Interfaith Community Program


Keywords: interfaith organization, interreligious community building, interfaith collaboration, interfaith community program, listening skills, interfaith dialogue, diversity 

An Interfaith Community Program of Listening and Art

This community event was a recent outgrowth of the Interfaith Listening Project. Its purpose was to integrate  performance art with interfaith dialogue. A newspaper reporter describes the results.

BEFORE THE PERFORMANCE date a group of experienced facilitators met. They reviewed  guidelines and questions, given below,  to be used in their small groups after the performance.  

You will also find here a perceptive newspaper reporter’s description of the event. 

A similar program, co-sponsored by a grant from the Monmouth County Arts Council, was presented several months later as a follow-up.  

The Performance

This performance was designed to evoke feeling and stimulate thought and then dialogue.

The Dialogue

Guidelines for Facilitators

A moderator will introduce the dialogue with guidelines about listening and about expressing individual experiences. 

There is no need to discuss all questions. Consider the list below as a menu from which to select. You may skip specific questions. Choose/navigate through questions as seems appropriate.  

              • The key objective is to get people to open up and share in order to increase empathy and motivate involvement/commitment/action. 

              • Before starting the dialogue, emphasize that this is a sharing/listening experience; the goal is not to reach agreement and certainly not to generate debate. 

              • Participants should answer these questions from their own faith and cultural background and remember that there is more than one way to answer these questions.  

              • At the end of the dialogue, the facilitator will be asked to put a ”stone of hope” into a collective basket. You are encouraged to share a hope or idea expressed at your table, or you may simply say, “This stone is a symbol of the shared hope from our table” (or similar).  You may of course choose to be silent.    

Questions for Dialogue 

1. Transition from Performance:

              What resonated with you during the performance?  Were there any moments that touched a “personal chord”?  (This is not an analysis or evaluation; it is a personal response) 

2. Personal Reflections:             

              a. When you were growing up, what kind of contact did you have with people from other faiths, cultures, races, or faiths? 

              b. Was there a point at which you first noticed yourself responding to people from other faiths and cultures in a new way, different from how you had responded in the past? Please explain. 

              c. What attitudes did you learn from home, school, community, about other faiths/races/cultures? 

              d. What have been some occasions when you have felt puzzled by the behavior of a person whose   “culture” is different from your own?  What happened? What were some of your thoughts? 

3.  Moving forward: 

              a. How would you like to improve your interfaith/intercultural skills? 

              b. What might you do to move your community (home, faith, workplace, neighborhood, etc.) toward greater understanding?


Newspaper Coverage

Giving Meaning to Justice – Afternoon of Discussion, performances promotes interfaith listening 

By Jennifer Lieberman, courtesy of The Two River Times, March 5, 2010 

L I N C R O F T – The Monmouth Center for World Religions and Ethical Thought hosted a roundtable discussion and afternoon of the arts at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Monmouth County on Saturday, Feb. 14.  

The event, titled “Justice is Love in Action,” featured numerous speakers on the topic of social justice and equality. Inspired by the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it was co-sponsored by the social action committee of the UU congregation.  

“Today we will give meaning to justice, today is Valentine’s Day,” said Reverend Gilbert Caldwell. Caldwell, a retired Methodist Minister was one of the speakers at the event, as well as MCWRET Board member Dr. Stevi Lischin. “The goal of the Monmouth Center is to encourage interfaith listening and understanding. Today is an opportunity for that,” said Lischin. 

Reverend Virginia Jarocha- Ernst, Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation also spoke and welcomed audience members prior to the performances. Jarocha-Ernst has been the UUCMC minister since August of 2009.  

Although the performances were focused on African American history in observance of Black History month, they were designed to evoke the interfaith dialogue that followed. 

The performances included the debut of “Roots and Wings,” a West African drum ensemble lead by Skip Leib, who is a member of UUCMC. The ensemble consists of members of UUCMC and friends.  

Also performing was the Al Wright Jazz Trio which performed such songs as “Come Sunday” by Duke Ellington. Dr. Carol Penn who was the creative director for the program, as well as a former Alvin Ailey Dancer, explained in an interview with The Two River  Times™, that she chose “Come Sunday” and other arrangements by asking herself “which songs you love?” “Come Sunday” is one of her favorite compositions by Duke Ellington.  

“Spirituality and faith are universal,” said Penn. Penn also felt that universality was what this day was about which was why “Amazing Grace” was one of the songs she chose. “All cultures have their own version of “Amazing Grace,” this song is about, “personal redemption, there is the universality,” she said.  

