A rabbi, a priest and an imam walk into a……

Thoughts from Hal Schlenger, Senior Vice President of Programming at Temple Kol Emeth and chairperson since 2007. 

You probably knew that Cobb County’s history of religious intolerance and bigotry was a legacy that couldn’t be ended soon enough. The story of Leo Frank, a Jewish business person, is one of the county’s low moments. As much as we could dwell on, or worse, perpetuate such behavior, a growing group in Cobb and N Fulton counties has dramatically changed the local reputation.

To hear a Catholic priest and Jewish rabbi telling jokes to an audience of upwards of 1,000 people, to hear the Islamic Call to Prayer sung from a Jewish temple’s pulpit, and to hear Sikh, Universalist Unitarian, Episcopal, Protestant and Mormons speak from the same pulpit over the past 12 years is proof that something has changed in Cobb County.

Awarded the Creating Community Award by the Cobb County commissioners in 2010, the annual Ecumenical Thanksgiving Celebration is a shining example of cooperation, brotherhood and sisterhood, and building the trusted friendships that was missing in Cobb County.

The group started by demonstrating how we could “coexist,” which aligns with the Manifesto’s call for “respect and accommodation for diverse religious and secular identities.” The success of the early events became a springboard for celebrating our commonalities, reducing xenophobia and enabling trust and new friendships. For a Palestinian raised in Gaza to speak of discovering the commonalty and trust of Christians and Jews, to hear quotes from the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Quoran, the Sikh’s Guru Granth Sahib, the Bahá’í’s Aqdas, and to hear members of what is now 18+ faith-based organizations form a choir that rehearsed and sang together – and of course the humor between the rabbi, priest and iman, is proof that the manifesto’s objective is realistic and achievable in the near term.

Interfaith Success Story

At the suggestion of planning committee member Asif Saberi, we shifted the annual theme of the reflective messages from “how your faith view Thanksgiving” to other themes that allowed us to show the vastness of our multiple faith’s commonalities. Think about these themes and you’ll see that we’re providing a foundation for the manifesto’s call for respect and enable people speak out and stand against acts of hate and intolerance with confidence and personal experiences: The Golden Rule, Peace Begins with Me, What You Teach Your Children about other religions, and The Ripple Effect: Together we create waves (of change).

We invited feedback by writing on a Wall of Words as well as Facebook and Twitter. A sample of what people said:

  • Never stop this service. It is an amazing thing. It inspires me to think through other people’s perspective.
  • My spirit soared.
  • We are all just walking each other home.
  • The world is perfect; there are just a lot of people having a bad conversation.
  • Bridges are walls turned sideways.
  • Whatever effects one directly affects all of us indirectly… Martin Luther King – #manyfaiths
  • So proud and amazed at the continued presence of so #ManyFaiths!!!
  • Sometimes the best way to solve your problem is to help someone with theirs.
  • Be part of the ripple!
  • Feeling so grateful to be amongst all these openhearted people of faith. G-d is good!
  • We’ll be back. Wonderful!

List of participating congregations:

  • Ahmadiyya Muslim Community
  • Baha’i Faith of Marietta
  • Chestnut Ridge Christian Church
  • Congregation Etz Chaim
  • Earthkeepers, First Nation
  • East Cobb Islamic Center
  • East Cobb United Methodist Church
  • Emerson Universalist Unitarian
  • First United Methodist Church of Marietta
  • Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple
  • Holy Trinity Lutheran Church
  • House of Hope International Christian Church
  • Islamic Center of Marietta
  • Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta
  • Masjid Al-Muminum
  • Roswell Community Masjid
  • Saint Benedict’s Episcopal Church
  • Saint Catherine’s Episcopal Church
  • Sikh Educational Welfare Association
  • St Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church
  • Temple Beth Tikvah
  • Temple Kol Emeth
  • Transfiguration Catholic Church
  • Trinity Presbyterian Church
  • Unitarian Universalist of Metro Atlanta North
  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
  • Unity North Spiritual Community

Now What?

Hal Schlenger, Senior Vice President of Programming at Temple Kol Emeth, is the event’s chairperson since 2007, which was initially chaired by Randy Suchke. Learn more about Temple Kol Emeth here. 

The Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto Leads to the “Beloved Community” by Soumaya Khalifa

Thoughts From Soumaya Khalifa, Executive Director and Founder of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta

At the recent Atlanta film screening of “Newtown” at the Lovett school, an audience member made a comment that we need to build community and to care for each other if we are to stop gun violence. His statement made me think immediately of the Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto. The Manifesto is all about building community, caring for each other regardless of our diverse faith traditions, standing up for each other, and simply being the “beloved community.” The principles of the Manifesto are: advance interfaith cooperation, marshal religious diversity, celebrate Atlanta’s broader significance, and take a stand. Interfaith understanding is the civil rights movement for the 21st century.

One would say that my personal journey in the interfaith work started with the establishment of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta (ISB), but actually it started long before. I remember as a very young child attending French Catholic school in Alexandria, Egypt, that was run by nuns. The school offered a church service during school time. I remember going to the church service and going home to tell my mother that I went to church. My mother would try to explain to me that we are Muslims. I agreed with my mom by saying “I pray to God at home as a Muslim and sing to God at church”. I believe that was the beginning of my interfaith journey.

In August 2001, along with a group of metro Atlanta Muslims, I started the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta with a vision of building bridges of understanding between the Muslim communities and the wider community and having American Muslims speak on their own behalf. It was a simple vision with a lot of opportunities. We started by training those interested in being part of the ISB on the First Amendment, because we are an educational organization where we “teach,” rather than “preach”. Education and knowing about the “other” is a first step in building community. As human beings, we fear what we do not know.

My journey with the ISB has been a life enriching experience. I have had the opportunity to work with people of different faiths and no faith. We started the Jewish Muslim Baking Group early on where Jewish and Muslim women would come together to bake something but it was really about getting to know each other, learning about our many similarities, and also our differences. Through the work of the ISB throughout the years, I had many opportunities that not too many people have. These opportunities include attending a Ramadan Iftar at the White House hosted by the President of the United States and participating in Christian Muslim dialogue at the World Council of Churches in Geneva. From the beginning, the ISB has been and continues to be about recognizing our partners through a number of initiatives including the Building Bridges Award, and working to change the narrative about Islam and Muslims through the “100 Influential Georgia Muslims” and the “40 Under Forty Georgia Muslims,” which showcase the incredible contributions of American Muslims to the state of Georgia in many areas including medicine, science, law enforcement, legal profession, philanthropy, and much more.

At the ISB we saw a need to also educate about other faith traditions. We collaborated with the Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta (FAMA) to create the Interfaith Speakers Network (ISN). There are six religions represented by ISN: Hinduism, Buddism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam. and Sikhism. Each faith is represented by people practicing it. This gives authenticity to our panels.

Over the years I have heard concerns raised about interfaith work including (1) it will make me compromise my faith, and (2) I will be bringing the “lite” version of my faith to be accepted. The answer to both of these concerns is a definite NO. Interfaith collaboration makes one study their own faith tradition more so that they are better able to engage with others. Interfaith conversations start off with finding out what we have in common while realizing that there are also differences. Differences are discussed after trust has been built.

My challenge to myself and others is to take our interfaith engagement to the next level. We need interfaith collaboration and understanding today more than ever. The Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto provides a structure for all of us. May we all be agents of positive change in our communities and work together for our Beloved Community.

Rabbi Peter S. Berg answers the question, “Why is the Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto Important?”

Thoughts From Rabbi Peter S. Berg, Senior Rabbi at The Temple

When I think about my predecessors, the rabbis who came before me at The Temple, I realize that I am standing on the shoulders of giants. In 1957, a year before our own Temple was bombed, eighty white ministers in Atlanta publicly endorsed what has been referred to as the Ministers’ Manifesto, denouncing racial segregation. The statement was published in the Atlanta papers and subsequently the New York Times. Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild, our rabbi, was instrumental in the writing of that manifesto. He knew then what we know today – that religious leaders must stand up to bigotry and hatred.

