Center promotes religious diversity awareness

Sunday, March 14, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:23 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

For a Muslim woman, a routine visit to a doctor or a stay at a hospital can become an unpleasant ordeal if the physician treating her is unfamiliar with the customs of Islam.

A request for a nurse to point out the direction of Mecca could be dismissed as the effect of painkillers.

A refusal to shake hands could be misinterpreted as disrespect for the physician

A reluctance to eat the hospital pork fritter could be dismissed as a picky-eating habit.

In hopes of preventing these types of unpleasant professional interactions, the Center for Religion, the Professions and the Public was founded at MU last April by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trust.

RPP’s mission is to enable professionals from a wide array of disciplines – including journalism, law and medicine – to more effectively serve a population that has increasingly diverse religious beliefs. Edmund Lambeth, professor emeritus and former associate dean of the MU School of Journalism, is the center’s director.

RPP is a "Pew Center of Excellence"

RPP is one of 10 “Pew Centers of Excellence” in the country dedicated to the study of the role religion plays in society. Yale, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania are among the other schools to house centers of excellence.

A symposium on March 7 marked the center’s first event to encourage community participation. “Law, Journalism and Citizens in Times of Civic Stress: Which Way(s) Forward?” drew more than 50 people from a variety of religious backgrounds.

Tim Hill, outreach coordinator for RPP, said the type of public dialogue that took place is essential to the center’s mission.

“We really want to give the public a voice in what we do,” Hill said. “I think there’s a lot we can learn from the public. They can highlight important issues that practicing professionals and also educators in professional schools should pay attention to.”

The symposium included a presentation by Michael Grinfeld, associate professor of journalism and law at MU and RPP senior fellow in journalism, about religion’s role in the war on terror.

Scott Smith, an attorney, clergyman and RPP senior fellow in law, spoke about the way the Supreme Court has defined and understood the term “religion.”

Esther Thorson, associate dean of graduate studies and research at the MU School of Journalism, spoke about the role the school hopes to play in RPP.

Community discussion followed presentations

Following the presentations, members of the community asked questions and discussed the nature of religion in public life and their hopes for RPP.

Dick Blount, a retired Methodist minister and member of Missouri United Methodist Church, said he thinks the symposium served as an effective starting point in opening a dialogue among people of various faiths.

“I think that all of the different faith communities need to be more in communication with one another,” Blount said. “Pluralism and diversity is not a problem – it’s an opportunity.”

Blount teaches a Sunday school class at Missouri United Methodist about religious pluralism. He said these issues are becoming more important as America becomes more religiously diverse, and he hopes the center will continue to foster this type of discussion.

“I think that this is just the beginning – and a very fine beginning – for the center,” he said.

Dr. Rashed Nizam, a Columbia physician and president of the Islamic Center, said he too is optimistic about the role RPP can play in preventing misunderstandings among professionals and the people they serve.

“I think the frank, balanced discussion is important,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to educate people and find the common things.”

Nizam said that in the same way it’s necessary in his work as a physician to find the cause of symptoms before he can cure the disease, it is necessary to discover the causes of conflicts before healing and understanding can be achieved.

Smith said his knowledge of a wide range of faiths has helped him in his career as an attorney. He knows better than to ask an Orthodox Jewish client to help prepare for a trial on Saturday – the Jewish Sabbath – for example.

“Understanding a person’s religion gives me a better idea of who that person is and how to render professional services most effectively,” Smith said.

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