InterFaith Conference Takes a Look at New Beginnings
In 1977, Islamic extremists broke into the B'nai B'rith Building and the Islamic Center, holding hostages at both locations for nearly eighteen hours. Out of that tragedy was born the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington (IFC), one of the United States's most prominent interreligious organization.
The IFC marked the beginning of its twentieth anniversary year on January 12 with a program entitled "New Beginnings: The Meanings of Our New Years." Speakers from the Bahá'í, Jewish, and Islamic communities gathered at St. Matthew's Catholic Cathedral in northwest D.C. to describe how their faiths mark the new year.
The small, lunchtime program is one of many events that the IFC has planned for this year. In addition to its ongoing work with high school and college students, the IFC will sponsor a program on Passover, Easter, and the Hajj, and hold a spring public dialogue on religious attitudes toward public welfare.
"There is a need for an organization such as the IFC," said David King, a member of the IFC's board of directors and a representative of the Latter-day Saints community. Referring to the recent vandalization of an Islamic crescent and star on the White House grounds, he said, "There needs to be a group that can officially speak for all of the major faith communities and censure such activities."
More broadly, said Mr. King, "We're here to accept the reality of diversity and rejoice in it."
Sulayman Nyang, the IFC's president, added that "pluralism has been achieved at the political level; now it needs to be spread to the religious level."
During the program itself, Simeon Kriesberg, chair of the IFC's executive committee and a representative of the Jewish community, presented the IFC's vision of its role. "Our Washington metropolitan area is a community made up of a lot of walls and very few bridges – very few structures that enable us to interact with people different from ourselves," he said. "Bridge building is an essential part of many of our faiths. . . . The IFC knows how to help people engage in dialogue."
This dialogue has broadened during the past twenty years. The organization's original members – the Islamic, Jewish, Protestant, and Roman Catholic faith communities-joined together in hope of preventing future interfaith tragedies like the 1997 incident. Today the IFC includes the Bahá'í, Hindu, Latter-day Saints, and Sikh communities. As the IFC membership has grown, its work has been recognized throughout the U.S. Two days before the "New Beginnings" program, two members of the IFC represented the Muslim and Jewish communities at the investiture of the Episcopal Church's new presiding bishop.
The IFC's basic purpose remains what it was at the start: to help people of different faiths learn about each other. "New Beginnings" was intended as another small step along that road.
Robert Clark of the Spiritual Assemblies of the Bahá'ís of Washington, D.C., explained to the audience that the Bahá'í calendar is based upon the solar year. The new year, Naw Ruz, occurs at the spring equinox on March 21, and represents a "spiritual springtime." Mr. Clark quoted the early Bahá'í leader, Abdu'l-Bahá, as saying that the springtime festival is "a symbol of the divine manifestation of God."
"I just wanted to let you know how confusing it is to be a Jew," said the next speaker.
Before Rabbi Lynn Landsberg of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations could describe the Jewish new year of Rosh Hashanah, she felt compelled to list the four new years that Jews celebrate. The first three, she said, correspond religiously to the U.S. presidential inauguration, the beginning of the fiscal year, and the beginning of the civil year. "I don't know what the [Jewish] new year of the trees corresponds to," she admitted.
"The Cherry Blossom Festival," a member of the audience suggested.
With just one minute left in which to speak, Rabbi Landsberg gave a rapid summary of the significance of Rosh Hashanah. The Jewish year, she said, is based on both the lunar and the solar calendars, so the date of the new year varies slightly each year. Unlike the Bahá'í new year, which marks the end of a fasting period, Rosh Hashanah occurs at the beginning of ten days of repentance. It is a time, she said, for renewing ourselves spiritually and morally.
Originally, a representative of the Sikh community was scheduled to speak next, but a family emergency prevented him from attending the program. "It was a matter of a heat pump, I understand," said the Rev. Paul Lee of the IFC with a smile.
Instead, Dr. Nyang explained how the Islamic calendar does not have a new year, since it is purely a lunar calendar, with all of the holiday dates shifting each year in respect to the solar calendar. The Islamic calendar centers upon Ramadan, he said; Ramadan is a month of fasting that occurs this year in late December and January.
During the discussion period, Father Lee of the Roman Catholic community answered a question from the audience by explaining that the Christian new year is calculated according to the solar year, but that it is celebrated at different times by Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians.
Afterwards, Mr. Clark said that he was pleased by how the discussion had gone. "We talk about the differences between the faiths, but what interested me about this talk was the similarities that occur between the different faiths' calendars," he said.
During the program, Mr. Kriesberg used the IFC's annual interfaith concert as a metaphor for programs like this. "However beautiful our melodies are on their own," he said, "it is extraordinarily moving when our various melodies are in harmony."
© 1998 Heather Elizabeth