Joining in faith and friendship
By Pamela Smith
For some years now, the governor has declared January Interfaith Harmony Month in South Carolina. In November the Charleston Interreligious Council announced that the mayor and civic officials would make the same proclamation at Charleston’s City Hall on January 3. It’s no coincidence that January also has included, for more than 100 years, an annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The episodes of warfare, natural disasters, refugee crises and the upsurge in hate-filled violence have made it clear to people of faith that the world needs models of cooperation and solidarity.
The whole point of these declarations on behalf of harmony and unity is to encourage people of any and all faiths to look for what they hold in common — what they treasure, what core beliefs they hold about humanity — and how they can work together on behalf of the common good.
Charleston, Columbia, Greenville and Aiken have been very active in interfaith gestures and projects. Even during the pandemic, online meetups and dialogues went on. Such groups as the Charleston Interreligious Council (often with the College of Charleston), the Interfaith Partners of South Carolina, the South Carolina Christian Action Council, the Atlantic Institute, Greenfaith and the Interfaith Partners of Aiken are among the groups that have reactivated public events to promote understanding of one another’s traditions and to engage in common projects. These groups have embraced causes like improving the quality of public education, promoting racial justice, opposing the death penalty and tending to the earth environment.
One such event in Charleston was the Interfaith Thanksgiving Service hosted at Synagogue Emanu-El in West Ashley on November 22. An interfaith choir led the congregation, and representatives from Jewish, Unitarian, Muslim, Missionary Baptist, Buddhist and Hindu communities made presentations on the theme of “Giving Thanks by Giving Back.” The offering that was taken up went to support the Lowcountry Foodbank. Combatting hunger is one of those efforts that wins wholehearted support.
Another event, some six months ago, was hosted at the Pauline Book Store on King Street. On July 31 Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Jewish, Hindu individuals and spiritual seekers without denominational ties came to hear Daniel Epstein present the findings which resulted from his travels in 100 countries and produced an elegant photo and essay collection entitled, “Portraits in Faith.” What was evident at that gathering was the human desire for the transcendent, for meaning and purpose, for peace and for lives well lived. Such desires undeniably cross boundaries of race, culture, economic status and levels of education.
The presence and participation of Catholics in these many ecumenical and interfaith events has been fostered by the massive gathering of the world’s bishops at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The decrees and declarations of that Council urged Catholics to work with our “separated brothers and sisters” in the Christian community and to appreciate “what is true and holy” in the many religions of the world. Popes since then — Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, Francis — have urged citizens of the world to eschew hate and religious rivalries and to find ways to work together respectfully and peacefully.
Upcoming events in Charleston during February and March will include a look at “Food and Faith” and “Interreligious Dialogue in the Arts.” Around the state there will be special interfaith events for Martin Luther King Day, Black History Month, Passover and Easter, Eid al-Fitr and so on. A number of us will be on hand — in the hopes that listening and making friends can exert a massive spiritual leverage that will improve the human condition and strengthen the bonds of friendship that we have been forging — for the life of the world.
Sister Pamela Smith, SS.C.M., Ph.D. is the director of the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston. The author of 16 books, she also serves as adjunct on the theology faculty of Saint Leo University.