25 Lessons from 25 years of Interfaith Experience

© Rev. Dr. Clark Lobenstine
Executive Director
InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington

 At the Al Hewar Center
February 22, 2006

In memory of Mona Ismail*

I have identified 25 lessons from my nearly three decades of interfaith experience.  I have listed them as A) through Y) so that you may add your own lessons with z) and then AA) etc!

 A.        We are stronger standing on two legs than one: 

When the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington was founded in the fall of 1978, it was the first staffed organization in the United States and probably the world to bring together the Islamic as well as the Jewish, Protestant and Roman Catholic faith communities both for deepened understanding and to build a just community. 

The InterFaith Conference (IFC) was founded on the conviction that community is created in diversity and that in diversity is the unity that can change the world.  Diversity is the gift of God.  I love the Qur’anic insight from God ‘that if I had wished I would have made you all one.  But I did not that you might all learn from one another.’  This is a profound affirmation of the reason for our diversity.

The gift of our founders was that we had to work both to deepen understanding among the historic faith communities in the metropolitan Washington area and work for social justice.  These are our two legs.  The vast majority of the more than 800 staffed and volunteer interfaith organizations in this country only do the important work of increasing understanding.  Some work just on a single issue of social justice, which is also important.  Our founders had the vision and gift that guides us still -- we have to have both legs to stand on.

B.                 There are four levels of relating to each other

Dr. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, a great historian of religion, has described four ways in which we relate to each other.  We can apply these in all aspects of our lives.  The four levels are:

1)      We talk about you.  2)  We talk to you.  3) We talk with one another. And 4) we talk with one another about ourselves.  When we are talking about one another, and when we are talking to (or at) one another there is no dialogue.  The dialogue starts when we are at the place of talking with one another.  Sometimes in the process of dialogue, we discover we have moved to the deeper, fourth stage.  We are talking with one another about ourselves. 

My favorite definition of dialogue comes from one of the leaders for interfaith dialogue at the World Council of Churches, Dr. Stanley Samartha.  He says that:

Dialogue is a mood, a spirit, an attitude of love and respect to­wards neighbors of other faiths.  It regards partners as persons, not statistics,  Understood and practiced as an intentional life-style, it goes far beyond a sterile coexistence or uncritical friendliness.  It does not avoid controversies; it does not empha­size only points of general agreement; it recognizes difficulties in relationships as well.  It is not a gathering of porcupines; neither is it a get-together of jellyfish.  Sensitively understood, it helps people not to disfigure the image of their neighbors of other faiths  (1981: Courage for Dialogue, pg. 100).

C.        How we hold our beliefs is as important as what we believe

A colleague shared with me a very important insight of a sociologist by the name of Rokeach. We so often rank people on a horizontal scale that goes from fundamentalist to conservative to moderate to liberal to radical.  Yet how we hold those views determines whether dialogue is possible.  If we hold them in a tight-fisted, narrow way, dialogue will not be possible for the participants will not be talking with one another.  On the other hand, persons who may have quite different positions on the horizontal scale can engage in fruitful dialogue with each other if they hold their views in an open handed and generous way, eager to learn what the other believes as well as to share what one believes.

 This issue is put beautifully by Diana Eck.  She knows more about religious pluralism in this country than anyone else as the Director of the Religious Pluralism Project at Harvard University.  

The world today is most deeply divided, not between religions, but between those in each religious tradition who hold their faith in a close-fisted  and narrow way and those in each religious tradition who hold their faith in an open-handed and generous way.  It is the difference between those who feel their faith to be secure only by building walls and those who feel firmly grounded in faith by virtue of deep roots.  This division today affects people of all religious traditions and it should be addressed as a common concern.

("A Perspective on Dialogue: Looking Ahead," Diana Eck, in Minutes, Sixth Meeting of the Working Group of Dialogue with People of Living Faiths, pg. 20-30, World Council of Churches, Geneva, 1985.)

