Forging a Path to Interreligious Action for Peace

What does it take to build peace among people divided by religion? Is it dialogue about beliefs, traditions, and values that creates greater understanding, and thus more harmony? Or is it joint action that generates cooperation and strengthens relationships? The resounding answer from Catholic Relief Services’ interreligious peacebuilding experience is: both. Talking theology matters, but so does the opportunity to work side-by-side and put values into practice.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Catholic Relief Services (CRS) has been supporting peace and development efforts since the height of the country’s civil war, programs invite people to connect through dialogue and action. Young people, many of whom attend segregated schools and have never heard stories of the war from the perspective of other ethnic and religious groups, jointly visit one another’s places of worship, perform musical concerts together, and collaborate on art exhibitions, and carry out cooperative community initiatives across religious lines. These shared activities are important to create common experiences and connections.

But deeply held perceptions and attitudes do not change through these joint activities alone; it is also important to delve into values and histories that connect and divide people. Young people have the opportunity to do so through seminars, dialogue sessions, and participatory theatre. Another important tool that CRS has been using in Bosnia-Herzegovina has been “Speaking Out” events, in which war victims share their stories of suffering at the hands of other ethnic and religious groups, and their journeys towards reconciliation. For many in the audience, young and older, this may be the first time that they are confronted with the “other side’s” narrative of the past. While this is challenging, it also opens them to the possibility of greater empathy for people from the other groups.

The stronger relationships and improved mutual understanding that emerge from activities like these prepare the ground for concrete steps towards reconciliation. These can include local initiatives involving ordinary citizens as well as building a vision for changes in the institutions that touch the lives of the broader population. A case in point is a national “Platform for Peace” just recently adopted by the highest level of government in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This Platform, developed at CRS’ initiative in collaboration with local partners and a range of key leaders, commits government officials and other authorities to work for long-term peace and reconciliation through measures such as institutionalizing trust-building mechanisms, reducing divisive rhetoric, and promoting peace education in schools. Over 40% of the country’s mayors have also signed on to the Platform for Peace, and have pledged to dedicate resources from their local budgets to put it into action.

In another landmark move, the deans of the country’s three theology schools – Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim – recently announced a joint Master’s degree program in interreligious peacebuilding. This program, which will accept its first students in the fall, is the first of its kind in the region. It is the fruit of several years of patient and steady work on the part of the seminary representatives, supported and accompanied by CRS as they worked to bring their vision to life. Graduates of the program will emerge with a strong grounding in the three faith traditions’ teaching on peace, justice, and ethics; internship experiences will also give them strong practical skills to contribute to forging unity in their communities and country.

What barriers divide people of different faiths in your community? What opportunities do you see to forge connections across these barriers, through dialogue and action?

Nell Bolton is Senior Technical Advisor for Justice & Peacebuilding at Catholic Relief Services.

To learn more about what works in interreligious peacebuilding, download a copy of CRS’ new book, Interreligious Action for Peace: Studies in Muslim-Christian Cooperation.

Transforming Neighborly, Spiritual Bonds: Teens Empowered in Interfaith Engagement

By Claire Hoffmeyer, Director of Youth Ministry at Saint John Vianney Catholic Parish in Brookfield, Wisconsin

Nine years of youth ministry boils down to one simple, humbling truth: teenagers teach and transform me. I consistently seek to alter their lives by sharing the Gospel message, developing catechetical programming and availing the lived wisdom I believe to possess, yet it’s the teens who challenge me, renew me.

Our community located west of Milwaukee, Wisconsin offers affluence, academia, and an array of faiths to accompany you whether you pray in a temple, synagogue, church, or mosque. I both work and pray at Saint John Vianney Catholic Parish located on a busy corner intersection in the heart of our suburb. Less than two miles northeast, a friend of mine leads fellow Muslims in prayer at Masjid Al-Noor—a mosque of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, a new addition to our neighborhood.

Our parish welcomes these new neighbors in a myriad of ways. We opened our church hall prior to the mosque’s groundbreaking so that the community could engage in dialogue. Soon thereafter, Masjid Al-Noor leaders used the church hall to examine the blueprints of their worship space. Annually, we collaborate on a seasonal project at the local farmer’s market. In these ways, we recognize and celebrate our neighborly bonds.

Last April, our community expanded. I welcomed Jewish, Lutheran, Nondenominational Christians, Unitarian Universalists, Mormon, and Muslim teen representatives to our parish. This was not in an effort to evangelize or convert. Rather, this was a response to a request of our active interfaith community for more youth engagement and empowerment.

My mission was to offer space for interfaith teens to explore the graces of interfaith collaboration and dialogue. I sought to cultivate young leaders equipped with training in diversity particularly regarding religious views and practices because interfaith dialogue can give birth to mutual understanding, respect, and friendship of all people, no matter how or where you worship.

