Austin interreligious series focuses on unity

By Enedelia J. Obregón
Senior Correspondent

It all started with a meal.
Last year during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Bishops Joe Vásquez and Daniel Garcia hosted a dinner for several Muslim and Christian couples at the diocesan Pastoral Center in Austin.
During Ramadan, Muslims pray and fast from sunrise until sunset, holding nightly feasts. This year Ramadan starts at sunset on May 26 and continues through June 25.
One of the couples attending was Deacon Ray and Joanne Sanders. 
The Sanders sat with with two other couples, including Enes Bilgin and his wife Diler Unal. He is outreach coordinator with the local Dialogue Institute of the Southwest and a member of the Muslim-Turkish community.
The Bilgins invited the Sanders to their home for a meal. The Sanders reciprocated. The informal gatherings grew. Among those attending was Father Larry Covington, pastor at St. Theresa Parish in Austin, who has a passion for ecumenism.
The more they talked, the more they hoped would come out of those gatherings. 
“So we had one meeting and that’s when we got a ‘God moment,’” Joanne Sanders said. “After that it all came together.”
The “it” was the Interreligious Panel and Discussion Series titled “May All Be One.” The four meetings in early spring were hosted by different houses of worship and the institute.
St. Theresa Parish in Austin hosted the first session on “Holy Texts and Key Figures;” St. John Neumann Parish in Austin hosted “Tradition;” Highland Park Baptist Church hosted “Living the Faith;” and The Dialogue Institute hosted “Addressing Extremism.”
The nonprofit institute was founded in 2002 by Turkish-Americans to promote mutual understanding, respect and cooperation among people of diverse faiths and cultures.
Father Covington opened the first session reminding participants that “all of us are children of God who are precious in his sight.”
He said the evening offered participants an opportunity to make friends. “When we make friends everything begins to fall into place. If we accomplish only one thing it’s that you make one new friend,” Father Covington said.
People were encouraged to sit at tables with people they didn’t know. They shared snacks and refreshments and took photos. While 200 were expected, more were in attendance and the staff had to bring in extra tables and chairs. 
Bilgin moderated the panel, which included the Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune, senior pastor at University Baptist Church; Imam Okan Dogan, of the Dialogue Institute; and Father Bud Roland, pastor at St. John Neumann Parish.
Bethune gave a brief presentation on the history of the Bible and the Protestant theology behind Bible-centered worship.
Father Roland, who grew up Protestant, explained that Catholic worship grew from tradition and Scripture. He credited Protestants with studying the Bible from a critical and historical method. 
It was the imam’s presentation that seemed to most interest the heavily-Catholic group.
Dogan explained the Muslims are monotheistic and believe that the Prophet Muhammed is the most recent prophet to receive the word of God from the Angel Gabriel. He also noted that Allah is the Arabic word for God. The Muslim holy book, the Qu’ran, is written in Arabic.
Mary is mentioned 34 times in the Qu’ran. They believe in the virginal conception and that Jesus was a great prophet who performed miracles, ascended into heaven and that he will return to fight the antichrist.
Muslims consider themselves to be People of the Book, which Christians call the Old Testament.
“We believe in God, we believe in the hereafter and we believe in the prophets,” Dogan explained. The prophets’ names may sound different in Arabic, but the names Abraham, Moses and Adam are familiar to Christians.
After a 15-minute break so the Muslim participants could recite their evening prayers, there were table discussions and audience questions from the panel.
During the second discussion, Josefina Gibbs from St. Louis Parish in Austin came with her husband, Don, who is a member of the First Presbyterian Church but grew up Southern Baptist.
“We came because there’s so much fear,” she said. “I was interested in getting beyond the stereotypes. I wanted to hear from people themselves.”
Güner Arslan, a founding board member of the institute, said such gatherings are where change begins.
“When you get people together who wouldn’t speak to one another, then magic happens,” he said.
Bilgin said many people are hesitant at first, but sitting at a table with others “changes everything.”
They hope to expand the dialogue and get the word out to other houses of worship.
“We will continue breaking bread together,” he said. “Our long-term hope is that God will continue to show us the way.”
Joanne Sanders believes these gatherings were meant to be.
“This is of God,” she said. “It doesn’t make a difference what our traditions are. We believe in one God. That’s critical. We are all called home in our own traditions and that strengthens us.
“It’s the God in other people touching the God in you,” she said.