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Interchurch conference seeks to unite faiths; join the conversation

September 29, 2008

Local religious leaders to meet for summit    

Judy Bastien
jbastien@theadvertiser.com
The Advertiser
September 28, 2008

There was a time, not so many decades ago, when Catholics and
Protestants stood on opposite sides of a clearly defined line.

  Since Vatican II, there has been an effort to reach out across that line.

The Louisiana Interchurch Conference is reaching further at its
semiannual board meeting, which begins today in Lafayette.

The coalition of Catholic and mostly mainstream Protestant leaders has
invited members of the non-Christian faith community to participate. An
interfaith service, which is open to the public, will also be held in
conjunction with the meeting.

"Recently, we've realized that as Christians, we are very often in a
context where there are other faiths, other than Christian," said the
Rev. Dan Kurtz, executive director of the Louisiana Interfaith
Conference and priest-in-charge of St. Francis Episcopal Church in
Denham Springs.

The Rev. Charles Langlois of St. Peter Catholic Church in New Iberia
views it as the next step in the ecumenical movement. Langlois is also
on the executive committee of the Louisiana Interchurch Conference and
is an LIC board designate for Bishop Michael Jarrell. He is the
ecumenical officer for the Diocese of Lafayette.

"Since Vatican II, the church has a huge emphasis on ecumenism -
reaching out to other churches. So, (now) there will be an improved
dialogue between Christians and Jews, Christians and Muslims and people
of other faiths.

"Pope John Paul II said it's not an option - it's something we must do,"
Langlois said.

While organizers are not expecting representatives of the Jewish
community, because the meeting falls on the first day of Rosh Hashana, a
major holy day for Jews, representatives of the Buddhist, Muslim and
Baha'i faiths are expected.

The Greek root of the word ecumenical refers to the entire community or
household of God, Kurtz said.

"God's hope for human beings is that we become one in our lives together
and have harmony, unity and peace," he said.

It will be the first time to meet with these faith leaders for Thubten
Yeshe, a Tibetan Buddhist monk at the Katog Choling Meditation Center,
but he believes it is a concept whose time has come.

"I'm dedicated to nonsectarian work, meaning interfaith, promotion of
unity. I think it's so important.

"The different faith communities tend to be off on their own and I think
we have a need to come together. These are trying times. And, right now,
the ones that are working in positive ways to promote positive values in
the world need to cooperate. The negative forces work together more
cooperatively," said the monk, who explained that Thubten is his surname.

The Dalai Lama, the head of Tibetan Buddhism, has placed a strong
emphasis on reaching out to other faiths, he added.

For Eid Kneifati, imam of the Islamic Center of Lafayette, it's not a
new idea.

"I came from Lebanon," he said. "In my city, there are Muslims and
Christians alike. When I was a little boy, I never could tell the
difference between our holidays and Christian holidays - until I came of
age and studied the Islamic religion."

Kneifati is no stranger to Christian churches.

"Sometimes, I do prayers at churches and meetings. Even, I go to
Christian hospitals and do prayers for Muslims," he said.

Langlois has been practicing the spirit of ecumenism at the service that
kicks off the Fourth of July celebration in New Iberia.

"(The service) incorporates all faiths in prayer services, with the idea
of brotherhood, unity and participating together," he said. "We invite
ministers of all faiths, and we usually have representatives from other
Christian faiths and usually we have Muslim and Jewish representatives.
This year, we had a Hindu gentleman."

There is a precedent for it, Langlois said.

"Pope John Paul II once had a huge service that incorporated all those
religions. It was held at the shrine of St. Francis of Assisi in Italy,"
he said.

There are advantages to building sound relationships among the diverse
faith communities, Kneifati said. "It's better for our city, when we are
all standing together (opposing) the evil and the devil's work in this
world.

"We also can stand by each other for peace and helping the needy."

The idea in coming together is not to erase the lines between faiths, so
much as to blur them just a little.

"One thing that I think would be of benefit to groups coming together
and praying together is that we could build solidarity," Thubten said.
"We can build unity by helping each other strengthen their own faith,
strengthen the diversity - and that comes through dialogue and honoring
the differences and the similarities.

"It's actually quite a spiritual discipline to have that kind of tolerance."
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