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Harford Christians, Jews and Muslims celebrate their faiths' shared values to honor MLK Jr.'s legacy

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Members of Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations worked to find the “sweet spot” of their faiths’ shared values Sunday and then pledged to live out those values over the next month in honor of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The legacy of Dr. King, whose Jan. 15 birthday was being observed Monday for the annual national holiday, was celebrated during a community gathering hosted by The Harford County Alliance of Abrahamic Faiths at St. James A.M.E. Church in Havre de Grace.

The Alliance is comprised of St. James A.M.E., Temple Adas Shalom — also of Havre de Grace — and Masjid Al Falaah in Abingdon. The group has been hosting such community events to honor King and his fight for social justice and racial equality each January since 2017. Temple Adas Shalom and St. James A.M.E. began hosting joint events to honor King in 2015.

Rabbi Gila Ruskin, of Adas Shalom, told congregants gathered in the church sanctuary that King spoke to multiple audiences about the need to fight for justice and equality in America. Ruskin told the audience to put those words into action.

“What we’re going to talk about today is, how we can do that too, how we can take these pretty words and turn them into action,” Ruskin said. “How we can take the values that we say we believe in and actualize them in the way we behave in the world.”

The attendees shifted to the church’s adjacent social hall, and they first gathered as Christians, Jews and Muslims and discussed the values of their individual faiths, based on holy scriptures and teachings.

Each group wrote those values on large sheets of paper, which were then hung on the wall. The larger group then worked to find the values that are shared by all three faiths, and they were written on a Venn diagram.

Ruskin told the congregants before the exercise started that the idea came from in-depth discussions she has had with St. James pastor, the Rev. Baron Young, and Sheikh Omar Baloch, imam of Masjid Al Falaah.

“The Venn diagram shows you what we have in common in the middle and ways [on the edges] in which we diverge from each other,” Ruskin said. “There’s this lovely space in the middle — what Rev. Young calls ‘the sweet spot’ — where we all share a value.”

She stressed that “it’s OK that they’re not all the same, as long as we have that nice sweet spot there.”

The values of each faith filled up more than four pages, with seven shared values making it into the “sweet spot,” values such as all people are made in the image of God, justice, love, charity and repentance.

“Today, I am learning we have more in common than I did before today,” Dr. Rehan Khan, president of the congregation at Masjid Al Falaah, remarked, prompting applause from the group.

Ruskin encouraged people to commit to living out one of those shared values for the next month. Twenty-five people put their names and phone numbers on sheets — the rabbi said the participants would be placed in a group text chat, allowing them to check in with each other to see how things are going and if anyone needs help.

Some points did prompt debate among the different faith groups over whether values worded one way by people of one religion and worded a different way by those of another could be a joint value.

Ruskin noted that, “even though the underlying impulse is the same, it manifests itself a little bit differently — which is fine, the point is, we’re not exactly the same.”

Khan also touched on celebrating the differences of the three faiths, as well as their shared values.

“God has created us as different groups so we may know each other,” he said after the event.

An estimated 80 people came out, according to Ruskin. A number of people in attendance were youth members of all three congregations. Khan said he was impressed with the turnout, considering two key NFL playoff games were being played around the same time Sunday.

He said the interfaith gathering is “what America needs right now,” as it shows “we can get along with each other despite our differences.”

Musical portion

The full group sang several musical selections at different points in the event, and participated in a call-and-response chant led by Ruskin — she described call-and-response as “the most ancient kind of prayer in all traditions.”

The event opened with the singing of “Hallelujah,” to the tune of the late Leonard Cohen’s original song but with lyrics that celebrate Martin Luther King, as written by Ruskin and St. James member Wynona Hilton-Stanley.

A choir made up of Adas Shalom and St. James members sang “You Raise Me Up,” interspersed with readings of selections from King’s speeches by choir members Hilton-Stanley and Stu Needel, of Adas Shalom.

The event closed with a rendition of “We Shall Overcome,” sang by everyone. Three members of each faith — Niara Brown (Christian), Cherif Doungous (Muslim) and Jeremiah Vogelhut (Jewish) — formed what Ruskin called a “human Venn diagram” in front of the church pulpit. Behind them, participants gathered in the middle of the sanctuary, put their arms around each other and sang passionately.

“It was emotionally overwhelming,” said Hilton-Stanley, who sang with her fellow joint choir members as they put their arms around each other. “You could just basically feel the legacy of what Dr. King wanted in the room, three separate religions coming together for such a wonderful program.”

Final impressions

Jonas Vogelhut, board secretary for Adas Shalom, attended with his son, Jeremiah, who was part of the human Venn diagram. Jeremiah, 19, is a student at the State University of New York at Stony Brook; he is a triplet, and his brother, Sam, attends the University of Pittsburgh and sister, Markie, attends the University of Maryland at College Park, according to his father.

Jonas Vogelhut said his children have attended past interfaith events, and they tell their friends at college about the unique Harford County program.

“You don’t see that in other communities, and maybe we motivate them to think about it,” he said.

Sunday’s event happened as the federal government remains shut down with Republican President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats at an impasse on how to resolve the border security issue driving it.

Hilton-Stanley noted the benefit of youths seeing adults working on a common goal.

“Yes, we can get along; yes, we can all do something together without any animosity coming into play,” she said. “Because of everything that is going on [nationally], positivity really needed to supersede anything else going on.”

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