THIRTY YEARS OF INTERFAITH CONNECTIONS

CUF Admin
October 4, 2015

THIRTY YEARS OF INTERFAITH CONNECTIONS

Presented by Ken Starbuck
Carbondale Unitarian Fellowship
October 4, 2015

This morning I want to share with you a personal story about my involvement in the Carbondale Interfaith Council and my leadership as Chairperson of the Ralph Anderson Interfaith Dialogues. This has been a key part of a lifetime journey, and in order for you to better understand I will share some important happenings or events in my life.

I made an early decision to study for the ministry, and eventually decided to attend theological school at the University of Chicago. I was very privileged to have the opportunity to live in that rich intellectual environment for four years. I eventually became an ordained minister in 1958 in the United Church of Christ, and served pastorates in that denomination for 11 years. Even though I am now a Unitarian (member here since 1982), I have a great deal of respect for that denomination and other mainline protestant churches that have maintained some integrity in a rapidly changing religious and social environment.

What brought me to southern Illinois was a year of clinical pastoral training at what was then Anna State Hospital. Clinical Pastoral Education is not to be confused with Christian counseling, which is an attempt to address people’s problem within a fundamentalist Christian framework. I once had a client who asked me if I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and savior, and I replied that part of my integrity as a professional counselor was not to answer that question. All ordained Unitarian ministers are required to have a quarter of Clinical Pastoral Training, and many like Rev. Paul Oakley, a former student minister here, have had a year. What kept me in southern Illinois was the opportunity that emerged in the 1960s when Illinois became a model state in terms of mental health resources. At that time Illinois was third in the nation in the area of community mental health; it is now about 45th.
My deep interest in pastoral counselling, which involves the opportunity to help people understand problems from their own social and religious perspective, also piqued my interest in what was happening in Illinois at that time. What could be more key to community mental health? After finishing my clinical training, I was given the opportunity to serve on the staff at Anna State Hospital. Within a couple of years I found myself in charge of the psychiatric ward that served the people of Williamson County, and a couple years later I had the opportunity to move to Herrin and serve as a mental health counselor and resource person in Franklin and Williamson Counties. It was an exciting time.

I retired in 1994 as Director of the Adult Outpatient Psychiatric Program of Franklin and Williamson Human Services, which later became the H Group and is now Centrestone. The stress level for that job was very high, as were the opportunities to be a part of those communities as they grappled with mental health and related problems. Before I came to southern Illinois, I was aware of the mine disaster that took place at the Orient mine just outside West Frankfort on December 21, 1951. When 119 coal miners are killed in one day, all of the lives in that community and vicinity are affected. I remember counseling widows, children and grandchildren, and in that kind of situation you see how mental health issues are connected with everything else. I also saw that psychiatric diagnosis has much more to do with perceptions of belonging or not belonging, with psychiatric privilege and health insurance manipulation, than any objective medical categories.

We never really know what is around the next corner, even when we sign the retirement papers. The first day of my retirement I suspect my wife Kathy didn’t know what to do with me, so she asked me burn some trash in the back yard. In the process of doing that job on a windy day, the wind suddenly shifted and I came back in the house with singed hair and eyebrows. After that incident I think Kathy decided that maybe I wasn’t up to the task of retirement. I probably moped around the house for a couple weeks, and then was saved by being elected president of the River to River Runners. I ran and ran, and sometimes carried a gavel and a clock. Opportunities piled on opportunities when people know you have time and can do things, so I soon became the editor of the River to River Runners newspaper and financial manager of the River to River Relay. Those positions and those relationships were important to me, and enabled me to move on from relationships and stressors in the mental health field.

What changed that investment in the running community was a bike accident that occurred in early April of 2001. Key life changes can happen very suddenly, and are often measured by fractions of a second. I was riding with a group of bikers (the peddle kind) at Jones Lake in Gallatin County, and coming around a corner into a rapid decline I heard someone say “I dropped my cell phone”. I looked back long enough to lose my focus, and was unable to avoid a number of stone posts in front of me. That day I had my first helicopter ride to St. Mary’s in Evansville and even though I had five broken ribs and both lungs were punctured, I was very grateful to be able to move my toes and learn I had not been paralyzed.

