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The Power of Dialogue: The Bozeman Interfaith Forum

by Katie McGunagle  |  Tuesday Nov. 1st, 2016

We are living in a time in which religious identities are daily interrogated. The upcoming election has especially brought religion to the fore in, often in vexed and accusatory rhetoric. Religion’s role in the difficult controversies that have surfaced within recent decades is, needless to say, fraught. Frank, amicable conversation about the nature of these identities and roles might therefore seem infeasible. Yet Bozeman’s Interfaith Forum has been successfully fostering such dialogue for nine years.

On the first Wednesday of each month, from September to May, six panelists representing different religious traditions convene at Bozeman’s Temple Beth Shalom for a lunchtime panel discussion of pertinent contemporary topics. Four of these panelists are regulars: Father Leo Proxell, Presbyterian Reverend Jody McDevitt, Rabbi Ed Stafman, and Dr. Ruhul Amin, president of the Islamic Center of Bozeman. Two panelists are guests representing other traditions. Each panelist is given five minutes to share his or her perspective, according to his or her representative religion, on the subject at hand. After the panelists have commented, community members are free to ask questions about what has been shared.

I met with Rabbi Stafman and Reverend McDevitt to discuss the forum one rainy afternoon in the Rabbi’s office, an inviting space replete with a robust bookshelf, couches, and chairs. Rabbi Stafman--fondly known as Rabbi Ed--leaned back in his chair, feet propped up on another, hands folded across his chest as he listened to Rev. McDevitt share her palpable enthusiasm for the forum. I felt distinctly in the company of friends, and especially of wisdom.

“We’ve all become such good friends,” Rabbi Ed affirmed. “Jody just had dinner at my home last week. I know that Father Leo [of Holy Rosary Catholic Church] will be returning from Cuba shortly, likely with a supply of cigars and rum, which we’ll tease him about.”

The forum’s original intention was to discuss the intertestamental period: namely, what happened between the New and Old Testaments of the Bible. These discussions were focused essentially on the ‘parting of ways’ between Jews and Christians, and explored what made these religious traditions different. While this initially provided space for what Rabbi Ed admits was rather dry conversation, it preceded a philosophical shift in the forum’s intentions.

“Now we are interested in what makes us the same,” Rabbi Ed said. “People in this community want this particular dialogue, one that shows how we can differ in our perspectives and yet still have respect for each other. We want the community to feel at home here and to learn.”

Rev. McDevitt added with a laugh: “We want to show that a priest, a rabbi, and a minister can do more together than simply be part of a walk-into-a-bar joke.”

Indeed, the nine years that the forum has been in existence have been fruitful. Typically, the Temple receives seventy to eighty attendees at each forum, which never lacks for rich discussion on topics ranging from gender and sexuality to the role of music in faith traditions. This is testament, according to Rabbi Ed, to the remarkably diverse and inspiring community here, one principally invested in listening and learning about extremely pertinent subjects as viewed through distinct lenses.

“We do not want to avoid these topics,” Rabbi Ed stated. “Our culture promotes the worldview that it is all about having a spiritual, individual experience. This denigrates the wisdom that has been accumulated over ages. The Jewish tradition is, after all, the recording of 3500 years of encounters with the divine. It is all an attempt to understand the longest journey of all: the eighteen inches between the mind and the heart…All traditions have this wisdom, accumulated by great meditators, thinkers, and feelers, which is so often ignored. At the very least, we can touch this wisdom.”

When asked what role the forum might inhabit in the context of the impending presidential election, Rabbi Ed acknowledged that although we cannot separate politics, life, and morality, the forum resists espousing partisan positions. Nonetheless, the next panel discussion will intentionally concern “The Power of Words:” in a culture that feeds a language of fear, rhetoric--in the pulpit as well as political arena--has come to carry its own urgency and tenor. The forum can, Rabbi Ed implied, counteract this fear culture, challenging the notion that “if we build strong enough, we will be safe.”

“That is not where safety comes from,” he said. “It comes from relationships and the support of one another.”

The relevance of an interfaith forum today was evident in Rabbi Ed’s and Reverend McDevitt’s vehemence. They admitted no challenges presented thus far in this forum, merely the recognition that the monthly gathering has primarily cultivated a space of inspired dialogue rather than action. However, both leaders spoke to the forum’s burgeoning understanding of action, and its necessity, as it relates to the subjects discussed. The forum has discussed Syrian refugee resettlement and supports events that foster bridges of understanding between traditions, such as a recent Get to Know Your Muslim Neighbor Day. Rabbi Ed referenced the Gallatin Valley Interfaith Association as more action-focused in its mission.

The Interfaith Forum is nonetheless part of an international movement invested in the bridging of cultural and religious traditions, one promoted primarily by the United Religions Initiative (URI), an organization that links thousands of interfaith communities across the United States. Recently, thirty Bozemanites attended the Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City, at which eighty religious traditions convened. Both leaders described this experience as humbling. The message was clear: interfaith dialogue is nationally and individually valuable.

“[Since my participation in the forum] I have learned to be less intent on saying things the right way and more open to gaining wisdom for my own expression of my Christian faith,” Rev. McDevitt stated. “I feel stronger in my faith as a result [of these discussions]. I have lost my sense of fear.”

“I have learned my fondness for my friends at the LDS (Latter Day Saints) church,” Rabbi Ed said. “Despite our disagreements [on certain issues], they are a religious people with great commitment, sincerity, and goodness. Previously, I just did not know.”
Rabbi Ed described the two Messianic visions of the Bible: one, elaborated in the book of Ezekiel, anticipates a time when swords turn into ploughshares, resulting in peace and community. The other, described in Isaiah, identifies a terrible war, a time of destruction and brutality towards the Other, as a means of achieving peace.

“We get to choose between these two visions. We get to choose how to move toward a better world,” Rabbi Ed said. “The notion of a Messiah is the real better world, of people coming together and laying aside their differences. We are a relatively diverse nation, and yet we know remarkably little. But although we all have different stories, [these stories] always overlap. They share the same ideas. It is possible to coexist. We are all in the same battle with modernity. We share it all.”

“We are strongly motivated for the sake of this world,” Rev. McDevitt emphasized. “We need to understand one another.”
The Interfaith Forum will have its next discussion on “The Power of Words” on November 2, 2016 at Temple Beth Shalom. Attendees are encouraged to bring their lunches, provided they are free of shellfish and pork. Those interested in future discussions are welcome to investigate the forum’s website at   

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