When the WISDOM presentation at the NACCC Conference was over, I asked Rev. Mary Biedron to share with us the outcome of our keynote. Did people want to know who their neighbor was, as a result of our shared stories? Her initial thoughts brought immediate satisfaction:
These three talks really set a tone that carried throughout the conference, and the mosque tours were at full capacity thanks to your encouragement. Eide Alawan led the tours and was excellent. The workshop on pluralism was standing room only. Thank you so much! I’ve received many emails thanking us for the exposition of our theme. The WISDOM presentation was an important part of that.
But it is her reflections shared below that give me the energy to do more to develop interfaith understanding and to continue to promote pluralism as a path to peace.
When the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches’ 2016 Annual Meeting and Conference first entered the planning stages, the Host Committee was asked to suggest a theme. The meeting would be held in southeastern Michigan, and would welcome delegates and church members from around the country. Congregationalist churches that are members of the National Association represent a Protestant Christian tradition with origins in the Pilgrim and Puritan churches of colonial New England. Our churches range from large to small, and include urban, suburban, and rural congregations. While we are a very long way from witch trials, for many of our member churches, there are few opportunities in their communities to interact with non-Christians. When we learned that our site would be the DoubleTree Detroit/Dearborn, just a mile from the Islamic Center of America, our thoughts turned to the question asked of Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” in Luke 10:29. In response to that story, Jesus offered the parable of the Good Samaritan with its conclusion: EVERYONE is your neighbor. What better theme to invite exploration of the rich, pluralistic religious environment of the metropolitan Detroit area?
As we explored ways to develop our theme, we planned a workshop on pluralism and scheduled a large-group tour of the Islamic Center mosque. Our Bible lecturer, Rev. Dr. Stephen Butler Murray, president of Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit, prepared three talks on reading and using scripture in diverse communities. For the keynote address that would set the tone for the meeting, I contacted Gail Katz to ask if we could have a group from WISDOM share their insight that it is friendship that fosters and sustains pluralist encounters. I was so pleased to meet with Trish Harris to review plans for this presentation at the opening of our meeting, and so impressed with the wonderful resources she provided, many of which I incorporated into the pluralism workshop. We determined that the Host Committee would provide copies of Friendship and Faith to interested meeting participants, as well as a bibliography and contact information for those wanting to learn more and begin their own communities’ interfaith journeys. As the meeting drew near, I wondered how our theme, and its expression, would be received in this time of heightened anxiety in interreligious and interracial situations.
I introduced the WISDOM speakers with my own pluralism story: for people living in southeastern Michigan, interfaith encounters are as close and as common as conversations at the mailbox post, with the person on the next treadmill at the gym, with a child’s soccer coach, a co-worker, a physical therapist and many more. The founding principle of WISDOM, that a commitment to building relationships across lines of difference is the foundation for peace and understanding, is borne out in these everyday encounters. As Trish Harris, Gigi Salka, and Padma Kuppa shared their WISDOM stories, the group of about 300 participants became silent and deeply attentive. Standing beneath the “Who Is My Neighbor?” theme banner, their speeches offered insights about the question that were inspiring and challenging. At the end of the keynote address, the book table was surrounded by attendees wanting not only the book, not only the autographs, but also the opportunity to talk about the possibility of forming such a group in their own communities.
The importance of the message did not end there, however! The mosque tour signups became so numerous we added vehicles. The pluralism workshop was standing-room-only, and more handouts had to be reproduced. My display of pluralism resources caused many to stay and take notes. People I had expected to be critical or resistant were drawn into conversation. Throughout the meeting, participants stopped by the welcome table to tell me of their own interfaith insights and experiences at home and at the meeting.
I am so grateful to Trish, Gigi, and Padma, as well WISDOM as a whole, for what they offered to our meeting and to our churches from around the U.S. In the midst of the harsh rhetoric of division being expressed this summer, we glimpsed a possibility for peace and the inspiration to use conversation and friendship to transformational ends.
Rev. Dr. Mary E. Biedron