Earlier this month, on a bright, breezy day here in Washington, leaders representing a dozen religions gathered to pray, not in a church, mosque or synagogue -- but at a construction site:
Jewish prayer (Hebrew): May the house that we are building within the larger community be a sanctuary of love and faithfulness.
Muslim prayer (Arabic): And remember, Abraham said my Lord, make this a city of peace.
Sikh prayer: You should always build the house of love, compassion, selfless service and dedication to the cause of lifting the spirit of humanity. If you build this house on these foundations, this house will never be shaken.
The religious leaders had gathered to bestow their blessings and raise the frame of a house being built by the charitable organization, Habitat for Humanity, for a local family of modest income.
Forty-three year old Kyle Poole is the visionary who was behind the scenes of the event. “It's the notion of people and religions coming together for constructive reasons as opposed to destructive reasons,” he says. “And doing what's common in all religions, and that's giving back to the less fortunate.”
Mr. Poole's firm provides financing to build hotels, but when he is out of the office he follows his driving passion to bring people together. He began the house project in the months following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He says in the aftermath of the attacks he was very concerned about the backlash by some of his fellow Americans against Muslims and members of some other groups:
“After that we decided to build an interfaith house, with bringing people of all different religions. For example, Jews and Arabs will build, Hindus and Muslims, Christians Jews and Muslims, Buddhists, Baha'is, Zoroastrians, Latter Day Saints, you name it. We will all come together in different forms for the whole duration of the build which is nine months.”
Reverend Clark Lobenstine is director of the Interfaith Conference, the first organization in the world to bring Islamic, Jewish and Christian faith communities together for dialogue. He says the building of this house is the most religiously diverse project he has ever seen in his 25 years of directing interfaith initiatives: “Coming a week after the second anniversary of September 11, it provides a very dramatic expression of the commitment of diverse faiths working together in a collaborative and tangible way. Congregations from these 12 religious communities will be working side by side, hammering, painting, doing all the other things that go into building a house, and creating habitat, creating a home for a family whose never had their own residence.”
Reverend Lobenstine says this effort and others like it highlight a new kind of collaboration between religions. He says such projects send another message to the world: “It's a real sign of hope in a world where religion is too often abused to justify violence. The abuse of our religious traditions to justify violence is a heinous sin in all of our religious traditions.”
Reverend Lobenstine says moderate religious voices must be heard to counteract voices of extremism.
Habitat for Humanity, the organization helping to build the interfaith house, is a nonprofit group that has built over 150,000 homes in nearly 90 countries. Although a Christian housing organization, Habitat for Humanity has expanded its reach across religious lines.
Nicole Townes, a 27-year-old nurse, and her family will live in this home. She is working shoulder-to-shoulder with the religious volunteers to build it. “I really appreciate this, I feel really blessed, I am really happy,” says Ms. Townes. “ I am just thankful that they came out to bless my home today. I am looking forward to moving in to my own home, me and my kids. I am just very thankful.”
The interfaith home-building project is among the more unusual efforts to create ties among religious communities in the United States. By contrast, music is a popular interfaith activity. Another recent interfaith gathering in Washington featured Islamic dances, Jewish songs and Sikh music.
Susanna Mcilwaine is a volunteer and member of the board of the United Religions Initiative, a national organization that promotes interfaith cooperation and works to end religiously motivated violence. Music, she says, brings religious faiths together: “This is one excellent way of people of different faiths and different cultures to appreciate each other. There are excellent ways of coming together and listening to sacred music is one aspect of that. I think there are certainly many more people that are interested than were before.”
One great benefit of the interaction between different religious communities is the opportunity to overcome damaging stereotypes. Reverend Richard Cizik, an Evangelical Christian leader, involved in the home-building project, is pleased that common stereotypes of Muslims are being broken down:
“I don't think you can stereotype Muslims anymore. Some Evangelicals still do, but you can't. There are wings of Islam that are terrorist-inclined, but you can't label all of Islam as terrorists. That's as unfair as stereotyping evangelicals as right wing. Not all are right wing. So we need to cast aside some of these aspersions and deal with each other honestly and hopefully the world will be a better place if we do.”
The man behind the home-building project, Kyle Poole stresses it is not just a one-time event: “Furthermore we hope to use this as a pilot to build around America and throughout the world.”
Analysts debate whether or not interfaith activities are becoming a new social movement. Yet nearly all agree that if religious differences can fuel conflict, then a focus on religious similarities can help foster genuine understanding and tolerance