This Sunday, July 29th from 4 to 6:30 p.m., the Interfaith Alliance will host the 3rd annual Interfaith Picnic at Crystal Lake Park. It's a time when the community comes together seeking to build bridges, not walls, regardless of differing backgrounds and religious beliefs. I spoke with a few local religious leaders including Imam Sawadogo Ousmane from the Central Illinois Mosque &Islamic Center (CIMIC), Pastor Deb from the First Mennonite Church (FMC), Rabbi Alan Cook from the Sinai Temple, and Earl Kellogg, a member and leader of the working group of interfaith people, about the event and the work that their group is doing in the community.

Smile Politely: Tell me about the interfaith work happening here in our community.

Earl Kellogg: A group of interfaith leaders in Champaign-Urbana from the Jewish tradition, the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center, several Christian churches, faculty from the Department of Religion at the University of Illinois, and the University YMCA are working together to explore the opportunities and challenges of interfaith work. The focus is on what can be done more effectively in the interfaith context to address important socio-economic issues in the state, nation and world. Champaign-Urbana is particularly well-suited for this kind of exploration because of the presence of the University of Illinois, the large number of domestic and international students who will go on to be leaders of our nation and world, and the ongoing foundation of interfaith work and the trust developed in the community. There are plans to hold a conference/symposium on interfaith collaboration in Champaign-Urbana in late September or early October 2019.

SP: How did you become involved in the Interfaith Alliance?

Imam Sawadogo Ousmane: I first became involved in interfaith work when I was living in Southern Illinois, with the Interfaith Council of Carbondale. As for my involvement with the Interfaith Alliance, it all started when Rabbi Alan Cook of Sinai Temple visited me in the Mosque and invited me to join this uplifting group.

SP: What is one thing you would like everyone to know about your similarities to other Abrahamic religions? 

Ousmane: As a continuation of the religion of Abraham, Islam prescribes observing nine of the Ten Commandments, with exception of the Sabbath, and holds this to be among the most important principles of the faith.

Pastor Deb Sutter: God cares about all of us equally, and none of us worships or lives our faith perfectly; we all can learn from and encourage each other.

Rabbi Alan Cook: To me, so much boils down to the “golden rule.”  Every faith has some iteration of this value— treat others the way you’d like to be treated. If we begin with this premise, we can love one another and get to know one another. Theological, sociological, and political differences can be dealt with later, once we’ve built real relationships.

SP: What do you think is the most common misperception of your religion?

Ousmane: The list of misperceptions of Islam is so long that it is hard to pick one. I will say that one of the most common misperceptions is that Muslims are trying to take over the country and secretly establish “Sharia Law.” Sharia sometimes is portrayed as an outdated Islamic system of law that has no regard for the values of Western democracies. However, the Arabic word “Sharia” means a way or path and by extension it means the path to be followed. It is a body of Quran-based guidelines for how to live as a Muslim. It is not a codified document and does not come in one book. Rather, it is drawn from the Quran, Hadith (Prophetic narrations), and their interpretation by individual scholars. Sharia encompasses performing prayers, giving in charity, fasting, practicing ethics, etc. and has a broad range of interpretations. But, unfortunately, it has become associated with a few extremely rare penal applications that most devout Muslims will never encounter in their entire lifetime, let alone imposing them on a non-Muslim nation.

Cook: I wish I knew. For some people, anti-Jewish feelings run deep. We fear what we don’t understand. I’m hoping that by being a presence in the community, I’ll get to meet more people who may never have encountered a Jew previously. Hopefully, when we chat, some of those walls of fear and uncertainty begin to crumble.

SP: What is the most difficult issue facing faith leaders today? 

Sutter: The hate, animosity, and dualism in our world today is a challenge.

Cook: There’s a sector of society that misuses faith and misappropriates scripture to try to justify close-mindedness and injustice. The God I know, the God my colleagues and friends embrace, would never condone such immorality.

SP: What would you say to those having difficulty reconciling science and religion? 

Ousame: A religious person should not see a conflict between science and authentic scripture. Any apparent conflict between them stems from our incapacity to understand the real meaning of scripture or our incomplete grasp of the natural world. Religion and science should be seen as complementing one another, and reconciliation can be made through different ways of interpretation of scripture.

Sutter: To me, science and religion are not oppositional but complementary. God gave us intelligence and is not threatened by our growing understandings of how the world works.

Cook: Personally, I see no conflict. I can believe in scientific processes, and I can also see God’s hand at work in creating those processes.

SP: What do you see as the main role of religious leaders in our community today?

Ousame: In the present-day climate of tension between communities and fear of diversity, the main role of religious leaders is to help each one of us examine his/her own cultural identity and how it impacts our relationships with others. This, in turn, can help prevent or defuse any source of faith-based tension and intolerance.

Cook: I hope my colleagues and I are spreading messages of love and hope. I hope that we are voices for peace and justice. I hope that we are living out religious values such as caring for the poor and welcoming the stranger, and that we are encouraging others to do the same.

SP: What is the Interfaith Alliance picnic?

Sutter: It is a picnic sponsored by the Interfaith Alliance for folks from various religions to join together for an informal picnic. All community members interested in fellowship with those from other faiths are welcome. Bring a potluck dish to share and an attitude of interest in whomever you end up meeting.

SP: How do you hope this interfaith picnic will positively impact our community?

Cook: We can only make peace and establish harmony in our community by talking with one another and building bridges of understanding. Sharing in a meal and conversation is the best way to help us focus on commonalities, rather than fearing differences and focusing on what divides us. This is our third annual picnic (the IFACC took it over last year after it was initiated in 2016 by First Mennonite Church) and each year we’ve welcomed more than 300 people, showing that there’s an appetite in our community for such programming.

Sutter: It seems that it is human nature to interact primarily with those in our own groups.  This is an opportunity to interact with those from other faiths in a neutral space. It seems even more important today in light of the dehumanizing rhetoric we hear about Muslims and even Jews right now. This is a chance to interact as fellow humans made in the image of God.

SP: Any final thoughts to share?

Cook: I think that unfortunately instances of hate are on the rise: anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, homophobia, misogyny. Hateful people have been emboldened and given platforms for both speech and actions. We must not be silent. We all must stand up and be allies toward one another.

Kellogg: [Quote of welcome at the First Mennonite Church in Urbana]

You all are welcome. No matter if you are plain or fancy, you are welcome.
Whether we see you every Sunday, for a season, or on rare occasions, you are welcome.
Whatever your identities, image, race, abilities, sexual orientation, gender, immigration status, you are welcome.
You are welcome as a member, worshiper, participant, observer, or leader.

For more information and to RSVP to the picnic, visit their Facebook event page