interfaith conference1

At the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center — in front of a verse from the Quran that translates to ‘Inform My servants that I am the Forgiving, the Merciful’ — are CU Campus Community Interfaith Exploration steering committee members Faruq Nelson, left, and Swiyya Haqq, center, of the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center; the Rev. Sheryl Palmer, second from left, pastor of Faith United Methodist Church in Champaign and chairwoman of the Interfaith Alliance of Champaign County; and First Mennonite Church of Champaign-Urbana Pastor Michael Crosby, second from right, and member Earl Kellogg.

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Anxiety runs high on many fronts in 21st-century America, including religion.

Witness the horrific shootings at a Pittsburgh synagogue and a New Zealand mosque last year, and continued attacks on churches in western Africa.

Beyond those headlines is a troubling trend: people who don’t understand other faith traditions and aren’t comfortable interacting with those outside their own religions, says Earl Kellogg, an emeritus UI professor and member of the First Mennonite Church of Champaign-Urbana.

A program this week is designed to bridge that divide and address pressing challenges of the day through the lens of faith.

“Cultivating Hope in Anxious Times” is the inaugural program of the CU Campus Community Interfaith Exploration, an effort to connect faith communities, the University of Illinois, community groups, campus religious and student organizations, and UI students, faculty and staff.

“The call to cultivate hope is an urgent one," said Michael Crosby, lead pastor of First Mennonite Church of Champaign-Urbana. “For confronting the fear that divides us, for overcoming the misunderstanding that plagues us, for disrupting the hate that threatens our community — the time is always now.”

The series runs from Thursday through Sunday, with talks by religious scholars and community faith leaders and a performance by Ted & Company TheatreWorks.

Thursday’s opening keynote address features UI graduate and author Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core and a member of President Barack Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships.

His talk, “Diversity is not just the difference you like: Interfaith leadership in the time of tribalism,” is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center, 601 S. Lincoln Ave., U.

Patel, an American Muslim and Rhodes scholar, will challenge participants to explore whether the U.S. can use its growing diversity to promote the common good or whether it will lead to more prejudice, inequality and conflict.

Patel will also work with UI students Thursday afternoon on a study of his book, “Acts of Faith.”

In it, he wrote: “I thought about the meaning of pluralism in a world where the forces that seek to divide us are strong. I came to one conclusion: We have to save each other. It’s the only way to save ourselves .... To see the other side, to defend other people, not despite your tradition but because of it, is the heart of pluralism.”

On Sunday, Ted and Company TheatreWorks presents “I’d Like to Buy an Enemy 2.0,” a comedy show exploring how fear and “othering” give rise to Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and racism. It’s scheduled for 3 p.m. at Lincoln Hall Theater, 702 S. Wright St., U. Ted Swartz is a Mennonite pastor and actor who produces shows on challenging topics.

The lineup also includes a Friday afternoon talk by Mark Swanson of the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago; a Friday evening panel discussion hosted by the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center featuring leading scholars from the Lutheran, Mennonite, Muslim and Jewish traditions; and a Saturday afternoon panel hosted by Sinai Temple with local faith leaders.

All events are free and open to the public and registration is not required.

The events are designed to help community members move beyond mere tolerance of differences to mutual understanding and affection, organizers said.

“This is not a conference where we’re trying to convert people from one faith tradition to another. It’s trying to learn more about each other, and how we go about our own faith development and how we might work together more effectively when we develop a love and trust,” said Kellogg, who is part of the Interfaith Alliance of Champaign County, founded several years ago by leaders of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith communities.

The Rev. Sheryl Palmer, pastor of Faith United Methodist Church in Champaign and chair of the alliance, said the event will be an expression of hope in difficult times “as together we strive for and work for change.”


Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).