By Becky J. Benes, CEO of Oneness of Life, Authentic and Mindful Leadership Development Transformational Speaker and Global Business Coach for Women
Since 2007, I have worked diligently with the Peace Ambassadors of West Texas to offer educational programs within our community in an attempt to dispel damaging myths about world religions which propagate hate, misunderstanding and continue anti-Semitism and Islamic-phobia in rural America. Our strategy is to offer high level educational programs and to bring people of other faith traditions together to discuss their common beliefs, values and religious precepts in order to foster understanding and to build relationships. I will present our most successful programs and strategies; how we built relationships and partnerships with the people of influence and our local media outlets; and some of the lasting impacts we’ve seen.
Successful Educational Programs
Faith club is a weekly interfaith book club which was inspired by and named after the book, The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew-Three Women Search for Understanding, by Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver, and Priscilla Warner. The Faith club has met for over 10 years and has read over 34 books about world religions and interfaith and peace initiatives. Our membership includes people of all ages, ethnicities, faiths, denominations who are passionate about growth and change; willing to ask challenging questions about themselves and others; and who are open to have meaningful, honest and heart-felt conversations. Our focus is to read and discuss books about global and local issues pertaining to world religions and to offer a forum to evoke conversations and discuss and learn about the commonalities and differences between different faiths. Many of the books we selected have inspired us to take action and participate in many community service projects which have opened the door to understanding and to building lasting friendships with people of diversity and different faith traditions.
I believe the success of this club has been our commitment to open conversations, respecting others’ opinions and eliminating any cross-talk which basically means, we share only our personal opinions, ideas, and experiences with I statements. We are mindful to not convert anyone to our personal way of thinking or beliefs and we avoid making blanket statements about sects, denominations, ethnicities and political parties. When necessary we bring in expert mediators to help us maintain the integrity of the group while discussing controversial issues.
Originally we had a set facilitator for each book who would come prepared with discussion topics for the assigned reading for the week. This was not sustainable and was very demanding for the facilitators. We now read the book aloud and open the discussion after each person reads a portion of the book. This takes more time for each book; however, the discussions seem to go deeper and beyond the scope of the book. We still have facilitators each week to lead the discussions and to ensure all members are heard and to keep the conversations on point. The facilitators are mindful of the more quiet members of the group and intentionally pull them into the conversation so the more exuberant members do not dominate the conversation.
Faith Club Book Studies Group
The Annual Season of Peace
The Annual Season of Peace was inspired by the Unity 11 Days of Global Peace in 2008. This season began on September 11th and lasted until the International Day of Prayer on September 21st and it focused on honoring all faith traditions. We created an 11 Day of Global Peace event featuring local people of different faith traditions throughout the 11 day period: A Hindu, Jew, Buddhist, Baha’i, Christian, Native America, and a panel of women. Each person gave a presentation about their faith and talked about common principles shared by all, many of them also shared a song and/or a prayer. Our local newspaper was intrigued and offered us front page feature stories about each of the presenters. It was such a success, the newspaper continued supporting our efforts each year. It is important to note that the members of the Peace Ambassadors of West Texas wrote the articles for free for the paper. This created a win/win/win for all. The paper received quality articles pertinent to their local audience for free, we received exposure and creditability and the community received factual information. It is also important to note that if the tensions are volatile in your community about a certain ethnicity/religious sect it is important to have security at your events.
Since 2008, we have orchestrated and delivered 10, 11 Day Season’s of Peace Events. Each season was inspired by current global, national or local topics and events. And during each season, when appropriate, we invited the public to open prayer services at our local synagogue and in two of the year’s events, when we had access to an Islamic imam, we had public Islamic prayer sessions and celebrated the Eid. These services are very popular and well attended.
Here are just a few of our themes for the Seasons:
- Reaching In Reaching Out: Come learn how each faith tradition “Reaches In” through prayer, meditation and contemplation and then “Reaches Out” into the community through service and justice.
- Peace Begins with Me: This season focused on our individual role in creating inner peace, by questioning and moving into an adult faith. Our keynote speaker for this season was Dr. Helen Rose Ebaugh, Professor of World Religions from the University of Houston and she presented, The Many Names of God.
- Consider Compassion: During this season we focused on compassion being central to all faith traditions and featured two films. The first, “Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance” which explores the Holocaust’s effect on faith in God as well as faith in our fellow human beings. The second film was “Hawo’s Dinner Party: the New Face of Southern Hospitality” produced by Shoulder-to-Shoulder whose mission is to Stand with American Muslims; Upholding American Values to help build relationships between Muslim immigrants and their new American neighbors. At this event, we offered soup, and salad which was a huge hit and drew a large crowd of Muslims, Hindus and Christians. In rural America, people turn out for food.
- Peace through Forgiveness: During this season we focused on the power of forgiveness. We were blessed to feature three powerful speakers and a film about forgiveness.
