Bahai News - Kansas City interfaith group creates atmosphere of acceptance

Kansas City interfaith group creates atmosphere of acceptance

By HELEN T. GRAY - The Kansas City Star
Date: 10/19/01 22:15

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 some Muslims in various parts of the United States were threatened, harassed, beaten. In Arizona a man mistaken for a Muslim was murdered.

In Kansas City, however, this backlash of anger caused barely a ripple.

One reason, said Ahmed El-Sherif, founder of the American Muslim Council's Kansas City chapter, is the growing relationships among the leaders of various faiths here.

"There were a few instances, but nothing compared to other cities," he said. "Islamic schools and congregations have been receiving letters of support, bouquets of flowers and calls, and this would not have happened without the interfaith activities and leadership that has the vision to see that this relationship will help us understand each other."

At the heart of that understanding is the Interfaith Council, which is about to hold Kansas City's first areawide interfaith conference.

The timing couldn't be better. The tragic events of Sept. 11 have heightened the sense of need to connect across faiths, said Gene Flanery, coordinator of an upcoming interfaith conference that will bring together people from 14 faiths.

"While most people may not become involved directly with interfaith work, now at least no one can deny its value," he said.

The "Gifts of Pluralism" conference, set for Oct. 27 and 28, will be at the Pembroke Hill School under the auspices of an interfaith organization called CRES.

It will include interactive sessions, workshops and multifaith panels. It also is expected to produce a Concluding Declaration, which may help to chart the future of faiths in Kansas City.

"I hope participants will find their own faiths refreshed and deepened," said the Rev. Vern Barnet, president of CRES, which promotes understanding among peoples of all faiths. "I hope the religious dimensions of our environmental, personal and social troubles will be clearer, with spiritual resources to respond to them.

"I certainly hope we will have a better sense of who we are as religious peoples in the Kansas City area, and that the joys of recognizing and expressing our kinship will lead to continuing and new arenas of dialogue and service."


Kansas City has a diverse culture of more than a dozen faiths, including those less familiar to most residents, such as Sufi, Baha'i, Sikh and Jain. In the last decade, efforts to promote understanding among people of different faiths have increased significantly.

Most onlookers agree that the biggest catalyst has come from CRES, founded in 1982 by Barnet, a nationally recognized world religions scholar.

In 1989 Barnet organized the Interfaith Council, which for the first time in Kansas City brought together people from 13 faith traditions. Among other things, the council and CRES have provided interfaith educational materials and speakers, and have worked to increase participation from people of different faiths in area events and groups. The upcoming conference is the most ambitious undertaking.

"The most important result of the work of CRES and the Interfaith Council has been the development of friendships among those of many faiths," Barnet said. "This in turn has provided increasing visibility and respect for the lesser-known faiths."

A variety of groups have tried to improve relations among faith traditions. These include Kansas City Harmony's Congregational Partners program that helps bring congregations together across racial and denominational or faith lines. The partnerships do such things as share worship, social activities and cook and serve food to the homeless.

Pathways, which Gene Flanery started in 1999, helps to build relationships between his congregation, Full Faith Church of Love, and members of the nearby Hindu and Sikh temples. They have shared meals and come together monthly to discuss scriptures.

Among other groups working in this arena has been the National Conference for Community and Justice, NCCJ, which through a comprehensive range of programs works to promote mutual respect and diversity among youth and adults and to combat prejudices of race, class, gender, sex and religion.

No money

Many onlookers see that one gap in Kansas City's religious scene has been the lack of a metropolitan interfaith coalition, such as found in many other cities. Since the demise of the Metropolitan Inter-Church Agency, MICA, more than 20 years ago, Kansas City has not even had a council of churches that brings the Christian community together.

"Since there was no such umbrella organization a lot of other organizations have come on the scene to do various parts of what a council of churches or interfaith organization would do," said Rodger Kube, former executive director of Spirit of Service, which has tried to help congregations working together more effectively.

One major stumbling block, he said, was the lack of financial support from the big Kansas City funders. He looked at 31 metropolitan areas -- large, medium and small -- and found that three-fourths of them had interreligious organizations.

These groups often were able to work together on common issues and sponsor interreligious events as well as broaden the community's knowledge and understanding of various faiths.

Kube, now interim minister for Bethel United Church of Christ, said he hopes the upcoming interfaith conference "will give a new spurt of energy in interreligious cooperation and dialogue."

"One of the good things since Sept. 11 is that we can begin to have the kind of dialogue that we should have had for a long time," he said. "It would be my hope that this would be the kind of spur that would lead to a permanent interreligious council."

But it won't be easy, he said.

Meet, not merge

Many involved in interfaith work recognize the difficulties.

"There are those in all faiths who mistrust any member of their faith who has cordial relations with those of other faiths," said Ed Chasteen of HateBusters, a group he started that, among other things, takes people of various faiths to visit members of other faiths. "So those of us who serve as ambassadors must constantly reassure our own people that we are no less committed to our own faith than they are.

"And there are members of those other faiths that we visit who assume we have some hidden agenda, that we do not really come to understand and build bridges but to somehow convert them to our faith."

Allan Abrams, who was chairman of the now-inactive Christian Jewish Muslim Dialogue Group, said, "People bring their own perspectives into any dialogue, and quite frequently people's experiences come from within their own group, and it colors their viewpoints, and sometimes it makes dialogue more difficult."

Janet Moss of Congregational Partners said time is often a factor because the people who are most active in the partnerships are also busy in their faith communities.

Another factor is the assumption that interfaith work is an effort to merge or blend the faiths together and neglect what is distinctive about each one, Barnet said. Instead, people committed to their own faith find it deepens as they learn about others', he said.

The community needs to invest more time, money and talents for the work of interfaith understanding and cooperation to flourish, said Diane Hershberger of Kansas City Harmony.

Many people see the conference as promising for furthering interfaith work in Kansas City.

"The need for the `Gifts of Pluralism' conference should be obvious to us all by now," said Flanery, coordinator of the upcoming conference. "When people of faith live in isolation from others who are different, fear and suspicion will be the result."

Barnet also is hopeful that through the conference, "it may be possible to move forward in developing an alliance of every faith community in the metro area for better communication, cooperation and service."

To reach Helen T. Gray, religion editor, call (816) 234-4446 or send e-mail to

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