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United Methodists pursue contact with other faiths

2/4/2002 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York

By United Methodist News Service

In Greensboro, N.C., a group of Christian, Muslim and Jewish women meet on a regular basis to seek mutual understanding in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The Rev. Mark Sills, a United Methodist pastor who serves as executive director of FaithAction, said the interfaith organization is sponsoring the group through its Piedmont Neighbors Project. "We think it's very important to work with women to build a sense of community," he explained.

In Rockford, Ill., a Rockford Urban Ministries' project encourages residents to attend open houses at places of worship for various faiths. Initiating contact and, eventually, dialogue with other religions as a way to promote tolerance and understanding has been a successful strategy before in Rockford, according to Stanley Campbell, executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries, an outreach of 19 area United Methodist churches.

In 1985, after a local Laotian Buddhist Temple was attacked, an interfaith council was formed to respond. "The first thing we did was invite Christian ministers to come in and welcome them (the Buddhists) to Rockford," he recalled. "Since then, there has not been an attack."

Both projects are among those receiving funding from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), which began its "Honoring Differences in the Midst of Hate and Violence" grant program as a response to the terrorist attacks. Grants are available for projects involving Islamic groups, Arab-American organizations and other groups experiencing stereotyping and hostility.

Marge Rudolph, an UMCOR consultant for the grant program, said she received almost 200 requests for information about the grant program between October and January. Inquiries have come from as far away as Australia, and not only from church groups but also university representatives and even an Egyptian Muslim woman living in Wyoming, she said.

With four mosques, two Buddhist temples and a thriving Hindu temple in town, Greensboro has become extremely diverse, according to Sills. "It's taken everyone by surprise, especially the people who live here."

The aftermath of Sept. 11 left a feeling of "general unrest and fear within the immigrant community," he added. One result was a big public rally, both to express grief and solidarity with the victims of the terrorist attacks and to proclaim that the community would not be divided and would not allow anger "to turn into retaliation against our own neighbors," Sills said. "Hundreds of people signed a pledge of unity."

Piedmont Neighbors, which is receiving a $5,690 grant from UMCOR, got its start when a Muslim board member of FaithAction mentioned that Muslim women in the community were afraid to leave their homes immediately after the terrorist attacks for fear of harassment.

The initial plan, Sills said, was to offer an escort service for the women, but cultural differences made that difficult to execute. Instead, FaithAction formed a relationship with the local Islamic center and trained female volunteers in aspects of Middle Eastern and North African culture and traditions. Christian and Jewish women then began meeting with the Muslim women to build understanding.

Those meetings now are moving toward a food-oriented theme, he noted, as the women share cooking techniques and food. Sills hopes to have a large-scale gathering next fall that also will draw in women of other faiths.

In Rockford, Campbell plans to use his $3,350 grant to promote interest in current and future interfaith programs. "I think this seed will sprout," he said. "I think this will grow and help us grow our programs."

The second largest city in Illinois, Rockford has "every faith" represented, but many living there are not aware of that fact. "I think Rockford needs to not only realize that, but also welcome them as Americans," he added.

To help citizens get to know their neighbors, Rockford Urban Ministries will publish a brochure and map to assist those attending open houses in various places of worship. Campbell hopes to follow up the open houses with discussion groups, informational programs and perhaps even political debates on issues such as changing the law to allow students of other faiths to skip classes because of religious holidays.

For more information on "Honoring Differences" grants, contact Rudolph by e-mail at or by telephone through UMCOR's Washington office at (202) 548-4002.

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