Trying to bridge the religion gap

An interfaith program discusses beliefs of Jews and Christians.

Monday, April 5, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:11 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 1, 2008

When Rabbi Yossi Feintuch heard about the Open Doors, Open Minds program last fall, he didn’t realize that three months later he would be responsible for an uncommon interfaith dialogue between Jews and Christians in Columbia.

The program — a series of adult education sessions aimed at increasing communication between the two religions — was introduced during the Biennial Convention of the Union for Reform Judaism held in November in Minneapolis.

The program

Open Doors, Open Minds, which will wrap up April 26, is organized locally by Congregation Beth Shalom and the First Christian Church. The location of the weekly sessions alternates between the synagogue and the church. The first session started at Beth Shalom three weeks ago.

Feintuch, who leads Beth Shalom, said the goal was to provide a platform for synagogues and churches to engage in dialogue and foster mutual understanding and appreciation. Each Monday, participants watch a video and then follow it with discussion. Topics include the shared history and critical differences between Judaism and Christianity.

“I think it’s a good time in our culture to try and build some bridges,” said the Rev. Kenneth Watson, an associate minister at First Christian Church. “There is certainly enough misunderstanding on both sides, and now is the time to build some bridges.”

Getting started

After returning from the Reform Judaism convention in December, Feintuch approached the Rev. John Yonker, the minister of First Christian Church, about the program.

“One thing led to another, and before we knew it, Rev. Yonker, Associate Minister Rev. Watson and myself were sitting down, drawing plans to implement this program,” Feintuch said.

Watson said this was the first time they have brought the two congregations together. He said one reason it was crucial to provide opportunities for such dialogue was to help clear up any misunderstandings about the two faiths.

“Both groups are so varied — there is no one Jewish position and no one Christian position, but oftentimes, those on the other side only see one position,” he said. “They only see one kind of Jewish person and see one kind of Christian and assume all Christians are that way.”

Community response

The response, according to both First Christian Church and Beth Shalom, was better than expected.

Amy Kay Pavlovich, an associate minister at First Christian, said the church expected 10 to 12 people to sign up. But 35 people signed up instead. At Beth Shalom, about 20 people signed up, Feintuch said. Attendance has stayed strong.

“It’s given folks a place where we can come and know that it is safe to be in an environment where we can talk about our own faith and learn from one another without feeling pressured or weird,” said Pavlovich, who was interested in furthering her knowledge of Judaism.

Cliff and Mary Tompson, members of First Christian Church, said the sessions are helpful because they think education is the key to finding out how people can live together better, respect one another and respect other traditions. “When you don’t know things, you don’t know what other people do or believe in, you tend to be afraid of them; you don’t treat them fairly,” Cliff Tompson said.

Tim Parshall, a member of Beth Shalom, applauded the program. “A lot of Jews know very little about Christianity, and a lot of Christians know very little about Judaism, so efforts such as these are wonderful,” he said.

L. Scott Smith, a senior fellow at MU and a visitor at First Christian Church, said his learning has taken a different form.

“It’s not so much what I have learned intellectually but what I have learned by looking at the expressions on people’s faces,” said Smith, who said he holds a doctorate in religion, “and being reminded again that a person can disagree with the ideas that I hold dearest and still be a good human being.”

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