 D.        "We need to understand the other, but we also need the other in order to understand ourselves." 

Dr. Diane Eck reflects on this statement by a Jewish participant in an inter-religious dialogue held by the World Council of Churches by adding:  “Dialogue is a reflexive process.  In coming to see the world, its meaning and coherence and hope, through the eyes of another, we see ourselves more clearly as well.”  (Eck, “Minutes, Sixth Meeting of the Working Group of Dialogue with People of Living Faiths,” pg. 25, World Council of Churches, Geneva, 1985.)

 It is only in the process of helping you understand what I believe and learning from you about your faith that I see myself more clearly.  It is in this process that we have to explain the “code words” of our faith, those words or phrases that mean so much to us but do not communicate with others outside our tradition.  Or in the context of a Muslim in dialogue with a Christian who does not speak Arabic, the Muslim partner may find it hard to explain the word or phrase in Arabic that means so much to his religious experience.  Yet if he or she does not explain it, the Christian will not be able to understand something very important. 

 E.                 Building trust is the essential ingredient in our interfaith relationships. 

Let me give a brief example.  The InterFaith Conference held an interfaith prayer service at a mosque on the Sunday afternoon after the massacre of Muslims worshipping at the mosque in Hebron by an American Jew who had immigrated to Israel.  In the two days before the service, I received almost identical calls.  The first came from the person who was then President of the Board of Rabbis.  He told me: “I don’t know what I’m getting into, and I don’t want this to turn into an Israel bashing session.  But I trust you and I’m coming.  Shortly thereafter, I received a call from a leader of the mosque.  He told me that there were some in the mosque who were very upset that they should be hosting this service and wondered what would happen at it.  But I trust you and we will welcome you.” 

  Trust is essential to our interfaith relationships!  So how do we build trusting relationships that can sustain both agreements and disagreements?  Someone has said that interfaith relationships are like dancing in the dark.  You will step on each others’ toes sometimes, yet in the context of trust, of knowing that we are not hurting each other on purpose, we have the opportunity to learn how and why we stepped on the others’ toes, what caused the “ouch” and why?

 Many of us are learning that in the most painful way in the context of the outrage and violence over the blasphemous cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.  The vast majority of Americans did not know that any representation of the Prophet and other prophets was blasphemous.

  F.                  Start with what we share in common, before we get to areas of disagreement

Years ago I had a call from a campus minister at a university in our area.  He was excited that Jewish, Christian and Muslim students on campus finally wanted to get together to talk.  “Please come and help us get started.  We’re going to talk about the Middle East.”  I told him, “I’m not coming to lead a discussion on the Middle East.  We have a long ways to go before we can tackle that.  We have to build our trust, relationships and understanding and then we may be able to talk about the Middle East. 

  We must build trust with each other if we are to get beyond the point of just being nice to one another.  Rabbi Leon Klenicki wrote a wonderful article years ago on getting beyond tea and crumpets, or, as Americans, we might say coffee and cookies.   Tea and crumpets were the formal food you would serve in the living room.  He was encouraging us to get into the kitchen where more open and honest sharing takes place.

 G. “Always be prepared to give an account of the hope that is within you, but do so   with gentleness and reverence.” 

This is one of my favorite passages from The Bible.  It comes in the First Letter of Peter, Chapter 3, verse 15.  This short letter in the New Testament was written in a tense time for the Christian minority, probably shortly before an outbreak of persecution against them by the Roman Emperor.  So if we understood this as our model for how we share our faith with others, how we approach a community problem, how to solve a conflict in the family together, we would share the hope that is in within us, that usually comes from our faith, yet we would do so with gentleness and reverence.  It is a wonderful guide for interfaith dialogue!

 H.        Be as eager to learn from another as to share

Often we are much readier to share our faith than to learn from others.  As I tell Christian audiences with whom I speak, we have a responsibility as the majority religious group in this country to make clear that we are interested in learning about their faiths.  But it also applies to Muslims who often have many opportunities to explain their faith since 9/11.  We have provided dozens of Muslim speakers to congregations who requested them.  But in my experience it is very rare for a mosque or Muslim organization to request a speaker from another faith. 

