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Ruach. Breath. Spirit.

posted February 1, 2016

Written by The Rev. Mike Wernick

On Thursday evening, January 21, I attended the annual Abrahamic Dinner which was co-hosted by the Niagara Foundation and the Kaufman Interfaith Institute.

The Niagara Foundation was formed in 2004 by a group of Turkish-American educators to help realize the vision of their spiritual leader, Fethullah Gulen (himself a Turkish Muslim scholar and poet). The founders envisioned an institution that could bring people together from all walks of life, in order to celebrate religious and cultural diversity. They named the organization after Niagara Falls, where two great lakes become more magnificent together than they could be separately. The Foundation promotes social bonds by encouraging conversation and relationship between people through hospitality, enrichment, and leadership, and today the Niagara Foundation is active in nine Midwestern states with 22 branches.

The Kaufman Interfaith Institute emerged through the interfaith efforts of respected community leader Sylvia Kaufman. Sylvia initiated interfaith dialogue in 1989, and since that time, hundreds of premier scholars, clergy, citizens, and students from the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths have come together for a conference, now known as the Triennial Interfaith Dialogue. And in honor of Sylvia’s twenty-plus years of promoting understanding among faiths, the Kaufman Interfaith Institute was created at Grand Valley State University in the summer of 2007, to promote interfaith understanding and mutual respect in West Michigan. GVSU provides leadership and administrative services and has accumulated a distinguished network of local and global leaders who are a testament to the growing need for diverse, international perspectives.

The Kaufman Interfaith Institute hosts speakers monthly.

The Kaufman Interfaith Institute hosts events throughout the year.

This month’s dinner was held at the At-Tawheed Islamic Center and Mosque in Grand Rapids, and its theme was “Conflict, Violence, and Religion.” The Kaufman Institute’s Executive Director Doug Kindschi wrote: “When a single text is taken literally, without context and interpretation it can, indeed, be the source of conflict and claims that one religion is the only true religion. There are, however, many texts from the same scriptures that set forth a more inclusive understanding of God’s relationship to humanity. It’s therefore best to understand a religion from its adherents and not its enemies. This is a call for interfaith dialogue, getting to know people from other traditions and learning from them through respect.”

Speakers included para-Rabbi Len Robinson (president of Temple Emanuel), The Rev. Jen Porter (Associate Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church), and Morsy Salem (Imam at our host Mosque). Rabbi Robinson spoke about his father’s embodiment of faith lived out, not in pronouncements, but in action. The Rev. Porter lifted up Christian love as the remedy for conflict. And Imam Morsy spoke powerfully about Islam’s prohibition against retribution and revenge. And all cited scriptural references that pointed toward the underlying unity of the three Abrahamic faiths, but which too often is overshadowed by divisive and accusatory voices.

What gave me hope, was the palatable sense of joy and cohesion. What gave me hope was the embodied welcome.

What gave me hope, was that the event set a new record with more than 150 in attendance. There were many college-aged students, but everyone there came to support the more that binds us together (against the less that divides us), and the work before us. What gave me hope, was the palatable sense of joy and cohesion. What gave me hope was the embodied welcome. This is the love of God, known by whatever name we give to Mystery. And Rabbi Robinson reminded us, that when Hebrew was (originally) written without punctuation or vowels, the sound that the name of God made, was the sound of inhalation and exhalation. Ruach. Breath. Spirit. This fosters the emerging Mind of Christ, which we as Christians are called to seek, over and over again. Like the breath, going in and out, which gives us life.