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Bridging the religious divide: Different faiths set difference aside, work together

By Rachel Buller/For CU-CitizenAccess -- Eleanor Evans and Fatemah Hermes spent a majority of their Saturday mornings in summer 2010 fighting – but not with each other.

Both women, who care deeply for the environment but also have a vested interest in spiritual matters, fought religious ignorance by building peace, one seed at a time, through a community peace garden. While their religious practices may be different, even conflicting, they adhere to principles that are very much the same.

The idea that religious and political change can be facilitated through collaboration and discussion in informal settings, outside formal houses of worship or religious centers, is slowly gaining momentum. Rather than focusing on theological differences, people of faith are finding ways to solve problems of mutual concern, including environmental, political, economic and social issues.

There are more than 300 religions in the United States alone, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives. A recent study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows that the Midwest most closely resembles the overall religious makeup of the U.S. population. In Champaign-Urbana, there are more than 50 different churches and religious centers.

One group bridging the religious divide is Faith in Place. The organization uses sustainable farming methods as a tool to help religious people become good stewards of the earth. It also uses the environment as a point of commonality among its members.

“There’s a lot in our faith that tells us directly about taking care of the earth and the environment,” Hermes said.

Since 1999, Faith in Place has partnered with more than 700 congregations in Illinois – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Baha’i and Unitarian Universalist, among others. Each chapter, located in Champaign and Chicago, strives to promote interfaith dialogue and mutual understanding within the local spiritual community. The group is also part of the national Interfaith Power & Light campaign.

Deeply divided

While this type of collaboration isn’t new, the success rate for interfaith initiatives hasn’t always been high.

“Lines on theology are deeply divided,” Ben Hoerr, former pastor at the Vineyard Church in Urbana, said. “Historically, as I’ve watched how churches have related together, they’ve not done a very good job at working together.”

People of faith, even those who do not embrace a particular set of religious belief at all, can feel misunderstood and misrepresented, Hoerr said. Spirituality is not only complex, but it is deeply personal. While freedom of religion should be liberating, it can have just the opposite effect. Often times, spirituality merely confines or represses an already narrow view of the religious other, Hoerr said.

Interfaith initiatives such as these come at a crucial point in history. A decade after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, certain stereotypes still distort many people’s views of Islam.

During the summer of 2010, as a part of an effort titled “Muslims and Mennonites: Planting Peace One Seed at a Time,” Muslims and Mennonites worked side by side in a community garden near Springfield Avenue. One block apart, the First Mennonite Church and Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center in Urbana share more than a parking lot every weekend.

“We have a long relationship as neighbors,” Brian Sauder, outreach policy coordinator for Faith in Place, said. “We started the garden project two years ago, and then it evolved last year into the peace garden. That’s hopefully going to be an ongoing project.”

Produce from the garden went to The Center for Women in Transition and A Woman’s Fund in Urbana, which merged in July 2010.

Addressing issues

In addition, members from both the mosque and the church met for an eight-week class that examined how faith can inform issues such as genetically engineered crops, hunger, immigration and farming.

“We focused on a variety of issues related to food and peacemaking and faith,” Sauder said. “We started out just trying to build some context. We use that context for the final five weeks to discuss ethical considerations within that context. That’s where much more interfaith dialogue around those issues took place.”

However, the project did not come without some form of resistance. Celeste Larkin, a former intern and member of Faith in Place, led a class on migrant labor that generated intense discussion.

“It’s a hot global topic,” she said. “Sometimes, it was tense and hard. We talked about their practices, and it hit close to home for people.”

Political issues often revolve around faith-based issues. Larkin, who was in the Spanish program at St. Mary Catholic Church in Champaign, said she was raised Catholic but is not particularly religious now. She first got involved in the local spiritual community through a social justice event held at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Urbana.

Larkin enjoyed teaching classes when it was convenient to be faith oriented and when it didn’t come into conversation at all.

“It was more an admiration of the religious faiths we worked in,” she said. “That is more of where my intentions fell.”

Seeds of peace

Tom Anderson, a retired professor and member of the First Mennonite Church in Urbana, has also participated with other faith groups on several projects. Only recently did he get involved with the peace garden.