Core of Fire Interfaith Dance Ministry of which Penn is director and co-founder, performed a dance ensemble of “Amazing Grace.” Actor and singer Lorraine Stone introduced the piece by telling the story of former slaver John Newton who wrote the song, and “gave up his livelihood as a slaveship captain.” This song was his way of expressing to God his realization of the “awfulness that he created,” she explained.  

Penn also did a solo dance performance of “Take Me to the water.” Prior to the dance she explained that the song was a way of expressing the feeling of being, “otherized,” or “left out.” Water also represented “safety,” she explained later.  

Perhaps one of the most powerful performances was “Strange Fruit,” in which the Core of Fire dancers assumed the appearance of poplar trees. This song was written by Abel Meeropol, (under the pseudonym of Lewis Allan) a Jewish school teacher from the Bronx, and was most notably performed by Billie Holiday. Stone explained that performers such as Holiday and others who performed on what was known as the Theatre Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A) circuit could not eat at the restaurants nor sleep in the hotels in which they performed. When he learned of this, and of the lynching of African Americans in the south, this, “influenced Meeropol to write the song,” she said. 

Following “Strange Fruit,” Reverend Caldwell spoke, recalling his own experiences with segregation when he worked in Atlantic City and was not allowed to sleep in the hotels or eat in the restaurants where he worked. “Some don’t like reminders,” he said, but without such reminders we can not know where we are today, he explained.  

He also said that art helps us do that, “art makes us free to become involved.”  

Caldwell also referred to the earthquake in Haiti and said that, “we of the first world,” are responsible for the third world. “Haiti provides us with an opportunity to engage in the, love that is justice,” he said.  

There was also an offering for Save the Children for the Haiti relief fund in which $621 was raised. 

In an interview with The Two River Times™, Caldwell discussed a speech by Martin Luther King titled “Beyond Vietnam,” and how this speech and King’s teachings were related to “Justice is Love in Action.” He explained that he felt Martin Luther King was about, transforming love, “to the larger society, changing the structure of society.”  

“We should never be satisfied or seduced by progress, that’s what I think yesterday was about,” he said.  

 Caldwell and Martin Luther King are both graduates of Boston University School of Theology, where they met in the Spring of 1958.  

The last performance was “We who believe in Freedom,” (Ella’s Song) sung by Bernice Johnson-Reagon, and written by Ella Josephine Baker who helped found the civil rights movement. The dancers engaged the audience in a short lesson in sign language saying the words, “We who believe in Freedom Cannot Rest,” as they danced the audience into the next room for the dialogue with a facilitator at each table. “This is a rare opportunity not just to listen, but to be heard,” said Lischin. 

Donna Renfro, one of the facilitators asked attendants, “What resonated with you during the performance?”  

Reverend Virginia Jarocha- Ernst replied that, “the music got me out of my verbal head, the words were beautiful.”  

Jack Ives, a member of “Roots and Wings,” said the performances made him feel that we are, “more and more alike, no matter what our ethnic background.” 

Renfro also asked, “When is a time in your life that you felt like a stranger in a strange land?”  

Joanne Stankievich recalled that when she was living in Munich, Germany and did not speak the language, the older Germans knew she was American and when they looked at her their faces, “would turn to stone,” she explained.  

Ives, who went to grade school in Harlem, remembered that he was, “one of three whites,” but that he did, “did not know what minority meant.” 

“I didn’t see color, I was a minority but I didn’t feel it,” he said. 

ClaraGee Stamaty Ziment who is Jewish was, “very aware of being the other,” she said.  

As a child walking in her neighborhood she recalled that she was careful about what route she took and that kids would throw stones at her. She also explained that as a Jew she was, “always asked to explain what various things meant.”  

She added that she is, “glad for all the experiences I’ve had in life.” 

Stone responded to the question as well as she described the, “strange,” transition from a segregated childhood to middle school when integration began.  

As an adult, Stone also experienced feeling like the, “other” when she got a job as the first black reporter at a local newspaper. The, “newsroom did not know what to do with that,” she said. 

As the discussion came to a close there was a general feeling of needing time for more dialogue, but Core of Fire did a final dance followed by closing comments.  

Renfro addressed the audience, and said, “The group was hopeful for how far we’ve come.” 

After the event Reverend Jarocha-Ernst said in an interview with The Two River Times™, that the, “the most important part is the dialogue, we need more time for the dialogue.”  

“Interfaith dialogue is what we use to get to the next level,” she said. 

She also described what justice means to her as a Unitarian Minister and explained that historically the viewpoint of Unitarian Universalists is to be, “on the front edge of abolition, Unitarian Universalists see injustice and try to change it.”  

Ernst explained the importance of Unitarian, “theology and how we see the world, how goodness works in the universe.”  

“Justice is intertwined with love,” she said.  

The organizations plan to host another ‘invitation to dialogue’ in early May.

NEXT: The Solitude Project