On Thursday, April 7, 2011, St. Stephens Catholic Church in Midland, Texas, was host to the Permian Basin's first ever interfaith gathering. Three newspapers and a TV station were there to cover the event (two articles are online here and here, and a short video posted by one of the newspapers can be found here). Here, all the speakers talk to the local CBS News before the event begins.
The event was brilliantly designed to give each faith's understanding of contemporary issues, not to discuss theological points of difference.
The questions were submitted by the speakers themselves and then answered one after the other in turn, with the panel taking questions from the audience at the end. The five questions of the evening were:
How does your faith tradition explain the problem of evil and suffering?
What is the religious goal to be achieved in your faith? What actions are required to achieve this goal and, of these, what is the one action stressed the most?
Granting that we live in a pluralistic society and nation, which is committed to not favoring any religious group over another, what is the role, if any, of religious beliefs, convictions, and arguments in the public forum--in the debating and the enacting of laws and public policy?
The issue of pro-life v. pro-choice, how can you define your views based on the understandings of your faith and belief system?
Do you think that denominational prayer in the public schools should be countenanced since they can be awkward at best and exclusionary at worst of minority groups? And how do we deal with coach-encouraged denominational prayer by team members prior to football games since they, too, tend to be exclusionary of other faiths?
Dr. Padmaja Patel, left, was responsible for conceiving and coordinating the entire event, with the help of her husband, Dr. Mrunal Patel. Russell Meyers, right, the CEO of Midland Memorial Hospital and an Episcopalian by faith, moderated the event.
The speakers, from left to right: Monsignor James Bridges of St. Stephens Catholic Church, Rabbi Sidney Zimelman of Temple Beth El, Pastor Jay Mayo of Stonegate Baptist Fellowship, Reverend James E. Liggett, Jr. of St. Nicholas Episcopal Church and Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami of Kauai's Hindu Monastery.
An important aspect of the event, of course, was the opportunity to share the Hindu perspective, which is a new perspective in West Texas. But the various ministers’ five-minute answers to all the questions surprised many, particularly because they were so similar on many points. However, on the first topic, evil and suffering, all of the Abrahamic denominations present relegated their responses to the admission that it is a complete mystery to them, that they have no answer for why God, who is omnipotent, allows evil and suffering in the world. Hinduism was the only faith represented on the panel that had a full answer to the question, and an enlightened, thoughtful one at that.
An estimated 500 people attended the event, which everyone involved considered an excellent turn-out. The goal, which was to promote greater understanding amongst the various faiths in West Texas, was definitely achieved.
Watch all five of Bodhinatha’s answers to the questions posed at this interfaith event in the video box below. Each of five videos will play in turn, one after the other, or you can choose from the videos by clicking the button in the control bar second from the left.
If the video is not loading fast enough, pausing often, or you are on a slow computer and it is choppy, try choosing a lower quality version (480p or 360p) from the menu on the right side of the control bar.
Below, the Christian and Jewish leaders answer the question: How does your faith tradition explain the problem of evil and suffering?
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