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The growth of interfaith activity since 9/11: Grass-roots groups get personal about faith

Published: Saturday, March 9 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

"I see people as human not just when they are like me, but when they are different from me," she said. "If we don’t give space to address differences then we develop episodic empathy, where people just have a relationship for a particular cause then walk away from that."

In her interviews with members of the Philadelphia group, Fletcher discovered an evolution from discussing beliefs and practices to trusting each other enough to share "spiritual autobiographies" that revealed how religion had helped each individual navigate their personal lives.

"It’s not just about getting to know the other faith tradition and reading about another faith, it’s about getting to know the people and forging these relationships across religious lines," Fletcher said. "They were drawn into seeing this narrative of faith as really something that is sustaining someone in their life."

Hocky said the idea for the spiritual autobiographies came from other interfaith dialogue she had been involved in. Her rabbi had also used the method in a spiritual evaluation process for his congregants.

She said hearing the other women tell how faith played out in their lives as children and into adulthood deepened their relationships with each other.

"It ended up being foundational to our group becoming a group," Hocky recalled. "We got to know one another so deeply through this particular lens … and we became so connected to one another’s stories that we carry them with us, like memorable passages in a good book."

Hearing the other women tell about how they held to their faith and rituals, such as prayer, as they worked through their doubts and trials, Hocky said, strengthened her own faith.

"I began to be more of a Shabbat attender, and it helped me find a way back to my own tradition," she said.

Next generation

In January, about 70 residents of Rutherford, N.J., gathered in the gymnasium of nearby Felcian College for singing, speeches and an emotional scripture reading by the local Baptist pastor. The event was organized by the local interfaith council to remember the firebombing of the town's small synagogue a year before.

Fletcher, who lives in the quiet upper middle-class community, remembers how disturbed residents were after learning Molotov cocktails shattered windows of the Beth El Temple, starting a fire in the upper floor bedroom of Rabbi Nosson Shuman and his wife.

"There was a real sense within the community of how horrible it was, but without some sort of interfaith network of dialogue already in place it was not clear to members of the community, who didn’t know the Jewish synagogue was there, what they were supposed to do," she recalled.

The interfaith network in Rutherford tried to fill that void. Rabbi Shuman said the group organized a gathering of singing and sharing at the college attended by about 150 people four days after the firebombing. Four weeks later, the interfaith network sponsored another meeting where members of religious and ethnic groups in the community spoke of the challenges they face. Police spoke to residents about public safety.

At the anniversary event, in addition to singing, praying and reading, police were honored for making an arrest in the Rutherford case and a related firebombing of another New Jersey synagogue.

"It was a beautiful gathering. … It was like a Messianic vision," Shuman said of the interfaith worship.

And the charge coming out of the anniversary event was to "keep the ball rolling" with regular events and gatherings to strengthen the relationships developed.

Shuman said he would like more block parties and initiatives to get the youth involved and more familiar with the community they live in.

"They are the next generation and they are going to have to realize how important these goals are," he said. "If we don’t put the burden on their shoulders now they may never realize it will be their burden."

EMAIL: mbrown@desnews.com

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