A rabbi, a reverend, and a Muslim walk into a Jewish temple.
For Rabbi Gary Mazo of Temple Adath B’nai Israel, Reverend Kevin Fleming of First Presbyterian Church, and Dr. Mohammad Hussain of the Islamic Society of Evansville, this was a set-up 15 years in the making and whose punch line is the interfaith series of events One God, One Community.
The series brings together the three congregations from TABI, First Presbyterian, and the Islamic Society to educate them on how the three Abrahamic faiths work together in the community and the world.
Community building always has been at the core of One God, One Community, perhaps because that is how they started. Fifteen years ago, the three congregations built a house for Habitat for Humanity after a couple from First Presbyterian left the funding in their estate plans with the specific proviso it be an interfaith build.
“It was the first time that had been done in Evansville, so that got us introduced to each other,” says Fleming. “In preparation for that, we hosted the other two congregations at our church for an evening just to get to know each other. That helped give shape to how One God, One Community got started.”
Since that build 15 years ago, the three congregations have turned a simple understanding and relationship into a booming interfaith series that covers topics ranging from history and theology to prayer, holiday observances, and social justice. Their next series will begin March 26 and cover the theme of immigration.
They have grown and changed tremendously over the years, even welcoming new members to their community, like Mazo.
“Shortly after I came to town, [Fleming and Hussain] were actually two of the first people who came to welcome me and introduce themselves,” says Mazo. “We became friends and realized there was a lot of work to do in the community to get to know each other better.”
It is obvious seeing these three men together that this group is formed out of a true friendship. They hug when they greet each other and poke fun at their height difference and stark contrast in appearance. They have a running gag about how the Islamic Society shames TABI and First Presbyterian with their incredible feasts.
“We’re moving more towards having desserts at the meetings instead of dinner,” says Mazo. “Because, frankly, the Islamic Society embarrassed us all when it came time to have dinner.”
Fleming jumps in, “You do not want to host a meeting after the Islamic Society. You could import chefs and you would not do as well as what you would get there.”
Their friendship, however, goes much deeper than jokes and laughs. Fleming and Mazo were guests at the wedding of Hussain’s daughter. They celebrated the engagement of one of Mazo’s children together.
“This has become far more than just a community thing,” says Fleming. “It’s a personal thing with us. I think that is one of the reasons it radiates out to the people, because we have fun together. You don’t have to be afraid of joking and poking a little fun. That’s expected now. That, to me, is an indication you’ve created some significant relationships, when you can laugh at each other and poke a little fun. You have a relationship that will endure through other things.”
The strength of their friendship is what has allowed them to create a project that mixes such seemingly different faiths into one group. They don’t shy away from mixing cultures and religions, like having Santa Clause celebrate Hanukah.
“You know, Kevin is the community Santa,” says Mazo. “He does Santa everywhere. We had friends visiting from Texas, and our house was the meeting place. It was Christmas Eve for them and the first night of Hanukah for us, so we took them to First Presbyterian to church and, as we were getting ready to light our Hanukah candles, Kevin is in full Santa gear bringing us our Hanukah presents.”
By becoming comfortable in each other’s spaces and houses of worship, One God, One Community is able to address topics that would make many people nervous and uncomfortable. Mazo, Fleming, and Hussain all even agree they, in their three different faiths, worship and believe in the same god, something that is a controversial opinion to some.
“I grew up in Pakistan, a predominantly Muslim country,” says Hussain. “The Quran is full of stories about the prophets who are quoted in the Old Testament. When I had an exchange with these two communities, I realized what I was learning as a kid, for example the biblical stories of Noah’s ark, the bondage of the Israelites, and the parting of the Red Sea, were the stories all of the kids who grew up in Muslim faith also were hearing. I think that is what is getting across to our congregations. The teachings that are forming young minds are similar. They’re actually almost the same.”
Throughout this journey, the main takeaway for everyone involved in One God, One Community has been that there are far more similarities in their faiths than differences. As faiths that all trace their lineage back to Abraham (the reason they are called the Abrahamic faiths), they have found much more to unite themselves than to divide each other.
“The real revelation is we’re all the same, solid people who have a priority on family and community and working hard to make an honest living,” says Alan Newman, a member of TABI. “Regardless of nuances and what we call our Creator, everyone seems to have the same goals for tolerance and peaceful co-existence in a society that is open and welcoming to all.”
Hussain says the three faiths almost are put in a position to misunderstand and judge each other rather than cooperate and work together, something that One God, One Community strives to overcome.
“Our communities have been so open-minded and willing to come together to learn. There is only one Jewish temple and one Mosque in town, so both of us know what it is like to be a minority,” says Davena Day, synagogue president at TABI. “The biggest thing I have learned is there are so many more similarities between the three religions then there are differences. The friendships that have developed between us and the connection gives me hope that all it takes is a small group to change the way people think.”
Fleming is a real example of how experiences like the ones through this group can change someone’s viewpoint of people who are culturally and religiously different. He grew up in rural Pennsylvania in a time when there weren’t many Jews or Muslims but plenty of teachings about why he shouldn’t associate with them.
He says he can remember the first time he walked into a synagogue and how he was afraid because he had been indoctrinated to be fearful of the unknown, a major difference to the now jolly Santa figure who crashes rabbis’ Hanukah parties.
“I get asked a lot which religion is the true one, and my answer is evolving,” says Fleming. “My answer is basically that God is too enormous to be contained in one tradition. We need all the traditions. We need to be able to talk to each other, because we gain understanding about God. That feels like the right answer to me right now.”
“I think it’s just incredibly audacious to say that one group has the pure and true understanding of God,” he adds. “How does the finite understand the infinite? I don’t get that. I need these guys. And I need their faith. And I need their friendship. And I need their witness. Because it informs my faith.”