These youth delegates commune unlike any youth group. They treat each other with kindness and gentle curiosity about each other’s faith beliefs. They laugh with one another.  Every time we gather, roaring laughter fills the space. They like one another and are genuinely excited to just be in each other’s company. They captivate one another. They leave no room for division, intolerance, or cruelty. The differences they have, they embrace. Impressively, they exercise these behaviors effortlessly.

Youth, they teach you; they transform you.

Challenged by a most recent saint, we aim to “recognize and develop the spiritual bonds that unite us, in order to preserve and promote together for the benefit of all men, ‘peace, liberty, social justice and moral values’ as the Council calls upon us to do.” This call by St. Pope John Paul II in an address to our Church in 1979, nearly forty years ago still holds true today, especially as we witness fear, injustice, violence, and hate toward our Muslim neighbors.

How can we combat the cruel attitudes and behaviors toward our Muslim brothers and sisters?

The youth delegates strive for peace and justice through unity. Two young ladies, one a member of St. John Vianney and the other a member of Masjid Al-Noor presented, “Gratitude Unites Us,” the youth delegates’ collaborative video project screened at last November’s Interfaith Thanksgiving Prayer Service.

The ladies prepared an address, written and rehearsed extensively together, and called us to action. They commanded all to set aside our divisions and instead practice an attitude of gratitude. When grateful, we refuse to let our separateness distract, rule, or divide us. We recognize we share in one humanity in which we have much to be grateful.

Through their powerful contributions, our youth delegates unassumingly displayed transformation from division to unity. They know how to be good neighbors. They love others, their faith, and God fiercely—they find unity in this shared love and gratitude. Muslim, Catholic, Christian, Jewish, and Mormon teenagers have imparted this wisdom, this truth, upon my heart. I am forever transformed.

I invite you to consider extending a hand to your neighbors in faith. Look to your community’s teens—they’ll model for you just how to preserve and promote the spiritual bonds that unite us all. Enjoy your transformation!

Claire Hoffmeyer is Director of Youth Ministry at Saint John Vianney Catholic Parish in Brookfield, Wisconsin. In 2007, Claire graduated with a degree in Sociology, Justice and Peace Studies and Writing from Marquette University. Since then, through her work with youth and families at Saint John Vianney Claire has been exploring her vocation in ministry gaining practical wisdom in a faith that does justice.


Going Deeper!

St. John Vianney’s work was recently featured on WeAreSaltAndLight.org, which also includes resources and tools from USCCB’s Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

Bishop Blaire of Stockton Issues Strong Statement on Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Pilgrims hold up images of Our Lady of Guadalupe during an annual pilgrimage in her honor (CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)

Pilgrims hold up images of Our Lady of Guadalupe during an annual pilgrimage in her honor (CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)

The journey of life is difficult at this time for Hispanics in the United States.  Many have friends and family members who are without papers; many are without papers themselves; children in school are being bullied; and young immigrants who signed up for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) are anxious that they might lose their opportunity to work and their protection from deportation; racism has raised its ugly head in many communities; and so many of our neighborhoods and homes are plagued with violence. Many who have jobs often find themselves having to work two or three jobs in order to make ends meet.

To all of you this day I remind you that OUR LADY OF GUADALUPE COMES TO MEET YOU TO LEAD YOU TO JESUS.  She says to each of you what she said to St. Juan Diego: “Do not be disturbed in your heart; do not be afraid.  Am I not with you, I who am your mother?” We need to hear these words of comfort and strength when there is so much hostility in the public conversation about immigration and immigrants.

I wish to say loudly and clearly to all of you that as your bishop I am with you.  You are the Church.  I will walk with you no matter how hard it gets. Please God, things will go better than our worst fears about what might happen.  Regardless, the Church is with you.  I am here to accompany you.  I also wish to announce to our immigrants, to our refugees, to our migrants, from wherever you come, that we will do everything we can to help you through our Catholic Charities and the community organizations of which we are a part. As Catholics we embrace our American traditions of welcome, of unity in diversity, and our care for all.

I also wish to say to our Muslim brothers and sisters, and to our Jewish elder brothers and sisters, and to all our inter-faith friends that the hate which destroys the unity and solidarity of the human family cannot be tolerated in any way. The way of God is the way of love.

As you know so many of our Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East have been slaughtered by ISIS or lost their homes in war torn areas and have suffered as refugees from their ancient lands.  I ask you to join with our Holy Father Pope Francis, in doing whatever you can in any way to support the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Christian and Muslim refugees at this time, and to bring calm to their homelands.

The causes of war and cruelty cannot be ignored.  The injustices that give rise to radical evils must be alleviated. The forces of evil must be stopped. Ultimately, evil will only be overcome by good, by the hard work of good people working together to bring about peace.  And there will be no peace if there is no justice which respects the dignity and worth of every human being.  As long as the gods of money and power and unrestrained impulses found in the idols of greed and corruption rule on the face of the earth there will be no lasting peace.  Sad to say, an even greater threat to peace that looms over our heads would be the unrestrained advance in nuclear weapons which could destroy all creation.

