Building a coalition of faith: Peninsula Multifaith Coalition grows in numbers, impact

Fatih Ates of the Pacifica Institute, Rabbi Reuven Firestone, Regenstein professor in Medieval Judaism and Islam at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and Rabbi Callie Schulman, associate rabbi of Peninsula Temple Beth El, at the Muslim Iftar Service in June at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo.

An idea rooted in spreading religious tolerance and understanding after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has spread and grown into a large organization made up of clergy and congregants that seeks to spread the idea of faith-based service and communication.

The Peninsula Multifaith Coalition had 175 volunteers for its first Multifaith Day of Service on Martin Luther King Day in 2012. This year, the same event drew 506 who together completed 27 service projects at 11 different venues.

The Multifaith Day of Service’s success is not standalone. It is one of the many well-attended community service and educational events the coalition designs and hosts to traverse both cultural and religious boundaries.

“We want the organization to teach us all about our different faiths, while realizing that our values are very much the same,” said the Rev. Kristi Denham, coalition co-founder and pastor of the Congregational Church of Belmont. “I know my own faith and the faith of the teens I work with, indeed all of us, grow in our faith when we realize it challenges us to do more and be more, to live up to our values.”

The organization is a coalition of 19 different faith houses, representing all five of the major faiths — Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam.

Although the Peninsula Multifaith Coalition is not the only example of an interfaith organization on the Peninsula, to Dick Heiman, a member of the coalition’s founding group and a member of its Steering Committee, it is unique in that it is led by a combination of laymen and clergy.

“I’ve been involved with interfaith activities around the Bay Area, and I really don’t know of any other interfaith organizations with this many faith houses that is a combination of lay and clergy led,” Heiman said. “The Peninsula Multifaith Coalition really reaches out to involve a lot of their lay congregants.”

Ineko Tsuchida, a member of the coalition’s Steering Committee and program director at the Shinnyo-en Foundation, believes it is the coalition’s emphasis on creating a diverse community that sets the organization apart from others.

“As far as I know, the PMC is very mindful of creating a diverse membership of faith groups,” Tsuchida said. “Their outreach effort has focused on going beyond familiar or known congregations, and reaching outside of their friendship circles.”

Although not formally founded until 2012, the coalition has roots in Denham’s efforts to spread religious tolerance and understanding after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. To Heiman, this goal of emphasizing similarities between religions, rather than differences, is achieved through the coalition’s various events — including a joint service for Iftar, the Muslim breaking of the fast during Ramadan.

“At the Iftar service, I was struck by how the value of welcoming your neighbor was so similar in the presentations by [members of different faiths in the community],” Heiman said. “At our annual Song Fest this year, too, it was interesting how music brought us together, whether it was Japanese Buddhist Taiko drumming, the singing of a Jewish cantorial soloist, or a church choir.”

Denham also noted that the diverse offering of events make understanding a different religion not only more accessible, but even fun.

“I was especially moved by the teens at the Shinnyo-en Buddhist Temple in Redwood City who shared how meditation demanded a great deal from them in terms of time and focus,” she said. “They told us that their faith was strengthened by the discipline.”

In fact, it was after participating in all three days of service, Denham said, that a group of teens was motivated to form their own interfaith coalition, the Teen Interfaith Leadership Council of San Mateo County, which meets monthly throughout the school year.

To Denham, it is this emphasis on cooperation and appreciation of various cultures and traditions that enables the Peninsula Multifaith Coalition to continue to attract new members and spread their message across the Bay Area.

“This organization is committed to including everybody at the table,” she said. “We’re respectful of everyone’s traditions, and we want to learn about everyone’s traditions. We’re learning from each other, and I just love it.”

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