Religious leaders connect separate faiths

Allison Mueller

Lutheran Pastor Corrine Haulotte speaks at the “We Are More Alike Than Different: An Interfaith Conversation” panel discussion in Stark Hall Auditorium, room 103 on Wednesday, Feb. 22. The presentation brought together leaders from different religions for a discussion on their similarities. (Photo by Nikko Aries)
Islamic leader John Emory speaks at the “We Are More Alike Than Different: An Interfaith Conversation” panel discussion in Stark Hall Auditorium, room 103 on Wednesday, Feb. 22. The presentation brought together leaders from different religions for a discussion on their similarities. (Photo by Nikko Aries)

Olivia Volkman-Johnson / Winonan

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution allows U.S. citizens the freedom to practice their religion of choice or abstain from practicing a religion.

Despite this, differences in religion have been the basis of numerous hate crimes and attacks against faith groups across the nation, such as the recent vandalism of a Philadelphia Jewish cemetery or bomb threats made against a Des Plains, Ill. mosque.

Any hatred targeted at those who practice a religion became a concern for Winona State University’s Access Service Librarian Carol Daul-Elhindi.

To combat this hatred, she helped plan a discussion panel at Winona State titled “We Are More Alike Than Different: An Interfaith Conversation” on Wednesday, Feb. 22 to discuss the similarities between different religions in order to dispel misconceptions about various religious practices.

The event was sponsored by Solomon’s Song, the Winona Muslim Student Association, the Lutheran Campus Association and the Newman Center.

Six representatives of major faith groups made up the discussion panel, including Deacon Justin Green, who practices Catholicism; Barb Nagel, who practices Judaism; computer science professor Bhaskar Iyengar, who practices Hinduism; Reverend Paul Kisho Stern, who practices Zen Buddhism; John Emory, who practices Islam; and Pastor Corrine Haulotte, who practices Evangelical Lutheranism.

The title of the event comes from the mission statement of Solomon’s Song—a non-profit organization that aims to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health while encouraging conversations between diverse groups of people.

Daul-Elhindi, co-founded the organization with her husband, Mohamed Elhindi, in honor of their son Solomon, who took his life in January 2016.

“We decided to start Solomon’s Song as a nonprofit to help reduce stigma and normalize conversations around mental health, celebrate diversity, and… hosting events that would bring people together,” Daul-Elhindi said.

Daul-Elhindi was raised Christian, but does not currently practice any religion, while Elhindi is Muslim. Daul-Elhindi said she was surprised by the kindness of Muslim people in contrast to their portrayal in the news and entertainment media.

“When I met my husband, one of the things that I was most impressed with was how kind Muslim people were, how generous they were, how caring they were, how they would help anybody,” Daul-Elhindi said. “That’s what I saw as the true Muslim faith, and yet everybody else was worried about all the bad things you hear in the news and see in a movie.”

After noticing the trend of Muslim-Americans being negatively portrayed in the media, Daul-Elhindi said she and her husband decided to reach out to other faith-based organizations in Winona to co-sponsor the discussion panel.

“Everything was just getting divided, and we were trying to figure out a way we could bring people back together in awareness because our fears are what fuel that hatred,” Daul-Elhindi said.

As co-sponsor, members of the Muslim Student Association assisted in marketing the event as well as volunteering at the event, according to the association’s president Uzma Ghazanfar.

“We as Muslim students feel that there is a lot of fear-mongering that is rooted in ignorance, and we hope that we can eradicate that to some extent,” Ghanzanfar said. “We aim to celebrate being Muslim, not just with our fellow Muslims, but with the rest of the campus community.”

Much of what creates this fear, Green said, is a lack of knowledge about those who are different in race, ethnicity, religion and other characteristics.

“When we fear, we’re at war. I suspect that if we asked all six of us here about whether or not the god that we worship supports a war or cheers for a war, the answer is no,” Green said during the panel. “The God that we all know is the god of justice and love and peace.”

Emory agreed and spoke on the misconcep-tions about Islam due to extremists who use their faith as the reason for their actions.

“Categorically, violence plays no part in the practice of Islam. Islamic extremism plays no part, and, on behalf of 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, we condemn any sort of violence in the name of Islam or in the name of any other religious traditions,” Emory said.

The panelists from different religious backgrounds also agreed on other topics discussed, including the flexibility of worship and the importance of prayer.

“Prayer is transformative. Prayer is what changes us as human beings,” Emory said during the panel. “Eventually, as we pray, we change over time and we’re able to embody those divine attributes that God has.”

Nagel agreed and said, “When we pray, we’re really sort of setting ourselves up for our own action because that’s the extension of being a person who has the spark of God in them. Then, our task here is to be God-like.”

Haulotte and Iyengar said prayer and worship can take many forms and may not always take place in a formal house of worship.

“Prayer is not the same as praying, and prayer for me isn’t just about saying words or reciting something, but it is when we bring our whole selves with such intention,” Haulotte said. “So it could be reciting psalms, it could be making love, it could be making matzo ball soup for friends when they’re sick. For me, intentionality and presence is prayer.”

Iyengar recommended students take part in a service club as a way to give themselves to the community.

“When you see that, that is worship,” Iyengar said.

The panelists all said they hope Winona State students and Winona citizens learn more about other religions and how faith practices can create an open community.

“We’re not going to be able to change everybody’s minds and we’re not asking that everybody constantly be giving everyone hugs and high-fives,” Stern said. “What we are saying is there’s a value to sitting down, coming together as a community, and really experiencing some real time together and dialogue.”

By Olivia Volkman-Johnson