‘Friendship Bench of Faith’
In January, a young Muslim girl sat at a table and told stories about being bullied in her middle school. Men and women of different faiths listened intently and shared how they, too, had experienced violence in their everyday lives.
"Sharing Our Faiths: Our Experience of Violence" was a discussion night hosted by the Southeast Milwaukee Interfaith Covenant Association in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Twelve Christian churches – including Bay View United Methodist Church – and the Islamic Society of Milwaukee host events such as "Sharing Our Faith" in hopes of unifying an interfaith community in love and support for one another.
Over 60 men and women of varying ages and religions came together at the January event to discuss faith and violence. A panel made up of a Milwaukee Police Department officer, another adult and a teen spoke briefly to open the discussion. Seated at round tables, other participants then shared their own stories.
The Rev. Andy Oren, one of the pastors at Bay View Church, recalls that a Catholic teacher told how the school at which she taught had recently made a "friendship bench" to help children avoid bullying. It was a safe place where kids gathered on the playground when they had no friend to play with. Others would come to the bench and invite those children to play. The interfaith discussion night, Oren said, has since been dubbed a "friendship bench of faith," a place where participants find new strength and unlikely friendships.
The Southeast Covenant Association formed in November 2000 when representatives of the 13 congregations committed themselves "within the unifying love of God ... to the exercise of understanding, cooperation and growth in unity through faith." The Rev. Lowell Bartel, then a pastor at Bay View, initiated conversations in 1999 with Ziad Hamdan, imam at the Islamic Center, that led to the Association.
The beginning of the organization was also the beginning of a change of heart in Milwaukee. The association began hosting interfaith events to encourage open conversations about faith. On Sept. 8, 2001, the group held its first annual interfaith picnic. Oren remembers that day vividly.
"The picnic was held the Saturday before 9/11," Oren recalls, "About 200 people showed up to eat together and discuss their faiths." Christians and Muslims sat side-by-side on quilts and lawn chairs in a local park. It was a friendly environment that welcomed tough questions about what others believed. Oren recalls how important that time was when one week later, the love and support of the Southeast Covenant Association was being tested. After the attacks on New York and Washington, the congregations of the association rallied behind the Muslim community, offering kindness in a time that kindness toward Muslims was scarce.
The interfaith picnic was held every year until 2006. It resumed in 2016 as efforts to bring the community together needed a morale boost. Although the picnic had not taken place for 10 years, the relationships remained intact thanks to the covenant.
Oren says that those who participate in the interfaith events talk about the ways they have opened their minds and hearts to people of other faiths.
"When you really know someone who practices a different faith than you, suddenly things change. You drop the stereotypes of that faith and begin to see that person as your friend," says Oren. The Southeast Covenant Association has changed lives by bringing Muslims and Christians together, proving that peace and love can overcome differences.
Taylor Bush recently completed a six-week internship at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tennessee. This fall she will begin her sophomore year at the University of Georgia in Athens. She is majoring in entertainment and media.