  In the fall of 2001, we at the InterFaith Conference lost all track of the number of referrals we made for Muslims to speak in congregations.  From January to June, 2002, I provided 107 speakers to three dozen congregations, schools and community groups.  Sometimes these were for panel discussions or a single presentation.  Frequently they were for a series of several weeks.  Two-thirds of these speakers were Muslims.  Yet during this time, there was only one request from a Muslim group for a person of another faith to come speak to them. 

 J.              Sharing our glimpses of God

You all know the story of the six blind men who are describing what they are touching.  They each describe the elephant they have their hands on in very different ways because its leg is very different from its skin or its trunk or its ear.  That is how we humans are in trying to describe the Holy One.  God is bigger than any of our understandings, regardless of our faith tradition, because we are only finite human beings trying to comprehend the Eternal One who is beyond anything we can think of or imagine.  In dialogue we get to share our glimpses of God.  In the process we get a fuller understanding of who God is.  That is such a blessing.

 K.        We need both our universality and our particularity, both what united us with             others and what makes us ourselves

Sometimes before an interfaith dialogue, a Christian will ask me: “Is it OK to talk about Jesus?”  I have told them: “If Jesus is important to you, then it better be OK to talk about him.  But how we talk about him makes all the difference.”  How we talk about Islam, how we talk about any of our faiths makes all the difference.  We need to be clear or become clear about the things that we share as persons of different faiths.  But we also have to be clear about those things that make us different, those things that are profoundly important to why I am a Christian and someone else is a Muslim, a Jew, a Zoroastrian or a person of another tradition.  If God had wished, he would have made us all the same, but God didn’t!

 L.             Dialogue is a two-way street, or better, a traffic circle with many streets intersecting.

The opportunities of working with each other, dialoguing with each other, happen in the context of this traffic circle.  But it has to be a giving and a taking, a sharing and a learning process. 

 M.       Work with our children and youth is essential

Working with children and youth is so important.  Of course, they are the next generation to which we will leave the world.  What shape will it be in when they are leading it?  When I was at the National Press Club recently for the Council on American Islamic Relations panel discussion on the cartoon controversy, I was asked what recommendations I had for the media.  What came to me was that if persons in the media all wrote or narrated their reports from the perspective of the world they want to create for their grandchildren, we would be reading and seeing different things.  They would still have to cover the day’s news, but how they were doing this would be different because of this new perspective.

  There is also a hunger among many young people to talk about issues of religion.  Yet they need structured opportunities to do this because it does not often happen around the school lunch table or even after school among friends of different faiths.  Nafees Ahmed is the daughter of Dr. Akbar Ahmed, whom we honored with one of our first InterFaith Bridge Builders’ Awards that Mona Ismail so beautifully organized last June at the Egyptian Embassy.  Nafees wanted to start an interfaith club at her public high school with a few friends of different faiths.  She had no idea whether others would want to join them for weekly discussions after school about different faiths.  But at the “back to school” night where the youth were to sign up for different clubs and parents were there, 72 students signed up, making it one of the biggest clubs at the school! 

 N.        Where appropriate, engage youth and adults in intergenerational settings.

Where it is appropriate, and I know there are cultural differences, creating inter-generational events is very important where adults want to know what young people are thinking and where youth want to learn from the experiences of their elders.  We too often create situations as adults where we are talking to the young people, not with them.  In the InterFaith Conference we have had some wonderful examples of this intergenerational approach in dialogues.  We now consistently train students and adults to be co-facilitators for our public dialogues.

  O.        Create opportunities for visits to one another’s houses of worship.

I have a colleague whom I have known for 30 years or so.  She has been very active in ecumenical work within the Christian community at a national level.  She lives two blocks from a synagogue.  Because of her national role, she did work with Jews, Muslims and persons of other faiths where there was inter-religious consensus on national issues.  Yet she had never been to that synagogue until the InterFaith Conference organized a pilgrimage to several congregations including this synagogue. Now she knew she was invited to come!

 Many mosques did not have open houses before 9/11.  The vast majority of mosques have had them since then, and countless Americans have been to one and learned about Islam from Muslims for the first time.

