Through discussions that don’t shy away from the tough stuff, the Capital Area Interfaith Alliance is bringing people together.
A pastor, a rabbi, and a vicar general all walk into a room. It may sound like the start to a bad joke, but for members of the Capital Area Interfaith Alliance, it’s another chance to unite over differing spiritual traditions.
The Capital Area Interfaith Alliance began in 2006 after several area religious groups saw a need to engage in interfaith dialogue and mutual understanding. Today, members of the CAIA include representatives from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Unitarian faiths, among others. As a united front, they collaborate to promote interfaith activities aimed at learning more about one another — and giving Jefferson City residents an opportunity to join in that exchange.
David Avery, a former pastor at Community Christian Church, has been part of the alliance since its founding. Avery currently serves as the group’s vice moderator, and he sees value in partnering with his neighbors, including those who don’t think or worship exactly like he does.
“We recognize that our community could be better if all this diversity worked together toward some of the same goals,” says Avery. “People who are of other faiths have the same concerns about hunger. They have the same concerns about justice. They have the same concerns about fighting the hate and ignorance.”
Since its founding, CAIA has hosted a variety of forums and educational events in hopes of expanding mutual understanding within the mix of religious cultures in this area. The group’s community symposiums highlight the overarching belief systems of varying faiths, as well as commonalities, like music, cultural traditions, and issues that Avery believes are important to human beings from all walks of life. Guest speakers have represented a range of believers, from Muslims to Mennonites.
In the past, the group has allied with Lincoln University to sponsor the annual CROP Hunger Walk. A fourth of the funds raised during the event stay in the Jefferson City area. The group also hosts a periodic Festival of Faiths, where representatives from religious groups discuss their views during organized breakout sessions.
Avery recalls one of his first interactions at a local mosque: walking into the event space, he took notice of a food collection bin where members were gathering items to share with the Samaritan Center, a Catholic organization.
“We have all these groups that see the world in a different way,” Avery says. “But we also recognize that we are facing some problems as a world together. We’re facing problems with global warming. We’re facing problems with the rise of white nationalists. We’re seeing a lot of things that tend to divide our world and cause us to want to kill and hate. Now more than ever before, we need to understand that we can’t afford to demonize people who aren’t like us.”
Now more than ever before, we need to understand that we can’t afford to demonize people who aren’t like us.David Avery
Rev. Dhammaruchi William Edwards is one of those people who is different than Avery. Edwards leads the Vipassana Buddhist Church on East Dunklin and is moderator of the CAIA. He agrees that there are misunderstandings in the community about what various faiths stand for. In fact, he once ran into some individuals who were convinced that members of his Buddhist faith “sacrifice chickens.” After a brief conversation and some clarifying language, they parted ways with a better understanding.
“We try to be open to each other and sensitive toward everybody else’s interpretations,” says Edwards.
Feedback has sometimes been negative; leaders of the group are occasionally subjected to angry letters from area residents who feel the group is pushing an agenda. Member Robert Pinhero, who was raised in the Catholic faith, maintains that the CAIA is important to get people communicating.
“Religions, to some extent, get polarized like politics,” Pinhero says. “Everybody thinks theirs is the only one, and that’s the only way. We’re not trying to convert anybody. We’re just trying to expose people and also destroy some of the myths.”
We’re not trying to convert anybody. We’re just trying to expose people and also destroy some of the myths.Robert Pinhero
As the group’s leaders, Avery and Edwards, who met after joining the CAIA, are quick to note that they’re always looking for more faith traditions to be represented in the organization, and they’re hoping that younger individuals will help bring even more diversity to the group. The CAIA meets monthly, and membership is open to anyone who has an interest in interfaith dialogue.
“We need more understanding,” says Avery. “We need less ignorance. We need more knowledge. We need to understand each other better so that prejudices can fall away and we can start embracing some of the things that we have in common.”
We need more understanding. We need less ignorance. We need more knowledge.David Avery
To learn more about the Capital Area Interfaith Alliance, go to facebook.com/blessingindiversity.