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House of Prayer Builds Solidarity among Followers of Three Religions


In cities across America, you can find churches for a variety of Christian denominations, synagogues and mosques, each serving its own religious community. Some cities have built interfaith centers, with no permanent religious symbols, which various congregations can feel comfortable using for worship. In San Francisco, there is a project that creates a shared worship space, incorporating a synagogue, a church and a mosque – a space that will foster solidarity and mutual respect among the followers of the three religions. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.

Noe Valley Ministry is a small Presbyterian church in San Francisco, California. Like many other American churches, it has welcomed local organizations and other religious groups to use its facility. Beyt Tikkun, a Jewish congregation that does not have a permanent building, was invited to hold its services in the church. The Rev. Keenan Kelsey says when the church building needed major repairs, she turned to the larger community for help.

"Some years ago, we had some critical work to do on our building," she says. "As a small congregation of working-class people, we couldn't turn within the congregation to do this work. So we developed a group called the Center for Spiritual Community."

Through this coalition of local organizations and activists, she says, volunteers from outside the church got involved in the renovation.

"Out of that, almost organically, without thinking it through," she says, "there is this sense that 'What if we took seriously the fact that we are a center for spiritual community? What would it mean to renovate our building to accommodate the three Abrahamic traditions?' We are not a melting pot of religions. We come and each say our own prayers and encourage mutual respect."

Since Beyt Tikkun was already worshipping in the building, the church's Center for Spiritual Community turned to the third religion that traces its roots back to Abraham. Souleiman Ghali, founder of the Islamic Society of San Francisco, says his members liked the idea of a shared house of prayer.

"We discussed it among ourselves in the Muslim community," he says. "And we like it. We like to be part of something good. We are going to do as much as we can to make it come into reality."

Keenan Kelsey says the next step is to raise the funds needed to complete the project.

"We have an architect," she says. "We have probably a year to set it up and a year to do the work. Then, we'll begin in action."

In the process, they are also forging strong relationships and better understanding among people of different faiths, according to Christopher Keen, co-chair of the Center for Spiritual Community, which is overseeing the project.

"Souleiman Ghali and several others met last week with this architect, a famous local architect who has designed a number of churches and synagogues but never built a mosque before," he says. "We were sitting in a church building and we talked about, what would it take for this church building to be a place where Muslims could worship and feel welcomed?

"We got into all sorts of really interesting things around how do the bathrooms need to be designed so people can wash themselves before the prayer? Can you walk from the bathroom to the place of worship up a flight of stairs? So we've gotten into just a very pragmatic dialogue about how do you physically share this space."

The idea of a shared worship space was welcomed by the Rev. Paul Chaffee, director of San Francisco's Interfaith Center. He says the project is another opportunity to educate people and promote interfaith dialogue in the city.

"It's a lot easier to be biased and hate people when all you have is an image of them and you don't live with them," he says. "Let people know that those strangers across the street who look different and sound so different are really very much like they are. Not only that, they would be good friends if they met."

Christopher Keen agrees. He says he hopes the Abrahamic House of Prayer will also give moderates of each religion a stronger voice.

"If you look across these three Abrahamic traditions, the moderates of each faith have more in common than the extremists," he says. "So in all of our religious faiths, I believe, we see the damage being done by our own brethren, if you well, and yet moderates oftentimes are comfortable just staying put and not doing a lot. So, the challenge is – as moderates – to make the effort to have a dialogue and to create real connections."

Keen says once those real connections are created, it will be easier for Jews, Christians and Muslims to better understand and trust one another, and together, build a stronger community.

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