 Sometimes we arrange visits to a worship service in one tradition for persons from other traditions to attend and observe.  Our policy when we do this may be a helpful guide to others.  We always make sure that a knowledgeable person from the host congregation will orient the visitors before the service, so that they know what is going to be taking place and why.  Then we have persons from the host congregation sit with the visitors during the service, if that is appropriate.  Finally we make sure there is a time for sharing afterwards.  There are always questions and comments and it is important that time and space is created where these can be shared.

  We are beginning a series of open houses with the Council on American Islamic Relations in mosques and churches to create opportunities to better understand the Prophet Muhammad as a positive response to the terrible cartoons of him and the furor they have created.

  P.         Be willing to speak out against the excesses of your own tradition.

It is very important for those of us in this country who are not Muslims to know that the vast majority of Muslims reject the violent responses to the blasphemous cartoons of Muhammad or suicide bombings or other violent actions of a few who claim to be doing this in the name of their religion.  Because of the scant media attention given to these denunciations of violence, I’m sure that many Muslims are tired of having to say that again and again. 

  At the same time, as a Christian, I want Muslims and others to know that the vast majority of Christians reject Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson’s blasphemous characterizations of the prophet Muhammad.  You may or may not hear Christians saying “You are not saying that in my house, you are not speaking for me.”  But a large number of Christians are saying that.

  Q.        It’s not fair to compare our saints and your sinners!

We all have our sinners, our “crazies.”  We all have our saints.  If we are going to make comparisons, we need to compare the extremist members of each tradition or the most devout followers of each tradition.  We need to talk about the “crazies” in each of our traditions.  We need to understand the challenges we share in dealing with the extremists.  But it is not fair to compare my saints and your sinners!

  R              Recognize the need for dialogue at all levels from scholarly to neighborly.

We need dialogue centers like Al Hewar.  When the Fique Council of North America released its very strong and clear denunciation of violence in name of religion that was affirmed by countless mosques and Islamic groups, it was particularly important because it came out of a scholarly group and then was translated to the regional and local levels.  Happily, there was also significant news coverage of it which helped millions of persons who are not Muslims to understand or to more deeply understand this very profound opposition to violence in the name of religion. 

 We have just celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Nostra Aetate document from the Second Vatican Council.  It dramatically changed the Roman Catholic Church’s understanding of how it was to relate to persons of other faiths and deeply affected countless individual Catholics. 

 S.              Distinguish what is central to our religion and our beliefs from what is cultural.

            When we had the interfaith memorial service for Mona Ismail on the fortieth day of her death, we made clear that this was an Egyptian custom, not an Islamic requirement.  We wanted to honor who she was, honor her traditions.  But we were also helping people to understanding this was not what all Muslims do.

  Out of the trusting relationships built by lessons E. through S. above, relationships that can sustain both agreements and disagreements, we can work together on common concerns in our communities, nation and world.

  T.            Standing with each other in times of attack or need

Leaders and members of The All Dulles Area Muslim Society tell the stories of how Christians and Jews came to the defense of ADAMS, both right after 9/11 and after an incident of hateful graffiti on its building.  A Muslim who has long been active in the work of the InterFaith Conference often tells international visitors who come to learn about our model that on 9/11 the first call she received was from a Jewish woman friend.  The second was from a Catholic woman friend.  Both were calling to find out if she was OK and if there was any way they could help her.  Both were persons that she had spent many hours in dialogue with as part of an interfaith women’s group.  Both were there for her in her time of need. 

  Years ago, the Shaara Tefilla Synagogue in Silver Spring, Maryland had terrible graffiti spray- painted on their building the night before a public election.  This temple was a polling place where a few thousand persons would come to cast their ballots.  The leaders of the synagogue made the decision to leave the graffiti up the next day.  They chose not to cover them up with cloth or quickly get the sand blasting company in to get rid of these hate-filled words.   Everyone coming to vote was going to have to walk past those horrible words, was going to have to realize that this kind of hate was still in our community.  They wanted that lesson to be there.  Two weeks later, about 200 of us gathered for a symbolic cleansing of the temple with our scrub brushes.  We were there to say very clearly that we reject this hate, this violence.  This is not what our community stands for.  It took the sand blasters to really erase those words but the symbolic cleansing of the temple was a very important way for us to stand with the members of that synagogue.

