By Bob Castello
A distinguished group provided a variety of profound thoughts during Wednesday night’s interfaith panel discussion in the St. John Paul II Center at St. Joseph’s Catholic School.
But, as some of them pointed out, it wasn’t as much about what they said as it was about the fact that they were there to say it.
They came to try to answer the question, “Who is My Neighbor?” While pointing out the obstacles that still exist, they also reminded the gathering about the erosion of such barriers.
“They’re actually being worn away, and you who are all here are proof of that,” said Frances Worthington, a representative of Greenville’s Baha’i congregation. “Twenty years ago, you might not have come to this, and today you did.”
“Fifty years ago, we wouldn’t have had this meeting,” said Rev. Dennis McManus, a Georgetown University professor and consultant for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Jewish Relations Committee.
“A hundred years ago, it would have been laughable to have such a thing. Nobody would believe this. And five hundred years ago, we’d have been arrested.”
On Wednesday night, they were applauded, primarily for their presence but also for their forthright responses to questions about their differences.
Dr. Akif Aydin, a Muslim and president of the Atlantic Institute, which was founded “to bridge the deep gap of social interaction and “to promote respecting differences,” said he initiates dialogue with his neighbors so “they do not feel there is a terrorist that moved into the neighborhood.”
“I’m sorry that you should have to feel like you have to convince people that you’re not a threat,” said Rabbi Matthew Marko of Congregation Beth Israel, a conservative synagogue in Greenville.
His response drew a couple of amens from the audience.
“My hope is that we’ve learned that there’s a reconciliation model where we can come and go to each other without feeling anyone has the obligation,” said Rev. Ronald Smith of First Christian Church in Greenville.
Wednesday’s event was organized by St. Joseph’s English teacher Jennie Neighbors, who was inspired by “a very dark week” at the end of October.
Eleven people were killed at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh because they were Jewish. A white man killed two black people at a supermarket in Kentucky. A man killed two women at a yoga studio in Florida.
In addition, 15 bombs were found throughout the U.S. that had been planted against individuals and organizations because of their political affiliations.
“So in the space of a week,” Neighbors said, “we saw violent hate crimes against individuals because of religion, race, gender and politics.”
Neighbors attended a vigil organized by the Greenville Jewish Federation in remembrance of the Tree of Life victims, as well as those killed in the Kentucky supermarket.
“Speakers of various faiths came together publicly to recognize and support each other,” Neighbors said.
That led to Wednesday’s gathering, at which Father Sandy McDonald, pastor of St. John Neumann Parish in Columbia, served as moderator.
“It’s a great way for a school community to be exposed to both the differences and the fundamental unities of being human,” said McManus, the Georgetown professor.
“In the Christian tradition, the following of Jesus means everyone is my neighbor. There are no exceptions to that, despite what Christians have done over the centuries to create exceptions.”
Pastor Deb Richardson-Moore of Triune Mercy Center, a non-denominational mission church that ministers alongside the homeless in downtown Greenville, brought up the parable of the Good Samaritan and then recounted her early days of working with the homeless. She listened and provided groceries and anything else for which she could shop.
That was before she realized their real need was “freedom from alcohol or drug addiction” and “a change in mindset.”
“The true neighbor is one who is discerning about what is needed,” she said.
There remains a need in the area of overcoming obstacles. The group discussed racism, marriages between people of different religious backgrounds and the reasons for division.
Rabbi Marko said “a lack of pluralism in thought” causes separation.
“We’ve become us and them, right and wrong, winner, loser,” he said. “When I look at what we’re all talking about, really at the core of it, we’re all talking about the same stuff. We think we’re so different, but we’re not.”
That they could come together in the first place was noteworthy where St. Joseph’s student body president Davis Cooney was concerned.
“Just a couple hours earlier in the day,” said Cooney, “Father (Jonathan) Duncan celebrated Mass on the very stage that we’re having four different faith groups talk about their differences and their unity.”
Then he asked the group what provides them with hope for the future.
Richardson-Moore said she leads a congregation of about 280, but 66 churches and organizations of various beliefs come to assist them.
“Many of them would never have a woman in their pulpit,” she said, “but they believe that God told us to serve the poor, and so they come to Triune and do that.”
Marko recalled an incident just a few days after the Pittsburgh shooting, days when he was tending to the needs of others and “didn’t have time for myself to sort of have that moment.”
He was alone in his office when a family came to the door, parents with two children. Marko paused while collecting himself.
“They brought me a plant, a simple plant,” he said, still gripped by emotion, “and that was the first time since I heard the news that I had a shoulder that I could cry on. That one family with that one plant is hope.”
Just as one diverse group on one stage is hope.