We live in challenging times. The need for interfaith support and cooperation is as important today as it ever has been. We all have strong feelings about the major issues of the day: the environment, the rights of minorities, safety and security, peace in the Middle East. Those who are wise realize that there are legitimate arguments on the other side, even if we disagree. Our lives are a balancing act between excessive modesty and excessive self-confidence. Sometimes, we feel our presence is too important to this world, and sometimes we feel our lives are no more important than anyone else’s.

When the scale tips towards arrogance, we risk becoming intolerant. Like most of us, I worry these days about fundamentalism – the belief that there is only one way. This does not mean we shouldn’t have strong faith. I am passionate about my faith. But, when that passion leads one to believe that there is only one way, only one truth, inevitably violence and death will follow.

The worst and most powerful idols we have today are not made of stone and wood. They are made of ideas. Is single-minded fanaticism a necessity for passion or can we have a multilingual view of God – the idea that God is not exhausted from a singular religious path? I’d like to believe that it is possible that Islam, Christianity, and Judaism could know of a God who speaks Arabic on Fridays, Hebrew on Saturdays, and Latin on Sundays.

Any ideology that embraces only self-importance violates human rights and leads to disastrous outcomes. Those claiming to be sole owners of wisdom terrorize us every single day. We live in a world that is threatened by those who are blind to the beauty of pluralism, who despise the idea of tolerance for other religions and ways of life, who have absolutely no faith in the rules of fair play. Our ancestor’s abhorred idolatry because they knew that nobody owns spiritual truth.

The challenge of American democracy today is the same challenge religious Americans face. This is the reason for the 2016 Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto: to fashion a way that incompatible faith assertions can still talk with each other and still learn from one another. What is needed most in our world is to speak to our neighbors of different faiths – not with authority – but with reasoning; not with quotation – but with common ground.

Religion is still the logical grounding for our democracy, but we must learn to speak to one another in ways that we can each hear, in words that allow for learning and growth and even disagreement. This task is, in no small part, the last, greatest hope in our humanity.

In Jewish tradition, we have over seventy names and attributes for God. One of them is Adonai Tzilcha – “God is your shadow.” How can God be a shadow, a mere image cast on the ground, created by our own image? If you stand bent over, then the shadow of God will be contracted and shriveled, but if your stand straight, the shadow will expand and grow mightily. In our community, when we stand with outstretched arms, God will be elevated and enlarged in our lives. God is reflected in our actions. Don’t think that only we live in God’s shadow, act as if God lives in ours.

Bill Clarkson answers the question, “Why is the Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto Important?”

Thoughts From Bill Clarkson, Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto steering committee member

I have been a life-long Episcopalian, baptized as a child, confirmed at age 12, and ordained priest in 1973. My entire career has largely been in education—teacher, coach, chaplain, administrator, and then Headmaster of two independent schools.

In the sacrament of Baptism (the Episcopal Book of Common prayer), deep and abiding promises are made, restated in Confirmation, and again in Ordination to the Priesthood. Two of the questions and responsive promises have always stood out for me:

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Answer/Promise: I will with God’s help!

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

I will with God’s help.

My career position before retirement was in leading a large Christian school in the South, which over time had moved past a religiously restrictive hiring policy to welcoming persons of all faiths in whatever position they might have in the school. I had occasion one year to hire a wonderful and experienced Muslim woman to co-teach a second grade class. There was immediate resistance from the initial co-teacher (“I can’t work with a Muslim; I’m a Christian and this is a Christian school”), and from a few parents (Christian): “I don’t want my child in a classroom with a Muslim”). Immediately, another teacher stepped forward and said, “I would be honored to have her as a partner in the classroom.” From that point on, the Muslim teacher was loved and embraced by the community, her colleagues, and especially the children. It has remained so over many years.

Now in the heated atmosphere of growing religious bigotry and rising incidents of hate crimes toward Muslims in this country, a handwritten letter has been sent to numerous mosques around the country, a letter that has gone viral over the news and social media. The text is as follows:

“To the children of Satan,

You Muslims are a vile and filthy people. Your mothers are whores and your fathers are dogs. You are evil. You worship the devil. But your day of reckoning has arrived.

There’s a new sheriff in town—President Donald Trump. He’s going to cleanse America and make it shine again. And he is going to start with you Muslims. He’s going to do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews. You Muslims would be wise to pack your bags and get out of Dodge.

