By HELEN T. GRAY - The Kansas City Star
Kansas City interfaith group creates atmosphere of acceptance
Date: 10/19/01 22:15
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 some Muslims in various parts of the
United States were threatened, harassed, beaten. In Arizona a man mistaken
for a Muslim was murdered.
In Kansas City, however, this backlash of anger caused barely a ripple.
One reason, said Ahmed El-Sherif, founder of the American Muslim Council's
Kansas City chapter, is the growing relationships among the leaders of
various faiths here.
"There were a few instances, but nothing compared to other cities," he
said. "Islamic schools and congregations have been receiving letters of
support, bouquets of flowers and calls, and this would not have happened
without the interfaith activities and leadership that has the vision to see
that this relationship will help us understand each other."
At the heart of that understanding is the Interfaith Council, which is
about to hold Kansas City's first areawide interfaith conference.
The timing couldn't be better. The tragic events of Sept. 11 have heightened
the sense of need to connect across faiths, said Gene Flanery, coordinator
of an upcoming interfaith conference that will bring together people from
"While most people may not become involved directly with interfaith work,
now at least no one can deny its value," he said.
The "Gifts of Pluralism" conference, set for Oct. 27 and 28, will be at the
Pembroke Hill School under the auspices of an interfaith organization called
It will include interactive sessions, workshops and multifaith panels. It
also is expected to produce a Concluding Declaration, which may help to
chart the future of faiths in Kansas City.
"I hope participants will find their own faiths refreshed and deepened,"
said the Rev. Vern Barnet, president of CRES, which promotes understanding
among peoples of all faiths. "I hope the religious dimensions of our
environmental, personal and social troubles will be clearer, with spiritual
resources to respond to them.
"I certainly hope we will have a better sense of who we are as religious
peoples in the Kansas City area, and that the joys of recognizing and
expressing our kinship will lead to continuing and new arenas of dialogue
Kansas City has a diverse culture of more than a dozen faiths, including
those less familiar to most residents, such as Sufi, Baha'i, Sikh and
Jain. In the last decade, efforts to promote understanding among people
of different faiths have increased significantly.
Most onlookers agree that the biggest catalyst has come from CRES, founded
in 1982 by Barnet, a nationally recognized world religions scholar.
In 1989 Barnet organized the Interfaith Council, which for the first time
in Kansas City brought together people from 13 faith traditions. Among
other things, the council and CRES have provided interfaith educational
materials and speakers, and have worked to increase participation from
people of different faiths in area events and groups. The upcoming conference
is the most ambitious undertaking.
"The most important result of the work of CRES and the Interfaith Council
has been the development of friendships among those of many faiths," Barnet
said. "This in turn has provided increasing visibility and respect for the
A variety of groups have tried to improve relations among faith traditions.
These include Kansas City Harmony's Congregational Partners program that
helps bring congregations together across racial and denominational or faith
lines. The partnerships do such things as share worship, social activities
and cook and serve food to the homeless.
Pathways, which Gene Flanery started in 1999, helps to build relationships
between his congregation, Full Faith Church of Love, and members of the
nearby Hindu and Sikh temples. They have shared meals and come together
monthly to discuss scriptures.
Among other groups working in this arena has been the National Conference
for Community and Justice, NCCJ, which through a comprehensive range of
programs works to promote mutual respect and diversity among youth and
adults and to combat prejudices of race, class, gender, sex and religion.
Many onlookers see that one gap in Kansas City's religious scene has been
the lack of a metropolitan interfaith coalition, such as found in many other
cities. Since the demise of the Metropolitan Inter-Church Agency, MICA, more
than 20 years ago, Kansas City has not even had a council of churches that
brings the Christian community together.
"Since there was no such umbrella organization a lot of other organizations
have come on the scene to do various parts of what a council of churches or
interfaith organization would do," said Rodger Kube, former executive
director of Spirit of Service, which has tried to help congregations working
together more effectively.
One major stumbling block, he said, was the lack of financial support from
the big Kansas City funders. He looked at 31 metropolitan areas -- large,
medium and small -- and found that three-fourths of them had interreligious
These groups often were able to work together on common issues and sponsor
interreligious events as well as broaden the community's knowledge and
understanding of various faiths.
Kube, now interim minister for Bethel United Church of Christ, said he
hopes the upcoming interfaith conference "will give a new spurt of energy
in interreligious cooperation and dialogue."
"One of the good things since Sept. 11 is that we can begin to have the
kind of dialogue that we should have had for a long time," he said. "It
would be my hope that this would be the kind of spur that would lead to a
permanent interreligious council."
But it won't be easy, he said.
Meet, not merge
Many involved in interfaith work recognize the difficulties.
"There are those in all faiths who mistrust any member of their faith who
has cordial relations with those of other faiths," said Ed Chasteen of
HateBusters, a group he started that, among other things, takes people of
various faiths to visit members of other faiths. "So those of us who serve
as ambassadors must constantly reassure our own people that we are no less
committed to our own faith than they are.
"And there are members of those other faiths that we visit who assume we
have some hidden agenda, that we do not really come to understand and build
bridges but to somehow convert them to our faith."
Allan Abrams, who was chairman of the now-inactive Christian Jewish Muslim
Dialogue Group, said, "People bring their own perspectives into any dialogue,
and quite frequently people's experiences come from within their own group,
and it colors their viewpoints, and sometimes it makes dialogue more
Janet Moss of Congregational Partners said time is often a factor because
the people who are most active in the partnerships are also busy in their
Another factor is the assumption that interfaith work is an effort to merge
or blend the faiths together and neglect what is distinctive about each one,
Barnet said. Instead, people committed to their own faith find it deepens
as they learn about others', he said.
The community needs to invest more time, money and talents for the work of
interfaith understanding and cooperation to flourish, said Diane Hershberger
of Kansas City Harmony.
Many people see the conference as promising for furthering interfaith work
in Kansas City.
"The need for the `Gifts of Pluralism' conference should be obvious to us
all by now," said Flanery, coordinator of the upcoming conference. "When
people of faith live in isolation from others who are different, fear and
suspicion will be the result."
Barnet also is hopeful that through the conference, "it may be possible to
move forward in developing an alliance of every faith community in the
metro area for better communication, cooperation and service."
To reach Helen T. Gray, religion editor, call (816) 234-4446 or
send e-mail to email@example.com.
©Copyright 2001, The Kansas City Star