Wichita-area religious leaders strive for tolerance

"Look," Rabbi Michael Davis says. "This is an important thing to say. It's important to remember what happened. It's also important to remember to not overreact to it, either."

Davis makes these remarks a few days before the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

He speaks purposefully.

He speaks of religious tolerance and freedom.

Nationwide and in Kansas, people are threatening to burn the Quran. Arguing over whether a mosque should be allowed near ground zero. On Friday at the Islamic Society of Wichita, the pastor of Spirit One Christian Center, Mark Holick, and others held up white signs with red lettering that said "Islam is a lie. Jesus is the truth" and passed out copies of the Gospel of John and book of Romans in English and Arabic.

Wichita police stood ready to respond.

Officers had arrested Holick just two weeks before at the same place, taking him to jail on a charge of loitering that he believes violated his First Amendment rights. Holick said it was his right to religious freedom to preach outside the mosque. He said his faith called him to testify.

The sing-song melody of the Muslim call to prayer sounded throughout the mosque as Holick preached outside Friday.

Two faiths, separated by a sidewalk.

Religious differences have existed for hundreds of years. This week, as tensions grew, Davis and other faith leaders called for a commitment to respect each other and work together.

"We have to make a statement that everybody hates what happened nine years ago," Davis continues.

"But it doesn't mean that we hate people who believe something different than we do."

At a service Friday at Inter-Faith Ministries calling for religious leaders to work with and not against each other, the Rev. Titus James recalled the words of Mahatma Gandhi:

"If you are a Jew, be a good Jew. If you are a Muslim, be a good Muslim. If you are a Christian, be a good Christian."

Building a dialogue

A stranger visited the Islamic Society on Thursday.

She explained that she worked with Muslims. She wanted to show that religious intolerance "is not the American way," said Ayesha Zaheer-Chaudry, the society's director of communications.

The woman delivered a wreath.

"It was such a touching gesture," Zaheer-Chaudry said. "We really appreciated that support."

Zaheer-Chaudry said she believes that most people in Wichita are open-minded about religious differences. And there haven't been any acts of violence at the mosque, according to Capt. Jeff Easter of the Wichita Police Department.

Zaheer-Chaudry said every religion can show its best and worst.

"We're trying to rise to the best that's in each of us," she said, "and not demonize each other by the worst.

"At the end of the day, we're all taught to honor our creator and be good to our fellow human beings."

The Rev. Gary Blaine of University Congregational Church spent the past week helping organize a "Prayers for Peace" service Saturday night in response to "International Burn a Quran Day," which encouraged people to burn Islam's sacred text.

He said the service, which drew about 150 people, was his wife's idea "to begin to get people to talk to each other."

Blaine said he hopes the conversation continues past Saturday, "that hopefully this is the beginning of men and women and children engaging each other across religious lines."

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Blaine said, "it has been very difficult for Jews, Christians and Muslims to talk to each other. I think it's more strained and problematic."

Lois Harder, co-pastor of Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church, which sponsored a peace festival this weekend, has been disheartened with threats of violence. She said she finds the idea of burning sacred texts abhorrent.

"I think we have to be the tolerance that they are not," Harder said. "This is not a case where you can fight fire with fire. You have to respond with creative love."

The world is big and full of people, James said Friday.

"They are different. As we remember this day of 9/11, please don't let the hope and tradition and love of our country to cause us to express hatred."

The Rev. Don Olsen of Plymouth Congregational Church said, "Jesus calls us to do onto others as we would have done to ourselves. Every faith has a similar ideal."

He urged the Wichita community "against using religion as a cover for offensive behavior, using religion as a cover for one's own bigotry."

Blaine said he wants religious leaders such as himself to "talk to the hearts of people."

"Here in Wichita, how do we break the mistrust, the fear and the anxiety?"

Looking beyond differences

Davis shared a story Friday at Inter-Faith Ministries.

It goes like this:

A boy came to school with a page out of a newspaper. On the page was a map of the world.

His teacher tore it up and asked the boy to put the world back together, each country in the right place.

The boy finished the job quickly.

The teacher, Davis said, asked "How did you know how to put it together so fast?"

The boy said there was the face of a person on the back of the map.

The boy told his teacher, Davis said, "I just put the face together, and the whole world came together the way it was supposed to."

"When you look beyond the differences you see a human face."