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Faiths and Beliefs
a column by Vern Barnet every Wednesday in the FYI section of the Kansas City Star,
[printed and Star web versions versions and versions here may vary]
copyright The Kansas City Star.

correspondence with critics

2002 January 1 - December 31


434. 021225 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
What's your Christmas IQ?

Here's a Christmas Quiz. Which of the following statements are true?

  1. For a decade, a group of Hindus in Kansas City have been observing "Christ's birthday"' every December.
  2. Jesus is a very important prophet in the Muslim tradition.
  3. In Colonial and Revolutionary times, children were made to go to school on Christmas in Boston and celebrating Christmas was a crime.
  4. Christmas for Armenian Christians is observed on January 6.
  5. Christmas for Eastern Orthodox Christians is observed on January 7.
  6. Most Western Christians observe Christmas on Dec 25, the date of the solstice on an ancient Roman calendar, adopted from a pagan faith which honored the sun god, thought to be reborn on the shortest day of the year.
  7. Many scholars believe Jesus was born in the springtime.
  8. Most cultures have stories of miraculous conceptions and births of gods or heroes.
  9. Like Jesus, the Hindu god Krishna had to be hid in order to escape a slaughter of infants.
  10. At the birth of Confucius, the sky was filled with music and a voice said, "This night a child is born. He shall be a great king."
  11. Wise men who saw signs in the heavens brought gifts to the infant Buddha-to-be.
  12. Christmas was not a legal holiday in the U.S. until 1836 when Alabama became the first state to recognize it.
  13. Christmas as it is observed in the America today is a mixture of Christian, pagan and secular customs.
  14. The most important holy day in the Christian calendar is Easter.
   ANSWER: All of the statements are true. We are enriched by the heritage of many times and places. Merry Christmas!

The Kansas CIty Star Dec 22, 2002, H8
fyi & Sunday Best -- Season's Readings [one of ten selections]

A Roman Soldier, circa Anno Domini CCCXXV

Some provinces have snow this time of year although the darkest day we buried, past.
The resurrection of the spring ends fear as promises in sky and flame forecast.
For Mithra's birthday, god of light, the sun, the solstice birthing, I slew heretics.
Assuming my salvation surely won,
I hailed Invictus well with oil-soaked wicks.

Now Constantine says Christ is why we fight, 
not just those we were, who called Sol true god, 
but if some cherish creeds that are not right
though Christian, we must kill them, sword or rod.
   This Christmas I've made holy with my knife.
   This reign, this new religion, is my life.

Vern Barnet convenes the Kansas City Interfaith Council, teaches world religions and writes the Wednesday "Faiths and Beliefs" column for The Kansas City Star. His articles, poems and reviews have been published in many journals. He lives in Kansas City.

The Catholic Key -- Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City - St Joseph

Diversity task force is called together
by county exec's office

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter

KANSAS CITY - In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, increasing numbers of incidents of religious intolerance, especially against Arab-Americans, were reported across the nation. Locally, 14 incidents of intolerance were recorded in the first six weeks, according to the Kansas City Missouri Human Relations Department's bias crime records.

Many incidents went undocumented for fear of reprisals or a perception of nonsupport for further investigation, said Ken Evans, Jackson County Executive Katheryn Shield's public information officer.

To help combat future occurrences of bias crimes in Kansas City, Shields assembled a task force to examine issues of diversity, religious discrimination and hate crimes in the area. The 12-member task force was introduced at a press conference on Feb. 14, 2002, and asked to make its report to Shield's office by Sept. 10, 2002.

Members of the task force came from many different religious and social backgrounds. Chaired by the Rev. Vern Barnet of the Kansas City Interfaith Council, the group included representatives of the Buddhist, Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Sikh and Jewish faith traditions and members of the Hispanic, African-American, and Gay and Lesbian communities. Diane Herschberger of Kansas City Harmony and Dick Kurtenbach of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri were also members.

Task force member George Noonan, chancellor of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, said the history of the diverse backgrounds of Catholics underscored the importance of learning about and accepting other faith and culture traditions. "Catholics have experienced prejudice themselves in the past; the anti-Irish bias in the 19th century is one example. We, as Catholics, need to encourage acceptance of diversity in Kansas City."

Three of the task force's meetings were designated as public listening sessions - at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, at the Islamic Center of Greater Kansas City and at the Antioch Branch of the Johnson County (Kansas) Library. A Web site was established in April to further enable public comment on issues of religious intolerance and bias crime.

The group met with Michael Tabman of the Federal Bureau of Investigation several times to discuss the Patriot Act and proposed national homeland security measures in relation to Kansas City.

The task force presented its findings and recommendations to Shields on Sept. 10. They confirmed that intolerance does exist in the Kansas City area and identified educational resources that are accessible to religious institutions, businesses and non-profit organizations, governmental agencies, the media and residents.

The task force called for three preventive actions: a crisis response plan, a public education plan, and a tolerance monitoring plan.

A crisis response plan would help ensure the safety and protect the civil and religious liberties of vulnerable ethnic and religious minority communities in the event of further terrorist activity at the local or national level.

Barnet, the task force chair, said the implementation of a response plan is a way of managing potential crises. The first step in its implementation would be the creation of a catalog of the religious institutions and educational facilities most vulnerable to harassment and violence.

Other steps include creating directories of contact persons within those institutions to facilitate communication between law enforcement and government bodies and the religious institutions in the event of harassment or violence.

Barnet said the group recommended the involvement of the Mid-America Regional Council in tailoring national homeland security efforts to fit the needs of a Midwestern region. "Kansas City has different security concerns than a coastal city like New York or Los Angeles. We need to be ready, but not paranoid," he said.

A public education plan is the second recommendation of the diversity task force. Barnet said he expects to meet with Katheryn Shields early in 2003 to discuss the creation of a community education program about religious and cultural traditions to improve communication and appreciation of the traditions. The program would be targeted at non-profit organizations, the arts and education communities, and the media to promote tolerance.

Some of the steps suggested to implement the education recommendation include governments and law enforcement agencies declaring municipalities as "Hate Free Zones," and providing law enforcement officials with pocket-sized cards developed by the Anti-defamation League to help them determine if a bias crime occurred.

Finally, the task force proposed a tolerance monitoring plan as a way of "monitoring the state of tolerance in the greater Kansas City area."

One step in implementing such a plan would be the creation and dissemination of an annual report card on the state of tolerance in the area. Barnet said this would begin with a one-year study of religious and cultural traditions with law enforcement officials, the arts and education communities and media representatives.

Noonan and Barnet both said they were pleased with the report of the task force and hoped Shields's office would follow up on their recommendations.

Shields agreed to act on the task force's recommendations. "I have met with the [task force] members and agreed that we would proceed with the annual report card part of the proposal. I have also agreed to additional meetings with law enforcement, religious leaders, and emergency preparedness officials to discuss a crisis plan. We will be meeting with others in the education and arts community about the need to create a greater community awareness about bias," Shields said.

Barnet said he hoped to see visible signs that the task force recommendations were being implemented by Sept. 11, 2003.

photo courtesy of Ken Evans
Members of the Diversity Task Force. Back row: Rabbi Joshua Taub, Dick Kurtenbach, Rev. Roger Kube, George Noonan, Thomas Poe, and Lama Chuck Stanford. Front row: Sayed Hasan, Diane Hershberger, Katheryn Shields, Rita Valenciano & Rev. Vern Barnet.

433. 021218 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Honor Christmas with Peace

While others are welcome to eavesdrop, this column is directed to Christian parents.
   Do not celebrate the birthday of the Prince of Peace by giving your children video games where characters attack, maim, or kill each other. Toys of violence model future behavior in your children and in society. Movies that depend on violence are unworthy of Christmas. While it is difficult to reconcile such entertainment with any faith, especially at this season, Christians should be watchful about the values they exemplify and instill in youngsters.
   Do not lie to your children about Santa Claus. Yes, tell them Santa is coming. Set out a cup of chocolate milk and a cookie for his midnight appearance. But tell them that at your house you play Santa, and that parents and others play Santa because bringing joy to children brings joy to adults. As your children grow, help them understand that Santa is a role, not a person. Santa is a character in a custom, and different actors play the part in their own private performances.
   Do teach them about Incarnation. In the Christian faith, the birth of the Christ child celebrates the miracle of incarnation, infinite God becoming finite human flesh.
   Just as America at least partly embodies hopes for the ideals of freedom and justice, as Martin Luther King Jr. incarnated the dream of equality under law, and as the birth of each child should evoke hopes for the future, so for Christians, Jesus is the manifestation of God's perfect love.
   The Romans were used to the idea that humans could become gods -- they made Caesar a god by legislation in the senate. But it was hard for them to believe that God would choose to leave the realm of perfection, become human, and take upon himself the troubles and limitations of this world. Suffering on behalf of others is still hard to understand. That is one reason Christmas can be called a miracle.

The Kansas City Star Dec 16, 2002, page B-1
Peace society awards

A multicultural crowd of more than 250 attended the Crescent Peace Society's 2002 Eid dinner Saturday to help the Muslim community celebrate the end of the holy month Ramadan.
     The society was founded in 1996 to enhance the understanding of Muslim culture through educational and cultural activities.
     Three persons were honored, including Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes who received the society's Peace Award.
     Vern Barnet, minister in residence at the Center for Religious Experience and Study, a Kansas City educational and inter-religious organization, received the Community Award.
     Lewis Diuguid, vice president of Community Resources for The Kansas City Star received the Journalism Award.
     Also honored was Elizabeth Alex, NBC 41 news anchor who, while on assignment in the Middle East this spring, met a young girl in the Gaza Strip who needed surgery.
     Alex worked with local authorities and the medical community to secure the necessary services in Kansas City and young Doa Aldalou and her family returned home in November after successful surgery.
                                                                      -- Jennifer Mann/The Star

432. 021211 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Learning to walk on a 'Journey of Faith'

We rejoice at a baby's first steps, awkward though they may be. Tonight at 8, KCPT broadcasts a two-hour special about baby steps in the journey of understanding between Christians and Jews. These steps have their slips and falls, but the effort lifts the heart.
   "Jews and Christians: A Journey of Faith"' is based on Marvin R. Wilson's book, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith. Interviews with scholars and ordinary people, and encounters between Jews and Christians, encourage others who are still in the crawling stage.
   The steps can be difficult. Why are most Christians unaware of the glorious developments in Judaism since Biblical times? Why, if the Lord's prayer summarizes the Jewish tradition, do Jews decline to say it? Three-quarters of Christian scripture is Jewish, but how can Jews and Christians understand it so differently? Do most Christians realize the significance of the fact that Jesus was Jewish? Why is it essential for Christians today to deal with the horrors of past Christian anti-Semitism?
   What are we to make of the parallels of Moses bringing the law from Mt Sinai and Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount? or of Abraham ready to sacrifice his son Isaac and God the Father sacrificing his son Jesus?
   Missteps are few. The program fails to recognize that Christianity developed as much or more from pagan sources as well as Jewish roots, and that Islam and Judaism are more alike than Judaism and Christianity. But next Wednesday KCPT airs "Muhammad."
   The big step in interfaith understanding is what Krister Stendhal in the program calls "holy envy -- the other faith has something beautiful that tells you about God, but "it ain't yours." It's different, not to be incorporated, not to become "cut flowers in our own garden," but rather a reason to give thanks for the diversity of God's revelation.

431. 021204 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Ramadan stories tell of grace and grit

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims are required during daylight hours to refrain from eating, drinking and sexual relations. Here are two Ramadan stories of grace, one recent, one ancient.
   An area school librarian writes that during lunch time, "a seventh grade Muslim girl has been in the library fasting. Five non-Muslim friends are taking turns coming to the library to sit with her so she isn't alone at lunch. They are taking turns each day so they only miss lunch one day a week. I told them they could bring a snack and eat it quickly in my office but they declined. We can learn a lot from kids."
   This is a paraphrase of Ibn Majah's traditional story #1671, elaborated elsewhere.
   A distressed man came to the prophet Muhammad. "I am undone!" he said. The prophet asked, "What has so upset you?"  The man said, "I violated Ramadan because I wanted my wife."
   To compensate for the violation, the prophet instructed him, "Buy a slave and free him." (Muhammad often recommended this compensation as a way of ending the slavery of his era.)
   But the man said he could not afford this. Then the prophet asked him to fast two months continuously. The man said he could not handle this, either. The prophet said, "Feed sixty needy people." The man again said this would be impossible for him to do.
   As they were talking, a container of food arrived. The prophet said, "Give this food as a charity." The man responded, "O prophet of God, I swear by the one who sent you with the truth, no family is more needy than mine." The prophet said, "Go and feed your family." So he left to feed his own children.
   The first story shows the grace non-Muslim children have developed in respecting a person whose religious practice is not normally their own. The second story shows the grace of Muhammad in finding a compensation to fit the situation--the penalty becomes a gift.

