Bahai News - Appreciating Religious Diversity Group Reaches Out For Understanding

Appreciating Religious Diversity Group Reaches Out For Understanding

CHATSWORTH - Where can a Bahai, a Lutheran, a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu, a Wiccan and a Catholic come together? One answer is the San Fernando Valley. And they have the Valley Interfaith Council to thank for it.

"It's a godsend for the Valley," said the Rev. Ron Degges, pastor at The Little White Chapel Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Burbank.

"It reaches all groups and it breaks down the barriers and the walls that divide us. It's probably the broadest-based group of its kind in the United States. There are ecumenical groups elsewhere but they're made up of the major religions. We have members from all faiths and even some who have nonfaith claims," he said.

Degges became aware of the Valley Interfaith Council when he attended a meeting of the West Valley Clergy Association soon after he settled in Chatsworth four years ago. The council sponsored the monthly clergy meetings. Even though the council is small in numbers, Degges finds its vision exemplary.

"I think many people have been drawing new lines that divide us. We're suspicious of foreigners or people who we think are different," said Degges, a new member of VIC's board of directors.

"Our fear and mistrust of those different from us is because we are ignorant of the religious diversity in our community. We need to learn how to appreciate other groups. And one way to do that is to join the Valley Interfaith Council to learn about each other," he said.

One of the ways in which the council has engaged the public in learning more about religious diversity is through interfaith panel discussions. The discussions were among the first activities that the group, now 35 years old, promoted back in the 1960s.

Over the years, panelists have attempted to explain what their faith tells them about a variety of traditional and not-so- traditional questions. The topics have included how to live a moral life, whether angels and demons are real, life after death, religion in public schools, whether miracles still happen, spiritual healing and how faith can overcome hate and violence.

"These meetings are very important. We're all children of God, and it's important for us to work together as a community," said Rabbi Aaron Kriegel of Temple Ner Maarav in Encino.

As moderator and vice president in charge of the committee that put together the discussions during the past year, Kriegel admitted that he liked to ask provocative questions.

"Other people are interested in the similarities between us. I'm interested in the differences. We need to know about and understand the differences. Yes, even one person can make a difference in interfaith relations. Be good to your neighbor. Then we would have a peaceful world. It's like the lyric to the song we sing at many VIC functions, "Let there be peace on Earth and let it begin with me," said Kriegel.

Barry Smedberg, executive director of the nonprofit, Chatsworth- based organization, said about 400 congregations in the Valley are members of the council. Individuals may also be members. He believes that VIC is a safe haven for outreach proposals by the ethnically diverse religious groups in the Valley. While groups may be hesitant to start programs or community events on their own, they can turn to VIC for advice and help.

"That's why we're needed in the Valley. VIC allows us the freedom to act on outreach proposals. It's our faith that makes us tick. Generally speaking, I think there is a lot of religious misunderstanding. We'll have a better community in the future if we understand what makes that other person tick," said Smedberg, who has been with VIC since 1988.

Smedberg said that while educating people on differing beliefs is one aspect of the council, VIC is not just all talk. The council had its genesis in social action during the 1960s.

The faith-based social activists decided to form the Valley Interfaith Commission, as the council was first known, in November 1964.

"We have programs for seniors, the homeless and children. We have the Meals on Wheels program. These types of services for those in need also help to bring the religious community together when they volunteer. We really need more volunteers for these programs. It's a big job," said Smedberg.

"I think that (the) Valley Interfaith Council has made a difference in the Valley. There would be much less contact between religious groups and those in need. Each group would be on its own. I believe we can unite together to share in each other's pain and celebrate each other's victories. What we can do together is greater than what we can do apart," said Degges.

The next interfaith panel discussion will be on the topic "What My Faith Tells Me About Marriage, Family and Same Sex Union." It will be at 7 p.m. Feb. 27 at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 136 N. Sunset Canyon Drive, Burbank. For more information on volunteering, making tax-deductible donations or becoming a member of Valley Interfaith Council, call (818) 718-6460.

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