Despite the deluge, 155 men and women of all faiths from across North America listened, learned, and shared, creating connections across the boundaries of almost fifty different faith traditions.
Starting with our local favorite interfaith performers, Brother Al Mascia and Maggid Steve Klaper of Song and Spirit, through to the final plenary on Sacred Storytelling, it was a non-stop opportunity to absorb new ideas and new energy.
In the opening plenary, Rev. Dr. Dan Buttry charmed and inspired, encouraging us to talk to each other, to respect each other’s basic humanity and use that communication and respect as a basis not just for connection, but also for collaboration.
He told the story of his first date with his wife Sharon, who, not knowing that he didn’t care for popcorn, made him some. He ate the whole bowl because he didn’t want to risk losing the second date, he said. Eventually their relationship grew into one that could tolerate more honesty.
Interfaith relationships, he says, must have that higher level of honesty, must include and be able to survive talking about “the real stuff.”
“We will never transform the world with interfaith first date moments,” said Buttry.
Effective interfaith work means deep community building so that, in times of crisis, those connections hold fast.
He emphasized the need to work together doing “the nitty gritty nuts and bolts of community building.”
And he sent participants back to their own religious communities with a mandate to open conversations there. “If we are silent in our own communities,” said Buttry, “intolerance will win.”
The tone of openness and honesty carried through the conference, with feedback from participants being almost unanimous on several points: They had great conversations; they thought the conference was very well executed; that Meredith Skowronski and all the committee members and volunteers did an outstanding job; and they didn’t care for the weather.
The historic downpour did not stop anyone from enjoying an excellent dinner at the Islamic Center of America, where Brenda Rosenberg, moderating the “From Hate to Hope” panel on misconceptions about different groups, echoed Buttry’s call to share difficult truths.
“Tonight we are going to talk about what divides us,” said Rosenberg. “You cannot build a bridge without points of tension.’
To see what misconceptions are out there about Islam, said scholar and activist Saeed Khan, “turn on the television.” There needs to be a safe space for discussion and trust building exercises, said Khan. “This isn’t an easy task.”
“Let’s put it on the table and move forward, as a nation should,” echoed First Nation representative Myeengun Henry. “We can’t be scared of those tough questions anymore.”
Parvinder Mehta talked about being Sikh in America, raising the challenging question of what it would take for a minority to be accepted in the melting pot, which she called a “traditional euro-centric notion.”
“As a Sikh in American,” she asked, “do I need to melt away all my differences? Do I have to assimilate to be ‘American enough’?”
The conference afforded participants to see the melting pot of metro Detroit first hand, with tours of Hamtramck, the DIA, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, The Arab American Museum, the Holocaust Memorial Center, and a tour of Dearborn led by Mayor Jack O’Reilly.
Mayor O’Reilly also participated on a panel called Picking up the Pieces, with Warren Mayor Jim Fouts, and Hamtramck Mayor Karen Majewski.
“Having the three mayors present, talking about their approach to inclusion and respect was mind-blowing!!” said one participant.
From the NAIN Young Adult Scholars to Peace! Love! Mosaics! to The Next Frontier in Interfaith, participants expressed enthusiasm and delight at the diversity of topics and the quality of the presentations and interactions.
IFLC President Robert Bruttell opened the final evening’s event at Livonia’s beautiful St. Mary’s Antiochan Orthodox Church with a few humorous biblical flood references, going into a more serious vein on the subject of the Religious Leaders Forum’s work on violence prevention, literacy and energy self-sufficiency.
The Rev. Dr. Stephen Butler Murray, newly arrived President of the Ecumenical Theological Seminary, moderated the panel “City on Edge: Leading the Fight against Enmity.” The panel included Superintendent Marcus R. Ways, Rabbi Michael Moskowitz, Imam Steven Mustapha Elturk, and St. Mary’s Father George Shalhoub.
In an intensely personal and heartfelt discussion, all four shared their stories, answering questions from Dr. Murray about how they came to interfaith work and how to sustain it.
Rabbi Moskowitz concluded with this: “We create friendships, we create relationships. And I think God is in the relationships. The bridges, the friendships will last. This is America. We stand together.”