Meeting and talking to believers from other faith traditions enables people to move beyond stereotypes and build lasting trust and understanding, author and scholar Kelly James Clark argued during a recent campus visit.
Clark, a senior research fellow at Grand Valley State University’s Kaufman Interfaith Institute, shared insights from Strangers, Neighbors, Friends: Muslim-Christian-Jewish Reflections on Compassion and Peace, a book he co-authored with Aziz Abu Sarah, a Palestinian peace activist and entrepreneur, and Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, a rabbi and interfaith scholar.
“My view is the thing that we need to do to overcome difference is to meet people who are different from us and talk to them and hear their stories,” Clark said.
He underscored his message by reading excerpts from the book, sharing his own experiences as well as reflections from his Muslim and Jewish co-authors. He recalled how he grew up in a conservative Protestant household thinking that Catholics went to hell—but changed his mind after he met actual Catholics as an undergraduate at Notre Dame.
Clark also highlighted the story of Abu Sarah, who grew up in a Palestinian household and was left enraged and embittered when his older brother died of injuries after being tortured by Israeli soldiers. Years later, his perspective changed when he began meeting Israelis and Jews in school, leading him to forgive and ultimately work for peace.
And Clark shared a passage from Fuchs Kreimer, who drew inspiration from a Talmudic story to advocate the transformative power of faith for believers who want to build a better world. “Hope doesn’t feel like a mistake,” she wrote. “In fact, it feels like an obligation.”
The evening was co-sponsored by the Ansari Institute, the Center for Social Concerns, and the United Religious Communities of St. Joseph County. Attendees included a diverse group of religious leaders, scholars, and advocates of interfaith understanding. Among them were Imam Mohammad Sirajuddin of the Islamic Society of Michiana; Rabbi Karen Companez of Temple Beth-El in South Bend; Chad Meister, a philosophy professor at Bethel College; Mohammed Mohammed of the Kalamazoo-based Fetzer Institute; Jane Pitz of the Women’s Dialogue Group in South Bend, and John Pinter of the United Religious Community of St. Joseph County.
Clark encouraged audience members to get to know each other, leading a 10-minute meet-and-greet session after his opening remarks, and he urged them to seek out and organize interfaith encounters. Although people often react to global headlines, he said, the best opportunities to make a difference often come at the local level.
“People always ask me, what can we do in Israel?” he said. “And I think, well, I don’t really know what we can do in Israel, but I know this: you could walk down the street and talk to your neighbor. And they don’t bother to do that. So you have to sort of put people in positions where they do that.”
Ultimately, Clark said, people of faith should work together to build a more compassionate and understanding world—a vision of openness and hope captured in the closing passage of his book’s introduction, which he read aloud.
“I stand on the beach and watch the rushing water seek out all the low places, its wriggling fingers reaching out to find and fill empty space,” Clark wrote. “Its reach exhausted, another wave follows and fills those empty places. And another. There are always more; more than enough. Abundance. I want to extend my arms in grace and mercy to find and fill the world’s empty spaces. When compassion and joy fill in the holes, the cracks, and the crevices, the nooks and crannies and hidden places, peace and harmony overflow with the rightness of the world.”