Last Tuesday evening, over 70 people logged into the zoom virtual platform to hear the message of The Interfaith Amigos followed by a panel of local faith leaders who discussed the history and potential future of interfaith collaboration in Washington County, Maryland. The overwhelming majority of participants were from the Hagerstown area or Washington County. The event was organized by Bester Community of Hope and sponsored by the Washington County Department of Social Services, the Alice Virginia and David W. Fletcher Foundation and San Mar Family & Community Services.
The evening began with The Interfaith Amigos telling the story of how they came to work so closely together despite the differences in their faith. Rabbi Ted Falcon and Imam Jamal Rahman began working together after the September 11, 2001, attacks. They were soon joined by Reverend Donald Mackenzie and now use their unique humor to share their spiritual wisdom with audiences all over the world to promote a more effective interfaith dialogue for greater collaboration on the major social and economic issues of our society.
During the presentation, the Interfaith Amigos addressed the reluctance that we sometimes have to really listening to the spiritual riches of someone else’s religion. “If we open in that way, somehow our own identity will be diluted or watered down. Part of the process is recognizing when those suspicions or distrust occur and allowing ourselves to appreciate what each of us bring to each other. ”
The Interfaith Amigos were joined after their presentation by Rabbi Ari Plost of B’Nai Abraham, Reverend Valerie Wills of the Washington County Interfaith Coalition, Reverend Don Marbury of Ebenezer AME Church and Wendi Perry of the Hagerstown Area Religious Council. Rabbi Plost opened the discussion by sharing how area houses of faith have been collaborating in Hagerstown through various efforts including Michah’s Backpack, a weekly food distribution effort to students of WCPS. Rabbi Ari Plost, of B’nai Abraham, was one of four local faith leaders to participate in the event and discuss interfaith collaboration in Washington County, Maryland. He commented, “I like to think that we in Washington County have a similar type of pursuit where we try to build deeper relationships. We know
that when we see each other in various areas of our lives, we share so much together. What a treasure we have in Hagerstown and Washington county as we have a very diverse religious community made up of many houses of worship.” He added, “We bare witness and support one another as houses of worship in times of crisis. When one of us is experiencing some form of violence or hate crime perpetuated against the community we really try to stand in solidarity.”
Reverend Valerie Wills, coordinator for the Washington County Interfaith Coalition, explained the group was formed about 18 years ago. “The purpose was to help us understand each other’s religion and to be advocates for each other. One of the things I think was the best about those interfaith activities was just sitting in the same room and just listening,” she explained. “We need to understand that people do not understand the same way and interfaith dialogue is the place that can happen.”
Reverend Donald Marbury, Ebenezer AME Church, shared he felt a lack of cross fertilization hinders interfaith collaboration in the county. He stated, “it starts with the undergirding, the foundation, it’s about the knowing. We are so confused about what the word neighbor means”. He continued by exploring the difficulties of embracing your neighbor. “It’s uncomfortable for us to come out of our comfort zone to embrace and truly believe. You can embrace sameness while concomitantly extoling our differences. They are not mutually exclusive. Until we understand that difference is not to be feared, our neighbors are not to be feared, all of our economic disparity, all of our social and cultural disparity and discriminations are going to continue. But if we embrace all of our interfaith beliefs, that can be the beginning steps to us making the progress that we need.”
Wendi Perry, Director at Hagerstown Area Religious Council, added by saying that, “There has to be an approach that includes everyone rather than excluding the ones that have the problem. I’m finding it’s not the challenge of everyone trying to stay safe or protect themselves from a virus. It’s that they are scared that what they say or do may come back to haunt them.”
The overwhelming majority of the audience responded that interfaith collaboration is beneficial and that the presentation made a positive impact on their perspective. One attendee wrote the message was “deeply needed and felt” while another wrote “so glad to see this work being done, during COVID, in Hagerstown. It made me feel hopeful.”
The presentation ended with the Director of Bester Community of Hope, Jennifer Younker, stating, “Bester Community of Hope remains committed to investing in the people who are doing this work. We wholeheartedly value our local houses of faith and we want to support their missions, their outreach, as well as the great momentous efforts of HARC. We join our local community from a place of unconditional love, mutual respect and ultimately….hope.” She added the following call to action: “It is my hope that this will spark an opportunity for conversation and collaboration and as we heard this evening to listen, respect and connect. My call to action is let us rise. Let us take that first step and meet people on their level of humaneness”. Younker encouraged the local community to explore the work being done by HARC as they continue their goal of interfaith collaboration and get involved.
The recording of the evening presentation will be made available on Bester Community of Hope’s YouTube channel for viewing in the coming week.