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Interfaith clergy group has spirited debate

iccpbc.jpg April 27, 2007, Palm Beach Post, Interfaith clergy group has spirited debate, By Lona O'Connor.

WEST PALM BEACH — For people of faith, the question is as old as God and as new as today's headlines: Where is the boundary between religious and civic responsibility?

About 30 men and women, members of the Interfaith Clergy Committee of Palm Beach County, met to probe that boundary at a Thursday meeting titled, "Speaking Truth to Power: Are there limits to our prophetic calling?"

But first, they got ground rules from Rabbi Bruce Warshal, one of two featured speakers.

"My professor at Yale said, 'We don't teach answers, we teach questions.' "

Warshal and his fellow speaker, Bishop Harold C. Ray, head of the Redemptive Life Fellowship Church in West Palm Beach, got the morning off to a brisk start with a spirited debate that displayed how different their respective viewpoints could be. Warshal contended that there is no absolute religious truth and Ray rejoined that if there is no absolute truth or no absolute God, "then we're all wasting our time."

Part two of the morning's activities was even closer to home. Participants sat at round tables and discussed two religious-civil clashes in their own community: The conflict between Westgate Tabernacle Church, which shelters homeless people, and county government; and the case of federal agents infiltrating a Quaker meeting in Lake Worth.

County government has been fining Westgate for several years for code violations and a recent court ruling upheld about $30,000 in fines levied by Palm Beach County on the church. Westgate leaders have vowed to fight the case to the Supreme Court.

The federal agents attended a meeting at the Lake Worth Quaker house to collect information about a group that was attempting to discourage young people from volunteering for military service. The agents determined that members of the peace group comprised a threat to national security.

Underlying the significance of those two case histories was the fact that the group was meeting at the United Methodist Church of the Palm Beaches, barely 10 minutes' drive from both churches in question. As a further reminder of its relevance, the discussion was led by Karen Modell of the Lake Worth Quaker Meeting.

"People were called by their faith into action and ran afoul of authorities," Modell said. "What canst thou say? How would you feel in this situation?"

Rabbi Nason Goldstein tried to play devil's advocate at his table, asking participants to consider the feelings of homeowners near Westgate, apprehensive about homeless people in their neighborhood.

True to Warshal's prediction, there were no absolute answers to be had in a three-hour meeting, no matter how determined the participants.

But workable solutions emerged. One of the suggested ways to oppose the Quaker surveillance was for clergy and congregants to write those in government to express their disapproval. Others suggested that, if no action was forthcoming from government, houses of worship could work together to form their own interfaith homeless shelter.

The consensus at Nason's table, and with many of the group at large, was that churches must also act as a civic conscience, drawing government's attention to its responsibility to assist homeless people and other powerless citizens.

As participant Joyce Bailey put it, "The church is the spokesman for the heart and soul of the people."

Or as Goldstein summed it up later, "Churches must be a pain ... to the government."

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