Earlier that spring I had qualified to run the 1600 meter race at the National Olympics in Baton Rouge in August, but after the accident I knew that was out of the question. So I started looking for other challenges. I knew a number of people who were active in the Carbondale Interfaith Council at the time, i.e. Sam Fosky, Kim Magwire, Hugh Muldoon, and Catherine Graves, and Bob Flannery. Also our pastor at that time, Bill Sasso, was very committed to interfaith work, and so I had a conversation with him. I’m not sure that Bill thought the task would be challenging enough for me, but the task always changes us and we change the task. It has been more than challenging.

At about that same time Dale Bengtson, who had been head of the SIU Department of Religious Studies, wanted to retire as chairperson of the Christian-Jewish-Muslim conversations, and asked me to take over that job. So I did that with the idea I would make some changes. The interfaith conversations, which started in 1986 had not been connected with any organization, so I asked the Interfaith Council to take on that task and become the umbrella organization. That meant that the community as a whole would be more involved, the conversations could be located at appropriate faith community venues in Carbondale, and could be more closely related to religious life in the community.

This unique endeavor in Carbondale was started by Ralph Anderson, who was very concerned about what he perceived as anti-Semitism in southern Illinois. Those of you who remember those early Jewish-Christian conversations at the Newman Center and later at the St. Andrews Episcopal Church, might also remember that Ralph’s wife Birdie would often bake cookies and prepare coffee for the gathering.. Within a year or two the local dentist Mazhar Butt and the SIU Professor Dr. Zobairi advocated for the Muslims to be a part of that conversation. So two really important things started happening here: a small town in Illinois with a major state university starting to do what many larger cities in America were not doing, by recognizing that a major sea-change was coming to American religious life, and that people of good will could actually talk about these religious differences.

Interfaith connections in other communities during this past thirty years have usually been at a pretty preliminary level, so that people of faith might know some things about one another. What are the books of the Torah, and why are they important to the Jewish people? What does the cross represent to Christian people, and why is that key to how they understand the world? Why do the Muslims pray five time a day, and how is that ritual related to how they understand God? What do Unitarians believe? These are kind of fifth grade questions, and are okay long as they don’t remain at that level. The Carbondale interreligious conversations were never at that level, because of the involvement of the university and highly educated participants.

Some of the topics covered during the early dialogues, usually with several panel members, were: “The History of Muhammed and the Koran”, “Did the Protestant Reformation In Germany Help Pave the Way for Nazism?” and “The Origin and Nature of Sin”. These kinds of discussions went below the surface, and began to explore the undercurrents of faith traditions. Paul Tillich, the German theologian who came to America after he was forced out of Germany, and whose book The Protestant Era was translated by our Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams, explored the relationship between religion and culture. Tillich said that “religion is culture” and “culture is religion”, so it is important to understand that in exploring any religion in depth. We do not understand our lives and our social environments unless we understand religion. The state of publicly funded universities have made a critical mistake by not understanding that. SIU understood that at one time, when our own Jack Hayward was the chair of the program on religious studies. That came to an end in the 1990s because of pressure from fundamentalists, who didn’t want any view of religion being presented except their own. I remember Jack Hayward speaking at the time of “those damn fundamentalists”.

This same ignorance of religion plays out in the news media, where there is little or no emphasis on understanding religion or theology. When Marty Martin came here from the University of Chicago a decade ago to talk about pluralism in our culture, he demonstrated how we can hardly read a page of a major newspaper or magazine without being reminded of the significance of the religious, yet we do not have media people who are capable of putting that into any kind of perspective. So the interfaith dialogues in Carbondale for three decades have made a heroic attempt to do just that, and it is a history that should make all of us proud.

