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Can we still honor our ‘same difference?’

by Linda Bloom
September 15, 2011

A month after the Sept. 11terrorist attacks, I attended a meeting in the Los Angeles area designed to encourage communication between United Methodists and Muslims.

The United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns had contacted the Islamic Center of Southern California, which, as I wrote at the time, warmly welcomed our church members to its regular afternoon service that day in October 2001.

“People of God have to work together on a continual basis if you want to change the world,” Hassan Hathout, a medical doctor and the center’s founder, told us as he outlined the basic tenets of Islam.

Before the visit concluded, the Christian and Muslim groups, including the Muslim Public Affairs Council, released a statement expressing grief over the tragic events of 9/11 and a call for greater understanding between the two faiths.

That was just one of many attempts to reach out across religious lines to promote peace and understanding. The United Methodist Committee on Relief provided $108,160 in grants through its “Honoring Differences in the Midst of Hate and Violence” program, a response to the terrorist attacks and attempts at religious stereotyping and hostility. Projects supported included open houses and dialogues among diverse faith groups in Rockford, Ill.; regular gatherings of Christian, Muslim and Jewish women in Greensboro, N.C., and “Same Difference,” a New York interview project that resulted in an interfaith play.

I know many United Methodists remain committed to interfaith dialogue. But how much progress has been made?

On Sept. 7, Faith Communities Today released results of a survey showing that theoverall involvement of congregations in multifaith worship did double in the decade following 9/11. But that was only because such a small percentage were engaged in such worship to begin with – participation increased from 7 to 14 percent and the congregations involved in multifaith community service jumped from 7 to 21 percent.

In an online news conference about the project, David Roozen, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, noted that, in practice, the most dominant religious attitude in the U.S. is “indifferent tolerance.” Religion is considered private, not public, and he thinks that’s a factor in why interfaith activities haven’t jumped significantly.

That type of tolerance may actually have decreased a bit, at least for Muslims. A survey of U.S. Muslims by the Pew Research Center, released Aug. 30, showed that 28 percent reported “being looked at with suspicion” and 22 percent said they were called offensive names. Twenty-one percent felt they had been singled out by airport security and 13 percent felt singled out by other law enforcement personnel. Residents of some communities have vocally and legally opposed the construction of mosques.

But I was heartened to find that, across the country, a number of religious groups planned interfaith activities to observe the 10th anniversary of 9/11. In my own congregation, we heard from Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders who greeted each other — and us — as friends. The theme for the service was forgiveness, but the feeling was one of solidarity.

And that’s what we need to carry forward with us into the second decade after 9/11.