“I liked the idea of using that bit of land for something environmentally positive and attractive,” Anderson said. “I wish that we could build an informal labyrinth as part of that garden space that would afford passersby an opportunity to gain psychological comfort as they walk among the growing plants.

“I was in the Sunday school class that Brian taught and enjoyed thinking and learning about these kinds of issues,” he said. “I participated in the garden project by helping to till the ground with my rototiller and assisting in some kind of planting.”

Anderson and his wife have lived on a “farmette,” a 12-acre property with a barn, in Champaign County for 20 years where they cultivated a vegetable garden and berry patches, among other projects aimed at improving the environment.

“It’s comforting to know that other faith groups have similar values and are willing to help promote peace and justice positions,” he said

Faith in Place works alongside the Illinois Environmental Council, the Environmental Law & Policy Center and the Sierra Club.

Going to Springfield

In March 2011, the group lobbied in support of Senate Bill 2058, legislation that would require companies with drilling permits to disclose the chemical contents of their hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a technique that enables oil or gas to travel more easily from rock pores to the production well.

“We’re more and more increasing our advocacy role in the statehouse in Springfield,” Sauder said. “Our hope always for congregations is to partner with us to make those changes but then also to get involved in the advocacy part of that.”

In some states, groundwater is believed to have been contaminated by chemicals used during the fracking process. This was the first time that Faith in Place served as a lead organization lobbying in favor of a bill in the Illinois General Assembly.

“We all work together to push for environmental legislation as we work with congregations to make changes in energy conservation, water conservation, thinking upon local food sustainability,” Sauder said.

The group’s mission is to create a change in both heart and mind, whatever the issue may be.

“We want to do as much as we can as a congregation to include what translates into some change in our own individual lives as well but to also realize that our environmental problems are such that we need laws that address that scale both on a statewide and national level.”

Beyond Champaign-Urbana

Fatemah Hermes, a molecular biology graduate student at UI, said it is crucial for people of different belief systems to coexist peacefully. The recent push for democracy in the Arab world, she said, is evidence of Christians and Muslims working together for one cause. Hermes, who has family living in Egypt, visited Cairo in June.

“It was obvious that things are not very stable, which is understandable,” she said. “It’s not over yet. Corruption was there for 30 years. So, it’s clear that a lot of work needs to be done. People have mixed feelings about it. I don’t blame them.

“We have a system in place here in the U.S.,” Hermes said. “We all need to learn that system. It’s part of our rights, and if we don’t practice them, they’re going to slowly be taken away from us.”

Like Hermes, Eleanor Evans has a strong interest in the work that Faith in Place does beyond Champaign-Urbana.

Evans and her husband Charles attend the Wesley United Methodist Church in Urbana. The couple joined the organization two years ago after attending a Faith in Place workshop.

“One of the things that Charles and I do is let people know what’s going on,” Evans said. “So, we update them on all these things.

“We’re a task force in that group,” she said. “It’s social justice to take care of the world.”

And sometimes, taking care of the world may mean starting in one’s own backyard.

Healing the sick

A few blocks west of the peace garden, just down the street on Springfield Avenue, another interfaith collaboration is taking place. This effort, however, uses a different set of tools to meet a community need.

The Avicenna Community Health Center, located on Second Street in the heart of Campustown, provides health care for the uninsured and underinsured residents of Champaign County. The clinic’s name, Avicenna, is the Latinized name of the Muslim physician Ibn Sina, who is considered the father of modern medicine for his discovery of the contagious nature of infectious diseases.

“We’re not just treating Muslims,” Obaid Sarvana, a volunteer and pre-med student from Naperville, said. “People aren’t just being treated by Muslims. The goal is to provide the platform to make access possible.”

The Champaign County Christian Health Center is the primary leaser of the office building on Second Street where Avicenna operates.

“They were gracious enough to allow us to sublet one day a week,” Sarvana said. “You see people giving it their all and that makes you want to do the same.”

Avicenna is currently open from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sundays. On average, physicians see 10 to 15 patients per week. (Read more about Avicenna here.)

¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.