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An interfaith road trip to promote understanding

An evangelical minister, a rabbi and an imam rent a van. What sounds like the start of a joke is actually a national tour we began together on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, to improve interfaith cooperation and address a rising tide of anti-Muslim bigotry now dividing many communities.

Our 18-city tour, which stops in Maryland on Sunday at St. Katharine Drexel Roman Catholic Church in Frederick, is based on the simple but powerful idea that if we can get people talking about faith, values and the common good, the differences that too often divide us will prove less daunting than our shared humanity.

Just over 10 years ago, when terrorists killed innocent citizens — including Muslim Americans — our nation united in collective grief and patriotism. Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders locked arms to pray together. Most elected officials, including then-President George W. Bush, made it clear that the United States was not at war with Islam but in pursuit of violent extremists who pervert a peaceful religion.

This period of civility and solidarity quickly faded. Cooperation and dialogue soon gave way to suspicion, stereotypes and ugly rhetoric. Muslim Americans who love and serve their country as soldiers, teachers and doctors now face growing hostility. From New York City to Murfreesboro, Tenn., plans to build mosques and Islamic community centers faced staunch opposition rooted in ignorance and fear.

State lawmakers in more than two dozen states passed anti-Sharia laws that are unnecessary and offensive. A pastor in Florida threatened to burn the Quran, provoking an international media circus and renewing a polarized debate over pluralism and religious freedom. A new report from the Center for American Progress in Washington has found that anti-Muslim activism is growing and is fueled by a network of professional extremists who have been funded at the tune of $42 million over the last decade.

These examples can leave us dispirited and even angry. But they are not the only story. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, interfaith campaigns that serve as a powerful antidote to this culture of division and fear have blossomed across the country. Our group, Clergy Beyond Borders, is now on the road visiting Detroit, Murfreesboro, Nashville, Atlanta, Cleveland and other cities to engage citizens and local leaders in a better conversation grounded in mutual respect and dialogue.

During our interfaith "road trip" we have sponsored prayer breakfasts, hosted workshops in churches, synagogues and Islamic centers, and convened forums in universities and high schools. We will not presume to tell local communities what to do but instead will offer tools for bridging divides, defusing conflicts and nurturing authentic conversations that can lay the seeds for progress.

As Jews, Christians and Muslims, we believe that freedom of religion and our nation's core values are threatened when any faith is singled out for attack. The diverse religious traditions that enrich our democracy are a beacon for the world. This proud heritage is a fragile gift that must be protected in every generation.

As we drive across this great nation, we carry with us the dreams of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other towering leaders who believed in an America where people of every faith or none could find hope, opportunity and freedom.

The Rev. Steven Martin is executive director of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. Imam Yahya Hendi (yahyahendi@gmail.com) is founder and president of Clergy Beyond Borders and the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University. Rabbi Gerald Serotta (clergybeyondborders@gmail.com) is executive director of Clergy Beyond Borders.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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