The plan is to keep the conversation going. A luncheon was already held Jan. 24 in Orlando with more to follow. The hope is that these gatherings will help shatter stereotypes and lead to a better understanding of Jesus’ command to love your neighbor.

“From a clergy perspective, I learned that congregations are congregations as far as providing spiritual care for your flock,” Bell said. “The needs are the same everywhere. People are people. But the big difference I have learned through this…what is faced by others, especially by the Muslim community.

“I was aware of it, of course, but it’s more impactful to witness it firsthand. And when bomb threats were called in all over the country to Jewish centers, it was very impactful because Rabbi Skolnik’s daughter attends one of the schools that was threatened.

“This is something we as Christians don’t face—the bomb threats, the hateful phone calls to the mosques,” Bell said solemnly. “We don’t experience that. It really opens your eyes.”

--Joe Henderson is a freelance writer based in Brandon.


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