430. 021127 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Thanksgiving celebrates an interfaith American creed

That early American Thanksgiving in 1621 was an interfaith affair, Indians and Pilgrims together. It was a fitting if unintended introduction to the astonishing claim Americans made in 1776, declaring Independence, that "all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
   When Jefferson penned these words, "happiness" was understood not so much a private matter as the capacity to influence public life. His words--our words--have become a public creed. This creed, cited by Lincoln, and more recently named as such by Martin Luther King Jr, has guided the process by which African-Americans, women and others are becoming full participants in the American promise.
   From the Pilgrims to 9/11, no book tells this story with greater urgency and simplicity than The American Creed: A Spiritual and Patriotic Primer by Forrest Church, published a few months ago. In 150 pages, spread before the reader is the sweep and meaning of America as a spiritual experiment, often flawed but full of redemption. It is a drama in which we now act, and it is our duty to shape its future.
   As the horror of  9/11 unfolded, we paradoxically glimpsed a world of faithfulness to one another. The spirit of service brought a chastened "happiness" from doing even a tiny thing to help others, as we contemplated how from many, we are one. We thus realized anew our nation's first motto, e pluribus unum. This vision is too precious to forget.
   Church calls Thanksgiving "our most distinctive national holiday." Our perspective today is more inclusive than the Pilgrims' theology, but their risky adventure of faith is still transmitted to our tables of gratitude.
   This holiday is both intimate and public, about today and about history. But most of all, it is a feast of faith, a celebration of the American creed.

429. 021120 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Share a story and cross the dividing lines

In 1996, Pam Peck visited Turkey. She met a group of Muslim women carrying elegant dresses over their arms as they boarded a bus for an embassy reception that evening which Pam was also to attend. Pam confided to one that she was unprepared for the affair and would be wearing the one casual skirt she'd packed. When Pam next saw the Muslim women, none were wearing their party dresses. They wore skirts and blouses like hers.
   Sharing stories is a simple way to respond to complex global religious divisions. Recalling even a simple story may nurture a community of understanding.
   In Kansas City people of all faiths are telling stories. Hindus and Roman Catholics talk about the toughest thing they ever had to do. Buddhists and Muslims share the best and the most painful things that ever happened to them. Protestants and Wiccans discuss how they got faith and (perhaps) how they lost it. Sikhs and Unitarians reveal what they do for fun. Jews and Zoroastrians recount the most amazing thing that ever happened to them.
   Local citizens calling themselves "Mosaic" believe the power in people's stories can lead us to appreciate each other's faiths. That's why they initiated the Mosaic Life Stories Project. Coordinator Donna Ziegenhorn says, "Our stories tell who we are, what's important to us, how we survive and find meaning day to day. These experiences offer an authentic connecting point for individuals from all the religious traditions practiced in Kansas City."
   Through mid-December, Mosaic volunteers are listening to such stories. After stories are  transcribed, the material will be scripted for a performance.
   If you are willing to be interviewed or would like to write your own story, contact Donna,, for more information. Your story may inspire others.

eKC November 14, 2002 page 6

COMMENTARY by Deborah Young
KC hasn't escaped 9/11 backlash (or faced it)

Assaults, racial slurs and threatening phone calls and letters have thrust he weight of 9/11 on members of Kansas City’s Muslim community just like they’ve burdened Muslims (and other people who “look Middle Eastern”) in other U.S. cities. But we don’t hear much about it on the airwaves here or read much about it in The Kansas City Star.

One reason for the silence is fear, which gags many hate-crime victims.

Shortly after 9/11, Jackson County Executive Katheryn Shields received reports of harassment and violence against members of certain ethnic groups. In response to public concerns about such incidents, she assembled a multicultural task force to investigate the post-9/11 experiences of some ethnic groups and to provide recommendations about how local agencies can protect those communities.

The Jackson County Diversity Task Force recently released its report. The report includes summaries of comments made during a public meeting the task force held in August. One Muslim man said he’d received five threatening postcards between Sept. 11 and mid-July.

One of the postcards included a signature and this rant: “America doesn’t want you. Get out! Get out now! Take your lies and print them someplace else. Try the Murdock Sound. But get out of the USA.” Other notes characterized Muslims as unclean, stupid and hateful. Another man said he knows lots of KC area Muslims who’ve been harassed and threatened on jobs, at schools and as they traveled. He said the victims don’t file reports because they don’t think it’ll help them.

Syed Hasan, a UIMKC professor and Muslim who served on the Jackson County Task Force, said it’s the victim’s choice to file a report. The community can only educate people about how to file reports and about why reporting crimes is important. . . .

428. 021113 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Life of the spirit can be an adventure

The life of faith can be an adventure, where we set off in new directions, make friends in unlikely places, pass through trials and sorrows, gain wisdom and sense the sacred so deeply and pervasively we hesitate to put it into words. Whether it is Jesus surprising his family by leaving the carpenter's bench or the Buddha-to-be renouncing his right to his father's throne, the stories of the world's religions intrigue us when we see them less as a set script and more as an exploration on behalf of others who are, like us, caught in the web of finitude.
   Both Moses and Muhammad were reluctant recipients of divine commissions because they sensed their own limits compared with the inexpressible Majesty calling them. Yet they surrendered to the adventure set before them, and we now speak their names with respect.
   Lincoln, Gandhi, King and Mandela likewise were called into service precisely because they were open to sense an awesome Power working through history toward justice.
   But for others, the life of faith is not so much an open adventure as it is simply following instructions. More important than awe and duty are absolute belief and compliance. An open adventure is less appealing than an established strategy for gain.
   Yet St Paul spoke of our knowing "through a glass darkly." Plato's cave suggests we see but shadows of reality. Hindus sometimes call the world of our ordinary perceptions "maya," an illusion in which we are confined.
   This suggests it is wise to be modest about our opinions. But this modesty is not the style of those who claim their answers must be ours. What if religion is less about certitude but more about confidence, not so much about creeds as about commitment to serve others? Is the life of the spirit more like an adventure or an accommodation?

427. 021106 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Wheel spokes closer toward center

Patricia Lynn Morrison was one of the adults at Rockhurst High School Oct 22 when students of Amnesty International there joined with Christians, Jews and Muslims from other high schools. Adults--their teachers, parents, guests--and the students, in separate groups, spent the evening sharing information about their traditions, breaking down stereotypes and hoping to better understand their commonalities and differences.
   Morrison, managing editor of  The National Catholic Reporter, an independent newsweekly based in Kansas City, reflected on a Buddhist speaker she heard at the 1993 Chicago Parliament of World Religions.
   "The parliament’s logo was a wheel," Morrison said, "and the Buddhist thought of the wheel as a symbol for the spiritual journey."
   "All of us, he said, are like the spokes of the wheel. At the beginning of our journey, at the rim, we are not much invested in our own religious tradition or practice. We are far from the hub or center, as we are far from God, or whatever name one might use for  Ultimate Reality."
   "We are, like the spokes at the rim, also far from each other. But as we move deeper in our quest and closer toward God at the center, spokes also come closer together, and we become closer to one another."
   Describing the Rockhurst meeting, Morrison said, "We were Christians of several traditions, Muslims born here and elsewhere, American-born Jews and two Israeli soldiers. We began by talking about our religion; we ended talking about the need for peace. It was just a small step, two hours of a fall evening out of 365 busy days. But what a powerful first step. I could sense those spokes of the great wheel getting a little bit closer."

The Catholic Key, Nov 1, 2002
Round table forum gives teens
a chance to talk about faith
By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
Marty Denzer/Key photo: Students from Notre Dame de Sion High School, Rockhurst High School, The Islamic School of Kansas City and Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy exchange ideas on faith at the round table forum at Rockhurst on Oct. 22.

KANSAS CITY - They wore baseball caps, yarmulkes, amira and crocheted topi, and their ideas were as varied as their hats.

Students from Rockhurst High School, Notre Dame de Sion High School, the Islamic School of Kansas City, Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy and St. Teresa's Academy gathered at Rockhurst on Oct. 22 to exchange thoughts and concerns about religion in the 21st century.

Hosted by the Rockhurst chapter of Amnesty International, the round table "conversations" were the brain child of theology teacher, Sean Agniel.

According to senior Ben Summers, president of Rockhurst's Amnesty chapter, the idea of a gathering of young people from different faith traditions came up "out of the blue" during a discussion on security measures implemented by the U.S. government. Originally the intended topics of the gathering were: the post-Sept. 11 world, possible threats to civil liberties and other domestic issues. But as the students discussed the proposed gathering, "Mr. Agniel commented that there had been little or no dialogue between Christians, Jews and Muslims recently. We moved quickly away from politics and decided it would be an opportunity to share our thoughts and our opinions on our faith traditions with other young people."

They came in pairs and groups, a few hesitant, most nonchalant. About 35 teenagers, all members or guests of their schools' Amnesty chapters, crowded around tables in the Rockhurst High School cafeteria, ready to talk and listen.

After the ice breakers and the formalities, the teenagers gathered in quiet groups of their own faith traditions to discuss likes and concerns about their faith and what misconceptions others might have about their tradition.

Then they regrouped, mixing Catholic, Jewish and Muslim for interreligious conversation.

The adults - teachers, three Israelis, members of the Kansas City Interfaith Council and a parent or two - went to another room for similar discussions.

With the adults gone, the students seemed to feel freer to talk.

"We can't blame our religion or 'their' religion for human failures. It's up to us to carry out what our religion teaches us."

"Judaism is pluralistic. It fosters a strong love of community." "Catholics have big families, right?"

"Muslims try to live a good life. We pray five times a day at specific times. Sometimes it's hard to get up at 6 a.m. for the first prayer, but I have to try."

"Christianity has adapted over the years and our values of love, unity, respect and peace help us get along with people of many different faiths."

"The situation in Israel and Palestine is like trouble in someone else's family. You want to help, but you can't."

"We're human. We make mistakes."

"We're all trying to reach the same goal, heaven. We're all fundamentally the same."

"It's different learning about another religion from a textbook than from someone who lives it."

Agniel said he had asked the Rev. Vern Barnet, convener of the Kansas City Interfaith Council, for advice on how to proceed with an interreligious dialogue. Barnet and George Noonan, diocesan ecumenical officer and member of the Interfaith Council, attended the gathering.

"Basically it was to show support for youth, Noonan said. "We need to promote ecumenical things happening at the grass roots level, like this event."

Barnet handed each participant an interfaith passport. The concept of the interfaith passport originated at the October 2001 "Gifts of Pluralism Conference." The conference was a two-day dialogue and discussion between representatives of Kansas City's 15 religious traditions, from American Indian to Zoroastrianism. The passport is intended to encourage interfaith activities and participation.

Barnet told the young people that he was glad they had come to the round table conversations.

"Schools should connect more," he said.

"Visas" may be issued by any organization welcoming interfaith exchange and placed on the appropriate passport page as evidence of attendance or participation in an interfaith event. There are pages for each faith tradition in Kansas City and three interfaith activities pages. A "visa" sticker was handed out to be applied to an interfaith activities page.

Rockhurst senior E.E. Keenan, vice-president of the Amnesty chapter, concluded the conversations with a Muslim/Jewish/Christian prayer for peace.

Andrew Perry, also a senior at Rockhurst, said he gained a lot of respect for other traditions by simply talking to the other teenagers. He liked the fact that Muslims respected their religious leaders.

"Teenagers from other faith traditions are just like me in many ways," Perry said.

"The round table showed me that the youth of Kansas City are willing to listen to each other's views. There was no prejudice."

Summers said the students exchanged e-mail addresses and planned to stay in touch.

Agniel said the round table conversations were just the beginning.

"It was a chance to get to know each other as human beings, not discuss deep theological issues. We hope to meet again in the spring, maybe progress to doing a project together, and eventually pray together."

©2001 The Catholic Key - 816-756-1850
P.O. Box 419037, Kansas City, MO 64141-6037

426. 021030 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Interfaith efforts recognize kinship

This is a difficult time for all of us, and particularly for Jewish and Muslim communities. When we feel threatened, it is hard for us to reach out with neighborly trust.
   An mild example of the difficulty appeared on the CBS program "Open Hearts Open Minds," broadcast earlier this month. The network special focused on Kansas City's interfaith responses to terrorism.
   While the officials at the Islamic Center of Greater Kansas City extended extraordinary hospitality to the Jackson County Diversity Task Force during a fact-finding session there, one member of the mosque, Abdullah Bayazid said, "The people of the Islamic Center don't welcome interfaith (efforts)."
   Within any emerging community, especially sub-communities of immigrants, a tension naturally exists between integrating with society and separation from it. Even now the well-established Jewish community strongly discourages interfaith marriage.
   The program also shows Sulaiman Salaam and others of Al-Inshirah Islamic Center participating with St Monica Catholic Church and Congregation Beth Torah in a gathering sponsored by Harmony called Congregational Partners. He cites the Qur'an conveying God's plan in making different peoples, "not to despise each other, but to get to know each other."
   Of course no one need feel threatened by interfaith work. Its aim is neither to convert nor to merge, but to recognize our kinship and to learn from one another the paths of peace.
   Just as conversation is taking place within the Muslim community about this, so the Kansas City Jewish community exhibits the tension between garnering support for Israel on one hand and reaching out beyond political agendas to embrace those of every faith as we recognize the mysterious Power bringing us into being with one another.

