Year of Interfaith Understanding a Success

Date: December 18, 2012

Year of Interfaith Understanding 2012 a success; will continue into next year

G0107INTERFAITH 02.JPG


In this file photo from December 2011, (from left) Susan Schadick, Carol Presant, Debbie Mageed and Diane Slay have a conversation over drinks as their interfaith group of five couples meets for dinner and discussion at the home of Michael and Susan Schadick. The group has been meeting regularly for a few years as a way to better understand each others' religions.


Interfaith understanding: The phrase brings to mind discussion panels, academic forums and elaborately staged worship services. True, those things often come with the territory. But interfaith understanding at its deepest and warmest happens when people share a meal together.

A Muslim family and a Christian family from West Michigan have done just that three times over the past year. They have learned a lot about each other’s faith, yes. But they’ve also savored delicious food, enjoyed watching their kids play Ping Pong, and discovered a common love of the Detroit Tigers.

For Asif and Tahira Azeem, Paul and Carol Hillman and their respective children, the Grand Rapids Year of Interfaith Understanding 2012 has been about finding new friends in faith. That’s included going to a Tigers game together, attending the Azeems’ daughter Abir’s graduation open house, and discussing religion with the Hillmans’ daughter Anne, a Boston University theology student.

“We have had a beautiful experience,” says Asif Azeem, a Spectrum Health gastroenterologist from Ada Township. “I keep finding more things that we have in common. All the nice things we have to say to each other, they go back to the fact that we come from the same Lord.”

The families dined the night before Thanksgiving, when the Azeems laid on a delectable spread of dishes from their native Pakistan. The conversation was as rich as the meal.

“We talked about wide-ranging topics, including perhaps that more conversations like the ones we were having, and friendships between people of different faiths, might help bring peace to our world,” recalls Paul Hillman of Rockford, a partner in the C/D/H technology consulting firm.

The new friendship between these two lovely families was inspired by the Year of Interfaith Understanding, after it was formally announced on Sept. 12, 2011 as West Michigan’s faith response to the 10th anniversary of 9/11. For me, their relationship is the most rewarding result of a remarkable year.

But many other good things have come of the initiative since it officially got underway last January. More than 300 events have taken place under its auspices, from an interfaith youth group meeting former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to congregational open houses and guest speakers, to a powerful performance of the Grand Rapids Symphony commemorating the end of the Holocaust.

About 50 congregations got actively involved -- aided by a $50,000 grant from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation -- along with some 20 civic groups and eight colleges, universities and seminaries. More than 2,000 people receive weekly emails.

Add it all up and you have an interfaith effort unprecedented not only in West Michigan, but likely in the entire U.S., according to a prominent religion scholar.

“I don’t know of any place that’s doing what Grand Rapids has done,” said Martin Marty, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a leading author on American religion.

Marty spoke earlier this month at a dinner hosted by Grand Valley State University President Thomas J. Haas, honoring both the Interfaith Year and Marty with an honorary doctorate. He praised the local effort for going beyond “boring” interfaith programs that water down differences to the lowest common denominators. The West Michigan model, he said, “regards the depth of the people’s (religious) commitment.”

“The more we can do with things like Grand Rapids has done, it will be important and useful,” Marty told the crowd of about 50. And if Grand Rapids can do it, I would add, any city can.

As one with a clear bias – I’ve been involved in the organizing from the outset – I’d say the Interfaith Year has done well in promoting religious understanding. Major credit must go to Douglas Kindschi, director of the Kaufman Interfaith Institute at GVSU. The initiative was his brainchild, and without his organizing skills and considerable energy it never would have happened.

Kindschi says he’s been gratified by how many community organizations got involved and by the lack of negative pushback, which speak well of the area’s religious culture.

“I think there’s been a respect for other traditions all along,” says Kindschi, an active member of Westminster Presbyterian Church. “We’ve reinforced part of what it means to live in a civil society.”

He’s also happy the year produced what he calls “thick” dialogue that acknowledges differences as well as similarities of belief: “You actually can learn from the thickness of somebody else’s story. I have found that to be a wonderful outcome of this whole year.”

Indeed. The notion that one can be strengthened in one’s own faith by learning about another is especially powerful in traditionally conservative West Michigan. I heard the same sentiment from the interfaith group of high schoolers in a workshop last summer. Madeline Reeves, a Catholic Central student, told me, “I feel like it grounds me more in my own faith.”

Lest you think this is all past tense, the Interfaith Year is alive and well. It will continue into 2013, with an increased emphasis on youth education and about $15,000 in grants still available for congregational projects. The effort will be put under a big spotlight in a report by Religion & Ethics Newsweekly on PBS, tentatively scheduled for January.

As for the Azeems and Hillmans, they plan to continue their rich dinners and conversations about God, family and baseball.

“We are all very blessed to have this bond,” says Carol Hillman, president of the Rockford School Board.

Agreed, says Asif Azeem. Their strongest bond, he figures, is a “desire to seek truth and to be nice to your neighbor.” If everybody worked on that, he adds, “This world would be a much more loving and peaceful place.”

See all news