A common ground

Religious leaders take steps to better understand one another

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The world changes slowly, transformed by things as small and simple as a conversation between two people in Steamboat Springs.

More than a year ago, Marchele McEntee and Tim McCarthy were talking about the state of the world.

The world, as they saw it in the news, seemed like an increasingly violent place, full of conflict, and much of that conflict seemed to be steered by people's religious beliefs, McEntee said. "We wondered how we could bring people together on a local level.

"Despite our differences, we should still be able to respect each other."

Instead of the conversation ending that night, as so many "state of the world" talks do, McEntee and McCarthy acted on their convictions by making a few phone calls.

They sent letters to all the religious leaders in town asking them to meet to discuss their differences and, hopefully, to find some common ground.

The idea, McEntee said, was based on her knowledge of the Parliament of the World's Religions, an international effort to open a dialogue among world spiritual leaders.

The first Parliament of the World's Religions was held in Chicago in 1993. Since then, it has met every five years to further the discussion and turn conversation into action. McEntee attended the 2004 meeting in Barcelona along with 8,000 others. The group agreed to ignore their dogmatic differences and use their spiritual leadership to work on issues of "religious violence, access to safe water, the fate of refugees worldwide and the elimination of developing countries' debts," according to the Parliament of the World's Religions Web site.

When McEntee returned to Steam--boat, she and McCarthy led the first meeting of the local Interfaith group. Since then, religious leaders from the area have met once a month to share their faiths in order to create understanding among themselves and, by extension, their congregations.

A year and a half later, the Interfaith group includes Pastor Larry Oman and Pastoral Associate Tim Selby of the United Methodist Church; Bishop Paul Stewart of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Pastor Jon Bixby of the First Baptist Church; Father Ernest Bayer of Holy Name Catholic Church; Rabbi Joe Goldman of Har Mishpacha, Steamboat's Jewish community; and Tim Olmstead of the Buddhist Center of Steamboat Springs.

"These are our religious leaders. They should be our moral compass," McEntee said.

In Steamboat, there are more than 20 places of worship offering different paths of spirituality. Pastor Oman always wanted the opportunity to learn about the other local faith groups, but he wasn't sure how to go about it, he said.

"I'm very pleased they provided the vehicle to do that," Oman said.

In the beginning, the group met once a month at a different place of worship, with the leader of that location's faith leading the discussion.

The speakers would share the history of their faiths, the specifics of their beliefs and how they personally arrived in their places as spiritual leaders.

After they completed the rounds of each faith, the group continued its monthly meetings at the Egg & I restaurant.

The discussions often are lively but never heated, because everyone has been willing to open their minds and listen.

"We've been able to come together and appreciate each other's beliefs," Bishop Stewart said. "All of us, even non-Christians, are looking to a higher power. We're all striving for a higher place." Stewart said the one thing each faith has in common, no matter what words they use to express it, are the "two great commandments" -- love God and love your neighbor.

"Someday, there could be a real need where we need to come together to support the community in a time of crisis, and we've already taken the first step," Stewart said.

Now that the group has learned to appreciate the differences of its members, it is looking for ways to spread what the members have learned to the larger community.

"If we could reproduce the civility of our group to other groups in our community, we may have come close to what (Marchele and Tim) were looking for when they got us together," Pastor Bixby said.

In January, the Interfaith group plans to begin a series of public panel discussions around the flexible topic "Exploring the Sacred."

"It's easy to be divided or ignorant of each other," Selby said. "It takes an effort to get to know each other."

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