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CURRENT ISSUE:  November 22, 2010
VOL. 48, NO. 20   •   Oakland, CA
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Interfaith group opens new dialog

More than 40 people from a half dozen religious traditions met to explore ways of expanding interfaith dialogue and cooperating in good works.

The Oakland Diocese’s Commission on Ecumenism and Interreligious Affairs coordinated the November gathering.

Deacon Thom McGowan, the commission’s chair, hoped that “in the collaboration of interfaith relations that we will make the world better.” That challenge may be met by finding common ground with others, which can occur in sharing faith discussions, learning about different cultures and jointly participating in social works.

Oakland Bishop Salvatore Cordileone said there are many serious regional needs, including poverty, where interfaith cooperation has potential to make a difference. “If we can productively come together to harness that energy, we can have an effective transformation.”

Since Vatican II, the Church has called for stronger interfaith relations. More recently Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have made explicit calls for greater collaboration among different religious traditions.

The diocesan commission’s eight members meet regularly to explore ways of working with other religious groups. The roundtable brought adherents of Jewish, Protestant, Islamic and other religious traditions together. They voiced desires to work with other faith traditions.

Rabbi Shelley Waldenberg recalled growing up in New York City in a heavily Jewish community. “It was after the Holocaust and there was tremendous fear of others. Non-Jews were just not in my life.”
But when Waldenberg became an Army chaplain, his experiences with Catholics and people of other religions broke down earlier stereotypes and helped him build positive relations with other groups.

Waldenberg said impressions we learn from the media often leave us “oblivious to each other.” But in direct contact with Catholics, “I discovered a different kind of Catholicism.” He found Catholics to be “so approachable, so embracing.”

Waldenberg has been a lecturer in religious studies at Holy Names University for 15 years, after two decades as rabbi for Temple Isaiah in Lafayette.

Jason Hamza van Boom, marketing and program director for the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California, said much of his work focuses on making Islamic art and culture better known in contemporary society “because beauty is something that unites.” He is pleased the Bay Area is at the forefront of increasing religious understanding. An indication of progress in the Bay Area he noted, is the proliferation of Islamic academic programs — at the University of California at Berkeley, at the Graduate Theological Union and a new Islamic college that began operation this year.

Lutheran Rev. Brian Stein-Webber is the executive director of the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County and pastor of Oakland’s Trinity Lutheran Church. Council members work together in a wide range of programs serving youth, the poor, seniors and others in need. Among the council members is Father Tom Bonacci of St. Ignatius parish in Antioch.

Stein-Webber acknowledged there is challenge in interfaith efforts when discussing religious beliefs. But in his interfaith work he said that people working together often reach accommodation by coming to a view that two people may be right at the same time.

Catholic Sister Mary Ann Donovan SC, a professor of historical theology and spirituality in the Jesuit School of Theology at the Graduate Theological Union, has been a liaison to the National Council of Churches and also a liaison to Buddhists for the National Catholic Conference.

Donovan said the most important thing she has learned from Buddhists “is the way they mediate, the quality of the silence” in their meditation.

Her inter-religious work makes her a better teacher by learning and understanding different traditions. On a practical level, she said better understanding of other traditions should help her graduates in their work, because the Jesuit grads “are likely to minister to many, if not a majority, of people who do not share their faith.”

Bishop Cordileone hoped Catholics in the diocese will do “more reaching out to people of other faith traditions. You can only have stereotypes about people you don’t know.”

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