Sons of Abraham unite for peace

A rabbi, a reverend and a Muslim brother met on Thursday, May 19, before a modest but attentive nondenominational audience in Portland State’s Urban Center to engage in a cross-cultural interfaith dialogue.

A rabbi, a reverend and a Muslim brother met on Thursday, May 19, before a modest but attentive nondenominational audience in Portland State’s Urban Center to engage in a cross-cultural interfaith dialogue.

The event, titled “Rebuilding from Ground Zero: A Conversation with Faith-Based Leaders on Religion and Race,” was hosted by Portland’s Leadership Fellows Alumni Association, a nonprofit organization formed in 1999 that trains underprivileged people of color to be leaders in their workplaces and communities.

The evening’s three-member guest panel featured Rabbi Daniel Isaak, senior rabbi at Congregation Neveh Shalom in Southwest Portland; Reverend Henry Greenidge, founder of the multi-ethnic Irvington Covenant Church; and Brother Shahriar Ahmed, president of the Bilal Mosque Association of Oregon.  

Isaak called the event an opportunity for “cross-pollination” among the three major Abrahamic faith traditions. It focused on how individuals and groups in a post-9/11 world can peaceably coexist and learn to understand each other in a global milieu of many different languages, cultures, races and religions.

According to the panel, humanity must outgrow its tendency to fear the unfamiliar and instead look for entry points of empathy in the lives and experiences of those whom we tend to believe have nothing in common with us.

“Xenophobia is a product of a lack of familiarization,” Isaak said. “It’s a very dangerous fear that we have of the ‘other.'”

He explained that the relatively new openness to gay marriage in the United States, for example, is simply the result of discovering that many of us personally know gay people with hopes and dreams like the rest of us, and who want to enjoy their lives just like anyone else.

“There is so much disinformation out there, and part of it stems from a lack of relationships,” Greenidge said.

Greenidge recalled being taught to fear Catholics and the devotees of other religions during his Evangelical upbringing. However, he has since arrived at the conclusion that such apparent differences serve as “foundational distractions” in the modern age and prevent us from learning to identify with others.

We can overcome these distractions, he said, by building relationships with those whom we are prejudiced to hate or to fear.

“Faith is lost from amongst us. Society has decoupled from faith. We believe we can do everything, but we cannot,” Ahmed said, attributing this absence of faith to the degeneration of family values in the U.S.

However, “true faith cannot be brought back with fire and brimstone,” he added.

The men took turns relating their experiences as members of religious communities and how their faith has sometimes put them at right angles to their culture.

Isaak blames sensational journalism and the media at large for helping to foment the divisions among ethnic and religious groups in America. 

“The most outrageous spokesmen for religion, for race, the ones who have the most violent or intolerant positions, are the ones who get the microphone,” he said, “which leads to a radicalization of our entire society.”

Stories reflecting harmony between religions don’t earn as much copy space or media attention as “a lunatic minister who wants to burn the Koran,” Isaak said. He believes it is up to the public to condemn such radical leaders and their fringe positions.

Despite the proliferation of social media and the “shrinking” of the globalized world, Greenidge believes that “we are probably—especially in America—lonelier than ever.”

“We’re finding more and more ways to put up more barriers, to separate ourselves,” he said. “What we need, in my view, is to find ways to connect and to listen to our narratives so that we can actually talk to each other.”

Ahmed echoed this view.

“We have to learn to talk at a very gut level, at a very human level,” Ahmed said. “We must learn to interact in the face of tensions.”

According to Isaak, America is a “very strange experiment” in coping with diversity on a large scale. People need exposure to cultural diversity, he said, because it can become dangerous when one group gets to “set the tone” for their entire culture. The more diverse our population, the more experienced we become at understanding others.

“It doesn’t matter what we look like, or what people profess in terms of their relationship with God; down deep we’re all the same,” he said. ?