1. The film, “Forgiving Dr. Mengele,” the story of Eva Kor, a Holocaust survivor and her journey of forgiveness through her Jewish roots. We were actually able to get her on the screen via Skype to speak to the audience. This was also well attended because once again we served soup and salad.
2. Clifton Truman Daniel, grandson of President Truman, who spoke about his journey of building peace relationships with the Japanese since the atomic bombings. He was one of the only Americans invited to the Japanese 50 Year Memorial Service in Japan.
3. Rais Bhuiyan, author of The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas. Mr. Bhuiyan was shot while working in a convenience store by an angry Texan who feared all Muslims after 9-11. He shared how Islamic faith took him on a journey toward forgiveness. This was a powerful message for all attendees and it reflected the teachings of forgiveness in all faith traditions.
- Expressions of Peace: During this season we focused on the various ways that people express themselves and invited them to create “An Expression of Peace.” We connected with students, artisans, musicians, poets, and community leaders to share their expression of peace. We partnered with our local Downtown San Angelo Organization, the local Library, the ASU Poets Society and Orchestra department, area youth organizations and the San Angelo Fine Arts Museum to offer opportunities for the public to express peace. We also invited Dr. April Kinkead, English Professor from Blinn College to present “How Religious Rhetoric Exploits or Empowers People.” And Dr. Helen Rose Ebaugh from the University of Houston to present the PBS Documentary, “Love is a Verb: The Gülen Movement: A Moderate Muslim Initiative to Promote Peace”. This season truly was a pinnacle of success. We had hundreds of community members across the city focusing on peace and expressing peace through art, music, poems, and articles in the newspaper and service projects.
- Your Peace Matters!: This season focused on instilling the message that each one of us is responsible for our part in the Peace Puzzle. Each person’s peace matters, if one’s piece of peace is missing, we won’t experience local or global peace. We encouraged each faith tradition to offer public prayer services, and offered a meditative retreat. We were also blessed to feature Dr. Robert P. Sellers, 2018 Chair of the Parliament of World Religions as he spoke about Interfaith Initiatives locally and globally.
Trip around the World Religions without Leaving Texas
This was a three-day trip to Houston, TX where we toured 10 various temples, mosques, synagogues and spiritual centers encompassing the Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Islamic and Baha’i faith traditions. We partnered with Dr. Helen Rose Ebaugh from the University of Houston who served as our tour guide. She also arranged for us to eat culturally diverse food which correlated with the faith communities we visited. We attended several prayer services and met with the spiritual leaders to ask questions and learn about our differences and common ground. The local newspaper sent their own reporter to write articles and daily blogs about the trip.
Due to the lack of religious and ethnic diversity in rural America, we felt it is important to provide opportunities for our local community to get a first hand taste, feel and experience the “other” in our world. One of the most profound take-a-ways for me was from an old cotton farmer who said with a tear in his eye, “I can’t believe I ate lunch and prayed with a Muslim and he wasn’t wearing a turban or carrying a machine gun.”
For 7 years, we developed curriculum and hosted a children’s summer “Peace Camp” which celebrated diversity. These camps focused on being kind, serving others and learning about the common spiritual precepts found in all faith traditions. Eventually, our summer camp curriculum moved into a few public classrooms and the boys and girls clubs in our area.
Building Relationships with People of Influence
Capitalizing on what is already happening in our community
In the beginning of our work, many other churches began hosting their own informative “Interfaith” events, we excitedly would attend thinking our mission of seeking the common ground was taking root. To our surprise, the intentions of the people and presenters at these events were to promote Anti-Islamic or Anti-Semitic propaganda and filling their audience with more and more misinformation. This inspired us to attend as many of these presentations as possible with the positive intention to shed light on the truth and have people come face to face with “real” believers from the different faiths. We would sit at the front; ask powerful and educated questions about the commonalities of all religions; and we would add factual information and quote passages from each sacred text which countered the “fake news” being presented. In many cases, the presenter would turn their presentation over to one of our scholars or members of the religion being discussed. This built our credibility and helped us to expand the consciousness and worldview of those in attendance in a very loving and peaceful manner. Over the years, these events became less and less. This also took a lot of courage and faith for our members, whether they were Christian, Muslim or Jew. Depending on the national and world news, many of us would receive hate mail, voice mail and some minor vandalism of our homes.
Because our focus was always to create win/win/win outcomes for the highest good of all, we were able to partner with our local University, ASU; our local newspaper, the Standard Times; and our local government.
- Angelo State University’s Cultural Affairs Office: Because the University had facilities, audio/visual know how and student aids as well as expertise in printing and marketing which we needed; and because we attracted high quality programs from reliable and reputable source focused on cultural and religious diversity which met the needs of their students and department, we were a perfect fit. Partnering with the university also gave us creditability in the community and a broader and more secular audience reach. We found we could attract a broader spectrum of people when we offered events in public spaces instead of churches. When we held events at churches, only members of those churches seemed to come and very few from non-Christian traditions would attend.
