Interfaith collaboration is vital to solving today’s massive challenges, community leaders say

Traveling to the former Yugoslavia to understand the role that faith played in the post-war reconciliation process, Shariq Abdul Ghani learned how two communities lived. Orthodox Christians and Albanian Muslims, despite living on opposite sides of the street, never interacted with each other. They spoke different languages, worshiped different gods, were buried in different cemeteries, and even ate at different restaurants. This lack of communication between the two groups allowed for Islamophobia and myths regarding Muslims to run rampant.

“So when the drums of war started to beat and the politicians started to call for war,” Abdul Ghani, executive director of the Minaret Foundation, recounted an individual telling him, “he said ‘it was easy for me to kill [Muslims] like dogs.’ And it was primarily because he never interacted with Muslims.”

That’s when the Minaret Foundation was founded.

Home to dozens of interfaith organizations, Houston stands as a beacon of hope for interfaith harmony and collaboration. In a conversation Wednesday evening moderated by Tribune democracy reporter Robert Downen, community leaders shed light on the efforts underway to build bridges between religious groups and foster understanding amid cultural differences.

“So many organizations here, including Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston, Minaret Foundation, and Multifaith Neighbors Network have continued over the last 20 years, probably longer in some circumstances, to continue to expand circles of engagement and circles of having these kinds of deep relationships with each other,” Senior Rabbi Steven M. Gross of Houston Congregation for Reform Judaism said.

As religious groups strive for unity among different faiths, they also face internal divisions. With politics causing divisions within churches, congregants leaving and rifts between denominations, it's challenging to pursue interfaith efforts when there's friction among members.

“We look at the border, there's a challenge there,” Pastor Bob Roberts, the co-founder of Multi-Faith Neighbors Network, said. “But why are we going to vilify Hispanics and other people who want a better life? But if you say something right now, tragically, so many Christians have been politicized. If I'm not being true to what Jesus taught, what do I have? If I can't challenge people about caring for the poor… to love their neighbor, what do you do with that?”

In a time when there’s so much political turmoil, Roberts said that some people claim you can’t do interfaith work right now. But he disagrees, interfaith work was made for moments like these. Amid the Israel-Palestine conflict, for example, Roberts said it takes a lot of courage for two men like Gross and Abdul Ghani, a Jew and a Muslim, to sit together.

“God tells us… with every difficulty there is ease,” Abdul Ghani said. “And so while interfaith work might seem to be a little difficult right now, and while [Gross] and I do get our fair share of criticism, I have to say the silent majority… are happy to see that Muslims and Jews still get along because the conflict overseas can't define who we are here today in America. It shouldn't define how our children play and interact with one another.”

Despite the tension that exists in the current political climate, Roberts still believes in the power of interfaith collaboration and its ability to get communities through times like these.

“This isn't the first time we've been in a situation like this, and we can come out of it,” Roberts said. “People give me hope. For all the bad people, the negative people, the mean people, the cruel people, there's a lot of people that want to build bridges. That gives me hope.”

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