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Bread Is Broken While Interfaith Bonds Are Built

November 17, 2007, New York Times, Bread Is Broken While Interfaith Bonds Are Built, By Gretel C. Kovach.

FRISCO, Tex., Nov. 15 — The outcome was uncertain when a group of mostly strangers sat down together for dinner Thursday night at a home in this Dallas suburb. Among the gathering were three Jews, two Mormons, three Muslims, two Bahais, two secular humanists and a Catholic-Baptist.

But over pasta and lentil soup, the guests discussed love, death, forgiveness, compassion and evil, and found plenty of common ground.

“How many times,” said one guest, Nelson Komaiko, a 59-year-old self-described “very Reform” Jew, “do we get in a situation where people from all these different religions can really talk?” Not with superficial workplace chatter, he said, but in a discussion about the big questions of life. “Usually when people of different faiths have a ‘dialogue,’ it’s with guns blazing.”

The occasion was an Amazing Faiths Project Dinner Dialogue, one of a series of small gatherings in private homes intended to foster tolerance and understanding of religious differences.

The series was organized by Mayor Bill White of Houston, the Boniuk Center for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance at Rice University and Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston. What began with 20 dinners and about 200 participants in January has quadrupled in size this round and spread to three other Texas cities, largely by word of mouth.

“People are hungry for this,” said Jill Carroll, executive director of the Boniuk Center. “This project is a way to leverage all of the individuals and the little groups out there into a movement that actually has the possibility to shift the culture away from hatred and religious bigotry to one of tolerance.”

The dinners start with each participant selecting a card and then answering a question broad enough that followers of any faith, or no faith, can draw on their personal experiences. After everyone takes a turn, there is a break, and then each person has a few minutes to speak freely.

Although the event is called a “dialogue,” participants are not allowed to challenge one another’s remarks. “The idea is not to be pontificating or giving little sermons, but listening and sharing from their heart,” Dr. Carroll said.

The Amazing Faiths dinners are limited to about 10 participants, to keep the gatherings intimate. “People are on better behavior when they are guests in someone’s home,” Dr. Carroll said. “It plumbs the richness of our traditions about hospitality, hosting the stranger. Tolerance begins at home.”

Kim Kamen, interim executive director of the American Jewish Committee’s Dallas chapter, was moderator of the dinner here, held at the home of Deanna DeYoung, a Bahai. The two women formed a multifaith group after the 9/11 attacks but found that free-ranging discussions among people of different faiths sometimes drifted into edgy territory.

At the outset Thursday night, Ms. Kamen warned the group that the talk would be very structured. “No one is saying we have to agree or disagree,” she said, adding that the goal was to learn about different faiths in a safe and neutral environment.

Heather Woodward laughed when she drew a card asking about miracles.

“I find it very humorous that I’m the secular one and I draw this card,” she said. “The most miraculous thing to me is that as humans we relate to one another.” She shared the story of having been married to an Orthodox Jew for 14 years, though they are “very different on paper.”

Ms. DeYoung’s card asked if she saw compassion around her every day. “I don’t think so,” she said. “America seems to be searching outside ourselves for meaning. I think it’s very unfortunate that it takes something very tragic — things like 9/11 have to happen — to bring us together.”

Lucille Nowaski, like her husband a Roman Catholic, told the group of having convinced him that they should start attending a Baptist church that their young daughter had chosen to attend. “We need to go with her,” she told him, “to keep her safe.” Of God, Ms. Nowaski added, “I think he wants us all to be together.”

Some in the group nodded knowingly. “Amen,” Halima Sonday said.

Mr. Komaiko’s card asked what happened when one’s prayers were not answered.

He described becoming embittered with religion when he was a young man watching his mother die of cancer. “She followed the kosher rules her entire life,” he said, “and was basically a very good person. I asked myself, ‘Does God really care?’”

Roy Dahle, a Mormon, had almost the opposite experience. “When the doctors were saying, ‘Roy, there’s nothing more we can do for you,’ and I came through, I attributed that to a higher power,” Mr. Dahle said.

The dinner guests had many questions. What is confirmation? What does secular mean? Or Bahai? Before the night was through, all were answered. But they planned to continue the conversation, by meeting again or joining the Boniuk Center’s online social networking site.

“I learned from every one of you,” Rabia Sonday said. “That’s one of the miracles. He created so many billions of people. Every one of us is different, yet we are all the same.”

Her sister Halima agreed. Set aside the politics, and “it really comes down to how we treat other people,” she said.

But Renato Sperandeo, a 65-year-old Bahai, reminded them that here in the soft candlelight, content in the knowledge that no one would challenge their beliefs, it was not hard to be accepting.

“It’s too easy now to be loving to each other,” he said. “When we’re in the real world, we don’t always behave this way.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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