By Larry Maloney
On the very day that a gunman killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, a group of Metrowest residents gathered at Holliston’s Temple Beth Torah for an event dedicated to promoting understanding and cooperation among people of diverse religious faiths.
Entitled “Listening and Loving: Honoring Our Diversity as Multifaith Neighbors,” the two- day event, held at the temple on Oct. 27 and Our Lady of Fatima Shrine on Oct. 28, was the first such gathering sponsored by the Metrowest Interfaith Dialogue Project, launched in 2017 by Holliston clergy.
The conference drew more than 50 participants each day in what organizers hope will be a continuing series of events that will draw people from a mix of religious faiths, as well as those with no religious affiliation.
United in grief. Even before conference participants could begin the planned agenda, Rabbi Steven Edelman-Blank of Temple Beth Torah led prayers for the Pittsburgh victims and recalled the valuable mentoring he received years ago at the Tree of Life synagogue. “I would not be a rabbi today, were it not for my experience there,” he said.
Rabbi Edelman-Blank noted that anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. rose nearly 60 percent in 2017, the largest single-year increase ever recorded by the Anti-Defamation League. The FBI has designated the Pittsburgh shooting a hate crime. “We mourn the victims, and we worry about our country,” said the rabbi.
Another of the conference’s organizers, Rev. Carl Chudy of Holliston’s Fatima Shrine, said: “We can all bring comfort and consolation to our Jewish neighbors. Interfaith dialogue is more important now than ever before. People of faith can be part of the leaven of peace so sorely needed in the world today.”
During the two-day conference, attendees engaged in several activities designed to build bridges between people of diverse religious backgrounds. These included:
- “Speed faithing.” Arranged in two concentric circles, with the inner circle moving every few minutes, people of different faiths shared their thoughts on a variety of questions: How have your core values changed? How has faith guided your life? What image comes to mind when you hear the word “God”? Who is your neighbor?
- Panel discussion. Religious leaders from Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim traditions told why they believe interview dialogue is vital today. Congregations represented on the panel included: Temple Beth Torah, the Islamic Society of Framingham, the Fatima Shrine, and Holliston’s First Congregational Church and Christ the King Lutheran Church.
- Social justice. Attendees heard details on Family Promise, a national program in which churches and synagogues provide week-long shelter, meals, and children’s activities for homeless families. Christ the King Lutheran has hosted such families for 10 years, but volunteers from several area congregations provide food and set up the makeshift bedrooms for families in this interfaith activity
- Hands-on charity. Conference participants joined together to stuff shopping bags with birthday-party supplies and gifts, to be distributed to children in homeless shelters by the nonprofit Birthday Wishes program. The organization provided such parties to more than 5200 children in 2017.
The challenges ahead. The conference clearly attracted participants who by and large were open to interfaith dialogue and cooperation, and some attendees questioned whether interfaith activities are seen as a significant priority in the area’s congregations.
“In times of crisis, interfaith tends to take on more importance,” said Holliston Rabbi Jennifer Rudin. “Our job as clergy is to maintain our focus even when things are going well.”
Others observed that many congregations are caught up in more pressing matters, such as declining membership that has caused financial pressures and prompted closings and consolidations. Data from Middlesex County shows that the number of residents who say they are affiliated with a religious denomination declined by 24% from 2000 to 2010, while those with no religious faith increased by 137% in the same period.
Even so, “Loving and Listening” participants clearly viewed the conference as a springboard for more interfaith dialogue. “I loved the warmth and friendship that I felt all around me,” said Verna Hobson of the First Congregational Church. “We are all God’s children, and we have much in common. If there should be further meetings of this sort, I would certainly plan to attend.”
The conference ended with attendees suggesting ideas for future interfaith activities. These included: joint prayer gatherings, such as the interfaith Thanksgiving service scheduled for November 18 at the First Congregational Church. Among other ideas: book clubs, youth volunteer days, open houses, and workshops on addiction and other concerns.
Said Hussam Syed from the Islamic Society of Framingham: “Our problems, goals, aspirations and many of our beliefs are the same. When we get to know each other, we can move beyond mere respect and can be more efficient in reaching out to others, especially the poor and needy.”
(Larry Maloney is an Ashland-based freelance writer. For more information on the Metrowest Interfaith Dialogue Project, contact Rev. Carl Chudy at (508) 429-2144, email: email@example.com)