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Religious leaders from five faiths meet in Estero to discuss faith, understanding

By Brittany Carloni, For Naples Daily News , On 07 December 2017, Read Original
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At a time when the country remains divided on countless issues — from elections to whether football players should kneel during the national anthem — five faith leaders from different religious groups across Southwest Florida gathered in Estero Monday night to discuss collaboration.  SWFL Justice4All Coalition partnered with Interfaith Action Group of Southwest Florida to organize Monday’s event at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on Three Oaks Parkway.  The interfaith discussion was a “Moral Monday Meetup,” a free public event held by the SWFL Justice4All Coalition to delve into social issues and explore opportunities for community activism.

Representatives from Southwest Florida’s Jewish, Catholic, Mormon, Buddhist and Muslim faiths shared their visions for peace, respect and understanding in our world today.

“One thing about interfaith work is it’s not about trying to convince someone else about what you believe, it is trying to understand better what they believe and working together towards a common purpose,” said the Rev. Tony Fisher, panel moderator and minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples.

The panel began with Mohamed al-Darsani, founder of the Islamic Center for Peace in Fort Myers, an organization with the mission of promoting education and community involvment.

Al-Darsani, who helped plan the event, joined the panel to fill in for Hassan Shibly, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Florida.

Shibly was called to Jacksonville after the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office reported Monday that law enforcement prevented a mass shooting at the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida.

Al-Darsani said that his interfaith community action was sparked by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

After 9/11, al-Darsani developed relationships with local faith leaders and began speaking in churches where he was invited to build bridges and share about Islam, he said.

That kind of cooperation could help heal some of the division curret divisiveness in the United States, al-Darsani said.

“Unfortunately most people of faith live in their cocoons,” he said. “Our job is to bust those cocoons. If we really are sincere and truthful and honest with ourselves and our creator, this is the main job for us right now.”

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs, of Temple Bat Yam in Sanibel, built on al-Dasarni’s words.

Fuchs said that a phonograph record he received from his mother when he was five years old first taught him the value of diversity. Some of the songs declared skin color was of no consequence, he said.

He remembers those simple lessons from that record today when he preaches about respect and understanding, Fuchs said.

“Diversity is a positive and wonderful value, and if we are to respect and embrace and affirm diversity — not just tolerate it — then I think one of the most important things we need to do is learn not just to share our views, but to listen, really listen to those of the other,” Fuchs said.

Under the Buddhist teachings, said Mary Tracy Sigman, Dharma leader of the Rissho Kosei-Kai Buddhist Group of Fort Myers, when our body dies we are left with an eternal essence of goodness and love.

“In this regard, we are all the same. There is no diversity in essence,” Sigman said. “We are all wonderful. It’s just this physical body that makes us appear so diverse and different.”

Sigman said it’s important to recognize the inherent goodness in each of us.

“We need to humble ourselves every day to remember that everyone we meet has this wonderful essence of goodness and love,” Sigman said. "When we realize this, we realize that everything we do and everything everyone else does, (is) all affecting one another.”

After their presentations, the faith leaders fielded questions from the audience on engaging young people in interfaith collaboration and the role of male dominance in organized religion and society.

On how to reach out to young people in Southwest Florida, Vatican II Catholic Norine Hemping quoted Pope John XXIII.

“We must not be museum-keepers, but gardeners,” Hemping said. “I really am longing to see faith leaders come out of the shadows and speak up. Young people are longing for that.”

After the panel, audience members and panelists mingled, discussing the topics from the evening.

Sara McFadden, a Naples resident and member of the SWFL Justice4All Coalition and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples, said faiths based on love will be what brings people together.

“I’m always encouraged by any type of interfaith event,” said McFadden, a candidate for Florida State Representative in House District 106. “This has got to be the future.”


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