I sincerely believe that unless God is accepted as sovereign Lord over the earth and over our lives, communities will continue to deteriorate, the earth will be devastated, and family coherence will be diminished.  Your devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe keeps us close to her as our Mother.  She leads us to Christ Who is the all just One; the all merciful One; the Hope for the world when all seems hopeless.

The world does not need any more walls.  It needs bridges of compassion and mutual understanding.  Yes, proper respect for borders or boundaries, but not barriers of hostility and division.  Let there be peace at our borders.

The world cannot continue to endure more violence.  It needs restraint, words of peace and perseverance in the hard efforts to create the just structures that are the foundation for peace.  In our community the answer to gang violence is good education and decent jobs.

The world must not tolerate racism.   It needs to honor the diversity of God’s human family by building a unity which embraces and respects all races on the face of the earth.  Unity in diversity!

bishop-blaire-5x7Today we venerate Our Lady of Guadalupe who comes to meet us as our mother.  Nuestra Señora will show us the way to peace and goodness and justice.  Mary is the mother of all peoples.  She will give us the courage not to be afraid.  She will lead us to Jesus, the Lord of peace and justice.   Viva Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe!  Viva Cristo Rey!

Stephen E. Blaire is bishop of Stockton, California.


 

Common Ground with Muslims

Jean Hill

Jean Hill, director of the Peace and Justice Department, Diocese of Salt Lake City

Not so long ago, members of the Diocese of Salt Lake City’s Peace and Justice Commission met with two Muslim couples to talk religion. We shared food, stories about our children, and delved into the world of Islamophobia in Utah in general and among Catholics in particular.

The dialogue was fruitful, enjoyable, and enlightening. It was also, sadly, far too necessary.

A recent study from Georgetown University shows just how desperately we need to have such conversations. In a survey of Catholics, researchers discovered that we know little about Islam, one of the five major religions in the world. More concerning, we are also prone to believe the hyperbole spewed against all Muslims, especially when those negative opinions are seen or heard through political channels disguised as Catholic media.

The study found that almost one half of Catholics believe there is no common ground between Muslim believers and Catholics. This despite the fact that both religions believe in one God, and Mary is also venerated in the Islamic tradition. Granted, Islam does not view Jesus as God, but he is seen as a prophet who performed miracles with the permission of God.

Saint Pope John Paul II noted our common cause with Islam in 1999: “I believe that we, Christians and Muslims, must recognize with joy the religious values that we have in common, and give thanks to God for them. Both of us believe in one God, the only God, who is all justice and all mercy; we believe in the importance of prayer, of fasting, of almsgiving, of repentance and of pardon; we believe that God will be a merciful judge to us all at the end of time, and we hope that after the resurrection He will be satisfied with us and we know that we will be satisfied with him.”

Given not only our similarities but also our weekly practice of communion with others, it is distressing to find that most Catholics don’t even know someone who is Muslim. Utah’s Muslim population is admittedly small, but also near. We have Muslim students in our schools, Muslim neighbors, and serve many Muslim refugees. In a time when our church is fighting for religious freedom, it seems imperative that we reach out to those of other faiths, especially faiths that are being negatively targeted within our own country, and learn from each other about the full meaning of such freedom.

Our Muslim brothers and sisters are engaging in deep discussions about religious freedom. In January of this year, Muslim religious and civic leaders and academics gathered at a meeting in Marrakech little noted in American media. These leaders from over 100 Muslim-majority countries met to address the persecution of religious minorities, including Christians, by extremists within their borders and developed a declaration, or “contracts of mutual care,” in which they pledged to protect the rights of these minorities within their countries and to counteract the misappropriation of the tenets of their faith by extremists.

The discussions among attendees reflect the South African spirit of Ubuntu – we are all related and are all responsible for one another; your well-being is mine, and mine is yours; we are all vulnerable and this is our human state. While similar to much of our Catholic teaching, Ubuntu is quite a contrast to the current political discourse in our country, which proposes religious tests for refugees seeking safe passage out of war zones and denigrates all people of one faith based on the misuse of the teachings of the faith by a few.

The leaders at Marrakech and Saint John Paul II were privy to far greater knowledge of the tenets of both Christianity and Islam than I possess. But as I spoke with our Muslim guests at the commission meeting, I found concordance not only in the teachings of our faith, but also within our shared experience. All of our guests faced hardships I could never imagine – escaping wars in their homelands to find themselves in an entirely unfamiliar American culture. But three of us also shared very similar concerns as we prepared to send our children, who were then seniors at Judge Memorial Catholic High School, off to college.

That shared concern for our young sons on the brink of manhood is really what Christian-Muslim relations in the United States should be about – recognizing we are all related, we are all responsible for one another, we are all vulnerable, and this is our human state.

 Jean Hill is the director of the Peace and Justice Department for the Diocese of Salt Lake City. 

First published in the Intermountain Catholic, Nov. 4, 2016.


Going Deeper!
Visit WeAreSaltAndLight.org for helpful resources from the USCCB Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs to reach out to, and collaborate with, other faith traditions.