By Philip Haldiman, The Republic
Courtesy of the Arizona Republic Newspaper.
At a recent Sabbath celebration, members of Congregation Kehillah began their service by lighting candles to initiate the Jewish holy day of rest.
The observance floated from joy to solemnity and then back to joy again.
Two days later, a team of accomplished musicians and vocalists at Via de Cristo United Methodist Church added an inspirational, jazzy beat to the hymn “Gather Us In” as they led worship.
The sunny music complemented the pastor’s progressive message.
The two faiths might seem miles apart.
But this Jewish synagogue and Christian church in north Scottsdale share the same room – on one side there is a cross, on the other the Torah.
The relationship is more than just a marriage of space and convenience.
The two ostensibly different religious organizations are embarking on a shared vision that they hope will change the world – the creation of a multifaith campus where they can work together to advance society.
Two months ago, Congregation Kehillah moved into Via De Cristo’s facilities. The leaders of the Jewish and Christian congregations have spoken at each other’s services, received with open arms, proclaiming and welcoming the new partnership.
Now, the two faiths are beginning to work together, with clergy formulating a larger vision and lay committees beginning to create a social-justice agenda.
Rabbi Bonnie Sharfman and the Rev. Jeff Procter-Murphy hope it will serve as an example that different faiths can work together, learn together and strive for the common good together.
“Much is being planned, but we are in the very beginning stages,” Sharfman said. “We eventually hope to be able to build a campus to house different faiths who join to work together for the common good.
“The campus would become known as a sacred space in which participants grow in the understanding of one another and serve as a resource for the community.”
The two faiths will maintain their separate identities, yet work collaboratively while sharing the campus, Sharfman said.
Procter-Murphy said members of the two congregations have met to discuss how their faith can inform their social-justice efforts.
They eventually focused on immigration, gun control and climate change, as well as an interfaith dialogue, he said.
“We found that we came full circle, as one of the pressing issues is to foster people of different faiths,” Procter-Murphy said.
“These are baby steps. Right now, it’s as much a get-to-know-you session as a chance to figure out how to move forward,” he said.
Congregation Kehillah and Via de Cristo started discussing the possibilities of a shared campus about six months ago, when Sharfman and Procter-Murphy were introduced by a clergy acquaintance.
“We immediately saw that we shared a similar vision of social-justice work, radical inclusivity, building bridges of mutual respect and understanding, being a progressive voice, modeling open-mindedness, being of service to the community around us, repairing the world, and living lives of meaning and connection,” Sharfman said.
“Both of us share the value that there are many paths to God, and those paths should be respected and honored. We also believe that if we all modeled that acceptance and respect, our community and world would be much stronger, more peaceful, and more joyful.”
Bob Hoshibata, resident bishop of the Desert Southwest Conference of the United Methodist Church, said that when religious organizations work together with other faiths, they are making a statement.
Hoshibata oversees the United Methodist Churches in the Desert Southwest Conference, including Arizona, southern Nevada, and California communities along the Colorado River.
“I think it sends a positive message that we live in concert with our neighbors, regardless of the faith,” Hoshibata said.
“It shows that church is more than just a building and that two groups using the same building allows them to have the opportunities to do important things together. We’re stronger when we work together, and we’re all part of the human family. ”
Stephanie Varnon-Hughes, an interfaith specialist at Claremont Lincoln University in California, said that the impetus toward interfaith is common but that few are taking it to the degree that Congregation Kehillah and Via de Cristo are.
Varnon-Hughes said that interfaith dialogues are not uncommon at annual events, such as Habitat for Humanity home building, holidays or weddings, but that longer-term commitments have been happening more in the past five to 10 years.
Schools of all levels are also jumping into the fray of interfaith education.
Pasadena is home to the Peace & Justice Academy, a Mennonite middle school and an interfaith high school, and at the Claremont School of Theology at Claremont Lincoln University, also in Southern California, rabbis, imams, Christian ministers and clerics of other faith traditions are trained alongside each other.
A new wave of interfaith engagement has grown since the fallout of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Varnon-Hughes said.
“It was a crystallizing event – 9/11 made people think about how to deal with religious violence,” she said.
“Through learning about other faiths, people learn more about their own faith, and their own religious commitment deepens.”
With limited resources during tough economic times, sharing space is a way for some congregations to remain fiscally responsible.
Crossroads United Methodist Church in Phoenix has been sharing the same space with Congregation Merkaz-Ha-Iyr for the past four or five years, Crossroads Pastor Dottie Escobedo-Frank said.
The decision to welcome Congregation Merkaz-Ha-Iyr onto the Crossroads campus was partly financial, she said, but finding the right fit and working together for the common good were more important.
That rapport has resulted in mutual outreach services, including food and backpack drives.
“We probably could get more rent, but they are a start-up congregation, so this was our way to help them,” Escobedo-Frank said. “We are in a place in history when we need to reach out across the faith line.”
Leslie Goldman, a congregant of Congregation Kehillah in Scottsdale, said building an interfaith community is not about sacrificing your faith, trying to convert others or making money.
“Rather, it provides a unique opportunity for furthering dialogue and understanding, and for working together to make the world a better place,” Goldman said.
In May, Congregation Kehillah began sharing space with Via de Cristo United Methodist Church, 7430 E. Pinnacle Peak Road, Suite 134, in north Scottsdale, in hopes of being an example of how two faiths can work together for the betterment of the community.
Congregation Kehillah: Shabbat service, 7:30 p.m. Fridays, 602-369-7667, congregationkehillah.org.
Via de Cristo United Methodist Church: Worship service, 10 a.m. Sundays, 480-515-4490, viadecristo.com.