425. 021023 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Where there's a Wills, there's a critique of Catholicism

Garry Wills, author of Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, calmly and methodically attacked the notion that the practices of the Roman Catholic Church are changeless. Wills spoke last week at Rockhurst University to a crowd so large the venue had to be changed.
   Analyzing the histories of the prohibition of meat on Fridays, the Latin mass, clerical celibacy, and the male priesthood, Wills argued that each of these customs arose in response to the secular world at the time and are not essential to the Catholic faith.
   The mass, for example, was originally in Greek, the language of the New Testament. But as Christianity developed, Latin, then the vernacular in the West, came to be used. What began as convenience became a rigid requirement until Vatican II.
   Wills says the Rosary and is active in his own parish. He responded to the critics of his book with a sequel, Why I am a Catholic.The "great truths of salvation" found in the creed compel him both to criticize and support the Church he loves.
   Wills, winner of the Pulitzer and many other prizes, is a historian whose 20 books include works on Washington and Lincoln as well as Augustine and other religious topics.
   Augustine (354-430), who helped develop the "just war" theory in Christianity, was his reference point when I asked him about Iraq.
   One feature of the theory prohibits aggression. Iraq poses no immediate threat to us, Wills said, and its secular government at odds with the Kurds who are far more friendlier to al Quida than Iraq is.
   "People have threatened to kill me, and some of the threats are serious," he said. "But I cannot take action against them until they actually show intent to come after me."

424. 021016 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Words get to the roots of spiritual mysteries

Ignition, yoke, video--what do these three terms have in common with Hinduism or its sacred language, Sanskrit?
   Although modern English developed thousands of years after Sanskrit, both tongues, along with Greek and Latin, belong to a group of languages called Indo-European. The similarities of some terms can be instructive.
   English words relating to fire--igneous, igite, ignition--derive from the Latin word ignis, related to the Sanskrit agnis,fire. Agni was the second most important god in ancient India. His job was to convey sacrifices to the gods in the sky by transforming the offerings into ascending smoke.
   Fire makes dangerous raw meat edible, keeps animals at a distance, provides light in darkness. Almost every faith uses flames in sacred ways, and even secular birthday parties often involve lit candles in celebration. The domestication of fire was an enormous step in early civilization. Because of its beauty and its danger, it is still appropriate to respect it.
   The many forms of yoga in Hinduism all seek to bring the practicioner into union with the Supreme Reality. It is easy to see how the Enlish word "yoke" is related, but less obvious are words like "join," "conjugal" and "zygote." Bringing things together is a theme found in Jewish mysticism, American Indian ritual and many other religious paths.
   The word "video" entered our language in 1930, but its relatives--evidence, view, advice--like the Sanskrit vidya, remind us that seeing can be believing. The name of the earliest Hindu scriptures, from the same stem, the Vedas, means sacred knowledge.
   Ordinary words can lead us into contemplating spiritual mysteries.

The Kansas City Star Oct 21, 2002 Letters to the Editor

Root out prejudice

     America is rooted in religious pluralism. Religious prejudice is more than silly; it is dangerous to our community and our nation. When American religious leaders perpetuate misunderstanding and promote bigotry, we are all shamed. Therefore, we must express our deep regret over recent inaccurate and divisive remarks by religious leaders Franklin Graham calling Islam a "wicked religion" and Jerry Falwell characterizing Muhammad as a "terrorist."
     When one faith is attacked, all faiths are jeopardized. We work for a community and a nation celebrating its religious diversity. For over a decade, from 13 different faiths, the members of the Kansas City Interfaith Council have worked together in mutual regard and respect. We urge all to replace prejudice with understanding. Our differences are blessings, and the spirit of kinship unites us all together.
      Rev. David E. Nelson, chairman  (and all thirteen members of the Kansas City Interfaith Council)

[Kara Hawkins (American Indian), Simeon Kohlman Rabbani (Baha'i), Lama Chuck Stanford (Buddhist), the Rev Wallace Hartsfield (Christian-Protestant), Father Pat Rush (Christian-Roman Catholic), Rabbi Joshua Taub (Jewish), Anand Bhattacharyya (Hindu), A Rauf Mir, MD (Muslim), Karta Purkh Sign Khalsa (Sikh), Ali Kadr (Sufi), the Rev Kathy Riegelman (Unitarian Universalist), Mike Nichols (Wiccan), Daryoush Jahanian, MD (Zoroastrian), the Rev David E Nelson (chairman), the Rev Vern Barnet (convener), October 9, 2002]

423. 021009 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Community flows together with ritual

For some, ritual is boring, meaningless rote. It speaks nothing. But St Mark's Catholic Church liturgist Susan Walker, with her interfaith ritual team, planned to observe the anniversary of Sept. 11 by using something as ordinary as water to speak the best of America.
   Waters from fountains all over the metro region and from dozens of rivers of the world had been poured into the pool at Ilus Davis Park that morning. A vessel of the mingled waters was taken to the Community of Christ Auditorium for the evening event.
   For Walker, water as an interfaith symbol speaks of cleansing, renewal, rebirth, and refreshment. But it also recalls the countless people who found ways to respond to the tragedy, including the emergency workers. It evokes memories of frontier America: if the barn caught fire, the entire community came out, formed a bucket brigade from the nearest water source, and did their part to put out the fire.
   The fountain on the rostrum was silent until Independence Mayor Ron Stewart and Raytown Mayor Sue Frank received buckets of water being passed the entire length of the north aisle, hand to hand, by more than 50 uniformed police officers, fire fighters, emergency medical personnel and others. As the fountain filled, the water began speaking, circulating and spilling from an upper basin to the larger lower pool.
   With the physical act of handing off buckets, the brigade volunteers became members of each other, and those who were witnesses gazed deeper into the best of humanity, and found comfort and consolation.
   Ritual can speak to us as words cannot. A simple action like handing a bucket of water to another person, deepening community, helped us face a tragedy that is unspeakable.

422. 021002 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
The Japanese boys of summer play a gracious game

Now that we're into the baseball season, I asked Dan Johnson, who is writing a history of the sport in Japan where he lived for 1 1/2 years, to tell us about its relation to religion there. He says:
    Japanese baseball stars such as Ichiro and Kazuhiro Sasaki only now are becoming household names here, though the sport there dates back to 1873, when U.S. enthusiasts introduced it to Japanese youth. Religion and culture, with their emphasis on hard work and sacrifice for the greater whole, greatly affects the sport.
    In the spring Japanese teams typically visit Shinto shrines so that they can receive blessings for the upcoming season. Some players, including Hall of Famer Tetsuharu Kawakami and former pitching ace Choji Murata, often frequented Zen temples.
    When their clubs were not performing well, Kawakami and other managers have often taken kyuyo, extended breaks, during the season, to meditate on their performance and be refreshed.
    Traditionally, Japanese players have shown what might seem to Americans unusual politeness toward each other. Pitchers often bowed to fielders who made nice fielding plays, and base runners rarely bowled over infielders attempting to execute double plays. Though Japanese baseball has recently become more aggressive, it generally remains a gentle game--stuffed-animal prizes await players who hit home runs. When I interviewed Mike Sweeney of the Royals after his participation in the 2000 all-star tour of Japan, he also remarked about the graciousness of the hosts.
    The teams there all have a great fan base. In that spirit, since I now live here, I say: Go Royals!

421. 020925 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Asian teachings reveal meaning of duty

In a troubled world, we crave an island of peace. We want to do no harm, but our first concern is to not be harmed ourselves.
   A problem arises when seeking our own safety leads to the destruction of others. Focus on ourselves makes it hard to see others.
   Religions pull us into a larger context. But religion is perverted when partisan desires are claimed in the name of faith. Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was killed by a fellow Jew, Gandhi was murdered by a fellow Hindu, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was killed by a fellow Muslim, Christians killing Christians persists in Ireland.
   To avoid such partisanship, religion's offer of personal peace may be best when it teaches duty to the world. Duty was once a sturdy American value. Nowadays we may need to study the Asian teaching of dharmato recover the meaning of duty for us.
   Dharma is a rich and complex concept, but it involves a sense of peace and order even in the midst of turbulence when one knows one is doing the right thing.
   The calm evident in teachers like the Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh is remarkable because they have been immersed in the horrors of history--in Hanh's case, the Vietnam war. Such teachers, engaged in the world, have converted their own suffering into compassion for others. Seeing that nothing happens without cause is a key to such transformation.
   Minh Tran, a distinguished student of Hahn, himself a remarkable teacher, visits Conception Abbey, the Benedictine monastery 90 miles north of Kansas City, Nov. 1-3,  to lead a retreat, "Lotus in a Sea of Fire." You can learn about it from the Community of Mindful Living, a Kansas City Buddhist group sponsoring him, by calling (816) 333-3043.

The University News - Forum -- Issue: 09/23/02

Kansas City has religious bias
By Vern Barnett

 Kansas Citians may be tempted to congratulate themselves for refusing to be taken in by anti-Muslim prejudice.

It was a Georgia woman who caused severe traffic problems on Interstate 75 in Florida earlier this month when her suspicions led to a search for cars driven by three young men she suspected were planning a terrorist attack. Some reports suggest that they were not plotting to "bring down" buildings, but to "bring
 down" a car for the students to use. It was the officials in Florida who handcuffed the men, medical students, held a gun to the head of one, ripped open the cars in a search for evidence,
 damaged and destroyed clothing, medical equipment and laptop computers. It is a Miami hospital that, because of 200 anti-Muslim e-mails it has received, revoked the welcome it had previously given to the students to continue their studies there. During their 17 hours of detention, they were not allowed to use a restroom.

 So the bad stuff happened elsewhere.

 We may be tempted to think well of ourselves here because one of the students, Omer Choudhary, 23, has received strong support from those who know him and his Kansas City family.

 But we must not think all is well in the heartland.

 The Jackson County Diversity Task Force, which submitted its 77-page report on Sept. 10 after a seven-month study of the metro area, shows that Kansas City has a big-time religious bias.

 My weekly column in The Kansas City Star celebrates the diverse faiths in our land. It often elicits responses which might charitably called "unenlightened." However, I was not prepared for the level and intensity of recent attacks on American citizens who are Muslims. One caller said we must kill the Muslims before they kill us. A Kansas City leader told me face to face that he wanted to meet a Muslim who did not want to kill him. Of the 20,000 Muslims here, I would like to introduce him to 20,000.

 In addition to fears some people have of those who are "different," anti-Muslim prejudice is fueled by religious bigotry and political perspectives. Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son and successor, calls Islam an "evil religion" and claims that Muslims do not worship the same god as Christians. Those who wish to see how Kansas Citians have been affected by this blatant bigotry can read the summary in the report from the fact-finding session we held at the Islamic Center and survey the "creative" thinking of my correspondents on this issue at

 The political dimension arises when, despite repeated condemnations of all terrorism by prominent Muslim leaders here and elsewhere, a segment of the community with a political agenda persists in repeating that no such denunciations have been made and focuses instead on extremist statements.

 The Task Force developed three detailed recommendations: a crisis response plan, a public education plan, and a tolerance monitoring plan. The report is available at


 Vern Barnet is a religious leader and active community member in Kansas City. His organization, CRES (the Center for Religious Education and Study), has succeeded in promoting understanding among people of all faiths. Barnet has worked tirelessly to make Kansas City a religiously safe environment for people of all faiths.

2002 September 20 By Marty Denzer, Catholic Key Reporter

Interfaith ceremony brings together memories and hope

KANSAS CITY - In many faith traditions the image of water is symbolic of  tears, cleansing, renewal and refreshment, which is why the Sept. 11 services sponsored by the Kansas City Interfaith Council centered around water.

During the 7 a.m. ceremony at Ilus Davis Park, 10th and Oak Streets, members of the InterfaithCouncil poured water gathered from fountains all over the Kansas City metropolitan area into the park's pool. The mingled waters were joined with water from world's rivers -including the Ganges, the Rhine, the Nile and the Tiber - and blessed. The water was then collected to be used in individual ceremonies later that day.

As a part of the observance, over 200 representatives from all faiths present touched the mingled waters then turned to the person next to them and touched each others' eyes and cheeks, saying, "Your tears are my tears and your joy is my joy."

Then they bowed to one another as a sign of respect for each one's humanity.

Linda Zeorlin, associate director of the diocesan Peace and Justice office, told The Catholic Key that bowing to each other was a "profound emotional experience" for her.

"That's when it all came together. We're all human and we should acknowledge and respect that. We should pray that we can live together in peace," she said.

Mercy Sisters Jeanne Christenson, director of the diocesan Peace and Justice Office, and Donna Ryan, educational resources coordinator for the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, George Noonan, diocesan chancellor, and Clara Dina Hinojosa, of the diocesan Center for Pastoral Life and Ministry, were among the Interfaith Council participants.

At the conclusion of the water ceremony, participants processed to Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, carrying vessels of water, and waving flags and banners. Members of Pembroke Hill School's fifth grade chorus told The Key they were "confused and scared a year ago." Now they felt confused and sad, but not scared. Several adults around the children agreed that they also were not scared, but sad.

At Grace and Holy Trinity's Founders Hall, the interfaith observance continued. Bells began tolling all over the city at 7:48 a.m., the time when the first plane hit the World Trade Center, and continued for two minutes. The bells would toll regularly throughout the day all through the city.

Participants gathered on the lawn in front of the hall, and prayed . . . as the bells tolled, led by the Rev. Vern Barnet, convener of the Interfaith Council.

