NEENAH — Some of Appleton’s St. Bernard Parish members have taken Pope Francis’s words on working together to break down barriers very seriously.
A group of five parishioners and five members of the Fox Valley Islamic Society met together for an eight-week JustFaith program in March and April. They culminated the program by helping to plan and participate in a two-day interfaith peace event in the Fox Valley on Aug. 13 and 14.
This ecumenical event was designed to educate and promote discussion about topics that matter to all people of faith. A religious scholar, Jon Pahl, kicked off the event on Aug. 13 with a daylong workshop on “Peacebuilding Through Religion” at First Presbyterian Church, Neenah.
The next day, the entire Fox Valley community was invited to the 18th annual interfaith gathering sponsored by the Fox Valley Islamic Society at the Neenah mosque. It featured a lively panel discussion, a dinner of Mediterranean cuisine and small-group discussion. Tours of the mosque also were available.
Kathleen Gribble, of St. Bernard Parish, said the JustFaith program was titled “The Saint and the Sultan,” and based on a book on St. Francis of Assisi by Paul Moses. The book relates the story of how St. Francis met with the Islamic leader Sultan Malik Al-Kamil during the Fifth Crusade. The two talked of war, peace and faith in an effort to end the crusades. When he returned home, Francis proposed that his Order of the Friars Minor live peaceably among the followers of Islam, a radical idea at a time when the stated goal of the Catholic tradition was to convert Muslims.
The JustFaith group explored the history of that Crusade and talked about the pillars of Islam and Catholic social teaching, Gribble said. “When Pope Francis talks about peace and justice in the world, he says we have to break down barriers. We have a new paradigm for the future. We need to look at different ways of coming to our God,” she said. “Our God wants us all to work together. We are all learning and evolving.”
The JustFaith group, which looked at poverty in the Fox Valley, moved to action at the end of their study sessions, and met for a day of planting at Riverview Gardens, Appleton, which is a project aimed at providing job training.
One of the Muslim members of the JustFaith group was Mamadou Coulibaly, president of the Fox Valley Islamic Society, which plans a yearly interfaith event that draws 250 to 300 people of different faiths.
“Building Cultural Diversity within Faith Communities” was the theme for the two-day peace event. Sunday’s speakers represented Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Unitarian Universalist denominations. The audience was made up of people from the Fox Valley, Oshkosh, Green Bay, Fond du Lac, Madison and Milwaukee.
Each speaker talked about how history has brought about divisions and tensions, but today there is the need to transcend the differences and welcome cultural differences into our traditions.
Imam Mohamed Abdelazim, of the Islamic Center of Wisconsin in Appleton, said, “Diversity is a part of our life. I can’t imagine the earth in one color.” Therefore, we shouldn’t expect to have communities that are all the same. “Diversity is a blessing from God, not something to be afraid of.”
The speakers said all religious teachings teach people to be accepting and welcoming of others. They warned about the extremists who exist in all denominations. Extremists do not define the faith traditions of Christians, Jews or Muslims, they said.
Pahl, a native of Appleton who now teaches history at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, stressed the need for everyone to be a peace builder. During his Saturday workshop, he described peace building as a garden. Peace gardens are made up of three steps:
n Basic peace, which gives the capacity for people to flourish. It is a voice for the people;
n Policy of peace, which is the absence of gross inequity and provides ways for people to work together to find peaceful solutions. It is justice.
n Deep peace, which creates an atmosphere where trust can grow.
“Through dialogue with others we become a better person of faith, and often, through dialogue with others, we become more committed to our own faith,” Pahl said.
Two other presenters told of interfaith opportunities in the Valley:
Tom Simon of Habitat for Humanity said 31 members of faith communities from eight different faith traditions came together to build a block of homes that will be dedicated in October. Another Interfaith Build is planned for next year.
Jane Anga described the year-old Fox Valley Youth Faith Alliance made up of high school students and young adults who gather to learn from one another “while breaking pizza together,” she said. “It encourages them through education, friendship and solidarity.”