- The San Angelo Standard Times: As with most small regional newspapers in a digital world, the Stand Times was struggling with a low budget which meant less staff writers. To create a win/win/win for the paper, the Peace Ambassadors and our audience, we offered to write high quality articles of all of our events, plus news articles about anything to do with interfaith issues. This positioned us as the experts within our community and the go to people for questions. The paper also invited me to write a bi-weekly column to focus on current events and bring to light the common ground and perspective of the major religions giving the Peace Ambassadors regular exposure in the West Texas area.
- Priests, pastors, clergy, and city, state and federal officials: The local Catholic Bishop invited the Peace Ambassadors of West Texas to take over and delegate the annual 9-11 Memorial Program. Traditionally, the Bishop would invite area pastors, ministers and priests to orchestrate and deliver the program which always included the first responders, US Military and the local and state community leaders. This opportunity edified our group and gave us a great opportunity to develop new relationships with people of influence and leadership in all areas. We maximized this opportunity by offering a 9-11 Memorial template which included factual information about 9-11; shed light that Americans from all ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds died that day; and offered ideas and information about inclusive/interfaith prayers. With this information, we were able to move it from an all Christian service to a more inclusive service which incorporated all faiths and ethnicities. This also led to an opportunity for the Peace Ambassadors of West Texas to offer multi-faith prayers at our local city council and county commissioner meetings.
Since 2008, the Faith Club meets weekly with a regular and varying membership between 50 and 25. Inspired by several books, the members have taken on many different interfaith service projects all of which have made lasting impact. We have also printed and passed out over 2,000 bumper stickers which state: God Bless the Whole World, Peace Ambassadors of West Texas.
Acts of Faith: The story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation by Eboo Patel, inspired us to create an annual interfaith service project: our Valentine’s Lunch at our local soup kitchen. Since 2008, over 70 volunteers of different faith traditions, ethnicities and cultures come together to cook, serve and enjoy a meal with our poorest of poor in our community. Many of the members were used to cooking for and serving the poor; however, few had ever sat with and communed with the patrons and each other. This has become one of the most effective service projects in building lasting relationships with people of diversity, people of influence and our local media.
Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace. . . One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, inspired us to raise $12,000 to build a Muslim school in Afghanistan during our 2009 Season of Peace. This was a bold move since, as a group, we were considered by many to be the Anti-Christ in our area. However, within the 11 Days of Global Peace Program, we raised $17,000 to build a school. With this project, we were invited into local elementary schools to introduce Greg Mortenson’s Penny’s for Peace Program, a program designed to educate and engage our youth to take action to help friends across the globe. This was proof that we were shifting mindsets and beliefs about Islam in our area.
Something to Consider Column written by Becky J. Benes was featured in our local newspaper as a bi-weekly column. Its focus was to bring to light the common ground within world religions and how these spiritual precepts support and enhance our communities locally, nationally, and globally.
Sadly, since the purchase of our local paper by USA Today, our partnership with them is greatly minimized, if not totally diminished.
In review, for 10 years, the Peace Ambassadors of West Texas have worked diligently to offer grass root peace initiatives designed to promote peace through education, understanding and building relationships. Our small group of two Jews, two Christians, and two Muslims has grown into a community of about 50 people who are committed to work in San Angelo, a rural town of West Texas known to many as the Belt Buckle of the Bible Belt to do our part to make a change in our community and expand the consciousness of our community.
We focused on the threefold problem which we faced: the lack of education and understanding about world religions; very little exposure to people of different faiths and cultures; and people in our community not having personal relationships or encounters with people of differing cultures and faith traditions.
With these three problems in mind, we created educational programs which offered highly creditable educational programs accompanied by interactive events where people could meet with and engage people from other faiths and also serve the greater community. We focused on our common grounds not our differences.
In the beginning we were met with resistance and were even considered by most the “Anti-Christ.” However, with perseverance, high quality education, continuity, and interactive interfaith events, eventually we were invited to offer interfaith prayer at our City Council and County Commissionaires meetings; we were able to raise over $17,000 to build a Muslim School in Afghanistan, and were offered regular media coverage and a bi-weekly newspaper column to promote peace through understanding.
In today’s current political climate, the change of leadership and diplomacy and the mega-media conglomerates taking over the small town news source, our work is more and more important; however, it seems to be more difficult. We must continue the journey and trust that the All Knowing, All Powerful, Ever Present God has a plan and the plan is good.
Benes, Becky J. (2018). Grassroots Initiatives Toward Peace in Rural America. Distinguished lecture delivered on October 31, 2018 at the 5th Annual International Conference on Ethnic and Religious Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding held by the International Center for Ethno-Religious Mediation at Queens College, City University of New York, in partnership with the Center for Ethnic, Racial & Religious Understanding (CERRU).