Inside Founders Hall, silence prevailed as people entered, taking a slip of paper upon which was printed the name of one of the more than 3,000 victims who died in the terrorist attacks. The names were also projected on a wall.

Participants were invited to step to the front of the room, read the name of the victim on their slip of paper, and then speak, pray or sing according to their faith tradition.

At the back of the room was a container filled with water from the pool at Ilus Davis Park. Nearby lay the vessels waiting to be filled and taken back to various faith groups for later observances: Brass jugs nestled next to glass and silver bowls, plain clay pots lay near a weatherbeaten cast iron cauldron, a brass horn and a conch shell.

Founders Hall and Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral remained open all day for prayer and reflection.

According to the Rev. Grant McMurray, president of the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints) in Independence, the morning's ceremonies were videotaped for use later that day.

At the Independence Ministerial Alliance services that evening, the videotape would be played to  create a visual link of the diversity in Jackson County. Water collected from the pool at Ilus Davis Park, and carried to Independence in the conch shell, was to be used during the evening services.

420. 020918 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Music and dance bring spirit to 9/11 ceremony

Several months ago, when the Kansas City Interfaith Council asked Mayor Kay Barnes for her suggestions for its 9/11 observances, her immediate response was "music."
    Martin Luther called music "the gift of God." As a theologian, he ranked music "next to theology." Although I do theology, I think there is more good music than there is good theology.
   Most of us may approach the ultimate more through the arts than through theology. In Hinduism, for example, the god Krishna is often portrayed as playing a flute, and the god Shiva is famous for his dancing.
   Accepting the Mayor's advice, the Council planned American Indian, Muslim, Christian, and Hindu music in its observances, as well as a profoundly moving offering by Jewish and Muslim children singing together a song which included Shalom and Salam, the Hebrew and Arabic words for "peace."
   Artists from the Kansas City Symphony and the Ballet enriched the day of remembrance and renewal. As the sun was rising, a brass ensemble with percussion played "Amazing Grace" at Ilus Davis Park. In the evening, a string quartet lifted the spirits with several numbers, including the "Adagio for Strings" by Samuel Barber, a work of such poignancy and resolution it seemed to epitomize the emotions of the past year.
   A dancer ended the observance with the "Kaddish," an intense expression of loss and mourning which so stunned the audience that it took a while before the audience was able to respond with its own intense applause.
   Pope Pius XII spoke of art "breaking through the narrow and tortuous enclosure of the finite... in providing a window on the infinite for his hungry soul."

Kansas City Jewish Chronicle September 13, 2002
By Anna Jaffe, Staff Writer

Interfaith in the Aftermath:
Jews Christians Muslims struggle
to deepen relations in post 9/11 world
Shannon White, a research associate for CBS News and a member of the clergy, said producers wanted to find a community where there was a broad range of interfaith activity - some of which was spurred on by the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

CBS looked at a number of communities that had interesting things going on, but ultimately settled on Kansas City because of the level of activity and the involvement of a wide variety of religious groups.

In August, a news crew visited the metropolitan area to conduct interviews and shoot footage of a number of activities, including an ongoing interfaith exchange involving Congregation Beth Torah, Al-Inshirah Islamic Center and St. Monica's Catholic Church.
"There was a real vibrancy in the story that came out of Kansas City that we wanted to follow," White said.

While CBS may be impressed with the level of interfaith activity in the metropolitan area, some local leaders seem far less confident that Kansas City is where it could or should be.

Diane Hershberger, executive director of Kansas City Harmony, said that Kansas City may be ahead of other communities in terms of interfaith relations, but the environment is still far from ideal.

"There was more going on here than anywhere else," Hershberger said. "That doesn't mean things are where we want them to be."

Some community leaders go so far as to say there's really very little substantive interfaith activity in Kansas City.

Rabbi Mark Levin, leader of Congregation Beth Torah, said activities such as the interfaith exchange that his congregation is participating in are a start. But he questions how widespread - and how deep -  these types of efforts are.

"People work together when they need to," Levin said. "But I'm not aware of any real exchange of views. And I'm not aware of any exchanges of pulpits."

Renewed energy?

Prior to Sept. 11, local groups such as Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee, Kansas City Harmony, the National Conference for Community and Justice and the Kansas City Interfaith Council were working to promote interfaith activities.

Marvin Szneler, executive director of the JCRB/AJC, said his organization is constantly trying to promote interfaith connections.

"We think it's important to have strong bridges of understanding with faiths and ethnic groups," Szneler said. "And we take advantage of every opportunity to do that."

Szneler said a lot of the interfaith effort involves building relationships and standing in coalition with other groups to support particular causes.

"That's how things get done," he said.

The JCRB/AJC's efforts range from small-scale activities - such as buying a table and attending the Catholic Bishop Boland Public Policy Summit Sept. 5 - to larger events - such as the pro-Israel rally in May, attended by over 2,000 people. The latter event was co-sponsored by Rockhurst University, First Baptist Church of Raytown, Paseo Baptist Church, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, St. James United Methodist Church, Christ Temple Church, Community Christian Church, Longview United Methodist Church and Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church.

Community leaders agree that the events of last September increased the need for interfaith dialogue. The terror attacks - perpetrated by the Islamist radicals of al-Queda - killed nearly 3,000 Americans, including Muslims, Christians, Jews.

"9/11 has emphasized to everyone our mutual vulnerability and the preciousness of life," said Rev. Tom Ford, executive director of Metropolitan Lutheran Ministry. "It's pointed us to the things that are most important in life. And it's created opportunities for religious discussion, cooperation and understanding that never existed before."

However, it is not clear that groups in Kansas City have seized these opportunities.

Rabbi Alan Cohen, leader of Congregation Beth Shalom and a member of the Metropolitan Lutheran Ministry board of directors, said he hasn't noticed a distinct change in interfaith relations since 9/11/01.

"If there's any change, it's the communication I've had with clergy of different faiths in which we've all expressed a greater need to know more about each other's beliefs," Cohen said. "That would be a way to build community."

So far, it's largely been talk, Cohen said.

Stepping up to the plate

Rev. Vern Barnet, founder and minister in residence of the Center for Religious Experience and Study, which, in turn, convenes the Kansas City Interfaith Council, said he has seen increased interfaith activity in the last year. He pointed to an estimated 65 percent increase in activities sponsored by CRES as evidence.

"While church attendance may have fallen back to the pre-9/11 levels, the interfaith interest has never been stronger, and I don't see it waning," Rev. Barnet said.

The problem is that CRES - while highly visible in the Kansas City area, in part through Rev. Barnet's column in The Kansas City Star  - represents only a small sector of the local faith community, which is made up of more than 1,600 congregations.

Hershberger of Kansas City Harmony said she has seen some positive momentum since 9/11. In particular, she said, members of the Muslim community have become more involved in the larger civic community and have taken extra steps to educate people about their faith.

"I think there's a net gain in interfaith dialogue and understanding," Hershberger said. "It's still not utopia. But it's heading in the right direction."

Mahnaz Shabbir is an example of a person stepping up to the plate.

Since 9/11, Shabbir, a Muslim of Indian descent, has become a one-woman public relations machine, giving interviews to news media and speaking to dozens of groups, including Jewish ones, across the city about her faith.

"What I've come to realize is that if you want to make a change, you have to start with yourself and go from there," Shabbir said.

Shabbir said she firmly believes in the words of Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, who said "We must be the change we wish to see in the world."

Complicated road

While interest in interfaith activities may be strong, it is often difficult to translate into concrete action.

Conflicting theologies, time constraints and politics often get in the way.

Rev. Ford said that, no matter how much improvement is made on the interfaith front, the situation will never be perfect. He said that the wide range of religious perspectives within Christianity is an impediment, in and of itself. Those on the theological far right believe that anyone who does not believe in Jesus is doomed to hell, while those on the far left believe God reveals himself to different people in different ways.

"I don't think there will ever be a uniform Christian belief in that arena," Rev. Ford said. And with degree of the divergence of beliefs, finding common ground for interfaith discussions is not easy, he said.

Lack of time is another obstacle.

Members of the clergy say they have a deep interest in interfaith relations. But the majority of their time is spent dealing with their first obligation - their own congregation.

This makes it difficult to sustain consistent, long-term activities, said Rabbi Levin of Beth Torah.

"There are not a lot of rabbis around," Rabbi Levin said. "Our time is spent with our congregations. I don't know that there's anyone who has the time to spend on this kind of thing. And there doesn't seem to be an enormous amount of lay support for it."

Rev. Ford said the normal, competing life interests are the greatest barriers to getting people involved. "People have so many things to do and so many excuses," he said.

And then there's the issue of the blurring of lines between religion and politics. Sometimes there is overlap, as is the case with the situation in Israel.

The Jewish community's relations with some Christians, especially evangelicals, have improved of late.

"The Israel issue has seemed to create a shared agenda," said Rabbi Cohen of Beth Shalom.

But it has also created rifts.

"The relationships that were close and positive before September 11 have been maintained and even strengthened in some cases," said Judy Hellman, special projects coordinator for the JCRB/AJC. "We're doing the best we can. We recognize the importance of maintaining relationships and we're trying to do that. But the situation in the Middle East has flavored who we work with and what we do."

The next level

So what needs to happen to move interfaith relations in the Kansas City area to a deeper level?

Hershberger said she hopes organizations will move beyond the focus of the past year - the ceremonies and memorials commemorating 9/11.

"I would like to see us find more ways to come together and talk about what we're experiencing," she said.

There already is interest in restarting the defunct Christian-Jewish-Muslim dialogue group, which had been active until a few years ago.

Hershberger said the creation of additional interfaith forums is a must. She said there needs to be a metro-wide group, representing as many of the local faith groups and congregations as possible, that promotes, discussion, education and problem solving.

Other community leaders agree.

 "It's that kind of communication, dialogue and programming that I think would be the greatest benefit for the future," Rabbi Cohen said.

Despite the challenges, Rev. Barnet said he is optimistic that the Kansas City community will continue to make strides in interfaith relations.

"People are inherently spiritual beings," he said. "Those who have tasted the deepening of their own faith by interfaith encounter are eager to encourage others to have the same kind of experience. This area is growing. And although the movement is slow, it's a real cause for hope."

419. 020911 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
We gather today to remember and to help each other heal

What are the reasons of the heart so many of us gather in ceremonies of faith today?
   We do not celebrate a victory over stealthy might. Osama bin Laden may still be loose and well-financed, and dangers from others seem to mount.
   We do not mark the end of a culture of selfishness. Executive greed and accounting corruption have cheated our dreams.
   We do not lead a world united toward freedom. Even allies question our directions.
   Yet the explosive heat of terrorism one year ago revealed the ordinary hero. Even as we discovered our vulnerability, Ground Zero showed how caring and generous we can be.
   We saw people from over 80 nations and many faiths enveloped in the day's fireballs. With greater understanding and compassion, we can now approach the suffering of others--the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the massacres in Tibet, the horrors of the Nazis, the decimation of the Native Americans, the abomination of slavery.
   We saw no god avert disaster. But beyond the betrayal by a few, we saw human duty entwined with love over and over again.
   We gather because we glimpsed a world of faithfulness to one another, and we will not let that inkling become ash. This vision is too precious to forget. So from every faith we congregate today with reverence and resolution, to remember and to renew.
   We know we have more work to do. Blessed with many traditions brought to this land, we know the best tribute to the fallen is to live and love in their memory, and build the kind of America we saw when we were tested most severely.
   We gather because to touch one another's wounds is to touch the Infinite, and heal.

National Catholic Reporter, September 6, 2002: 
September 11 --  A Year Later --  page 11

Interfaith ‘passport’ opens doors 
to a wider world

        Kansas City

 Once the smoke cleared from the tragic events of Sept. 11, many Americans came to realize that there was “collateral damage” far beyond what the nation first imagined. It took various names: racism, suspicion, religious intolerance, ignorance. As in cities around the country, religious leaders in Kansas City, Mo., quickly convened their congregations to provide interfaith services for the community, offering prayer and healing in the wake of the disaster. But they also knew that in the post-9/11 climate they needed to do even more.

 Hatred and intolerance -- and a terrible distortion of one religion’s beliefs -- had been a major force behind the death and destruction America had suffered. One effective antidote to the poison, the Kansas City religious community realized, would be a positive outreach to promote better understanding among the area’s faith traditions.

 The result of their planning is a tangible aid to achieving interfaith understanding: a “passport” -- more specifically the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Passport -- a 32-page document that’s the same size as the official U.S. document (minus the hefty fee). The catchy understanding-builder was a joint project of several groups active in interfaith and interracial efforts in the community, including the Kansas City Interfaith Council, Mosaic, CRES, Kansas City Harmony, and the Kansas City region of the National Conference for Community and Justice (formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews).

 The person who brought the passport from concept to reality was the Rev. Vern Barnet, a Unitarian Universalist minister who serves as minister-in-residence for CRES and writes a weekly religion column in The Kansas City Star titled “Faiths and Beliefs.”

 Barnet, a well-known figure on the Kansas City religious scene, has a lifelong passion for interreligious and ecumenical understanding. “We felt that one of the best ways to get people out of their denominational ‘boxes’ and comfort levels was to provide a resource that would encourage them to visit other faith traditions, to learn more about other religions,” he told NCR. “And from there, tolerance and understanding deepen, and appreciation and respect take root.”

