Former Gilman chaplain pushes beyond religious tolerance

How could Christians who persecuted Jews preach love but practice hate?

The question, asked by a Gilman School student, stumped Christopher Leighton when he was chaplain there for 10 years in the 1980s and '90s.

Frustrated by complex questions about religion that he lacked enough knowledge to answer, Leighton, a Presbyterian, began studying at Baltimore Hebrew University, where he was "the token goy."

Twenty-five years later, as the Towson-based Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies celebrates its 25th anniversary, Leighton, 63, of Roland Park, is celebrating a milestone of his own. He has been executive director of the institute since its inception.

The institute, which tries to foster religious peace and understanding, is the only known nonprofit organization of its kind not affiliated with a college or university, a distinction that Leighton said is important because "it makes us more nimble" as an agent of change. The institute's small staff and participating clergy and scholars don't have to worry about "being daring and pushing the hard questions," he said.

Leighton and the board of directors are marking not just an anniversary, but a quarter century of "disarming religious hostilities," as he puts it, through classes, programs and speakers, locally and as far away as Atlanta, Ga.

"It's been my life's work and my legacy," he said.

Leighton doesn't want to settle for religious tolerance.

"We want to push beyond tolerance to an understanding that the world is a much richer and exciting and vibrant place," he said.

He is also pushing beyond studying issues only relating to Christians and Jews. The institute is sponsoring a speech Oct. 3 by Faisal Abdul Rauf, the Muslim imam who started a national debate after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, by proposing to build a mosque near Ground Zero in New York. The speech, which was rescheduled from last year after the threat of a snowstorm that never materialized, starts at 7:30 p.m. in Kraushaar Auditorium at Goucher College, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road in Towson.

Religious persecution

Leighton, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, said his concerns specifically about Christians first led him to play a larger role in promoting respect among religions.

He said he came to believe that the integrity of Christianity depended on its ability to "own up" to its historical persecution of Jews, including prohibiting them from owning land and expelling them from their countries.

"There is not a country in Western Europe that did not at some point expel Jews. Why? What was the motivation for trying to eliminate Jewish communities?" Leighton asked. "Nazi anti-Semitism didn't come out of nowhere. It grew out of teachings against Judaism.

Today, the institute offers what it calls "unique programming for adult learners, community leaders and clergy to explore interfaith relations that disarm religious tensions, encourage civil discourse and deepen spiritual pursuits."

Programs range from Food and Faith to forums on scripture and interfaith marriage The institute also sponsors a speakers series, with recent speakers such as Beth El Congregation Rabbi David Rosen and Chester Gillis, theology professor at Georgetown University in Washington.

Leighton's friend and board chairman Tom Brown, of Homeland, is a veteran of institute courses ranging from the origins of Christianity and Judaism to the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, as told from Jewish, Episcopalian and AME Methodist points of view.

Brown, 60, a Jew, is a principal of Joseph Klein Associates, a financial services firm. He said he is not "especially religious by any means," but shares the institute's goal to defusing religious hatred and trying to understand other points of view.

"The ignorance of each other is astounding to me," he said. "My ultimate truth doesn't negate yours."

Just beginning

Despite the institute's longevity, "It feels as though we're just beginning," said Leighton, who attends Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church.

But he said he thinks the institute is "making headway," and that "Maryland has a rich tradition of recognizing and responding to religious diversity."

The institute doesn't lack for money. Created largely with grants from the Abell and France-Merrick foundations, among others, it has a roughly $1 million annual budget and "a solid endowment," he said.

Leighton is optimistic that the institute can achieve its mission.

"There's now a greater recognition that we all have a stake in this game, to build a society that honors it's diversity," he said. "We've got to do this together."

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