This is a great time for Patriotic Americans. Long live President Trump and God bless the USA.”

                                                            “Americans for a Better Way”

I wonder, and I cannot begin to imagine how sad, discouraged, and frightened that Muslim teacher and her family must feel; nor can I imagine what the millions of deeply religious, kind, and loving Muslim U.S. citizens must be feeling—surely the same sadness, discouragement, and fear.

I pray that President-Elect Trump and his administration strongly denounce such a threat and do everything possible to aggressively prosecute religious hate crimes.

For my part, I will continue to do whatever I can to stand up publicly in support of the Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto, and more importantly, to abide by the Baptismal Covenant.

Bill Clarkson is the former headmaster of The Westminster Schools and current Practice Group Leader at Carney, Sandoe & Associates. Before joining Westminster, Bill was Head of the Potomac School in McLean, Virginia. An Episcopal priest, he has also worked in parish ministry and pastoral counseling.

Bill serves on several Boards, including the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, the Rabun Gap Nacoochee School, The FUGEES FAMILY, the R. Howard Dobbs, Jr. Foundation, and the Wilbur and Hilda Glenn Family Foundation.

Tom Glenn answers the question, “Why is the Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto important?”

Thoughts From Tom Glenn, Chair of The Wilbur and Hilda Glenn Family Foundation

I was not particularly political in my younger days.  The Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and a long list of human rights issues were rather tangential to my young, unsophisticated mind.  With advancing age and some semblance of maturation, I began to wish I had been more aware of social justice issues in my earlier years.  Joining others concerned about religious bigotry was a good start, but I had no idea at the time that the topic would soon invade the consciousness of so many Americans.

Published in two Atlanta papers in September of 2016, the Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto denounces religious bigotry and encourages interfaith cooperation.  It is the work of approximately 30 concerned individuals who began conversations in January of 2015, well before we could have predicted ensuing events that would threaten one of our most cherished freedoms.

The Manifesto’s call for “respect and accommodation for diverse religious and secular identities” does not encourage agreeing with or even learning about someone else’s religion or philosophical position.  But it reasserts Americans’ centuries old desire to pursue their various faiths with impunity.  Such freedom was undoubtedly on the minds of the brave souls in those frail little ships that sailed across the Atlantic long before the United States, the Constitution, or the First Amendment were envisioned.

At times, life’s challenges can become so daunting that our faith is all we have left to keep us going.  We should have the freedom to cling to that faith without being maligned.  Though such freedom was envisioned more than four hundred years ago, it remains a dream to many.

During the nineteenth century, Mormons were brutally victimized by an extermination order (Missouri Executive Order 44).  During John Kennedy’s campaign for the Presidency, Protestant leaders railed against the notion of a Catholic in the White House.  Bigotry against Jews continues, and there is now a regrettable increase of anti-Semitic activity on college campuses.  The outpouring of anti-Muslim rhetoric since 9/11 is yet another unfortunate example of our country’s darker side.  All of these examples of bigotry speak to the importance of the Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto, but I believe there is an even more compelling reason to confront the issue.

Fear of the unknown arouses our protective instincts and heightens our sensitivity to change, making us easy prey to those seizing such opportunities to support their political intentions.  According to Robert P. Jones’ The End of White Christian America, 2008 was the last year on record when Protestants as a whole represented a majority of the United States, and by 2014, the religiously unaffiliated made up 22% of the U.S. population.  Changes in both demographics and religious affiliations are taking place much faster than previously predicted, and the potential for exploiting fear increases with them.  If there was ever a time for us to learn how to get along with each other, it’s now.

In the coming months, others involved with crafting the Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto will be offering their views on why the Manifesto is important through website posts similar to this one.  These impressive thought leaders inspire me, and I urge you to read what they have to say.

I am no longer a college student of the turbulent sixties, but I find myself in an atmosphere reminiscent of those days when there was much to fear and dread.  It is my hope that through interfaith cooperation, we can live in peace and harmony as we become a more diverse nation.

If you feel so compelled, I invite you to sign the Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto to show your support for religious cooperation and tolerance.