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'Trialogue' series brings faith traditions together

The Rev. Jim Hamilton enjoyed taking part in interfaith efforts in his hometown of Chicago, so when he moved to Baltimore in 2014, he looked forward to checking out local programs in the same vein.

But the events he attended struck the Episcopal priest as more factually informative than inspiring.

"The imams, rabbis and pastors who spoke at these evenings were knowledgeable, and that was valuable," says Hamilton, senior pastor of the Church on the Square in Canton. "But I kept wishing they would take a more relational approach."

Now Hamilton is part of a team doing just that.

He's one of three clergy members working together to lead the Interfaith Trialogue, a program sponsored by the Baltimore Jewish Council that aims to establish common ground among Christians, Jews and Muslims.

On Sunday, he'll direct the third and final event of the series — a community dialogue about gentrification, white flight and related issues — at the Church on the Square.

Imam Tariq Najee-Ullah of the Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore and Rabbi Jessy Gross of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore will join Hamilton in addressing the topics from their own faith perspectives.

The religious leaders, all in their 30s, plan to engage audience members as they speak, then break the listeners into small groups for more intimate conversation. The event, scheduled for 2 p.m., is open to the public.

The interactive approach is designed to foster relationships, Hamilton says.

That's the way, he says, to establish the kind of connections that generate empathy and commonality across boundaries — qualities he says are more sorely needed than ever, given the current political and cultural divisions in America.

"With all the things we're dealing with right now" — he names President Donald Trump's travel ban against seven mostly Muslim countries and fear of U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement among immigrants — "we need to establish foundations of trust," he says.

Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, says the group has been committed to interfaith activity since 1939, when it was founded in response to growing anti-Semitism in Europe.

"Early on, there was this recognition that we all have to work together for the common good," Libit says.

The tradition continues. Over the past year, the council has run two events at which volunteers from the three faith communities distributed "blessing bags" to homeless people and sponsored a multifaith discussion of social justice strategies.

It sponsored a colloquium this month on curbing hate crime that featured Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh as keynote speaker and drew legislators and representatives from the Muslim, Latino and Jewish communities.

The council has sponsored trialogue programs, often featuring lectures by professors or religious elders, over the past two decades.

But organizers decided more recently to change their approach to target a younger demographic.

Hamilton, Najee-Ullah and Gross met and realized that, as faith leaders under 40, they had a common vision for interfaith work: It should be relational and experiential, involve people in conversation, and explore how faith communities can come together to address social challenges.

"We saw religion as a vehicle to come together but also to confront relevant issues, the kind that afflict the society we live in," Najee-Ullah says.

The three met regularly for meals and conversation throughout 2015, the year Freddie Gray's death sparked unrest in Baltimore and added fuel to a nationwide debate about police brutality.

To Hamilton, this backdrop had echoes of the years in which institutional racism was the norm in Baltimore, as documented in Antero Pietila's "Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City." Religious leaders, if not always complicit in such practices as redlining, he says, "weren't up in arms the way they should have been."

But the three formed a friendship in large part by talking basics.

"I'd say, 'This is what the Christian season is right now,' and go into that, or talk about saints and who they were," Hamilton says. "They might say, 'This is how my family interacts on this holiday,' or 'Here's how it is for a teenager.'

"It's contemporary information about what's happening. It feels intimate."

With the help of Madeline Suggs, the Baltimore Jewish Council's director of public affairs, they brought the approach into a retooled Interfaith Trialogue series that launched last September.

The first two events were a guided tour of the Muslim Community Cultural Center in West Baltimore and an evening of theater at the Gordon Center for the Performing Arts at the Jewish Community Center in Owings Mills.

The first, held in November, drew more than 60 people to the mosque near Leakin Park, including about 20 from each faith community.

It was, Libit says, the first time many of the Jewish attendees had met a Muslim or been in a mosque.

Hamilton says Najee-Ullah was patient in addressing the questions many had about his faith, including whether the Quran advocates violence or the forced conversion of non-Muslims (no in both cases, the imam explained).

"We were welcome to participate by witness in the prayers as they happened," Hamilton says. "It felt incredibly welcoming and kind."

The second event, held in March, featured a presentation of the play "Stories From the Fringe: Women Rabbis Revealed!"

In the discussion that followed, Christian and Muslim women said they could empathize with the rabbis' struggles within a historically male domain.

Hamilton says the Church on the Square, a joint venture between the Episcopal and Lutheran denominations he helped to launch three years ago, is a promising venue for Sunday's conversation on gentrification.

It's an issue with which his Canton neighbors are familiar, he says, as the neighborhood has seen striking demographic change over the past two decades.

But it's just one of many related subjects that could come up at the gathering, Hamilton says, all of which can likely be better addressed by believers in search of common ground.

"The general feeling of these events is that the more we talk, the more we realize we have overlapping experiences and concerns," he says. "We're more family than not."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonpitts77

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