I was six years old when I had my first interfaith encounter. It was late March or early April. On that fateful day, my public school ended classes at 11:30 in the morning. The teachers said the early dismissal was because of something called “Good Friday.” In my limited world-view, any day that school was abbreviated was a good day.
After lunch, I went outside and sat on the front porch waiting for my friend and next-door neighbor, Nancy, to join me. We would have a whole afternoon of play ahead of us. Except that Nancy never came out. No one was home next door. I managed to occupy myself in the unseasonably warm spring sunshine by creating a construction site in a dormant flowerbed. Toy steam shovels and bulldozers worked the damp ground for a couple of hours or so.
Just when boredom was beginning to set in, I heard sounds of life from next-door. Nancy had returned home. I went to her back door and knocked. The door opened. Without warning, a clenched fist shot out from behind the door and caught me square on the left side of my face.
“You killed Jesus!” Nancy screamed as she slammed the door shut.
Through my tears and pain, I shouted back. “I never met Jesus! He is not in our class. How could I kill someone I never met?”
With patience and compassion, Mom explained that I had just become the latest victim of religious hatred. That was also the day I learned what it meant to be Jewish in a Catholic neighborhood. Two days later, things returned to normal. Our brief religious war was over. A few months later, Nancy moved away.
In a few weeks, members of Jewish and Christian faith communities will observe Passover and Easter. These religious festivals have been fatefully joined on the calendar for more than two thousand years. During that time, there were too many occasions when these sacred celebrations were filled with fear, violence, and even death. Nevertheless, in our own day, the proximity of the two holidays has served as a catalyst for interfaith understanding. It is important to recall that St. Louis has played and continues to play a key role in making interfaith understanding more of a reality than a dream.
Like most St. Louisans, as opening day approaches, I am currently suffering from serious baseball withdrawal, so I tend to see everything as having some connection to our national pastime, including interfaith relations. In recognition of that special history, I propose that, in the manner of the Baseball Hall of Fame, we create the St. Louis Interfaith Hall of Fame. Like the hallowed halls of Cooperstown, we should begin with the pioneers of interfaith understanding who are no longer with us in body but certainly are in spirit.
The initial inductees would include, but not be limited to:
• Reverend O. Walter Wagner, Cardinal Ritter, Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman, Bishop Ivan Lee Holt, Rabbi Robert Jacobs - faith leaders who respected one another long before it was acceptable or fashionable.
• Sister Rose Thiering, whose research in the 1950’s at St. Louis University was instrumental in the Vatican II Roman Catholic Church’s reassessment of its teachings of contempt for Jews and Judaism.
We could then move forward and recognize the unique treasure we have in St. Louis, now celebrating its 25th year of service to our community: The Interfaith Partnership. From the outset, the Partnership understood that it was not enough to arrange dialogue between Christians and Jews. Local Muslims, Hindus, Bahai’s and others took leadership positions in the Partnership. The Partnership’s motto still speaks volumes for its work and impact on our community: “We agree to differ. We unite to serve. We promise to love.”
Once a time of fear, now, the Passover/Easter convergence is a time when our faith communities routinely come together to celebrate religious freedom human dignity, and the hope of redemption for all humanity.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Mark Shook is Rabbi Emeritus at Temple Israel.