Interfaith groups strive to expand dialogue among people of different faiths, especially in the wake of 9/11.

Connecting the Paths 

Interfaith groups strive to expand dialogue among people of different faiths, especially in the wake of 9/11.

Finding a common thread among different religions may sound like the work of a monk living at a hilltop monastery. There are, however, many local groups engaged in this endeavor, striving to expand the dialogue between those of different faiths. Proponents of increased dialogue include teachers, rabbis, priests, community members and business leaders. Some have started new organizations to achieve their mission.

One such organization, The Inner Connection: Gateway to the Now, was founded by Lori White and Jann Kennedy, both devoted to finding commonality among different faiths and spiritual beliefs. Incorporated in January, The Inner Connection sponsors spiritual awareness workshops and conferences.

Its inaugural event, "The Mystical Path: Finding Intimacy with God," features internationally renowned speakers and musicians representing Christianity, Judaism and Sufism. The intention is for attendees "to leave the weekend with an expanded perspective on their relationship towards their own spirituality ... " The conference will be held at Tucson's Marriott University Park Hotel from October 18 to 20.

"The focus of our conference is the unity of each tradition, how similar they really are. There's a total commonality and foundation that's the same. That's the message that is not spoken," said White.

"It's been a lifetime dream to bring this message to a greater audience," added Kennedy.

Eager "to bring here what the rest of the country gets all the time," White and Kennedy began a campaign to bring big names to Tucson. When initial contacts were made, teachers and authors such as Matthew Fox, Andrew Harvey, Brother Wayne Teasdale and Rabbi Rami Shapiro were eager to participate in the event.

Tucson's spiritual activities have been dispersed, according to Kennedy, a 50-year resident. "What we're hoping is to be able to bring them into a community feeling that can support all of it. We would like to foster the coming together ... of the different paths that are spread out. We should all come together and refer to and support each other," she said.

With their "Mystical Path" conference scheduled to be an annual event, White and Kennedy strive to continue the search for commonality among different faith traditions. Both women champion their cause by thinking big. While they hope to "change people's consciousness one person at a time," they also believe that if you help one soul, you've changed the universe.

Universal themes of understanding and respect fueled the creation of another local group--the Tucson Multi-Faith Alliance. Chaired by Rabbi Samuel Cohon of Temple Emanu-El, the group of more than 18 different faith communities was formed after September 11. Their first service brought together more than 23 different faith groups, including members of Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Baha'i congregations. "Our purpose is to increase mutual understanding and respect across the boundary lines of religion, race and experience. By experiencing other religious experiences, the level of respect for other religious groups expands," said Cohon.

The Alliance meets monthly to "dialogue and resolve to learn, teach, pray and act together to bring an open religious and spiritual dimension to public life in Tucson." The group will co-sponsor (with the City of Tucson) two multi-faith services on the anniversary of September 11. Using religion to "... turn this negative into a potential for positive" is one of Cohon's goals. Another objective for the clergy-driven group is to expand and offer educational programs, including tolerance education.

Resolving issues of intolerance in the community is one of the missions of The Interfaith Dialogue Group, formed nine years ago by Rabbi Tom Louchheim of Congregation Or Chadash. Members of his Jewish congregation meet with church pastors and reverends along with the representatives from ICS (International Community of Submitters) Mosque. Each month, the group shares a discussion about one topic, said Louchheim. This month's topic was freedom. "I read from Hebrew scripture. If anyone has questions or comments, we talk about that," said Louchheim. After that, there is a reading from Christian scripture and from the Koran on the same topic, both followed by discussion. "If we see similarities [between the scriptures] it is always fascinating," he said.

Also of interest to Louchheim is "having community members do things together and be friends. Often times with interfaith groups, you have your meetings, you part ways, and that's it. That has not been true in our dialogue." His group has been involved in building homes with Habit for Humanity and providing food at Casa Maria soup kitchen. Louchheim has witnessed a positive result of these efforts: "We really created wonderful friendships."

Another group that participates in community wellness is the Pima County Interfaith Council. Comprised of members from more than 35 local congregations, the council focuses on "how we work on the teachings of our faith," explained Raymond Rodriguez. Rodriguez, a member of the Santa Cruz Catholic Church and leader in the council, said the non-profit organization often meets with legislators to discuss important concerns in the community. The council has been instrumental in the development of the Kino Community Center and JobPath program. While Rodriguez emphasizes the council is respectful and mindful of individual faiths, they routinely ask, "What are we going to do to change the system?"

In addition to meeting with legislators to create change, the council continues to teach new leaders who in turn assist their own congregations. This teaching "helps members become connected and understand the vision and strategy to resolve issues," said Rodriguez. With more than 10 years of local involvement, the council continues to work toward community improvement united by the teachings of various faiths.

Teaching interfaith spiritual directors is one of the ongoing activities of the Tacheria Interfaith Spirituality Center, located at St. Philip's in the Hills Episcopal Church. Co-founded in 1992 by Jeanette Renouf, the center offers a two-year training course that reviews the beliefs of Buddhists, Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Renouf believes the teachings support "an individuals relationship to the Divine and the awareness that a person's spiritual journey is unique to them." In addition to its two-year program, the center offers other classes, retreats and a film series. "Our goal is dedicated to providing a safe oasis to sample the spiritual path and share it with others. People need support to find their path and follow it," said Renouf.

The path of unifying Tucson's various faith communities continues to unwind in various ways. Tzadik Shmuel co-founded the Interfaith Peace Initiative (IPI) after September 11. Moved by the escalation of Mideast violence, he organized a peace vigil that brought together seven different faith communities.

The Interfaith Peace Initiative is currently campaigning to designate September 11 as Global Unity Day. To establish this, IPI sent a letter to President Bush and Congress and is lobbying for support from community leaders. Shmuel believes by declaring September 11 as Global Unity Day, we will "send a message of tolerance, understanding and inclusiveness to a world that greatly needs such a message." IPI's grass root efforts continue as the group "celebrates all faiths, encouraging the possibility and demonstrating that we all can come together," said Shmuel.

This sentiment was echoed by the Tucson Multi-Faith Alliance last Thanksgiving in response to the events of September 11. In a public service announcement, they encouraged those of different faiths to find a common bond. A Mountain stood as the backdrop while 20 clergy members spoke in unison: "Reach across boundaries of race, creed, color and culture to understand others." As the anniversary of September 11 approaches, this effort continues to be accomplished by many faiths--together--in Tucson .

For information about the mentioned groups and services, contact the following:

  • The Inner Connection: Gateway to the Now, Lori White and Jann Kennedy, 322-7689. www.theinnerconnection.org.
  • The Tucson Multi-Faith Alliance: Rabbi Samuel Cohon of Temple Emanu-El, 327-4501, or Gordon McBride, 327-6857.
  • The Interfaith Dialogue Group: Rabbi Tom Louchheim of Congregation Or Chadash, 512-8500.
  • Pima County Interfaith Council: 78 W. Cushing St., 903-2333.
  • The Tacheria Interfaith Spirituality Center: At St. Philip's in the Hills Episcopal Church (4440 N. Campbell Ave.), 299-6421.
  • The Interfaith Peace Initiative: Tzadik Shmuel, 318-9136, or tzadikshmuel@yoe-lions.org.

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