COLUMN: Unlocking the 'secret power' of taking action in an interfaith way

'Everyone needs to be at the table'

CINCINNATI -- For some nonprofit organizations, helping scores of families out of homelessness each year would be enough of a mission.

But Stacey Burge told me she believes the Interfaith Hospital Network of Greater Cincinnati can do much more.

“Part of the hidden secret of IHN is we also have this component where we serve as an opportunity for people to take social action in an interfaith way,” said Burge, the organization’s executive director. “The potential power to do more of that is really great here in Cincinnati, and we wanted to get people talking about doing more of that.”

That’s why IHN organized a panel discussion on Oct. 24 called “Division No More.” Moderated by my friend Kathrine Nero, an anchor for 9 On Your Side’s Good Morning TriState, four panelists talked about their journeys in faith and how they learned to work with people whose beliefs are different from their own.

The panelists were: Dr. Robin Martin, director of community strategy at The Greater Cincinnati Foundation; Pastor Dan Weyand-Geise of First United Church of Christ in College Hill; Pastor Lesley Jones of Truth & Destiny Covenant Ministries Fellowship United Church of Christ; Shakila Ahmad, board chair and president of the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati; and Rabbi Jonathan Cohen, dean of Hebrew Union College in Clifton where the discussion was held.

Taking part in the panel discussion, from left, Dr. Robin Martin, Rabbi Jonathan Cohen, Pastor Lesley Jones, Kathrine Nero, Shakila Ahmad and Pastor Dan Weyand-Geise.

The discussion didn’t get into too many specific strategies for working together and getting to know people of different faiths.

But panelists told stories of what had inspired them to get to know people outside of their own religious traditions. 

Cohen talked about his favorite uncle who escaped the Nazis in Germany with the help of a French woman who happened to be Catholic. She kept him hidden and safe and later became his wife.

So it was difficult for Cohen to understand why, when Aunt Mary died, a member of the Jewish clergy would not bury her in a Jewish cemetery next to her late husband, the man she had saved.

Martin talked about growing up poor but working hard and becoming well educated only to lose everything when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005.

“Hurricane Katrina was a great equalizer,” she said. “In a split moment, everything that we owned, everything that we knew was gone. Suddenly we were in line for FEMA and in the line to get food stamps. I started to realize there is no us and them. It’s just us.”

Ahmad recalled moving to the region from Pakistan as a little girl and growing up with best friends next door who were Christians.

Jones’ grandparents raised her during her early years, and she visited different congregations for worship and learned different traditions.

And while Weyand-Geise trained to be a Catholic priest, he took a different path. And before he began leading his congregation in College Hill, he worked as a hospice chaplain for several years.

“It’s at death when we realize we’re all in the same boat,” he said. “I would be with Muslim families, Jewish families, Greek families. We learn from each other, and we learn that there’s a lot that calls us together.”

The discussion was loaded with more stories and more wisdom than I can recount here, but don’t worry if you missed it.

It’s not the end, as far as Burge is concerned.

“It’s a good start,” she told me afterwards. “We don’t want to stop here. We want to keep spreading this message that we’re this opportunity to not only serve families in need but to have dialogue with your neighbors across faiths.”

That’s especially important when it comes to fighting our region’s poverty problem, Burge added.

“In order to impact poverty in Greater Cincinnati, everyone needs to be at the table,” she said. “It’s not just a government problem. It’s not just something that companies or donors can throw money at. It’s something that we all have to be involved with in an intimate way. And what better partner to have at the table than the faith community?”

Amen to that.

More information about the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati is available online.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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