Spectrum of faiths join together at OPF conference
By Teresa Peneguy Paprock
An imam, a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar, and the bartender says, "What is this? A joke?"
It's not often you see Muslims, Christians and Jews in a room together. But at the 2010 Orthodox Peace Fellowship North America Conference, representatives of the three Abrahamic faiths talked together, laughed together, broke bread together and discussed the challenges of interfaith dialogue in today's complex world. The conference was held Oct. 1 to 3 at St. Paul Greek Orthodox Church in Irvine, California.
The stage was set Friday evening by keynote speaker Dr. Ben Campbell Johnson, executive director, Institute of Church Renewal and the author of more than a dozen books including "Beyond 9/11: Christians
and Muslims Together: An Invitation to Conversation."
A former evangelical, Johnson taught at Columbia Theological Seminary from 1981 to 2000. "Nothing in my life would have predicted that someday I would be standing here (at an interfaith event)," he said.
At the age of 75, Johnson had an epiphany: the 21st century would be all about Christians and Muslims, "and I didn't know anything about Islam." After reading and research on Islam as a faith tradition, he found himself sitting across from a Muslim woman having a true heart-to-heart conversation. He thought to himself, "This woman believes in the same God that I do … I began to see the world differently."
Johnson admitted that for most of his life, he had been afraid of engaging people of faiths other than his own brand of Protestant Christianity. But the more he learned about different religions, and the more time he spent with people of other faith traditions, the deeper his own faith became. He also expressed the need for interfaith communication to include not only the three Abrahamic faiths, which were represented at the conference, but also other faiths such as Hinduism and Buddhism.
After dinner in the parish hall, the conference participants gathered for some comic relief from Ted & Company Theaterworks. Ted Swarz, a Mennonite, had planned to become a pastor, but fell in love with
theatre in college and has been performing ever since. His satiric play, "I'd Like to Buy an Enemy," exposed the ironies of American society as it relates to peace, justice, and fear ("War is such an eclectic endeavour," he sighs with a smile. "Sooner or later you get to play with everybody").
The next morning, three concurrent dialogue sessions were held: Jewish-Muslim (Daniel Spiro and Hytham Younis, co-founders of the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society, Washington DC); Catholic-Orthodox (Fr. Steven Tsichlis, St. Paul's, and Fr. Al Baca, St. Cecilia Roman Catholic Church, Tustin, Calif.); and Orthodox-Mennonite (Alexander Patico, OPF secretary, Fr. Alexander Goussetis, pastor of Annunciation
Greek Orthodox Church, Lancaster, Penn., and Swarz).
Ms. Jahan Stanizai, president of Culver City, Calif., Interfaith Alliance, a Muslim, then participated in a community dialogue with Fr. John-Brian Paprock, Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Madison, Wis., and creator of Wisconsin's Interfaith Awareness Week, which celebrates 13 years this December.
Stanizai is from Afghanistan – the "old" Afghanistan, before most of the country was seized by extremists. "We were a secular country that was 99 percent Muslim," she says. "We were the Switzerland of Asia. We
had women in power, we had excellent education. Now they say you can't find a wall more than a foot high without a bullet hole in it."
As a result of the current power structure and the war, she says, "So many opportunities have been lost. Educated people are under attack. No brains are left – they have been killed or imprisoned, or they have
left the country. Afghanistan has lost a generation."
Stanizai, a psychotherapist who works in family therapy, says she senses peoples' discomfort when they find out she is a Muslim. "People hold back. I can see their reaction," she says. "I learned more about my religion in the US than I did in my own country," she said. "I analyzed the Koran here, and I see how many Muslim cultures are wrong. (Hatred) is contradictory to the Koran."
Rev. John-Brian Paprock, a priest and hospital chaplain, said he deals with interfaith issues all the time – especially at the hospital, where more than 90 percent of the people he sees are non-Orthodox.
While serving in the Madison Urban Ministry, involved in issues such as homelessness, he worked with an all-white group of clergy. "We were talking about race relations and I thought, 'There's a problem here,'"
he said. But when the group became more diverse, conflict arose – not between people of different races, but between people of different religions: specifically a Baptist and a member of the Nation of Islam (both
"I realized the biggest issue we deal with is not race, but faith," he said. Dealing with interfaith issues can be
uncomfortable, said Paprock, "But it's the struggle, when you are most uncomfortable, that is when you meet God."
Like others at the conference, Paprock pointed out that as he has become more involved in interfaith, "I've gone deeper into my own faith. And I realized that God is bigger than all religions. God doesn't need religion; we do. God allows us to be separate."
After lunch and into the evening, conference participants watched three films. "Arranged" tells the story of the friendship between an Orthodox Jewish woman, Rochel (Zoe Lister Jones), and a Muslim woman, Nasira (Francis Benhamou), who are new teachers at a Brooklyn elementary school. The young women both respect their family traditions, which include arranged marriage, but must also deal with modern frustrations.
The second film, "Out of Cordoba: Averroes and Maimonides in their Time and Ours," is about inter-religious harmony in the ancient Spanish city of Cordoba. Director Jacob Bender attended the conference
to comment on the film, which was seven years in the making. The film takes Bender, and American Jew, on a post 9-11 journey to Spain, Morocco, France, Italy, Egypt, Palestine, and Israel, and finds that
conflict between Judaism and Islam is not inevitable.
Ruth Broyde Sharone presented the third film, "God and Allah Need to Talk." Sharone, a filmmaker, interfaith pro-activist, community organizer and motivational speaker, was inspired to make the short
film after she saw a billboard saying "God and Allah Need to Talk" at the intersection of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard. The film promotes the Islamic Center of Southern California, which welcomes visitors of
other faiths, as well as Temple Kol Tikvah, which holds an annual Muslim-Jewish Seder of Reconciliation.
Before and after the film, Persian singer Mamak Khadem performed some of beautiful and haunting
melodies with Israeli musician Yuval Ron.
At the end of the conference, Paprock invited the participants and all members of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship to next year's conference, to be held in his hometown of Madison. The theme of the 2011 conferenc will be "Forgiveness."
The conference presented all the participants with an amazing opportunity to live verse 19:33-4 Leviticus: "The stranger that stays with you shall be to you as the homeborn among you, and you shall love
him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."
Teresa Peneguy Paprock is a journalist in Madison, Wis. and a member
of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. She is married to Rev. John-Brian
Paprock of Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church.