  Very recently the sign of the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring, Maryland was defaced.  We responded quickly, working closely with the leaders of the Center.   We urged the police to deal with this as a hate-crime and not as an act of vandalism, which was the way the police originally designated this action.  We notified nine neighboring congregations of the problem and encouraged their support of the Center.  Only one was aware the defacing had happened.  We communicated promptly with many elected officials both our outrage at this action and their need to respond as well.

 U.                 Community service is especially important for youth but it is also a key way for persons of all ages to create meaningful relationships across lines of different religions.

Community service can be much more than a food drive or a clothing drive or even building an interfaith Habitat for Humanity house together as we did recently.  As people work side by side, we also stress the importance of creating opportunities for discussions with people you don’t know about why each one is doing this.  When we had a youth service day at the Habitat site, one group built in the morning and the second group in the afternoon.  But everyone broke bread together at lunch.  They sat in interfaith groups to share and learn about one of the key religious figures that was the focus of each table’s dialogue. 

  V.             Governments often understand the importance of interfaith collaboration.

There was a huge increase in this after 9/11.  President Bush’s visit to the Islamic Center on September 13th was so important with his very famous comments about Islam not being a religion of violence.  Imam Magid of ADAMS chairs the Fairfax County, Virginia’s Faith in Action Council that is staffed by a County employee. The Mayor of the District of Columbia established an Interfaith Council to advise him.  I serve as its Secretary.  Faith Based Initiatives, where local, state or federal governments contract with religious groups to provide specific services are a big issue in government and religious circles.  They have perils and possibilities!

  W.       The whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.

We have found this to be true again and again in the work of the InterFaith Conference.  This has been true, for example, in our building coalitions to do things which no individual member of the group could do on their own.   We have been the trusted but neutral partner who was able to form coalitions among diverse groups who were working on the same issue but not collaborating with each other. 

Bringing eleven faith communities together to speak and/or act as one on an issue is far more powerful than each speaking or acting on its own.  Our joining with the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC) in a news conference February 6, 2006 at the National Press Club is just one example of this.  The statement made by our Chairperson, Rev. Robert Maddox, is available on our website www.ifcmw.org.  MPAC was especially appreciative that we participated since we represent eleven world religions in our membership. 

X.        There are more and more wonderful resources to use.

We held the regional premier of “Three Faiths, One God: Judaism, Christianity and Islam” at a local theater which is now being shown on Public Broadcasting Stations (PBS) across America. 

We will be co-sponsoring the viewing of the award winning film, “Jews and Christians: A Journey Together,” made by the same Auteur Productions company.  Seen on over 200 PBS stations in the US, it is another wonderful resource for deepening inter-religious understanding and building trust.    

  Our 26th InterFaith Concert in November, 2005 at Washington National Cathedral was also the occasion of the national release of One Nation Under God: The History of Prayer in America, a fascinating book by James P. Moore.  You may order any of these items through us on our website.

 The InterFaith Conference has a library of over 1000 books.  Most were donated by our Board members and others which they believed would help others better understand their faith tradition or interfaith dialogue or social justice issues from one or more religious perspectives.  These are available for free loan.  You can view what books are available on our website, www.ifcmw.org.

 We are also collaborating with Unity Productions Foundation in organizing inter-religious dialogues this summer using its wonderful film, “Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet.”   (We are already using a brief segment of it in our open houses to deepen understanding of the Prophet Muhammad.)  These dialogues are a prelude to the much larger effort of Unity Productions Foundation of organizing 20,000 dialogues around the film they are now making on the 800 year period in the Andalusia of religious collaboration among the Abrahamic religions.  We look forward to working with the Unity Productions Foundation in these dialogues.

