On October 22, members from several interfaith organizations shared their experiences and insights at the second annual Neighborhood Best Practices Conference, hosted by the Columbus Community Relations Commission and the United Way Neighborhood Partnership Center.
“Why bring people together?” was the question posed by Ray Nandyal, co-chair of the Justice Action Ministry of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus. “First of all, to create a community where people of different religions, races, and cultures function well together with mutual respect, and without suspicion and fear.”
“Columbus is very much connected to all of the neighboring communities,” Nandyal said. “Whatever good happens here will tend to have a ripple effect.”
The main reason for building connections across race and religion is “to put our faith into practice,” Nandyal said. “Many of our faiths ask us to love our neighbor, to follow the Golden Rule. In my faith, we are asked to believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. There’s no better way to put that into practice than to bring people together of different skin colors and faith systems.”
The Justice Action Ministry (formerly known as the Racial Diversity Task Force) has organized and executed numerous work projects and public actions that have involved people from different faiths, ethnicities, and sexual orientations, including a September 11 interfaith solidarity service, a We All Belong rally in downtown Columbus, and a racial unity service.
Nandyal offered the following suggestions for interfaith community work:
- Respect all religions. “You can’t go in thinking, ‘My way is to heaven, and their way is to hell.'”
- You are not there to convert. “You are there to build bridges. Any attempt to convert makes your outreach seem self-serving. Your goal needs to be making friends and generating peace.”
- Learn as you go. For example, some hijab-clad women are OK with shaking hands with a man, but others are not. “The best approach is to say hi, and let the woman extend her hand if she wishes to. Eye contact is another issue. In mainstream U.S. culture, eye contact is important, but in many cultures, maintaining eye contact is rude.”
- Avoid divisive language. “‘We Americans’ is often used to refer to white people. Americans come in all colors.”
- Genuine care and concern trump all fears. “Sometimes we make a fool out of ourselves, which is fine. We just move on. Ultimately we are judged by what’s in our hearts. If in my heart I don’t feel superior to the person I’m saying hi to, and all I desire is a human connection, that’s the most important thing.”
Also participating in the discussion were Michael Greenman and Alice Faryna of Justice Action Ministry; Arqam Khan and Lauri Nandyal of Interfaith Action Movement of Youth (I AM Youth); Rev. Deniray Mueller, Executive Director of the Columbus Metropolitan Area Church Council, Steve Bosserman of the central Ohio Bahá’í community and member of the Interfaith Association of Central Ohio; and R. Antonio Barno of the Weinland Park Community Civic Association.