 In addition to knowing little or nothing of religious traditions other than their own, many people have no incentive to visit another faith’s house of worship, Barnet said. Kansas City’s religious leaders felt they needed to build some bridges to get people moving beyond the familiar. For Barnet, the passport concept was a natural one to achieve that.

 “Just as travelers visit other cultures and countries, and come home with a stamped passport as proof of their expanded world, we thought an interfaith passport would do the same thing,” he said. And there are more than a dozen religious “lands” for the interested spiritual traveler in metropolitan Kansas City to visit, from A (American Indian spirituality) to Z (Zoroastrianism). In addition to the better-known religions like Buddhism, Christianity (with a category each for Orthodox, Protestant and Roman Catholic), Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, the passport also includes space to visit other traditions, from Jain and Sikh to Wicca, as well as interfaith activities and programs.

 Each of the participating traditions in the metro-politan area has agreed to offer a stamp, a self-stick “visa” or to sign the passport when a person or group visits. There’s also a bit of healthy entrepreneurial spirit at work: Those who accumulate at least one visa on 12 pages for specific faiths and at least five visas for interfaith activities will be honored at an awards dinner and get a discounted rate to attend the city’s 2003 interfaith conference.

 The interfaith passport was launched July 1, and Barnet said the first printing of 5,000 is almost sold out. The $2 cost covers just the printing, with a $5 donation asked to cover the booklet and postage if it’s mailed. In addition to orders from individuals, Barnet said several congregations have purchased quantities to give their members, encouraging them to “travel” to other faith “lands.”

 Besides the official pages where “visas” can be affixed, the passport contains information on all the faith communities that are members of the Kansas City Interfaith Council and their representatives. Also included is the declaration from the “Gifts of Pluralism” Conference that brought participants from the area’s faith traditions together a year ago and was the genesis for the passport.

 “This is a small step, certainly,” Barnet said, “but it’s a practical, tangible way for people to learn more, widen their perspective and embrace tolerance. We’re all journeying together, after all. Isn’t it a wonderful thing if we can widen the circle of our fellow travelers through respect and understanding?”

 To learn more about the interfaith passport or to obtain a copy, visit the CRES Web site at or e-mail:

418. 020904 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
It's time for the waters of transformation

Water, used for its spiritual significance in many faiths, is becoming a symbol of interfaith cooperation in our area. Drawing on the "City of Fountains" designation for Kansas City, the Interfaith Council plans a water ceremony to begin the metro-wide Sept. 11 anniversary observances.
   At Kansas City's first interfaith conference last fall, water was collected from 14 area fountains, from Independence to Lenexa, and 14 representatives of different faiths poured the waters together to emphasize that we are one community of many faiths.
   In January, Jewish, Muslim and Christian students poured water from their religious schools to dramatize their mingling together for a day of interfaith learning.
   Next Wednesday 7 am, members of many faiths will gather to pour waters into the pool at Ilus Davis Park, to represent the tears we have offered for those who have suffered this year because of the terrorist attacks, and for all who have been injured in any way. The waters thus joined, will be gathered and taken to sites around the metro area for use in services later that day, and to Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral where the central observance will be held at 6:30 pm.
   Christians have cried. Muslims have cried. Jews have cried. Sikhs have cried. Peoples of many faiths were killed by the terrorists. Tears are an honorable part of our response to the horrors. In our common grief, we are united.
   For now it is time to transform the water of tears into waters of purification, renewal and refreshment. The waters need to extinguish the fires of hatred, wash away our self-righteousness, and well up as healing fountains of the heart. Now let us be united in our hopes.

417. 020828 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Dispelling myths about Islam

Earlier this month the Jackson County Diversity Task Force held a fact-finding session at the Islamic Center. The testimony revealed both horrendous acts of prejudice against Muslims and the extraordinary protection and concern non-Muslims have extended to their Muslim friends. The report the task force issues on Sept. 10 will detail this as well as other material it has gathered from the entire metro area.
   But Kansas City does not exist in isolation from the rest of the nation or the world. Several Muslims spoke about how damaging the words of Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son and successor, have been to them and how those words perpetuate a climate of prejudice.
   Graham has called Islam "a very evil and wicked religion," a religion that preaches violence. It is as if he were judging Christianity solely by the deeds of Timothy McVeigh, Adolf Hitler, Christian slave-holders, the Inquisition or the Crusades.
   As I read history, Islam has often been far more tolerant than Christianity. And today the democratic spirit inherent in Islam remains suppressed in many places by regimes our own nation has supported.
   Critics misuse history and misunderstand the present-day aspirations of Islam. But they also often misread the Qur'an. You can make it say anything you want if you remove words from their context, just as I can make the bible say "there is no god" by quoting from Psalms 14:1.
   "There is no doubt that what national religious figures say about Islam has an impact on our local community," says the Rev. Rodger Kube, research associate for the Task Force. "Perhaps the best answer to Graham is to get acquainted with real Muslims here in town."

416. 020821 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Examine paganism before denouncing it

The Kansas City Interfaith Council recently received an angry phone call from someone who identified himself as a pastor. Referring to the symbol representing the pagan traditions, he shouted into the telephone, "Are you crazy devil worshippers?" He does not realize that while Satan is a figure in many forms of Christianity, Satan never appears in paganism. No one on the Council worships the devil.
   Because of prejudice, many pagans prefer to hide their faith. But others are open. In 1998, Kansas City Pagan Pride Day began with 50 people. Last year it drew 250 pagans. This year even more are expected, Aug. 24, from 10 am to dusk, at Shawnee Mission Park Shelter #10.
   Because the event is free and open to the public, I hope that the pastor will take this opportunity to learn about the pagan heritage which reaches back to the folk religions of pre-Christian Europe.
   He would learn why the classical four elements of air, fire, water and earth represent the values, respectively, of education, activism, charity and community. He might enjoy the music of a local band, Spellbound. He might purchase something at the auction, with 100% of his bid going to support the work of a local charity, this year the Rose Brooks Center for Domestic Violence Intervention.
   If he cannot attend, perhaps he could visit the group's web site,  There he would find a vow which concludes, "I pledge that to the best of my ability, I will respect practitioners of other spiritual paths and treat them with kindness and courtesy."
   If the caller had taken this pledge, it would have saved the ringing in my ears, as well as opened him to a less angry spiritual life.

415. 020814 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Love more important than labels

What are the rules by which we decide whether someone else is a member of a particular faith? Is our own religious identity something we are born with, something we choose for social reasons or the result of spiritual search?
   After writing this column for eight years, I still am contacted by people who tell me that Catholics are not Christian. Only Protestants qualify. Occasionally someone insists that his own denomination is the only true Christian group - the others are "false Christians."
   We can sympathize with the overwhelming majority of Muslims who say their faith was hijacked on 9/11 because no terrorist can be a true Muslim. We can understand why the Jewish community rejects the claims of "Messianic Jews," organized in 1979, to be truly Jewish when they affirm that Jesus was divine.
   But religions evolve; their boundaries are not always clear. Christianity was originally a Mediterranean phenomenon, but has become a worldwide faith. Buddhism began in India and is now also widespread, with notable American teachers of non-Asian extraction.
   American Indian tribes have sometimes welcomed into their circles those with no Indian blood at all because of the spiritual kinship mutually discerned. Some Indian leaders have sought to share their wisdom with those of European descent. But just as some Christians want to keep the label all to themselves, so some Indians resist others adopting their identities. In many cases their land, their language, their families and their traditions have been ripped from them, so they guard against the ignorant and shallow use of their ceremonies by "wannabes."
   But all of us are in danger of focusing more on membership labels than on love.

414. 020807 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Nonsectarian prayer respects the U.S. Constitution

A few readers continue to attack my column about my honoring a request to give a non-sectarian prayer in a theater. One writes, "Vern, the 'separation of Church and State' you mind-numbed PC liberals worship so much does not exist. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . ." Sure is convenient to ignore theor prohibiting the free exercise thereof part, isn't it?
   Dear Reader: By my offering a prayer respectful of the entire audience, how is the Congress prohibiting the free exercise of religion? Are you not still free to pray in your home and church as you wish? You can still commune with God anywhere, anytime, freely.
   For 32 years of ministry, I have encouraged such exercise. As an American, I rejoice in the many forms of worship protected by the First Amendment, from American Indian to Zoroastrian. Each has a special place in my heart, and I vigorously defend their free exercise.
    When I visit a Hindu temple, I take prasad. At a mosque, I do prostrations. In church, I partake of the eucharist. In a synagogue, I do my best with the Hebrew prayers.
    But in those places where people of many faiths come together, I reach for the freest possible practice of faith by embracing common ground. Forcing my personal ways on others is religious enslavement, not free exercise.
   Just as I would not prepare a milk-based dish for a lactose-intolerant friend to satisfy my friend's hunger, so I will not knowingly pray in a way that excludes those for whom I am given the responsibility to find words for the prayer in their hearts.
   Respecting our nation's religious varieties is not PC. It is the kind of patriotism the Constitution enshirnes.

413. 020731 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
CBS eyes KC for 9/11 observations

After looking at other cities, CBS-TV is sending a crew from New York to Kansas City Aug. 12 for several days to see how the metro area is preparing for observing the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks last Sept. 11.
   Several initiatives of the Kansas City Interfaith Council attracted the network's attention. First was the distribution of "Interfaith Passports" to encourage citizens to learn about the religions of their neighbors. Another was the Council's speakers from various faiths.
   But perhaps key was the Council's effort to coordinate a metro-wide response, "Remembering 9/11: A Day of  Hope," by employing the spiritual wisdom from the many faiths practiced in the Heartland. The observance is intended to deepen our sense of kinship with one another as residents of the region, as Americans, and as citizens of the world.
   The central events begin with a 7 a.m. ceremony at Ilus Davis Park. The Community of Christ has arranged to videotape the ceremony and make the tapes available without charge to others later in the day who wish to use them in their own faith communities.
   From the park, participants will process to Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral where prayers will be offered throughout the day with the reading of the names of the victims, in which the public is invited to participate.
   At 6:30 p.m., an observance honoring government officials and emergency-preparedness personnel is planned, with Kansas City Mayor Barnes speaking. Members of the Interfaith Council will also participate. Workshops follow at 7:30.
   The complete schedule is available at, including events throughout the metro area.

412. 020724 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Practice freedom for all religions

Reader Hubert Speer questions my recent column about a prayer I offered before a film at a Westport theater. The prayer was addressed to the "Spirit of Generations" and did not use the word "God."
   Mr Speer writes, "This separation of church and state issue has got out of hand... Why should we let people of no faith control our degree of religious expression?" Mr Speer believes that the United States is a Christian country; a Christian prayer here should offend no one. And, he says, mentioning God is does not endorse any particular faith.
   Here are three thoughts. First. While the U.S. is demographically a largely Christian nation, it is not legally Christian. Washington, Jefferson and other founders were clear that this nation belongs as much to Jews, Muslims and atheists as to Christians. The word "God" no where appears in the U.S. Constitution.
   Second. Do I want to lead prayer or ask people to listen to me praying? Do I want to host a  dinner party or ask people to look through my dining room window to see me eat? As host, I want to do everything I can to respect my guests. Just as I would not prepare a milk-based dish for a lactose-intolerant friend to satisfy my friend's hunger, so I will not knowingly pray in a way that excludes those for whom I am given the responsibility to find words for the prayer in their hearts.
   Third, about God. While Mr Speer is correct that the mere mention of God does not specify a particular religion, it does exclude non-theistic traditions such as Buddhism and polytheistic faiths such as Wicca. Further, I have found as great or greater proportion of highly ethical citizens who are atheists as among those professing any religion. Atheists deserve respect, too.

411. 020717 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
You should recognize the self but know your place

Why does Buddhism, unlike most faiths, teach that no self exists? The idea that each of us has a separate, distinct, unchanging and eternal soul seems obvious to many people, so the Buddhist insistence that no such soul exists may at first seem shocking and even irreligious.
   Yet in the Buddhist analysis, great suffering arises from clinging to the notion of the self. The father berates his boy for failing to play football perfectly because his image of himself is to have a successful athlete for his son. The greedy CEO who encourages misleading accounting seeks to fulfill an image of himself astride the world. The Israelis and Palestinians really fight not about land but about their identities--what kind of people would they be if they did not address the injustices they see caused by the other side?
   Buddhists do not deny the conventional self, the legal entity, the social construct, the picture we have of ourselves. But they warn against being deceived by such ideas of the self.
   For the Buddhist, a person is a swirling vortex of impulses, perceptions and bodily functions. None of these is either permanent or independent of environmental, social and biochemical influences. We utterly depend on bacteria in our stomachs to digest our food, and the cells of our bodies are hosts to creatures, the mitochondria, with their own DNA, without whose aid we could not lift a finger.
   The 100 billion neurons in our brains are seldom unanimous. Should we relax and go shopping after 9/11 or should we remain vigilant and alert? The brain is more like a society governed by shifting alliances and cross currents than by a single power.
   Buddhists say the best way to recognize the illusory self--since we are all in the same boat--is to practice compassion.

