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Religious Leaders Create Better World Through Conversation, Action


Interfaith dialogue has gained momentum in the last few years. Especially since Sept. 11, 2001, religious leaders of different faith groups in the United States have made a point of exchanging their points of view and helping their congregations better understand one another. In San Francisco, spiritual leaders are moving beyond just understanding. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, the city's Interfaith Council is helping solve some of the community's more urgent problems.

Members of San Francisco's Interfaith Council worship God in different ways, but they have more things in common as neighbors living in one community.

We don't sweep the differences under the table. We acknowledge them," says Rita Semel, one the council's founders. "I, as a Jew, I'm never going to worship the way my Christian friends or my Muslim friends are, but that doesn't mean we can't be friends and work together."

The council began almost two decades ago to help solve urgent challenges facing the city.

"One was the situation of the homelessness in San Francisco," she says. "The then-mayor called the clergy in and said, 'You got to help with this problem.' And so we started an ad hoc committee.

"Then we had the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, and we set [up] another ad hoc committee to deal with that. And we said, 'We can't keep having ad hoc committees,' and someone said, 'Well, we need an interfaith council.'"

Creating this council, Semel says, was an opportunity for different faith leaders in the city to tackle a wide range of issues they considered important to all of them.

"For example, we are calling together congregations to deal with the fact that we will have another earthquake in San Francisco," she says. "It's not if. It's when. So we want our congregations and their people to be prepared. We also are aware of the returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, and we're helping clergy understand what they must do to help families of returning veterans."

Council member John Oda says the interfaith dialogue in his city took a serious turn after Sept. 11, 2001.The minister says his Pine United Methodist Church started to reach out to the Muslim community.

"Our church is historically a Japanese-American church," he says. "After 9/11, when we heard about a lot of the Muslims being detained, deported and questioned by the government without any reason, the church as a whole really felt that we needed to stand in solidarity with the Muslim community. So that's how the 'Iftar' dinner started out. It's about loving your neighbor."

"His church prepared the food for us, and it was really nice, having sushi inside the mosque," says Souleiman Ghali, of the Islamic Society of San Francisco. He adds the interfaith Iftar dinner during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, has become an ongoing tradition.

Ghali says working with the Interfaith Council provides many opportunities for Muslims to debunk stereotypes about Islam.

"We wanted people to know that Muslims believe in respect of other faiths," he says."We wanted people to believe that Muslims really care about the community they are in. So when another community is in need, we want them to know that the Muslim community is there for them. If there is a need for a shelter for homeless people to stay, we provide our spaces. If there is a need for a meeting of the labor union or the church across the street, we invite them to come and use our facility."

The Islamic Society has also taken part in the Chaplaincy Program at San Francisco General Hospital. Program Coordinator Sheila Andrews is a member of the Episcopal Church. She explains that the program provides training for Christians, Jews and Muslims.

"So students from synagogues, churches or other places of worship can come and be trained to be a chaplain in a hospital setting through this program," she says. "One of the most recent developments is a training program for supporting individuals who have been subject to domestic abuse. And it's just one example we can point to in this wonderful city where people are working across faith lines, focused on acts of compassion, because that's what brings us together, I think."

To continue working together, says the council's executive director, the Rev. Michael Pappas, the group is getting younger generations involved.

"We're trying at this point to develop an interfaith youth group here in the city of San Francisco and to try to foster from a young age that interfaith spirit," he says. "We're partnering with other groups. The council itself is evolving. We have new members on the board of directors that are adding richness to the beautiful foundation that's been started by good people who had vision."

Episcopal Bishop Mark Andrews says he is optimistic about the potential of interfaith dialog, not only in San Francisco and the United States, but worldwide.

"Interfaith is not a fad," he says. "Diversity is not a fad. They are the new reality of our world. While we know that it's a deeply interconnected world, where there is nothing that's truly separated, there are many forces – economic forces, political forces – that isolate people. Young adults are full of passion foe justice and reconciliation all over the world. I see this as a great sign of hope."

Members of the San Francisco Interfaith Council have faith in their work. They hope their efforts will help make their city a more peaceful and prosperous place to live, and inspire people of different faiths in other cities to start dialogs of their own.

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