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Community members of differing faiths, cultures and traditions will gather at 6 p.m. Thursday for the annual interfaith event "Love Thy Neighbor" at Saint Mark's Episcopal Church in Little Rock.

The evening service and interfaith food festival is co-sponsored by the Arkansas House of Prayer, the silent prayer and meditation center, and the Interfaith Center. Both are ministries of St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Little Rock, and the Interfaith Center is an undertaking of the church's Institute of Theological Studies.

Those attending the event represent faiths that include Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Baha'i and Hinduism, along with atheism, agnosticism and those who do not adhere to any faith.

This year's theme is "Together as One." Sophia Said, leader of the theological studies institute, says the idea for an event that unites people of different faiths and cultures came to mind after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

"People of different religions are not comfortable with each other, and that was something which was in my mind," says Said, who is Muslim. "I wanted to create a faith-based space where people can come together and pray together and be comfortable with each other."

Said and Episcopal priest Susan Sims Smith -- founder of the Arkansas House of Prayer and executive director of the Interfaith Center -- held the first "Love Thy Neighbor" event at the Arkansas House of Prayer in 2012. Attendance growth prompted a move to St. Margaret's in 2013 and later to Saint Mark's, where it has been held for the past several years.

There is an element of communal worship and dining at "Love Thy Neighbor" that Sims Smith says elevates the event from a gathering of differently minded people to a shared experience.

"It's like a little lab school," Sims Smith says. "That hour is like a little moment of, 'How can we actually experience being together as one?'

"To me that's the exciting part ... that through the talks that will be given, to the prayers that will be prayed, the music that will be sung, the food that will be shared, the diversity of belief systems in the room ... that the community actually comes together for that event for a 'together as one' experience."

Sister Deborah Troillett, a member of the Roman Catholic women's Sisters of Mercy, will invite the congregation to have a contemplative moment of silence that evening. According to Troillett, quiet and oneness have a universality across spiritual traditions and are in themselves unifying.

"As diverse as our culture is, what do we do when we want to pay respect, or when we want to honor? We often call for a moment of silence," says Troillett, who has been the Arkansas House of Prayer's director since July. "I think it provides a sense of reverence, and it gets at something that's intangible.

"It's like there's this little kaleidoscope ... a beautiful mosaic, all the different sizes, colors and pieces, they come together and they help you see differently ... to see beauty in a different way."

People yearn for a togetherness that doesn't necessarily equate with sameness, says Jay McDaniel, Willis Holmes Professor of Religious Studies at Hendrix College.

McDaniel, who identifies as a Christian influenced by Buddhism, is also co-director of the Conway-based Greater Arkansas Interfaith Network, which strives to build multifaith communities. He will be this year's keynote speaker.

"You don't begin with today," McDaniel says of interfaith relationships. "You begin with food, and music, and storytelling. You begin with those three points of departure.

"Interreligious cooperation begins with friendships. And that begins with sensing beauty -- not only the beauty of traditions, but the beauty of people's lives -- and that people are always more than their traditions.

Patricia Matthews, assistant rector at Saint Mark's, says "Love Thy Neighbor" embodies core Episcopalian values.

"Our greatest commandment in the Abrahamic [faiths] ... is love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and love thy neighbor as yourself.' ... So this is deeply part of who we are."

While standing in line at the evening's food festival a few years ago, Matthews recalls, she met area members of the Raindrop Foundation, a multistate foundation established to bridge Turkish and American cultures through service in the community. As a result of that meeting, Matthews established an annual Ramadan dinner at the Episcopal church she was on staff with then, and took that tradition with her when she joined Saint Mark's a year ago.

"The real long-term relationships that can come out of just standing next to someone in the buffet line and starting to talk -- just sharing space ... and trying to listen to each other and just know each other -- I think those have maybe greater ramifications than just the night that it actually is," Matthews says.

This year's music selections include performances by the Shechinotes of Congregation B'nai Israel in Little Rock, and by the theological studies institute's Interfaith Friendship Children's Choir.

John Willis, a committee member for "Love Thy Neighbor" and former director of the Arkansas House of Prayer, says a new element in this year's service will be a congregational song -- a hymn he chose from the Unitarian Universalist tradition about oneness.

In deciding on this year's theme, Willis says, the committee for "Love Thy Neighbor" discussed the themes of oneness and belonging.

"We have an innate, deep, spiritual oneness that we forget from time to time," Willis says. "So it's up to us to remember that we belong, but also to create spaces and communities where people can experience that sense of belonging so that we could remember our oneness."

The committee discussed the book Braving the Wilderness by University of Houston professor Brene Brown, which discusses "belonging in a polarized culture," according to Brown's website. Through various public appearances, Brown had emphasized vulnerability, which Willis says is part of what allows people to dissolve barriers.

The hope, Willis says, is that attendees will go out and foster communities of belonging throughout central Arkansas and beyond.

"That community that we're going to form on Sept. 6 is going to be only as strong as the people who show up," he says. "So we want to invite every person of every faith, every religion or even no religion to come, because we're going to be the strongest that we are together.

"So please show up, and know that you belong."

Religion on 09/01/2018

Print Headline: We gather 'together as one'

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