Can we all get along?

Photo: M. Laughlin Photo: M. Laughlin

The church’s challenging call to interfaith dialogue and collaboration

You only need to turn on the news to see that Pope Francis’ prayer that “sincere dialogue between men and women of different religions may yield fruits of peace and justice” has yet to be fully answered.

But amid the darkness — the daily reports of religious violence, ignorance and intolerance — there are occasional glimmers of hope.

On June 15, three days after a man pledging allegiance to the Islamic State gunned down 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, several hundred turned out for an interfaith prayer vigil and two-mile procession from St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, to St. James Cathedral.

The event began with Christian, Jewish and Islamic prayers at St. Mark’s. At St. James, there was music from various religious traditions and time for meditation, said Corinna Laughlin, the cathedral’s pastoral assistant for liturgy.

“At the end of the service, there was going to be guitar so people could go out quietly,” she said, “but there was this long silence in which everybody spontaneously just raised their taper candles up in the air, high over their heads, which was just like a spontaneous ritual gesture from a community that had never prayed together before. I found it to be such a beautiful spontaneous gesture of hope.”

After such an outrageous atrocity, coming together to pray with people of different faiths was a powerful experience, Laughlin said.

“I really sensed, after that service, that maybe anger or frustration or dismay had given way to some hope.”

Not too long ago, such a gathering would have been almost unimaginable. Throughout its history, the church’s relations with Jews and Muslims have often been troubled, to put it mildly, marred by wars and persecutions.

The 1965 publication of Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on the relation of the church to non-Christian religions, was a watershed moment.

The document decried anti-Semitism, repudiated the idea that the Jews were responsible for the death of Christ, and declared the church’s esteem for Muslims, who “adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself.” The council fathers also rejected religious discrimination as “foreign to the mind of Christ” and exhorted Catholics to engage in “dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions.”

In the Archdiocese of Seattle, there was already a foundation of interfaith dialogue to build upon, thanks in large part to the efforts of Father William Treacy.

Father Treacey and Rabbi Levine
The friendship between Father William Treacy and Rabbi Raphael Levine set the tone for interfaith dialogue in Western Washington. Photo: Courtesy Father William Treacey

A priest and a rabbi walk into a TV studio

As a young priest in 1948, Father Treacy had been tapped to run a statewide campaign of newspaper ads explaining the Catholic faith, sponsored by the Knights of Columbus. The ads were meant to “promote unity and remove the misunderstandings between religions,” he said. “There was absolutely no dialogue at that time, so [people of different faiths] were completely ignorant of each other.”

He kept up the work for the next two decades. The campaign prompted thousands of letters, many from people who wanted to become Catholic.

“That educated me on the need for interreligious dialogue,” said Father Treacy, who is now 97.

In 1960, Father Treacy accepted an invitation to host a new KOMO-TV show, Challenge, with Rabbi Raphael Levine of Seattle’s Temple De Hirsch. Each Sunday night for the next 14 years, they discussed current events from their respective faith perspectives.

Father Treacy and Rabbi Levine quickly became dear friends. In 1965, Rabbi Levine presented Father Treacy with a handcrafted birch altar; the next year, the two founded Camp Brotherhood (later renamed the Treacy Levine Center), an interfaith retreat center in Mount Vernon.

The “pioneering effort” of Rabbi Levine and Father Treacy “really set the tone, not just for the area, but … for the country,” said Rabbi Daniel Weiner, a successor of Rabbi Levine’s at what is now Temple De Hirsch Sinai. When Nostra Aetate dropped, five years into Challenge’s run, it could “be seen as a wonderful outgrowth and extension of something that already existed locally here.”

Beyond dialogue, to interfaith collaboration

Fifty years ago, Rabbi Weiner said, interfaith dialogue was all the rage. “Just the idea that these faith communities were talking to one another and seeking to understand one another — that in itself was a significant accomplishment,” he said. “I think we’re well beyond that now.”

We’ve entered “the concerted-action stage of interfaith relations,” he said — people of different religions coming together to effect social change based on “broad faith values that we all can agree upon.”

Rabbi Weiner pointed to
Seattle University as a local “hub of interfaith activity.” The School of Theology and Ministry there has just established a Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs, which will gather scholars of many faiths with the goal of bringing religious wisdom to bear on vexing issues such as homelessness, health care, climate change, war and peace, extremism, migration and economic justice.

“We’re trying to shine a light on religious wisdom as a contributor to solving these issues,” said Dean Mark Markuly. “Most of the world’s religious traditions are addressing them in ways that are largely unseen by cultures and societies.”

