North Park University Hosts Interfaith Dialogue, Highlighting Women of Faith
Four women of faith spoke at an Interfaith Dialogue at North Park University Nov. 16. They are, from left, Rummana Hussain, Chicago Sun-Times (moderator); Dr. Marcia Hermansen, Loyola University, Chicago; the Rev. Karen Mosby-Avery, Second Baptist Church, Evanston, Ill.; and Rabbi Andrea C. London, Beth Emet: The Free Synagogue, Evanston.
Dialogue touches on social, gender issues, engagement, listening
CHICAGO (November 29, 2011) – Three women representing Christian, Muslim and Jewish faith traditions, discussed their own faith journeys and exchanged views on a variety of religious and social topics in a 90-minute interfaith dialogue hosted Nov. 16 by North Park University.
The panelists were Dr. Marcia Hermansen, professor of theology and director, Islamic World Studies program, Theology Department, Loyola University, Chicago; Rabbi Andrea C. London, Beth Emet: The Free Synagogue, Evanston, Ill.; and the Rev. Karen E. Mosby-Avery, pastor of pastoral care and administration at Second Baptist Church, Evanston, Ill. Rummana Hussain, criminal courts reporter and columnist, Chicago Sun-Times, was the panel moderator.
The program was billed as "Interfaith Dialogue with Women Leaders: Christian, Muslims, and Jews Making a Difference." The women spoke and listened to each other, in front of an audience of about 100 people from North Park University and the Chicago area. Program organizers were the Rev. Velda R. Love, director for justice and intercultural learning, North Park University Office of Diversity and Intercultural Programs, and Anis Said, fellow in Middle East studies.
"The women engaged in the interfaith dialogue helped me understand not only their journeys toward being involved in their faith and academic communities, but their stories helped connect the work they do with the passions they have for this conversation," Love said. "The work on interfaith dialogue is not easy, yet we have courageous women as leaders, teachers, and preachers who impact people daily to get involved. I hope our students will be interested in continuing this kind of relationship building and dialogue as well."
"Religion seems to divide us and alienate us from each other, Said commented. "The speakers explained that when having an interfaith dialogue, people should focus on the common denominator between the different religions. These three women of faith showed us how to build bridges of trust and understanding between us and people of other faiths. Building new bridges of understanding will help us have a healthy interfaith dialogue, which is crucial for our society."
Their faith journeys
Hussain, a Muslim, said she has written about positive and negative experiences related to her faith and has been involved in many interfaith outreach activities. "When I look at interfaith activities like this, I think about all the wonderful things that people are doing," Hussain said.
London, a Chicagoan, said she is on a quest to be "a peacemaker." She described a formative time in her life after college when she spent a year in Israel serving underprivileged communities, and later, was a restaurant waitress in Jerusalem. She heard the stories of her coworkers -- Jewish Israeli women who worked as waitresses, and the Palestinian cooks. Shortly after she returned to the United States in 1987, the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation began. "I think that's what really opened my eyes to the importance interfaith dialogue and understanding people who were different," London said.
Mosby-Avery grew up in Memphis in the 1960s and 1970s, in a culture shaped by faith, racism, segregation, and social justice. Women were discouraged from the ordained ministry, she said. When she came to the Midwest, Mosby-Avery said she realized that she had tools "to contribute to a larger community." As a parent, she said, it is important that she teach her own children "the importance of community, the relationship between faith and freedom and justice, and about the importance of having a faith in a God that is large enough to encompass all of creation."
Hermansen grew up in Montreal, influenced by English and French speakers. In high school, she began to explore many things about the world. She went to India where she heard the sound of Arabic music and the Koran being chanted in Arabic. "As soon as I heard it, I said 'I want to learn that,'" she said. She went to the University of Toronto, and participated in "new age" movements. She learned to open up about spirituality. "I did feel very drawn to things Islamic, and those happened to be the doors that opened to me in particular," she said.
Dialogue is not easy
Each commented on her own experiences in interfaith dialogue. Mosby-Avery observed that "it takes a very long time to get to the heart of the question and get to the real work." London said sometimes interfaith partners "talk past each other." In a Jewish-Catholic dialogue several years ago, the partners discovered they don't talk about aspects of religious experience in the same way, London said. Trust is key, Hermansen said. "Those serious about interfaith dialogue will say that one has to have trust, and it takes time to build that," she said.
Find common issues of concern and engage younger voices
London urged audience members to act with other faith groups on issues of mutual concern, such as health care, homelessness and joblessness. She also said that people of faith are working on these issues, but not necessarily along interfaith lines. Mosby-Avery said younger people are open to working with others. "They're already in many ways predisposed to sitting down and talking, and doing and seeing the world so much differently," she said. Hermansen said in Chicago, it has made a difference when interfaith coalitions support each another across religious traditions on matters such as zoning issues.
Positive interfaith relationships
London observed that the narrative of people cooperating along interfaith lines is not the story typically reported. "We have to tell that story," she said, adding that it's important to bring people who believe in interfaith dialogue at the table, even if they don't have much knowledge about interfaith relationships.
Audience members commented that they were grateful for the dialogue, and raised some concerns in a question-and-answer session, such as religious discrimination, Islamaphobia and press attention on interreligious conflict rather than harmony.
The dialogue was part of the University's commitment to President Obama's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. North Park is one of nearly 250 participating colleges and universities. Dialogue sponsors were the University's Office of Diversity and Intercultural Programs, the Collaboratory for Urban and Intercultural Learning, and the Middle Eastern Studies Initiatives.
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