Celebrating--and Promoting--a Rich Tapestry of Faiths : The county is more diverse than many suspect, but more could be done to increase communication.

William A. Shane is the managing director of the National Conference in Orange County. Founded in 1927 as the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the National Conference has 61 offices throughout the United States

In the outside world, Orange County is often viewed, stereotypically, as an extremely affluent world of lily-white Protestant residents, with only an occasional ethnic, cultural or religious minority.

Of course, we know better.

Yet while multicultural diversity is now recognized internally as a vital and increasing force in virtually all regions of the county (no, not just in Santa Ana and Garden Grove!) very little is mentioned of the rich fabric of variety in the faith traditions represented here:

* The Catholic history of Orange County dates to 1776 when Father Junipero Serra established the Mission at San Juan Capistrano.

* There are 24 Jewish synagogues in Orange County, and an estimated Jewish population of 60,000, making it the 18th-largest Jewish community in the country. Yet some school districts still struggle with Christmas vs. Hanukkah and Easter vs. Passover issues.

* The Muslim population of Orange County now exceeds 25,000, and there are more than 5 million Muslims in the United States. But can you pass this test: 1) Are Muslims the same as Arabs? 2) When the Oklahoma City bombing took place, did you think "Arab terrorist?" 3) Where do Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam fit in?

* Did you know that there are more than 100,000 Mormons in Orange County, and that the Mormons actually arrived in California before they went to Utah? Buddhists, Hindus, the American Indian Unity Church and African American churches are all part of the Orange County faith landscape.

But is anyone doing anything about building bridges of understanding between the faiths?

The answer is yes--but not enough is being done.

* The Religious Diversity Faire of Orange County has attracted more than 600 people each of its first two years to a one-day series of workshops, seminars and discussions about more than a dozen different faith traditions represented in Orange County. It is the largest event of its kind in the Western United States.

The 1996 Faire will again be a partnership between the National Conference, the Alliance for Spiritual Community based in Laguna Niguel and UC Irvine. More than 1,000 people are expected on Nov. 9, with a special focus this year on students.

* Many individual churches, temples and synagogues have community outreach programs, leading to such events as Interfaith Thanksgiving Music Festivals, Interfaith Hunger Walks and Community Passover Seders.

* Catholic-Jewish dialogues have long taken place in Orange County, promoted by the Diocese of Orange, the Jewish Federation of Orange County and the American Jewish Committee.

* The three major universities of Orange County all have interfaith programs, religious studies departments and organizations on campus that celebrate religious diversity.

And in the particularly sensitive area of Jewish-Muslim relations, strong lines of communication exist between some local synagogues and the Islamic Society of Orange County. Efforts are underway, sponsored by the National Conference, to establish formal, continuing leadership dialogues between the two communities.

Yet there is far more we must do to learn about one another, to reduce the level of ignorance and, through our increased knowledge, strengthen the bridges of understanding.

What can we do?

The National Conference is sponsoring the House of Worship Tour 1996, in which an interfaith group of Orange County residents will visit a different religious service each month for four months starting this month. Each visit will end with a reception and period of fellowship, as hundreds of people of different faiths and different background have an opportunity to break bread together.

Community interfaith activities, such as the Newport-Mesa-Irvine Interfaith Council and several others similar to it throughout Orange County, must continue their diligent efforts to bring us together.

County organizations such as Orange County Together and the Human Relations Commission are constantly addressing issues of multicultural education and dialogue.

And these and other dialogues, between members of different faiths, and, by extension, between different cultural and ethnic groups, must be constantly expanded.

These efforts do not take place in a vacuum, and they do not take place by accident. We must develop programs where they don't exist, and nurture and expand those programs that do.

We applaud the Rev. Julius Del Pino for his efforts in South County; the Crystal Cathedral outreach programs; the long-standing efforts by the Diocese of Orange; and the expanding efforts of the Jewish, Islamic and Mormon communities to build these bridges of understanding.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "The greatest crime of all is to stand by and do nothing." Our challenge is to fight our own inertia, and bring our thoughts and spirits to life.

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