Interfaith conversation sheds light on how to foster friendships across religious groups

Rabbi Steven Engel, Reverend Bryan Fulwider and Senior Imam Muhammad Musri led a community discussion about the life-changing impact of creating interfaith friendships.

From the tragic shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue to verbal acts of hatred and discrimination, it’s clear that bigotry and intolerance plague our society. Many would argue that forging strong interfaith relations is perhaps more important now than ever before.

To break down barriers and combat stereotypes, every year the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs hosts an interfaith community event featuring religious leaders and scholars. This year, the Green School teamed up with a newly created community group in Miami-Dade County, Interfaith Youth Miami, an initiative started by local high school students to promote understanding and foster new friendships between various faith communities.

The special conversation featured a rabbi, an imam and a pastor – longtime friends and co-hosts of an Orlando public radio show that promotes interfaith friendships and a religiously inclusive worldview.

The conversation took place at the Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ in front of a religiously diverse audience who came together for the event. It was dedicated to the memory of Roberta Daum Shevin, a pillar of Miami’s faith community and former executive director of MCCJ (formerly the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews).

“Our mission at the Green School is to explore how we can create a more just, peaceful and prosperous world. For a society to thrive, tolerance in all forms and at all levels is paramount,” said Pedro D. Botta, senior strategic director of the Green School. “It is my hope that through conversations like [this] one we can move beyond tolerance. We need to move toward embracing one another. That’s the only way we’re going to build a better world.”

Dubbed the “Three Wise Guys,” the religious leaders – Rabbi Steven Engel of the Congregation of Reform Judaism of Orlando, Senior Imam Muhammad Musri of the Islamic Society of Central Florida and the Reverend Bryan Fulwider, formerly of the First Congregational Church of Winter Park – led a candid discussion on interfaith relations, religious diversity and bringing people together for true dialogue.

“Our country deserves to have a conversation on religions that is comfortable, intelligent, not divisive and also one in which we can disagree [with each other],” Engel explained. “Three religious leaders coming together and actually becoming friends, trusting one another and engaging in intelligent religious conversation [is extremely important].”

The “Three Wise Guys” posed for a photo with InterFaith Youth Miami founder Alexander Sutton (in a cap gifted him by the gentlemen) and the youth group’s student leaders.

During their presentation, the men took questions from the audience and discussed topics ranging from interfaith marriages to the importance of gathering accurate information about others through credible sources.

“We are living in a time of great divisiveness,” Fulwider said. “We have to fight this tendency in our society to let fear take over. Perfect love casts out all fear. We have to start in our own hearts and minds – in a place of openness, not giving up our own traditions, but saying, ‘I’m going to be the very best of my tradition.’ That’s where we begin. In our hearts.”

But, how can we in our daily lives go about connecting with people of other faiths in a comfortable way?

Food is one option, said Musri. Case in point: His own friendship with Engel and Fulwider. More than 20 years ago the three men became friends – over lunch.

“Breaking bread and building bridges go together,” Musri explained. “Over a meal, if we take the time to cover all the similarities, I don’t think we will get to the differences for a very long time. By then, we are good friends. And we will be able to not tolerate each other but respect one another. We can see our own humanity in others.”

The leaders were optimistic about the future – impressed by the high school students in the interfaith youth group and the students’ embrace of interfaith friendships.

Alexander Sutton, a junior at Coral Gables Senior High School – and the founder of InterFaith Youth Miami – shared the reason why he started the high school group.

“If we all come together and acknowledge our similarities and how we really have the same goal, which is creating a just community and becoming a better person and improving the world, then we can see what better connects us,” he said. “We want to build a future based on trust and cooperation, not intolerance and war.”

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