Y.   Deepening Understanding with one another and Joint Work to build a just society are essential to our future. 

We have no other choice!  I know you know this because you are active in the Al Hewar Center.  I want to end with a very powerful quote by Dr. Diana Eck that makes very clear why dialogue and collaborative work are absolutely essential to our future.  She would include both aspects of inter-religious work when she speaks in this quote of “dialogue.”  Dr. Eck was speaking and writing to a Christian audience in the World Council of Churches, but her insight needs to be heard and acted upon by us all.

Dialogue is the foundation for One World.  Dialogue is essential to relationship...Such relationship does not just happen.  It must be pursued with vigor, with care, and with sensitivity.  Dialogue is the foundation for One World.  One World cannot be build on the foundation of transnational corporate capitalism.  One World cannot be built on the foundation of competition and polarization between the superpowers.  One World cannot be built on the foundation of science, technology and the media.  One World cannot be built on Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Sikh triumphalism.  One World cannot be built on the foundation of mutual fear and suspicion.  And though we have struggled and are struggling to achieve Christian unity, One World cannot be built on the foundations of Christian unity.

As far as we know, One World is all we have.  We do not have one to experiment with, to divide, despoil and destroy and one to learn to live in.  Laying the foundations for  One World is the most important task of our time. These foundations are not negotiated statements and agreements.  These foundations are, rather, in the stockpiling of trust through dialogue and the creation of relationships that can sustain both agreements and disagreements.  Moving forward as Christians, in dialogue with those of other faiths, we will create the foundational relationship of One World.  Moving forward alone, we will not. 

(Diana Eck, in “Minutes, Sixth Meeting of the Working Group of Dialogue with People of Living Faiths,” pg. 20-30, World Council of Churches, Geneva, 1985.)

Z. and beyond!  What would you add to complete the alphabet of our lessons from             interfaith experience and start a second alphabet?

I would be very glad to hear your own reflection on your lessons from interfaith experience as well as on my thoughts.  You can email them to me at clarkifc@aol.com.  Please be sure to use “Al Hewar Center Talk” as the subject line so I can easily find them in my overload of emails!

Thank you again for the privilege of speaking tonight at the Al Hewar Center in memory of Mona Ismail, and for the privilege of having this article shared by the Center in its magazine and by email.


* Mona Ismail was the Coordinator and then Director of Events and Communications of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington from April, 2004 until her death from cancer in December, 2005.  She was convinced after many years of working first in the Egyptian and then in the Arab community in organizing social, educational and then candidate nights for those running for public office, that she must now focus on inter-religious work. While she made our choice of her over the other candidates very easy, she made a real sacrifice to accept our position at the salary we were able to offer.

Mona was a bridge builder par excellence.  She took her work with us very seriously and was delighted to be with an organization that respected persons of all faiths, an organization that expected each one to share out of their own religious beliefs and to learn from the faith journeys of others.  

Although she was only in our employ for about one year and nine months and on medical leave  because of cancer for nine months of that time, she left an indelible imprint on our work.  We are delighted to honor her memory by giving her posthumously one of the InterFaith Bridge Builders’ Awards at our second annual event this spring.  We are also raising funds to endow the Mona Ismail Summer Internship.  We look forward to training a Muslim student to deepen the student’s knowledge and experience to more effectively provide leadership as a Muslim in interfaith work.  This will be done in partnership with the Muslim Public Service Network and students interested must apply through them at http://www.muslimstudentnetwork.org. Finally, the All Dulles Area Muslim Society will offer a scholarship in Mona’s name for a student of any faith whom we will select to recognize the student’s dedication to inter-religious work.

Persons present at the Al Hewar Center for my address, and those reading this article, are invited to share a favorite memory of Mona Ismail.  They will be included in a booklet together with letters which were read at her interfaith memorial service at ADAMS on the 40th day of her death, according to the Egyptian tradition. International Graphics has kindly offered to print this booklet for us as a gift in Mona’s memory.  If you would like to be included, please submit your memory to me at clarkl@ifcmw.org AND also to Ms. Courtney Erwin, our Coordinator for Religious Freedom, at courtneye@ifcmw.org.