Inter-faith group comes together for community outreach

Christie+Anderson+lights+the+candle+representative+of+lasting+peace+at+a+prayer+gathering+at+the+Unitarian+Universalist+Church+on+Nov.+29%2C+2015.

Christie Anderson lights the candle representative of lasting peace at a prayer gathering at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Nov. 29, 2015.

Kelly Powell

Groups such as the Kent Inter-faith Alliance, Campus Religious Life Organization, United Christian Ministries and Inter-faith Campus Ministry look to be a bright contrast to the plethora of dark events that have inked our newspapers and consumed our television screens. With their efforts based in bringing members of different faith traditions together, each organization hopes to eliminate barriers and find commonalities to create and forge unity and trust.

Kent Inter-faith Alliance

The newly formed Kent Inter-faith Alliance for Reconciliation and Justice, host to more than 13 religious groups, held a prayer gathering at the Unitarian Universalist Church Sunday at 1 p.m. for the numerous mass shootings both in the U.S. and internationally.

Julie Cory, pastor at First Christian Disciples Church of Christ, said “senseless tragedies” are the root of the alliance’s formation. After the Charleston church massacre in June 2015 that killed nine members of a predominantly black church, religious leaders in Kent decided to create a dialogue and solidify the community.

The Charleston, South Carolina, shooting compelled L.A. Gatewood, pastor at Spelman Chapel AME Church, to take action within Kent. He resolved to march from the First Christian Disciples Church of Christ to Spelman Chapel.

He walked alone as long as he was able to, to demonstrate a positive relationship between two churches, one having a predominantly white congregation and the other having a predominantly black congregation. On Aug. 2, 2015, 400 people joined Gatewood in his march.

Since the march, the alliance has come together several times, its most recent meeting being a two-day reconciliation retreat held at Kent United Church of Christ. The retreat began with equity and inclusion training, continued with presentations from thirteen faith communities and concluded in relationship building between attendees.

“The retreat was an opportunity for us to develop a common language, vision and unity,” said Melissa Carvill-Ziemer, minister at Unitarian Universalist Church of Kent. “Being part of a collective allows us to celebrate our differences and contributes to the beauty of our community.”

The retreat and regular alliance meetings are not just open to leaders but also to members of each church body. Gatewood also viewed the retreat as a unique way to relate multiple Kent congregations.

“We are able to build bridges over stuff that has happened and problems that have erupted,” he said.

One of those problems has been deciding how to address tragedy. The gathering included, but was not limited to, responsive readings, silent reflection time, song and poems.

“It helped to increase our perspective,” said Jordan Dromi, a junior music technology major. “Things like this make it easier to understand people.”

Christie Anderson, reverend of Unitarian Universalist Church of Kent, agreed with the relational aspect of their meeting. Her hope for the gathering was that those in attendance would attempt to understand “complex international situations that don’t have easy answers.”

“When you get to know the face behind people of different religions, that’s what softens your heart,” she said.

Members of the congregation stand behind that sentiment.

“This church is my home because of the social justice focus,” said Danie Beale, a member of Unitarian Universalist Church. “The secular movement is important, but the origin of justice is in religion, so the solution is there, too.”

For members of the alliance, social justice is one of the most critical values the church body can stress. Avery Danage, pastor of United Church of Christ, feels there can’t be a healthy community without it.

“It’s important that support is shown to marginalized people,” he said. “It’s fatal hypocrisy otherwise. We need to be as adamant about foreign terrorism as we are about domestic terrorism.”

As the co-convener of the alliance, Danage is determined to establish a reputation in the Kent community of not being too forward, nor too silent about matters of inter-faith activity. An analogy he made describes his view of relationships between supposedly separate faith communities.

“You don’t have to major in what I major in to be a student at Kent State University,” he said. “We can still eat at Rosie’s and watch football together.”

The purpose of the alliance he says, is to recognize differences in doctrine while maintaining a “check and balance” of similarities across the board.

“You don’t have to always agree with my position — that’s the beauty of individualism,” he said. “My wife and I disagree more than we agree, but our shared vision of being in community trumps that disagreement.”

The alliance strives to come together and find common ground, especially in the face of injustice. Danage recounted a Biblical story in the Book of Obadiah about the city of Edum, which was a brother to the country of Israel. While Israel was being destroyed, the citizens of Edum simply watched. Danage emphasized that the goal of the alliance is not to watch, but to act.

“We can’t just stand by and look at the dismantling of our community,” he said.