Among the many dialogues that have been held since I became chairperson in 2004 were: “Can the Qur’an and Democracy Co-Exist?” held at the newly constructed Mosque on 2005; “Religion and Politics in America” at the Carbondale Civic Center in 2006; “Greed, the Economy and Religion” at the First Christian Church in 2009; “Religious Perspective on the Environmental Future of our Planet” at the Unitarian Fellowship in 2011; “Your Faith and the Impact of September 11th” at the St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church. We also had an interfaith week in 2008, and the banquet speaker for the dinner held at the Carbondale Civic Center was Dr. William Schulz, former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, who also spoke here on Sunday morning.

These past ten years have really been an exciting time for Kathy and me, and I are so proud of what we have been able to accomplish. We have developed many friendships, and in relationship with our Muslim friends we reached across boundaries of ethnicity, theology, race, and ways of seeing the world. One of the beautiful things about our religious education program here is that we recognize everyone is different and every child sees the world in a different way. It is this different way of seeing the world that has made our lives so rich in relationship with members of the Muslim community. We will always cherish that, and often run into our Muslim friends when we seek different forms of medical care. One time I was coming out of anesthesia after a colonoscopy, and Dr. Mahkdoom was talking about one of the activities of the interfaith council.

One of the most exciting dialogues for me was September 10, 2012, about the “Mormon Religion and the Public Square”. As you probably remember Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for president, was the first Mormon (Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints) to run for president of the United States. In 1960 John Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, ran for president and his religion was quite an issue at the time. We asked Luke Tolley, who was the Carbondale Interfaith Council representative from the Mormon Church in Carbondale, to find us a person who could address this issue. It took a while, but he finally made contact with Catherine Stokes, an African-American from Salt Lake City, who earlier had been involved in Chicago politics. She was a sharp woman, who was also very funny, and gave us quite a different view of the Mormon religion and politics. Darren Sherkat, a member of our fellowship and a professor of sociology at SIU, was also on the panel. Between Catherine and Darren the sparks flew, probably no minds were change, but the interfaith dialogue process gained in respect. That evening many members of our fellowship appeared to be very supportive of the Mormons, although not many of them cast their votes in that direction. This is exactly how democracy should function.

Another seminal dialogue for me was a dialogue event on September 12, 2011, the day after the tenth anniversary of 9-11. A group of Muslims in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, had made application with the city there to build a new Mosque and community center. The city refused to give them a permit, with the argument that Islam isn’t a religion and therefore does not qualify under the first amendment granting religious freedom. There was a lot of national news covering that situation, on major networks and channel news, and I thought it was a great chance to demonstrate that Carbondale and the Fellowship offer a platform for an important national religious issue. One night I was trying to go to sleep and this issue kept bothering me. I realized that Murfreesboro, Tennessee, wasn’t that far away – in fact just on the other side of Nashville.

The next day I contacted Imam Osama Bahloul, and asked if he would come to a Ralph Anderson Interfaith Dialogue, and give us his perception of what was going on. He agreed to do that, and we decided to hold that dialogue at the Unitarian Fellowship. That night we had a full house, with reporters and photographers from the Southern and the Carbondale Times. Imam Bahloul was a very articulate and warm person. I had asked some of the leaders in the Muslim community to take him and his family out for dinner, and for Imam Haqq to make a response to Bahloul and the situation in Murfreesboro.

The next morning we took the Imam to Longbranch for breakfast, along with his wife and child. Some of the Sufi children were there, and were allowed to ask questions. We also raised some money from the Carbondale community to help the Murfreesboro Muslims stand their ground on First Amendment rights. They prevailed, although it took another two years.

I will now be retiring as chairperson of the Ralph Anderson Interfaith Dialogue after ten years, and Kathy and I will be retiring as CUF representatives of the Carbondale Interfaith Council. I believe that we have provided real leadership during this time, and the label of real leadership is something that is earned. We have stood up for faith communities in America even when those faith communities were not popular (sometimes not even with our friends), like the Mormons during the 2012 election and the Muslims during the past decade. We could not have done that without the kind of support we received from this fellowship. Now I want to honor my wife Kathy, by having her come up here with me while we sing the closing hymn “O God, Our Help In Ages Past”.