Another example of interfaith collaboration is the Seattle-based Multifaith Coalition to Address Human Trafficking Through the Lens of Compassion, founded in 2013, which includes Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders (see page 28).

B.V.M. Sister Joyce Cox, a founding member of the coalition, retired in June after 25 years as the archdiocese’s ecumenical and interfaith delegate. Having been involved with countless interfaith efforts during her career, she said perhaps the most urgent need today is for parishes to “build bridges of understanding” with other faith communities in their neighborhoods.

interfaith service Members of Bellevue’s interfaith covenant — St. Louise de Marillac Parish, Temple B’nai Torah and three Protestant congregations — renew the covenant each year at their Thanksgiving Eve Community Prayer Service. This year marks the event’s 30th anniversary. Photo: Courtesy St. Louise Parish

‘Peace on earth right here’

That’s what Bellevue’s St. Louise de Marillac Parish has been doing for decades, said Gary Makowski, chair of the parish’s Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission, and “it has made St. Louise an incredibly welcoming, vibrant and diverse place.”

In 2008, St. Louise formally established a covenant with three nearby Protestant congregations and Temple B’nai Torah. Together they sponsor an interfaith lecture each winter, a daylong community work blitz each spring, and a joint prayer service every Thanksgiving Eve (see boxes). Recently, members of the local Mormon stake and Islamic center have joined in.

These activities correspond to the three essential aspects of interfaith efforts, Makowski said. “There’s mutual education, there’s service, and there’s prayer.”

The warm relations among the covenant congregations also extend to more mundane matters. They publicize events in each other’s bulletins. They volunteer for each other’s service projects. They share their parking lots on each other’s big holy days.

Strong interfaith relationships are an implicit response to skeptics, said St. Louise’s pastor, Father Gary Zender.

“There are people who are skeptical of organized religion in general — that number’s pretty high in the Northwest — and one of the reasons that people often give is the divisions that they see among different faiths,” he said.

Makowski is quick to emphasize that interfaith is not just some “movement” or fringe group.

“This is a directive of the church,” he said — coming from Vatican II and every pope since St. John XXIII. And the effects are profound.

“When you learn to work with people, pray with people, and then respectfully educate one another, you find they’re just human beings who are loving God and loving their neighbor, which we’re all called to — and that is, to some degree, peace on earth right here,” Makowski said. “We can’t change the political landscape of the world or even the country, but doing this, we’re trying to change things here, just in our community.”

‘A matter of our survival — it is that critical’

A couple of years ago, Father Michael Ryan invited Rabbi Weiner and Imam Jamal Rahman of Seattle’s Interfaith Community Sanctuary to offer prayers during a Pentecost Mass at St. James Cathedral. It was a “wonderful moment,” he said. “The people were just blown away by the experience.”

Heading off potential concerns, Father Ryan said the goal of interfaith prayer is not syncretism or a watering down of the Catholic faith. “We’re not saying that religious differences don’t matter; we’re saying religion matters, with all its differences.”

While Christians, Jews and Muslims have different beliefs, he said, “we are all children of God together, and that should be enough to unite us rather than divide us.”

That’s crucial, said Imam Rahman. Fostering a greater sense of interfaith unity, he said, “is a matter of our survival — it is that critical.”

“Why? Because our problems, whether they be political, whether they be religious, whether they be about social justice, whether they be about the environment — our problems are so huge, of such a great magnitude, that unless we cooperate and collaborate and attend to these problems collectively … we will not survive.”

And it all begins with friendship, Imam Rahman said. Forming personal relationships with people of other faiths allows individuals to overcome misconceptions, stereotypes and fears.

It’s all about “breaking down barriers in the human family,” said Father Treacy, the godfather of Catholic interfaith efforts in Western Washington.

“We’re just beginning on it. We’re in the infancy stage of interreligious relationships,” he said. “I believe the Holy Spirit is calling the human family together.”

Interfaith prayer service

St. Louise de Marillac Parish (141 156th Ave. S.E., Bellevue) will host the annual Thanksgiving Eve Community Prayer Service on Wednesday, Nov. 23, at 7:30 p.m. The hour-long event will feature music and reflections from Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Native American faith traditions. All are welcome.

Interfaith lecture series

Father William Treacy will be the next speaker in the Bellevue covenant’s interfaith lecture series. His talk will take place Wednesday, Feb. 1, at 7 p.m. at Cross of Christ Lutheran Church (411 156th Ave. N.E., Bellevue).

Northwest Catholic - November 2016

Kevin Birnbaum

Kevin Birnbaum is the interim editor/associate publisher of Northwest Catholic and a member of Seattle’s Blessed Sacrament Parish. Contact him at Kevin.Birnbaum@seattlearch.org.