410. 020710 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Prayer for diverse group a big challenge

Offering public prayer is often a challenge, especially when one is asked to pray on behalf of people of many faiths, or no faith at all. The challenge is even more difficult when the occasion may have a political purpose, for the prayer must both embrace the urges of those gathered while at the same time it must rise above any partisanship.
   I was inducted into such a situation recently at the Tivoli Theater Manor Square. After Mayor Pro Tem Al Brooks introduced the evening, I was asked to offer a prayer before the film. It was a documentary made by those who believe that Joe Amrine did not commit the murder for which he has been sentenced to death.
   In a dispute, how could I pray as if I knew the facts? Since my job was to pray on behalf of everyone there, how could I pray as if everyone agreed about capital punishment?
   Here's my best effort within these constraints:
   Spirit of generations, you have made us all the gift of life and entrusted us with a sacred sense of justice. In all faiths, in all cultures, the taking of human life is fraught with severest concern.
   Spirit of generations, in our own time, our society still disagrees whether the state best upholds the value of life by itself taking life. But we are unanimous in crying for mercy for the innocent who have been wrongly convicted, and for redress for those about whom there is doubt.
   Spirit of generations, we gather this evening to learn about one pending case, and to repent of a system--our system--that makes mistakes. Give us light to see our duty as citizens of this generation so we put to death no one innocent. And to the next generation may we transmit that light renewed and brightened by the work we now do to honor justice and to protect the sacred gift of life.

409. 020703 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Muslims: American ideals reflected in Qur'an

Muslims from Indonesia to the inner city gathered at UMKC last week-end for a conference entitled "Muslims for Peace and Justice." A resounding theme was the affection Muslims here and abroad feel for America.
   "The terrorists may have thought by attacking the World Trade Center, they were challenging America's greatness. But America's strength lies not in skyscrapers but in our embrace of religious diversity," said Sayyid Syeed, general secretary of the Islamic Society of North America, which sponsored the conference.
   "Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere," said former Illinois congressman Paul Findley, quoting Abraham Lincoln.
   A Muslim scholar from Bosnia told the crowd that American Muslims need not so much to learn from Muslims elsewhere as to teach them.
   "The most important message I heard from the Muslim speakers was that the American government, above all others on earth, comes the closest to the ideals of government expressed in the Qur'an. They need to convey this message to the American public," said banquet guest Barton Cohen, a Johnson County attorney.
   Cohen was one of many non-Muslims attending the Saturday evening banquet, including Jackson County Executive Katherine Shields and Kansas City Mayor Pro Tem Al Brooks. Mayor Kay Barnes had addressed the assembly on Friday.
   Conference participants frequently discussed countering stereotypes of themselves and their faith. The success of this conference may be due largely to the demonstration that Islam harmonizes well with America’s vision.

408. 020626 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Conference will accentuate Muslim contributions

What is the most important thing Americans should know about Islam?
   I put this question to former Illinois Congressman Paul Findley who speaks at UMKC this Saturday on "Islam: A Blessing, Not a Threat." He said, "The links Islam has with Judaism and Christianity are many and fundamental. These faiths are all spiritual heirs of Abraham."
   Findley said that the form of government most admired throughout the Muslim world is ours because America protects the practice of all faiths. Islam stresses tolerance. "But you get a very different picture from the media," he said. Many "Muslim'" countries have governments resulting from Western colonialism rather than the freedom Muslims desire.
   Syed Hasan chairs the three-day conference at which Findley speaks. Hasan hopes that the meeting will project "an accurate image of Muslims as fair, honorable and peace-loving American citizens making important contributions in the city's social, business, health care  and academic life."
   Entitled "Muslims for Peace and Justice," the conference is presented by the Islamic Society of North America Central Zone. Unlike previous ISNA conferences, this one is  designed for non-Muslims as well as Muslims.
   Mayor Kay Barnes is scheduled to speak, and topics addressed by national and local authorities include "Universal Principles of Peace and Justice in Islam," conflict resolution, civil liberties and media activism.
   Hasan laments the negative portrayal of Islam that became visible after 9/11, but believes Kansas City has fared better than some places because of its emphasis on interfaith understanding.
   To register, call (816) 965-5555 or visit

407. 020619 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
A prayer nine months after 9/11

To mark the nine months that have passed since Sept. 11, members of several faiths gathered earlier this month to pray together silently and then as led by Sister Ruth Stuckel, Anand Bhattacharyya, Doug Alpert, Syed Hasan and Charangit Hundal in words from each of their traditions. I was asked to offer an "interfaith prayer." Here it is:
   As Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and others, we pray: Infinite Spirit of Compassion, help us these nine months after the shock of a day of terror to remember those of all faiths who have suffered--and those who seek the relief of suffering and injustice--and the repair of the world.
   We come from many religions and have ties to many nations. We abhor the use of our faiths to justify violence and oppression--or the heritage of any land to launch hatred against others.
   We come as members of the Kansas City region who care about our relations with each other. From different traditions, we grieve together a common loss and work towards better understanding of our kinship.
   We come as citizens also of a planetary community, intimately involved with all peoples, who affect us and whom we affect often in ways we have yet to realize.
   We recognize many disconnected sorrows in these nine months, and we place the events of our focus in this larger human story, in which we pray to discover in compassion the meaning of your spirit as we join in renewal.
   Enlarge our sympathies, deepen our understanding, strengthen our courage and hope, here in our own neighborhoods, and as a model for others everywhere.
   We all pray in the name of peace, salaam, shalom, shantih, waheguru.

406. 020612 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Let vocation be your offering to community

In an address last month at the Ottawa University--Kansas City commencement, I discussed "Vision, Vocation and Valor" in building meaning for our lives. Here is a gist of some of what I said:
   "Vocation" is out of fashion. Often education is sold primarily as pre-employment training. And the job is simply to make money.
   Vocation on the other hand, is a way of offering one's work to others by providing worthy goods and services. This school understands that education is not just about jobs but also about citizenship, about community, about how we relate to one another. A wise one said, "We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give."
   Pharmacist Robert Courtney got instead of gave; profit was more important than helping to heal cancer patients. Enron manipulated markets to create an empty empire instead of providing energy at a fair price. Such examples multiply. The goal has been perverted from providing a service to the community at a fair profit, to making as much money as possible quickly, and even that goal seems to be replaced now by the goal of executive compensation whether the business is making money or not.
   Is greed good?
   Rabi’a al-Adawiyya, an early Sufi mystic, ran down a street with fire in one hand and water in the other. When people asked her what she was doing, she said she wanted to douse the fires of hell and burn down Paradise so that no one would love God out of fear of punishment or hope for reward. Are we more interested in reward or punishment than in God? Is the bottom line more important than our fair duties to others and to ourselves?
   Whatever our work, it can be our vocation if we offer it to the community in love of God and gratitude for the opportunity to serve.

405. 020605 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Lincoln speech points way to authentic civil religion

Many Americans are squeamish about "American civil religion." In fact, scholar Robert Bellah, who popularized the term, no longer uses it. He fears that those who identify Americas with their particular faith may wish to impose their views on the rest of us. Often they assert that God favors Americans over other peoples.
   This is what has given civil religion a bad name. But there is another kind of civil religion which scrupulously observes the wall separating religious institutions and the state. It can be described as a sacred search for the meaning of events in the unfolding history of this nation and the world.
   No  document better expresses this search more eloquently or more profoundly than Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. On the verge of winning the Civil War, Lincoln is not triumphant. Approaching the moment of victory, in the language of his time, he notes that both North and South "read from the same Bible and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other." He is modest about the correctness of his views. He focuses on the task of binding up the nation's wounds.
   But the pivot of his message is the search for understanding--what is the cause and the meaning of "this terrible war"? He suggests that there is a power in the sweep of history that moves toward justice, even at a price made terrible by our offense. He reaches beyond blame for healing.
   Sept. 11 the KC Interfaith Council will lead a day-long anniversary observance of last year's events. The Council wants to shine spiritual lights on the occasion. What lights do you have? What meaning do you discern in 9/11? What questions would you ask? What themes should be explored? Write me at I'll share reader responses in a forthcoming column.

404. 020529 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Seeds of modern religions found in ancient Egypt

To mark the current "Eternal Egypt" show at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, I asked Paul Mirecki (ThD, Harvard) to comment on ancient Egyptian religion. Professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas, he focuses on ancient Mediterranean religions. He said:
    Today ancient Egyptian religion is an enormous field of research. This was not always the case, begging the question why a clear understanding of Egyptian religion is relevant at all.
    Simply said, the popular idea of the past developed in medieval Europe is flawed because a huge amount of primary data--the history of ancient Egypt and its rich culture--was unavailable when European historians began reconstructing the past. Hieroglyphs were not even deciphered until about 1825!
    So what can be said about current knowledge of Egyptian religion and its influence? We now recognize the basic features of later religions like Judaism and Christianity had already arisen in Egypt.
    Many Egyptians were polytheists, but their priestly theologians knew otherwise. They were  monotheists and understood that all things were created by only one god, Amun. The many goddesses and gods of Egypt were simply manifestations of Amun, in exactly the same way the feminine Holy Spirit, the masculine Jesus, the neuter angels and the animalistic white dove are manifestations of the one God of Christians.
    In Egypt is the earliest evidence for belief in heaven and hell, judgment for sin, trinity, an eternal human spirit, a resurrected God and a promise of resurrection for everyone. Although still denied by those with a medieval worldview, we now know that ancient Egypt was a primary source for the infancy of later western religions.

403. 020522 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Pagans simply walk a different path

Would you be surprised to learn that this week-end, near Kansas City, over a thousand men, women and children will gather for the 17th annual Heartland Pagan Festival? It is part of a rapidly growing tradition, a revival of ideas and practices that reach back to prehistoric times.
    Paganism is one of the least understood of the faiths practiced here, even though it has been represented on the Kansas City Interfaith Council since 1989. When I asked Aislinn Firehawk, a Kansas City resident who is  president of the Heartland Spiritual Alliance, what she most wanted others to know about pagans, she said, "We're just like everyone else. We just walk a different spiritual path."
    That path deliberately leads through the realm of nature. In fact, the word "pagan" comes from the Latin for "country dweller," just as "heathen" comes from the Anglo-Saxon term for "one who lives on the heath." Thus the location for the festival is a camp site, not a hotel.
    "Earth religion" is another name sometimes given to this spiritual path.  The Greek earth-goddess Gaia (also spelled Gaea) was worshipped from 1500 BCE to 400 years into the Christian era, and sometimes today's pagans call themselves Gaians.
    This year the festival theme is "Ancient Ways for Future Days."
    Similarities between Native American ways and paganism are striking but should not be surprising. Wicca, one form of paganism, derives largely from the folk ways of pre-Christian Europe.
    Pagans have one chief ethical rule: Do what you wish so long as it harms no one. They say this combines freedom with responsibility on the spiritual path.

402. 020515 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Talk among parties is good when it leads to action

"Just more talk. I'm tired of talk. I want action." It is a common complaint from those of us who want to improve things.
   But David Smith, vice-president of the Partnership for Children and a member of the Kauffman Foundation Forum series team, says that "talk is action" when new possibilities emerge from deliberate conversation. It is a process theologians also address.
   The Kauffman Forum series grew with the CitiStates Report published in January in The Kansas City Star. Urban vitality, race relations, regionalism, transportation and economic development were topics for April invitational forums.
   Are the topics secular? Yes, but the process employed may have universal spiritual significance.
   Smith says that "deliberation"--not "debate"--can lead parties with different perspectives to discover unanticipated points of intersection, common ground for action that supports the interests of all parties.
   The series moves forward this Saturday with an "Action Forum" resulting from the deliberations. Participants will identify what they individually or collectively can do.
   The great American theologian Henry Nelson Wieman is famous for his phrase, "creative interchange," the action in the "intersection" of which Smith speaks. Wieman influenced Martin Luther King Jr. King's deliberations as well as his speeches showed how talk can be action.
   Born in Rich Hill, Mo., in 1884, Wieman understood the divine as a power that transforms us as we cannot transform ourselves in the space created by such deliberation.
   Martin Buber, a Jewish theologian, also found the divine in the space between people engaged with each other. Thus he said, "All real life is meeting."

401. 020508 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Remember the God of all nations

Nearly nine months have passed since the Sept. 11 terrorism. How are we doing? The Rev. Richard Maraj, pastor of Christ Church Unity, offers these thoughts:
    The outpouring of physical, emotional and financial support that immediately followed the attacks showed the power of love and our skill in pulling together. We turned to God for peace, comfort and guidance through this tragedy. We prayed for the victims, their families, the rescue workers, the volunteers, the cities, our leaders and the entire country.
    But staying with me these months since are the words of Jesus, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you." (Matt. 5:44)
    Surely these criminals qualify as our enemies. Praying for such individuals, practicing the divine directive to send love for hate, to reach for understanding, is the only way we can ultimately heal the hurt, anger, mistrust and the underlying impulse behind the attacks. We must hold them responsible without ourselves becoming consumed by imitating their hate.
    We have sometimes allowed our own shock, pain and anger to develop into an "us vs. them" way of thinking. While we may always sing "God Bless America" in our hearts, it may be even more important now to remember the God of all nations. Abandoning stereotypes, we need to pray for the happiness of Muslims, Jews, Christians and those of every other faith as well, here and abroad.
    While our humanitarian and military responses to the events of Sept. 11 may address the  symptoms of the situation, we must continue the work of healing. We need to enlarge and deepen our prayers for all peoples. We need especially to practice the spiritual discipline of loving those we see as our enemies.

