5 disparate congregations meet, aid interfaith center

Basics: A gathering celebrated the differences and searched for commonalties among the religious bodies.

January 12, 2001|By Jean Leslie | Jean Leslie,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Where on Earth could you find a group of 100 or so people who can sit together and listen attentively to these devotions: a cantor singing in Aramaic; a rousing Baptist rendition of an all-American hymn; a Muslim imam's exploration of the role of Mary in Islam; and a rationale for the noncredal nature of Unitarian-Universalist philosophy? This happened Sunday in Howard County.

The event was a "Gathering of Owen Brown Interfaith Center's congregations." The gathering celebrated the differences and searched for commonalties among five disparate congregations: Muslim, Jewish, Unitarian-Universalist and two Christian Protestant denominations - Methodist and Baptist. It was the brainchild of the Rev. Frazier Feaster of St. Luke's Baptist Church.

The Owen Brown Interfaith Center building is starting to show the inevitable wear and tear of age and heavy use. Meetings were held with Owen Brown Interfaith members in the fall to find ways to renovate the center, and Feaster suggested holding a celebration and taking up an offering to raise funds for repairs. The concept mushroomed to become the first interfaith service held at the Owen Brown center in many years.

Because this was a new beginning, the members of each denomination started with the basics: They briefly explained their beliefs and history, then demonstrated the worship that is characteristic of their religion.

Particularly poignant was the tolerance exhibited by the Jewish and Muslim congregations in the face of the current upheaval in the Middle East. Mahmoud Abdel Hady, the imam of the Dar Al Taqwa Muslim congregation, began his talk with a softly spoken prayer in Arabic, and said, "I want to touch upon what we have in common, not what is different.

"The word `Islam' means `to submit to God,' which is what a Muslim does. According to the Koran, all prophets or messengers were Muslim because they submitted to God."

Hady spoke of how Moses, Jesus and Mohammed, the founder of Islam, all weave a common thread through the Koran.

The liberal Jewish Calah Congregation makes every effort to keep the door open to all those who want to enjoy its Jewish traditions. An active Sunday school, a choir to perform at high holidays, activities planned for major and minor holidays and active participation by women all were noted as reasons for the congregation's popularity.

Cantor Michael Markowitz performed the traditional mourning prayer Kaddish, accompanying himself on guitar. The audience heard the Aramaic equivalent of "May he who establishes peace in the heaven grant peace unto us and unto all Israel, and let us say `Amen.' "

"We refuse to acknowledge death as triumphant," said Assistant Rabbi Robert Sachs, "which is why we sing the Kaddish not only at funerals but at every one of our services."

The Rev. Kathryn B. Moore of Christ United Methodist Church, on the other hand, spoke about the frontier history of original Methodism and the beliefs in a creator God who asks that we study the Bible, love our neighbors and look after each other. Because Methodists traditionally are enthusiastic choral singers, members of the congregation asked that everyone stand and sing the contemporary hymn "Lord of the Dance."

Feaster, of St. Luke's, recalled the roots of Protestantism when the German priest Martin Luther nailed up his dissertation protesting the wrongs of the Roman Catholic Church. Feaster reminded participants that the word "protest" was involved in the founding of the Protestant faith. The congregational members also recalled the basis of Christianity when they recited together the Apostle's Creed, followed by an a cappella rendition of "Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine."

The Rev. Cynthia Snavely of the Unitarian-Universalist congregation began, "Within our congregation there are varieties of answers, or beliefs. We have Buddhist-Unitarians, pagan-Unitarians, Jewish-Unitarians. What unite us are not shared beliefs, but shared values. It's the way we live our lives and the way we treat other people."

Although Unitarian-Universalists perform few rituals, Snavely explained the flower communion. At the end of the congregational year, each person brings a flower to the service; after blessings are shared, every person takes home a flower - one that someone else brought. "It symbolizes the gifts that we give and share every day," Snavely said.

As the needs of the building bring the congregations together in such interfaith gatherings, more than financial support results. Members of the congregations are hopeful that stronger relationships and cross-cultural understanding will occur as the groups move toward the future together.

"God intends for all people to live on this Earth in harmony," Feaster said. "And Sunday afternoon was a good example of his plan."

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