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.
of San Francisco's Interfaith Council worship God in different ways, but they
have more things in common as neighbors living in one community.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
"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.
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
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."
continue working together, says the council's executive director, the Rev.
Michael Pappas, the group is getting younger generations involved.
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.
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."
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.