400. 020501 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
May Kansas City's good will overflow to Mideast

Kansas City is fortunate to have reservoirs of good will within its religious communities. In innumerable conversations, Jewish friends have poignently expressed their grief at the deaths in the Middle East conflict--both Israeli and Palestinian deaths. Within the Muslim community, I have repeatedly found the same grief for the victims on both sides.
    This is remarkable because many members of both Jewish and Muslim communities have strong family and friendship ties to one side. Their views of the conflict are agonizingly far apart. Yet understanding the totality of the human tragedy is important to them, even if  political leaders are partial in their oratory and decisions.
    We dare not let the desperation of the Middle East dry up the reservoirs of good will here. Organizations like Kansas City Harmony help keep the reservoirs filled.
    For example, last week's Harmony Week began with a session at Temple B'nai Jehudah honoring "Congregational Partners," a program of nearly 20 pairs of religious groups to build relationships of trust and service across faith, ethnic and other lines. The partnership between Ward Chapel AME and All Souls Unitarian Universalist is now four years old. Bridging the State Line is the Metropolitan Missionary Baptist and Cure of Ares Catholic partnership.
    The session included blessings from representatives of a three-way partnership, with Ann Pace of Congregation Beth Torah, Faheem Abdul-Alim of Al Inshirah Islamic Center and Eugene Agee of St. Monica Catholic Church.
    Human beings dedicated to their Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths stood together to bless the rest of us. May that blessing not only protect us here but also bring water to the desolation abroad.

399. 020424 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Facts get in the way of moral clarity in the crisis in the Middle East

"Moral clarity" may seem desirable. But the Taliban had it. Fred Phelps has it. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has it. Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat has it. Both the absolute pacifist and the suicide bomber have moral clarity in their minds.
    But for many of us, distinguishing between right and wrong is often more complicated.
    It would be simple to say, "Since Arafat is in some way responsible for suicide bombings that kill civilians, he should be excluded from peace negotiations with Israel. We will not recognize terrorists or the fruits of terrorism."
    Yet Jewish terrorists helped to give birth to Israel. Two of them became prime ministers, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir.
    Also accused of terrorism, the current prime minister, Ariel Sharon, broke off the successful Taba negotiations following the Clinton peace plan, to which his predecessor [Ehud Bark] and Arafat had by then agreed. Sharon then led Israel into killing far more Palestinians than Palestinians have killed Israelis.
    The situation is too messy to achieve the kind of moral clarity each side demands without ignoring the facts on both sides.
    Is this mess political or religious?
    Very few are fighting over theological doctrines. But the dispute over security, land, refugees and resources--which is political--is now being shaped by religious identity. When Judaism is identified with the Sharon administration, the Jewish faith is politicized. When murderers become martyrs, the Muslim faith is perverted. The Taliban made vivid the horrors of merging religion with government.
    And the Middle East war comes to Kansas City when such "moral clarity" becomes more important to us than our common humanity.

398. 020417 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Rabbi speaking in KC adds a 614th commandment

"Judaism is not a creedal religion," Rabbi David J. Meyer said at a one-day interfaith institute last week. "Judaism is based on observing the commandments."
    Meyer's religious home was Kansas City's Temple B'nai Jehudah. He now serves a synagogue in Marblehead, Mass.
    Meyer's statement introduced the two questions he addressed, "Where was God during the Holocaust?" and "Are Jews the Chosen People?" Meyer illustrated the fact that Judaism does not require conformity of belief with various Jewish answers to these questions.
    Meyer spoke on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. He noted that to the  traditional 613 commandments a 614th has been added: "Thou shalt survive as Jews."
    Jewish responses to the Holocaust include these views: 1. The thread between God and humankind is broken. 2. The Holocaust was God's punishment. 3. Jews are forbidden to despair. 4. Nothing has changed. 5. The Holocaust is about people, not God. 6. Faith can no longer be regarded as continuous certitude so much as momentary events. 7. The Holocaust shows that God risks the welfare of the world by giving choice to humans.
   In discussing the second question, Meyers quoted the old rhyme, "How odd of God to  choose the Jews," and a more recent rejoinder, "It's not so odd: the Jews chose God."
   The unique covenant between God and the Jews does not exclude God's different covenants with other peoples, he said.
   Jews became a "pilot project'' for monotheism, and since Christians and Muslims have followed this idea and claim over half the world's peoples, the project seems successful.
   Meyer prefers to think of Jews as the "choosing" people, honoring Torah, the Law.

397. 020410 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Gandhi's granddaughter carries on his message of nonviolence

While most religions allow a person to defend oneself or one's group, some religious leaders have questioned whether violence even in self-defense ultimately works. Non-violent approaches have been used in the West, sometimes at the ultimate cost for their advocates. In many respects Martin Luther King Jr was successful in leading the United States toward greater racial justice, and he paid for his work with his life.
   While in our own time people said that a "blood bath" was inevitable in ending apartheid in South Africa, Nelson Mandela used non-violent methods that achieved a largely peaceful  revolution.
   The methods of non-violence in modern times were developed by an Indian lawyer, Mohandas K. Gandhi. Two of the several steps he identified in achieving change without committing violence are very difficult. They seem absent in the tragedy we see unfolding in the Middle East.
   One step is self-purification. One must see that one's own perspective is just that; it cannot be the total truth which no single human can possess. One must grant that one's adversary also has some truth. Cleansing oneself of hatred clears the picture and helps to end the cycle of mistrust.
   A second step is the willingness to suffer for the truth while doing all in one's power to protect one's adversary.
   While none of us can learn directly from Gandhi today, we can hear Gandhi's granddaughter. She helped to end apartheid in South Africa. She is scheduled to be in Kansas City this week to receive an award from the Community of Christ on Friday. Tomorrow you can meet and hear her at a free public reception at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral's Founders Hall, 13th and Broadway, between 4:30 and 6 pm.

396. 020403 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Same-sex love makes spiritual contribution

[Some claim that spiritual renewal comes from unexpected arenas, even those places scorned. It is an old motif, best known in the story of the birth of the Christian Savior in a stable.] Can homosexuals contribute civilization's spiritual renewal? Theologians like James B. Nelson, himself a heterosexual, in his Body Theology, say yes emphatically. Now Mark Hayes, one of the nation's most popular composers of church music, has created a cantata with the same affirmation.
    "With what we have had to learn, we could heal the world," sang the Heartland Men's Chorus at a recent concert where Hayes' "Two Flutes Playing," made its premiere. The work, with choreography by David Ollington, is based on the book of the same name by Andrew Ramer.
    While Fred Phelps' group demonstrated outside the Folly Theater, the chorus sang "We are a walk-between people, a bridge-making people, a link between all that stands apart. . . . We are a sacred people. We are a holy tribe."
    This text implies the notion of sexual orientation, now only 133 years old. As distinct from behavior, "orientation" has little support in religious history. Still, most traditions have blessed at least some forms of same-sex love. For example, the Epic of Gilgamesh , the world's first "novel," from which portions of the Bible appear to be derived, tells the story of two men devoted to each other.
    But the West began to separate all sexuality from spirituality. Many people attribute this in part to Saint Augustine [d. 430 CE], who himself had an intense relationship with a male friend, as he writes in his famous Confessions . Still, according to Yale historian John Boswell, the Church did not become seriously hostile to homosexuality until after the 12th Century.
    [Black and women's liberation have been strong theological as well as political movements. They are often explained not only in terms of seeking justice but also as contributions to the larger understanding of the spirit.]
    Tayarti, the dead savior of the Hayes-Ramer story, survives in men who love men. This conception parallels the Christian motif of the crucified Christ living within those who accept Him. For some this parallel is blasphemous; for others, redemptive.

395. 020327 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Mysteries should prompt quest for truth

Ancient Egypt lures us with its art, its engineering and its exploration of spiritual themes. No other culture reaching back five thousand years ago has been better preserved, with so much to see. We are fascinated by the fascination the Egyptians themselves had with survival beyond death, indicated by mummies, funerary objects and the monuments which bespeak a great civilization.
   Next month the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art will offer an exhibition, "Eternal Egypt," with a stunning collection from the British Museum. But how should the exhibition be understood? To provide context for the show, Nigel Strudwick, an assistant keeper at the British Museum, spoke recently at the Nelson about his last ten years leading the excavation of the tomb of Senneferi at Luxor, part of his quarter century studying ancient Egypt.
   After his lecture, several members of the audience asked about "alternative archeology." Strudwick's answers were polite, with a touch of British understatement.
   When I had a chance to speak privately with him, he was not so reserved about those who advocate fanciful theories about ancient Egypt. "Why,'' I asked, "are people drawn to theories about visitors from outer space or interpretations of the Pyramids for which no scholar can find evidence?"
   He spoke of writers with no academic standing in Egyptology who want to make a fast buck. He mentioned book stores that place the work of scholars in the same section as the work of charlatans, and book clubs, TV shows and magazines that confuse the two.
   The beauty and power of antiquity is cheapened by what Strudwick calls "rediculous." And the story of faith is perverted whenever we are so gullible that improbable answers appeal to us more than the unending quest for truth.

394. 020320 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Humanity ensures plenty of topics for column

Readers ask many questions, but the one that always surprises me is, "Do you ever run out of things to write about?'"
   Since humans first wondered as they saw the sun rise, and puzzled over a body exhausted, with no breath, and rejoiced in the miracle of springtime, a vast and variegated history of the spirit has developed toward which this column points.
   Each week in Kansas City people express doubt, faith and commitment in so many ways it is endlessly fascinating.
   And often, readers challenge me to explain a column in greater detail. Two weeks ago, I presented three reasons for saying that Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God. If you want to read what my critics wrote and my responses, visit
  Several non-Christians have asked me to outline the basic differences within Christianity -- to them it is a diverse and confusing religion. There are books I want you to know about. Can I show you that the Kauffman Foundation's forums responding to the "Citisates Report"' are dealing not just with civic issues but with spiritual values as well? Would ypu like to see a list of Muslim organizations that now benefit the Kansas City area? What answers to eternal religious questions can we discern in the upcoming show of ancient Egyptian art at at the Nelson-Atkins?
   The list of topics runs into the next century, so it's easy to say there is always plenty to  write about.
   It's not just because there are so many religions. It's because faith touches every aspect of life. Our blessings and tragedies draw us, if we are open, to the place beyond words, the place where all of us can unite. This column seeks this place not outside the world, but within the heart of it.

393. 020313 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Gathering share in suffering while seeking peace

Two recent events are signs of improving understanding among faiths. Last Thursday Temple B'nai Juhudah hosted more than 60 Christians, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs clarifying misconceptions about their faiths. Part of the two-year old "Good Morning Kansas City" series involving the U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service, Community Christian Church, Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity and the Temple Brotherhood, this was the first session focusing on religious diversity.
   Atkins Warren of the Justice Department said that the group discussed involving youth, play-writing, a media campaign and a web site as ways to be "proactive" in a pluralistic environment.
   Observing six months since 9/11, about 80 Christians, Muslims and Jews gathered Sunday afternoon to pray for peace at the Saint Jospeh Health Center. Organized originally by Muslims, the event expanded to include sponsorship by the Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee, the Jackson County Tolerance Task Force, Kansas City Harmony, the National Conference for Community and Justice and the KC Interfaith Council. Endorsements came from KC Mayor Kay Barnes, UMKC Chancellor Martha Gilliland, Kansas Congressman Dennis Moore and others. This list shows that the interfaith network is growing.
   The Muslims' statement calling for prayer mentioned troubles in Afghanistan, India and Kashmir, Iraq, Ireland, Tibet, Africa and elsewhere. It lamented the Palestinians and Israelis  who have died. Daniel Pearl, the American Jewish Wall Street Journal reporter killed recently, was specifically named.
   Perhaps if we can be united in sharing suffering, we may together find the peace we seek.

392. 020306 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Different ways of understanding God

Last year Franklin Graham and others began saying that the God of Jews and Muslims is not the same God worshipped by Christians. Several readers have tried to convince me Graham is right. Here are three reasons which suggest Graham may be mistaken.
   1. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all teach there is one God, the Creator. If there is only one God, how could the Christian God be a God other than the God of the Jews or the Muslims?
   2. While most Christians believe Jesus is God, not all do. Jews and Muslims do not believe any human can be God. Certainly Jews, Muslims and Christians understand God in different ways, and Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, Baptists and Quakers also understand God differently. But different conceptions of God does not mean there are different Gods.
   3. All three religions are "Abrahamic"--they all claim Abraham as a primary prophet of faith. (Muslims also include Jesus as one of the five great prophets.)
   Christians may wish to examine their scriptures on this point. Many passages indicate that the God of Abraham (identified with the Jewish tradition) is the God of Christians, including Acts 3:13, 7:2 and 7:32; Galatians 3:6 and 3:8; look especially at Hebrews 11:8-16. The New Testament seems to teach that the God seen by Christians in Jesus is the very same God worshipped by Abraham.
   It may be unseemly for Christians to tell Muslims what Muslims believe or to describe the nature of the Jewish faith for Jews. We should not assume similarities out of discomfort with diversity, but neither should we invent differences where there are none. It is our duty to our own faiths and to the faiths of others to be fair and accurate as we seek to describe how various traditions deal with matters truly beyond full human comprehension.

