During a two-year period sometime ago, while I presided over the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ), we worked to establish "Interfaith Councils." To the best of our ability, these included all the faiths in this diverse environment where we live. We now have 11 Interfaith Councils in Orange County, which include every faith from Baha'i to Zoroastrianism.
For example, the mission statement of the Interfaith Council of South Orange County states: "We are representatives of diverse faith communities and friends gathered for the purpose of promoting respect, tolerance and understanding for the beliefs, cultures and traditions of all religious faiths through interfaith dialogue, education, service and activities."
Our other councils have similar mission statements.
I have heard people describe the interfaith concept like a stew. We have carrots, celery, tomatoes, onions, and meat that, when cooked together, provide nourishment and good taste. I prefer to think of it as a salad, where every ingredient retains its own identity, and yet, together provides a unique taste and is also healthy and good for the body.
Sometimes people use the word ecumenism to represent interfaith. While the dictionary definition is "a movement or tendency toward worldwide Christian unity or cooperation," that implies to some it is a compromise of doctrines or beliefs to ultimately make it possible to unite.
We have seen this happen successfully and to the benefit of their membership in a number of faith communities. It also restricts "unity" to being between Christian faiths. For that reason, I prefer the use of the term "interfaith" to represent the desire to work together without the goal of converting someone from their faith to yours.
Recently, I shared my feelings about the subject of "toleration." While "tolerance" is a positive term, I prefer to use the word "respect." My goal in the interfaith community is to encourage everyone to respect the people of all faiths, even though we may differ from them theologically.
I also have the goal of helping all of us understand each other's respective beliefs and teachings from their perspective. Frankly, I want more than just to be tolerated.
I am very much in favor of prayer breakfasts to share the message of respect. I admire those programs that are evangelical in nature. However, we should also have events that include all the faiths represented in the community, where we pray for our nation. This is an excellent opportunity for community members to join together, to "stand and lift." In unison, we can stand as a role model and lift our neighbor's respect for all religions.
While it is true that interfaith dialogue is necessary, it has become clear that action together is essential. In "cross-pollinating" our interfaith community, we can work shoulder to shoulder with those that we might otherwise fear and find that we all want the same things for our children, our community and the world.
"Communities thrive and grow, not only when we talk, but when we focus on our unifying goals," Mark Krielberger writes in his book "Me to We."
An example of this will take place on May 5 and 6, with the fourth annual Orange County Interfaith Weekend of Community Service. The weekend program will activate about 1,000 people from diverse faith traditions — university students, community builders, businesses, youth and the elderly — to participate in some 30 service projects around Orange County. For more information, go to http://www.bigsunday.org or call Sande Hart at (949) 584-7841.
I also hope that all of our faith communities in this diverse nation can be brought together to pray for unification in our efforts to make this a better country. It is my firm belief that if all people lived the tenets of their faith, this would be a better world.
Another example is the National Day of Prayer Interfaith Observance, which will happen at 10 a.m. May 3 at UC Irvine's Doheny Beach Conference Center , and is being sponsored by the Orange County Interfaith Network (OCIN).
Those in attendance will be introduced to and engage in the prayer practices from many traditions, learn from each other, and stand together for the dignity and honor of all people regardless of race, color or religious tradition.
Together we can, and will, work for a better world. For more information about Thursday's event, call The Rev. Darrell McGowan at (714) 457-9072, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
TOM THORKELSON directs interfaith relations for the Orange County Council of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He lives in Newport Beach.