Transforming Our Common Humanity: Interfaith Dialogue

by Nancy Brouillard McKenzie
Ignatian Corp Volunteer, Columban Center for Advocacy & Outreach

“Why is the day on which Jesus was killed called ‘Good’ Friday? Surely it was a ‘Bad’ Friday.”
-a young Hindu Indo-Fijian boy’s question to Fr. Frank Hoare, SSC

The Columban charism to promote interfaith dialogue is the keystone of each mission. Through interfaith dialogue, Columbans identify and encounter cross-cultural differences among people to change lives to build up their community. In the 15 countries where Columbans serve the poor, interfaith dialogue is the key for people to understand and appreciate that each person is a stakeholder and not an alien in a community.

As I listen to Columban missionaries explaining how interreligious dialogue transforms a mission into a vibrant community, I hear and see the joy of the Gospel. However, that joy begins slowly.

Several Columbans visiting the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach (“the Columban Center”) have talked with me about overcoming mistrust and disrespect in their missions. Looking at each Columban’s initial entry into another person’s sacred ground is one way to understand that resistance. Often, people fear that the Columban presence will undermine their different religions, cultures and ethnicities.

Very early, I learned that interfaith dialogue is acting for others through a special presence of a spirit that allows for the other person’s identity to always have a voice. Through living and working in the heart of a mission, a Columban shows how the spirit of Jesus acts in his life for the good of all. While sharing concern, respect and hospitality for all people, a Columban gradually initiates meaningful interfaith dialogue. Moreover, once people give a voice to all and listen to each other instead of talking over each other, sharing Jesus’ joy does not threaten them. Most importantly, sharing and caring for each other facilitates a mission to unite on a journey to close gaps and obtain multiple services and programs benefitting all.

Interfaith dialogue thrives when heads of primary schools invite Father Frank Hoare to share with students the meaning of Good Friday and Easter Monday, both holidays in Fiji. I imagine witnessing the young boy slowly asking about ‘Good’ Friday, a concept that conflicted with his Hindu perspective of goodness. Responding to that simple question, I hear Father Frank welcoming all present to listen to the joy of the Gospel that proclaims that Jesus’ death was good because love is stronger than death and evil.

Following the outbreak of the Syrian war, Columban lay missionary Jonah Jane Enterina worked with a group of women from different church organizations. All wanted to further peace and unity in a culturally and religiously diverse neighborhood in Birmingham, England. Their first neighborhood event was “Ladies’ Day,”  but only one Muslim women came. Now, each Thursday attracts over 100 women who share life together through various activities. Chatting and interfaith dialogue over lunch created mutual trust and respect for each other. That was the opportunity for Jonah to share the joy and work of Columban missions worldwide and locally, especially immigration services available to refugees.  

Of the 200 million people in Pakistan, about 96% are Muslim, 2% are Hindu, and 2% are Christians. In 1979, the Columbans began a mission in Pakistan. Through living and sharing interfaith dialogue at the “grassroots” level, Father Dan O’Connor brings the joy of the Gospel to the poor and the sick in the Hyderabad Diocese in the Sind. Father Dan spends each Friday with patients of all faiths in the Health and Tuberculosis Clinic (“clinic”) in the Badin Parish Church Compound. A Muslim physician is the head of the Christian-staffed clinic. The clinic provides multiple services, including treating multiple illnesses and diseases, providing medical educational services, and other services focused on early self-detection of illness and disease.

As a parent, the Columban care for disabled adults and children with special needs regardless of faith touches me deeply. I remember how Jesus performed miracles for the disabled. Instead of excluding the disabled in the same way as their relatives abandoned them due to the high cost of their care, Columbans welcome them into their missions. That constantly reminds me that we all are children of God.

At the Columban Center, we also deeply engage ourselves with interfaith and advocacy partners to encounter and address the four Columban priorities—economic justice, environmental justice, peace and nonviolence, and migration—together through marches, rallies, advocacy meetings, and advocacy training and lobbying. Like the Columbans in 15 missionary countries, we strive to close gaps among people and lessen the impact of unjust policies on people and the environment. And yes, we have had setbacks to our commitment to justice, peace and the integrity of creation to address root problems of those policies. However, the journey of faith encourages us to keep interfaith dialogue ongoing even if only one person shows up for a meeting.