391. 020227 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Meeting of the faiths increases understanding of Islam

About one third of the world's population is Christian, about one fifth are Muslim and about two of every thousand are Jewish. An estimated 15,000 Muslims and 20,000 Jews live in the greater Kansas City region out of a total of 1.5 million.
   Many people tell me they know little about faiths other than their own. But in the past few months, throughout the metro area, from Independence to Olathe, Muslim speakers and others have been invited to speak about Islam.
   Among the groups seeking to learn about faiths other than their own is the Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ. ``Shortly after Sept 11, members of this congregation started voicing their lack of knowledge of Islam, their concern for Muslims in this community and their desire to do something,'' says the Rev Susan Thorne, pastor. So the church organized a five-Sunday series.
   The Muslim speakers included two men, Rushdy El-Ghussein and Ahmed El-Sherif, and four women, Farrukh Hasan, Anab Abdulahi, Rita Shukair and Shaheen Ahmed all of whom made it clear that women are first-class persons in the Islamic community.
   Thone says that although gaining understanding of Islam was very important, ``the best gift'' was meeting ``individuals  who live the faith.'' The church is now considering a series on Judaism.
   Audrey Wiegmann, a lay leader at Old Mission United Methodist Church, has arranged a two-month study beginning March 3. Topics include Muslim contributions to science with Prof. Syed Hasan, Moses in the Qur'an with Rabbi Aaron Lever and women in Islam with Mahnaz Shabbir.
   Wiegmann says ``Recent events encourage us to look more deeply at other faiths and the people who practice them. The ultimate goal we all share is peace.'

390. 020220 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Civic prayer must cover a lot of ground

Last Friday I delivered the invocation at the annual Mayors' Prayer Breakfast. Preparing words for such civic occasions is an awesome responsibility. Mistakes are easy to make.
   In a multifaith environment, the language of aspiration must be universal, so universal that even an atheist can embrace it. The separate domains of religion and the state must be respected.
   It is a difficult, but not impossible task. I enjoy it because it forces me to find words beyond my usual province of thought, to identify civic values like inclusiveness, service and heritage in a non-sectarian way.
   It is also important to acknowledge those present, the program, and the purpose and context of the occasion. On the agenda were remarks about a visit to Ground Zero, an award to Mary Eisenhower of People to People, participation by firefighters and police, and salutes to local youth.
   So the prayer was addressed to the ``Infinite and Ultimate Mystery called by many names.'' The prayer continued, ``From business, labor and government we come to inspire in each other deeper understandings of morality, as we especially honor those whose courage makes our community safer and more secure, and our youth whose examples of service give us the promise of the future.''
   A line mentioned how we are affected by our history, by Sept. 11, by the ice storm, by our citizenship, by joining ``people to people.''
   The prayer concluded with an appreciation of both diversity and unity: ``through we have different faces, different faiths and different tasks,'' we are joined ``as the breaths of our being are joined with the winds of the world.''

389. 020213 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Mingling the waters of many faiths

Jews may bathe in a mikvah, Christians practice baptism, Muslims observe ablutions, the Shinto tradition includes misoge -- almost every faith has some way of using water to develop a sense of transcendent reality. While the different ways the various faiths use water should not be confused, water is a natural symbol of the spirit in interfaith settings.
   For years I have been collecting water, from my journeys and from friends as they travel. Into a jar I have poured water drawn from the Rhine, Seine, Tiber, Danube, Nile, Jordan, Thames, Amazon, Ganges, Yangtze, Colorado, Mississippi, Missouri, Kaw and many other rivers, lakes and puddles around the world.
   Last October, to conclude Kansas City's first interfaith conference, I brought my water to the front table. Behind the table was the conference emblem showing an image of the continents of the world on which was imposed the Kansas City "City of Fountains, Heart of the Nation" logo. Into the large jar representatives of 14 faiths poured waters that Laura Conley had gathered a few days earlier from 14 Kansas City area fountains, from Independence to Lenexa.
   This ceremony recognized that the faiths of the world now present in Kansas City flowed together as we met at the conference. As they left, participants filled vials with the mixed liquid with the pledge to help something grow with the waters of understanding.
   Last month, when 50 students from five high schools--Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and public -- met and mixed for a day to learn about each other's faiths, they added waters representing their schools to the jar. Many of the students left with the mixed water in vials.
   Last week, I added a chunk of ice from the storm to the jar. The storm created both beauty and peril. The storm and how we responded to it is part of the growing mixture of who we are and the transcendent reality beyond us.

388. 020206 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Youth conference advances multifaith dialogue

``Jews do not hate Palestinians.'' ``Muslims worship God, not Muhammad.'' ``Most Christians are not homophobic.''
   Last week fifty students spent a day exchanging such views and getting to know one another at a ``religion/spirituality'' conference supported by the Youth Advisory Board of the Kauffman Foundation and organized by Bev Timmons, Shawnee Mission East nurse.
   Students came from Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy, the Islamic School of Kansas City, SM East, Wyandotte and Bishop Miege high schools. The National Conference for Community and Justice and my organization, CRES, developed the day-long program.
   Anna Smith of East was especially glad to encounter Muslim students. ``They are quite unlike the stereotypes. Everyone at the conference is respectful, tolerant and loving,'' she said.
   ``We need dialogue like this to happen on regular basis and involve more people,'' said Alex Edelman of the Hebrew Academy.
   At the end of the day, the students presented reports on the wisdom of their faiths about environmental, personal, and social  issues to a panel representing the Kansas City Interfaith Council. Roman Catholic panelist Mary Kelly Mueller noted ``the depth of appreciation the students expressed for each other'' as they ``moved toward celebrating those things that make us who we are.''
   Charanjit Hundal, the Sikh panelist, said he was ``impressed by the students' ability to listen to each other.'' Other panelists, Muslim Ahmed El-Sherif, American Indian Kara Hawkins, Hindu Arvind Khetia and Buddhist Chuck Stanford, also applauded the quality of students' proposals, which included school interfaith councils and ambassadors among the schools.

387. 020130 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
True Muslim Faith shows in peace, justice

Guests included former Kansas City mayor Charles Wheeler and Kansas Congressman Dennis Moore, both of whom spoke, and Missouri Congresswoman Karen McCarthy sent a representative. Kansas City mayor pro tem Al Brooks received an award. Kansas City Star columnist Lewis Diuguid presented the major address. UMKC Chancellor Martha Gilliland was ill but sent a representative.
   The organization's membership is completely integrated into the life of the community, from a former member of the Royals management to teachers, physicians, engineers and business people.
   The occasion was the annual Eid dinner of the Crescent Peace Society earlier this month, a Kansas City area Muslim group whose name proclaims the nature of the Muslim faith. Those who ask--and I keep hearing this even in Kansas City--``Why don't Muslims speak out against terrorism?'' should get acquainted with Muslims. Or at least watch the new KCPT documentary on Kansas City Muslims and read Star commentary by Muslims and feature stories on Islam here.
   Before noon on Sept. 11, as the attacks were being reported, two prominent Kansas City Muslim leaders appeared before the press to condemn the terrorism. The very next day, the Muslim member of the Kansas City Interfaith Council helped to shape the resolution it adopted condemning violence. For years Kansas City Muslims have been saying violence is no solution. Muslims have joined with Christians and Jews here in publicly supporting paths to peace in the Middle East.
   Terrorists may claim a faith--Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu. But the true faith is revealed in the commitment to peace and justice, as in the work of the Crescent Peace Society.

386. 020123 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Doubter misses 'ordinary' spirtual sign

He took me to breakfast. He was doubtful about God. Words like religion and spirituality were empty to him. ``I just don't know if I could call anything sacred. What does sacred mean?''
   ``Can you recall a time when something, even fleeting, captured your attention and brought you a sense of well-being, of fitness, of perfection, of your place in the universe?'' I asked.
   Immediately he grinned. ``I'll have to explain,'' he said. ``My wife and I insist that our 6-year old son sleep in his own bed, in his own room. But last night he was so especially wonderful and loving to us, we asked him if we could do anything for him. He asked to sleep with us. So we bent our rule and this once we all snuggled together.
   ``This morning, I left the house early, and my wife and son were still sleeping. I saw them curled up so peacefully. I had an overwhelming sense of how important they are to  me, and that this is what my life in the cosmos is about. I took a deep breath and felt fully alive.
   ``And yet it was very ordinary -- nothing religious about it.''
   ``But doesn't the Christian icon of the Madonna and Child, or the ancient Egyptian image of Isis and Horus, arise, at least in part, from similar cosmic parent-child delight?'' I asked.
   ``You tell me,'' he laughed.
   ``Religion has a problem,'' I admitted. ``Religion tends to confuse the symbols for what they represent. We forget symbols and words are reminders of holiness all around us. The sacred is as ordinary and as indispensable as breathing.''
   My friend may not be stirred by theological language, but he is stirred by the holy.

385. 020116 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Theologian ponders ancient advice

Martin Luther King Jr was criticized for making a fuss about racism. Even religious leaders said that in due time the relations between the races would improve without his intervention. He was repeatedly told to "Wait!" In his famous letter from a Birmingham jail, King explained why passivity did not work in the face of disenfranchisement, exploitation, injustice and murder.
   But did King follow Jesus, who instructed his followers to "turn the other cheek"? Did Jesus really advise passive acceptance of evil in the world?
   Walter Wink taught at Union Theological Seminary. He places the teaching of Jesus in its historical and linguistic context. Such study also illumines the instructions Jesus gave to "go the second mile" and "if you are sued for your cloak, give also your coat.''
   The literal meaning of the words of Jesus seem perplexing. Could Jesus have meant that a battered woman should submit to further abuse? Should we open our nation to more attacks like those on Sept. 11?
   Wink reminds us that in the time of Jesus the left hand was not used in public. One could be punished for doing so. The only way someone could strike you with the slap of humiliation was with the back of his right hand to your right cheek (Matt. 6:39). Jesus spoke to the oppressed. If you turned the other cheek rather than bowing or acquiescing to your  superior, you are in defiance. He cannot use his left hand. He cannot use his fist because fists were used only for fighting one's equals, and a fist would elevate your status.
   Jesus advised his followers to assert their dignity courageously, demonstrating the conditions of oppression. King's non-violent resistance to evil was effective because it purified the hearts of the oppressed and awakened the conscience of the oppressor.
   Wink has given me permission to post his unpublished work at

384. 020109 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
It's a civic duty to overcome misconceptions

Last week I wrote about my childhood ignorance. I thought that "Catholics worshipped idols of saints." The column included the inflammatory word "idols'' to illustrate how absurd my impression was.
   Apparently I am not the only one who has held such a juvenile misconception. Several people have let me know this misunderstanding is still a problem.
   A special place like a church can elevate and direct our attention to the sacred. Certain musical forms like hymns or chants can make us more receptive to hearing the divine. And  statues and other images can be useful reminders of spiritual examples and values around which we may wish to orient our lives.
   To think my friends were worshipping hunks of plaster and stone was silly. I was four; I've learned better since. In grade school, none of us worshipped the portrait of George Washington on the classroom wall, but it did inspire us to think about American ideals.
    Ridding ourselves of misconceptions is not always easy. At least a dozen readers have told me that Catholics are not Christians. Many think pagans worship the devil. Some who claim to be Christian argue that that Muslims and Jews do not worship the same God Christians do. Some of the best-meaning people tell me that all religions teach belief in God, that afterlife is a feature of every spiritual tradition, that every religion has a founder. These errors persist.
   Aside from the spiritual benefits from learning about other faiths, better understanding has become a civic duty. We need to know our neighbors, our community and our world. Wrong assumptions can lead to wrong decisions. We all have lots to learn from each other. Better understanding leads to a wider embrace. It is a great reward.

383. 020102 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Maturity a good starting place

When I was not quite five,  I knew I believed in God. A Roman Catholic friend, not much older, asked me if I believed in the Trinity. I said No, I was a Protestant; I don't believe such stupid things.
   Of course I didn't know a thing about the Trinity. Catholics worshipped idols of saints, so they must be wrong about other stuff, too.
   My Catholic friend told me that if I were a Christian, I had to believe in the Trinity. I do not, I argued. Yes, you do, he insisted. He extracted a promise from me to ask my parents about it.
   I did. They told me, Yes, we believe in the Trinity. I remember how ashamed I was in not  knowing what I believed and having to admit with deep embarrassment to my friend that I did, in fact, believe in the Trinity.
   I did not see, and at that age could not see, that what I said I believed came simply from my parents, not from my own personal encounters with God. My belief was external like a sweater, not internal like my sense of shame.
   Many people are still like children who believe as they do simply because they were raised in a certain way in a particular culture at a precise time in history. They are right and others wrong even though had they been born elsewhere in another age in different conditions, their beliefs would be markedly different.
   Religious fanaticism arises when we think we alone have unconditioned Truth and must impose it on others. We saw its horrors last year.
   We also saw America, despite woeful exceptions, maturing in understanding that those of different faiths may be worthy of great admiration. It is a good beginning for 2002.

link to The Kansas City Star. -- Search for "Vern Barnet"