Interfaith gathering counters Quran-burning threat

By J.A. Buchholz | Sept. 14, 2010 {1215}

Hundreds of people of all faiths from the Gainesville community and beyond attended “A Gathering for Peace, Understanding and Hope” Sept. 10 at Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #10-1542. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

GAINESVILLE — As pundits, politicians and people around the world debated whether the pastor of a small fringe congregation in Gainesville should or should not burn the Quran, the holy text of the Muslim faith, members of the Gainesville Interfaith Forum decided a more pointed response was needed.

The three-hour “A Gathering for Peace, Understanding and Hope” Sept. 10 at Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville was their answer.

Hundreds of people representing various faiths came together on the eve of the ninth anniversary of the 911 terrorist attacks to stand against what they see as growing hatred, bigotry and intolerance around the country.

The Gainesville Interfaith Forum includes Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and members of other faiths. Its sole purpose is fostering understanding, mutual respect and peace among the faith communities it represents.

Louise Sheehy made the more than two-hour drive from Orlando to attend the gathering to show her solidarity with those in the Muslim community.

“By showing up, I am making a statement,” said Sheehy, who recently observed and participated in Rosh Hashanah, the start of the civil year in the Hebrew calendar. “We are saying we are here, we believe all faiths have value. We are saying that love prevails. I’m glad to be here and join hands with people who are different from me.”

Throughout the evening, members of the Gainesville Interfaith Forum addressed the guests as they viewed cultural art, tasted ethnic foods and participated in open dialogue with people of different faiths. Participants also wrote messages of peace on a large canvas banner and post-it note wall, while children worked at art tables coloring peace posters and making beaded peace symbol necklaces.

Children decorate bottle caps with messages of peace and hope at art stations set up in one area of the sanctuary. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #10-1543. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.
Dr. Humeraa Qamar, president of the Gainesville Interfaith Forum, said the group decided it was time to bring their different constituents together to combat what she called “fear mongering.”

“I think having something like this is the key for peaceful coexistence,” said Qumar, who served as moderator for the evening. “Sometimes people hear an exotic name and become afraid. If we can educate people, get to know one another, then the fear can be overcome.”

Qumar, who is a Muslim, said she wants people to know that Muslims are as much a part of the American fabric as any other faith.

“We love this country; we are (as much) a part of the scenery as anyone else,” Qumar said. “We are about love, harmony and peace.”

Vasudha Narayanan, another member of the Gainesville Interfaith Forum, said people espousing hatred have used religion for far too long to cause confusion and disrupt communities. A practicing Hindu, she has lived in Gainesville since 1982 and implored people to talk with one another, “to break bread or eat rice with one another,” in order to establish a common language of love.

Razan Al-Nahhas, a Muslim, was feeling that love as she mingled with people admiring paintings and drawings displayed in the gathering’s art gallery.

“I feel so blessed to live in a community that can display its strength by coming together,” said the recent graduate of the University of Florida in Gainesville. “I knew I really wanted to come to part of this event.”

Al-Nahhas was surprised that what was happening in her community morphed so quickly into national headlines, yet she said she never wavered in her belief in the American spirit.

Razan Al-Nahhas, 21, a Muslim and recent graduate of the University of Florida, writes a message of peace on a canvas banner. “Through all of this, I’ve grown to love my community so much,” she said. “I am so proud to be a Muslim-American.” Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #10-1544. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

“I have never been more proud to be an American,” said Al-Nahhas, who was born in Saudi Arabia to American parents. “The vast majority of (American) people have stood for what is right, what is moral. People here are standing with me in a show of support, the very same way I would be if something were to impact Christians or Jewish people. I am just so happy to be here.”

Dr. J. Bernard Machen, president of the University of Florida, was happy that such a broad group of people and faiths was represented. When he addressed the crowd, he said he was overjoyed looking at the colorful participants.

“This is my Gainesville,” he said to thunderous applause. “It’s a wonderful night.”

Lama David Bole, a Tibetan Buddhist, which is a religious doctrine practiced in Tibet, certain regions of the Himalayas and other areas, said the gathering was confirmation that people of different faiths can not only coexist, but get along.

“This says that we are more alike than we are different,” he said.

That was also the message Ahmed El-Mahdawy, chairman of the Gainesville Islamic Center, wanted to convey. He read portions of the Quran to participants and pointed out similarities between different faiths.

“All of the human race needs to be together for the same thing,” he said after addressing the group. “There is only one human race. We agree on 99 percent of things. We should put that one percent aside and let God decide it.”

The Rev. Milford Lewis Griner said The United Methodist Church has spoken loudly and clearly on the issues of justice and racism and that’s why clergy and laity have the responsibility of representing those who are under attack.

Griner, pastor of Hall Chapel United Methodist Church in Gainesville and Pleasant Plain United Methodist Church in Newberry, said United Methodists must be willing to speak out against wrong whenever it occurs. He said he was filled with encouragement and hope that hatred would not overtake the teachings of Jesus Christ.

The Rev. Dan Johnson, senior pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church, answers questions from reporters. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #10-1545. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

Christ died for all the people, regardless of their religion or lack thereof, Griner said, and he was certain peace and love would always win against hate.

The Rev. Dr. Dan Johnson, senior pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church, said it was unfortunate the evening’s positive gathering had to rival attention given to a negative point of view.

Johnson said the Gainesville Interfaith Forum wanted to give people an opportunity to engage with one another, while fostering the belief that all religions want to get along. He said the core belief of the interfaith group is that differences of faith should be celebrated.

“I think people of faith have been held hostage by the voices of extremists. The voices of the moderates just aren’t heard,” Johnson said. “I think many, many people want this kind of thing where we can come together to peacefully talk about political and religious differences.”

A time to remember

Those seeking a place of solitude on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks found it the next day during a time of prayer and remembrance at the chapel at Trinity United Methodist Church.

Members of the church and community came and went as they felt led for two hours throughout the morning. Some quietly prayed at the altar and left prayer requests; others reveled in the silence of the quite space.

Every half hour, Jim Cook, the church’s director of prayer and chapel ministries, and the Rev. David Allen, associate pastor, offered a prayer and scripture upon which those gathered could reflect.

Mac Athearn, a member at Trinity United Methodist Church, said it’s still hard to reconcile the horrible events of that day.

Participants hold hands as they sing “Kumbaya” at the end of the evening. Photo by Tita Parham.  Photo #10-1546. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

“This is a good way to remember those we lost and that time in our history,” Athearn said as she left the chapel with her husband, Don.

Gail McMillan, also a member at the church, said it is vital that Americans take time each year to commemorate Sept. 11. She appreciated that the church didn’t offer a formal service, but an open time for people to reflect in any way they wanted.

The Rev. Louanne Loch, rector at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Gainesville, said the morning allowed her to pray for unity and peace for all people.

“I think this is a great time for us to hold one another up in love and respect,” she said. “I think we should always look to love and respect one another, not just on special occasions, but throughout the year.”

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando
*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a freelance writer based in Seffner, Fla.

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