GENEVA — Religion can be a source of peace, but it also can be a source of war, Richard Rosenfield told the dozens of people gathered at Our Lady of Peace Parish Center in Geneva Oct. 11.
“It can build a community or tear it apart,” said Rosenfield, who is cantor and spiritual leader at Geneva’s Temple Beth-El.
The crowd had gathered to listen to Rosenfield and five other speakers talk about how to turn religion into a source of peace during “Promoting a Culture of Peace: Bridges of Shared Values,” an interfaith peace forum sponsored by Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes to commemorate the agency’s 25th anniversary.
Rosenfield was joined by four other speakers representing the Muslim, Protestant, Buddhist and Baha’i faiths, as well as keynote speaker Deacon George Dardess, who serves at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Rochester and is a pioneer in building relationships between the Catholic and Muslim communities.
Etin Anwar, assistant professor of religious studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, served as a representative of the Muslim community, while the Rev. Allison Stokes, founding director of the Women’s Interfaith Institute in Seneca Falls, represented the Protestant community. Representing the Buddhist faith was Frank Howard, who served for 20 years as executive director of the Amitabha Foundation, a Tibetan Buddhist Dharma Center, and representing the Baha’i faith was Carl Appleton, public-information officer for Rochester’s Baha’i community.
The Baha’i faith was founded in the 19th century by Bah√°’u’ll√°h, who emphasized the spiritual unity of all humankind, Appleton said. World peace and security will only be attained when everyone realizes that humans are all part of one family, he said.
“Gatherings and dealings like this one taking place here today will help bring this about,” Appleton said.
Bah√°’u’ll√°h’s followers believe that all religions are part of one faith in the same God, and Bah√°’u’ll√°h explained this using a metaphor about the moon, he said. Although the moon looks different depending on which phase it’s in and where it’s viewed from, everyone who looks at it is looking at the same moon. Similarly, God may look different to different people depending on when and where their religious traditions were founded, but Baha’is believe there is only one God, Appleton said.
Just as the view of the moon from one place is no more or less true than the view from a different point, no one vision of God is more or less true than others, Rosenfield added.
“No one religious tradition is in possession of the truth. Tolerance for the ideas, faith and beliefs of others comes from understanding that none of us knows or is able to know the whole truth about anything,” he said.
After being baptized and reading the writings of Trappist monk, interfaith pioneer and peace activist Thomas Merton in 1983, Deacon Dardess began to believe that by becoming a Catholic he was not closing himself off from the religious beliefs of others, but rather being given the grace to open up to them, he noted in his keynote speech. He believed learning about other faiths could only enhance his own, so in 1991 he began to take Arabic lessons at Rochester’s Islamic Center.
“I was terrified on my way over to the center for that first class. My mind had been poisoned by what had already become even by 1991 a strong dose of media-driven anti-Muslim propaganda,” Deacon Dardess recalled.
After Deacon Dardess overcame his initial terror and misconceptions, his lessons led to the formation of long-lasting friendships with Muslims and a lifelong commitment to Muslim-Christian dialogue.
Overcoming hatred, or a sense of “us vs. them,” also is an important element of the Buddhist faith, Howard noted. Islam is often wrongly portrayed in the media as a hateful or violent religion, Anwar said. When attempting to forge connections with people of other faiths, she always starts by dismantling the culture of fear and its associated stereotypes.
She also emphasizes the things Muslims have in common with people of other faiths. For example, Muslims love and respect Jesus because they consider him a prophet, she said.
Indeed, accenting the commonalities between faiths is the second of seven elements Deacon Dardess suggested are necessary in order to build a culture of peace. Before people do this, however, they first must reconnect to their own spiritual traditions. Deacon Dardess suggested the third and fourth elements involve people taking concrete steps to get to know each other and build confidence, and then exploring the beauty of their differences.
The fifth step is for people to confront their demons and their fears, which may be fears of assimilation or losing their own identities, Deacon Dardess said. The sixth step is to cultivate humor and patience, realizing this work is for the “long haul,” and a culture of peace can’t be built overnight.
The Rev. Stokes said she would add the element of hope to this step.
“For this work we’re doing, we have to believe that peace is possible, and I think one of the things we’re encountering is the belief that peace isn’t possible,” she said.
Deacon Dardess’ final suggestion is to gently develop a common mission of healing the world.
“Let it grow easily and naturally out of our shared experience and growth,” he said.