This solidarity, demonstrated during the march, left Gatewood overwhelmed.

“To see 400 individuals march through the streets of Kent on their way to a black service with the police keeping an eye on them. Every pew was filled to listen to a sermon about love having no color. It’s said that 11 a.m. is normally the most segregated hour in the country,” he said.

Campus Religious Life Association

Where the alliance is a conglomeration of leaders in the community, the Campus Religious Life Association provides a space for the leaders at Kent State. Formerly known as the Campus Ministers Organization, CRLA is a voluntary group that allows religious professionals to discuss their respective faiths and to determine how to best serve the campus of Kent State.

“The university sees this group in collaboration with it,” said Mary Lynn Delfino, CRLA president and pastoral associate for campus ministry of the Newman Center. “We are able to help with retention and spiritual and emotional well being of students.”

CRLA formed in the 1970s in response to the May 4 shootings. After the tragedy, people were concerned about the formation of cults and feared that religion might be hidden.                      

Since then, the CRLA has established a particular structure for their meeting times, which occur on the second Tuesday of every month. Gatherings will start with a member of the university community, such as a police officer, psychological services provider or admissions member, sharing information about the state of the campus. After the information is shared, members of the CRLA are welcome to take a moment of reflection and discussion ensues.

“Being a part of this organization has allowed me to recognize that your presence matters,” Delfino says. “We all get to witness to this campus in our own quiet way. To be together is what we should be doing. None of us are here to step on each others toes. We are here to be ethical in the sharing of our faiths and spread goodness.”

United Christian Ministries

One group on campus has been working since the 1920s. United Christian Ministries acts as an ecumenical organization that emphasizes inter-faith activity between students. In fact, they want to be so intentional with inter-faith projects that it’s written in their constitution.

“We really need to focus on overcoming hate,” Jodi Stillisano, associate pastor of UCM, said. “I don’t think any religion would disagree with that. We have to set aside doctrine and theology when it comes time to stand in solidarity.”

Those times to stand in solidarity have been both loud and quiet this year.

“This semester, sadly, we’ve already held three prayer vigils,” Stillisano said. “We’re hoping to do more fellowship that’s not always in response to something tragic.”

Besides vigils, UCM has been able to hold events such as making sandwiches for Kent Social Services in collaboration with Muslim Student Association, Catholic Student Association and Hillel. They have also been able to fundraise through a “coin wars” competition and host an “agape feast” in which they invited students from PRIDE! Kent and Trans*fusion to the table.

“It’s nice to see different groups standing side by side,” Stillisano said. “We don’t want there to be tension and we hope people feel support from us.”

Inter-faith Campus Ministry

Since 1967, Inter-faith Campus Ministry at Kent Stark has been a “cooperative venture between clergy to have a faith presence on campus,” says Michael Gleason, ICM director and campus minister.

“I came to college as an atheist, so I’m well aware of student traditions,” Gleason said. “Every individual has a body, mind, soul and spirit. My ideology is that a whole person has a faith component.”

The outreach that ICM does to encourage this comes in several different forms. They refer students to counseling, offer them bus passes and gas cards and provide a fully licensed preschool and childcare center for students with children.

According to the Inter-faith Campus Preschool and Child Care Center pamphlet, the group offers daycare from ages infant to five and Before & After School Programs for grades kindergarten to fifth grade.

Alongside of the preschool, ICM lives up to its first initial and brings in practitioners of different faiths to share meals with the approximately 20 students who participate weekly. The students get the chance to talk with the individual and the individual will bring in items of worship from their faith tradition to put on display.

“We once had an Orthodox Jewish rabbi come in,” Gleason said. “Our goal is education and we want to encourage the students to grow.”

Inter-faith

From the city of Kent to Kent State’s main and branch campuses, inter-faith activity is growing.

“We are helping to write a narrative of community rather than supremacy,” Danage said. “If you look at things through the lens of superiority, you will always see inferiority. However, if you look at things through the lens of community, you will always see unity.”

Editor’s Note: A story on an inter-faith organizations in the Dec. 3 edition of The Kent Stater incorrectly named the Kent Inter-Faith Alliance for Reconciliation and Justice. In addition, Rev. L.A. Gatewood of Spelman AME Church did not participate in the march from the First Christian Disciples Church; he only delivered the message at the church. Rev. Gatewood began the organization with Rev. William Meyer of First Christians Disciples Church of Christ after the Charleston, South Carolina, shootings in June 2015.

Kelly Powell is the religion reporter for The Kent Stater. Contact her at [email protected]