Interfaith Partners to highlight South Carolina’s diverse faiths

cclick@thestate.comFebruary 9, 2013 

South Carolina is known as the buckle of the Bible belt, but tucked amid Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians and other Christians are adherents of some of the world’s other great religions, making the state a rich tapestry of spirituality and faith.

On Feb. 17, South Carolina’s many faiths will be celebrated with a Gathering of Faiths celebration organized by Interfaith Partners of South Carolina. In addition to Christians, Muslims and Jews, there will be Native Americans, Buddhists, Sikhs, Pagans, Unitarian Universalists, Baha’i and Hindus represented. The event is free and open to the public.

The 1 p.m. event at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center comes on the heels of World Interfaith Harmony Week, which ends today and celebrates the Common Word Initiative, a movement by Muslim and Christian leaders to focus on two shared religious commandments: love of God and love of neighbor.

Last month, Gov. Nikki Haley issued a proclamation making January S.C. Interfaith Harmony Month. Haley, born into a Sikh family in Bamberg, considers herself a United Methodist now but also shares in her family’s faith traditions.

“I think there is a growing awareness that we are becoming more diverse,” said Carl Evans, the president of Interfaith Partners and a professor emeritus of USC’s Department of Religious Studies.

For years, Evans led Columbia-based Partners in Dialogue, which focused on interfaith understanding among religious groups in the Midlands. With Interfaith Partners, that exploration has expanded statewide, he said.

The increased interest in learning about other faith traditions was made clear to Evans last month when a series of gatherings at different houses of worship gained so much traction that the events spilled over into February.

Quakers, Zen Buddhists, Mormons, Sikhs and others “opened their doors to us,” Evans said, and helped illuminate their faith traditions.

“We have been sampling the spirituality of many different religious traditions and within these religious traditions, there are multiple forms,” Evans said.

Feb. 17 will be the organization’s signature event and will include an opening procession, dance performances by the 10 religious groups, food and dialogue led by trained facilitators.

“People can come and go and if they are there for a couple of hours, there will be able to experience everything we can offer,” he said.

Evans said the organization wants to help people become comfortable with and celebrate other forms of spirituality, but also move on to the next level: confronting differences in religion.

“That requires some cultivation of an inner spirit of openness and respect that goes beyond just recognizing differences,” he said.

That broadening of the interfaith experience appeals to Holly Emore, a key interfaith partner who has worked to bring more understanding of her Pagan faith.

“We want unity, not uniformity,” Emore said this week. “I don’t like labels more than the next person, but sometimes you need to define yourself so you can have a starting point for dialogue.”

She attended a recent event at the Newberry Opera House which underscored the point.

Members of the 10 faith groups came with the purpose of explaining and highlighting their particular spiritual practices, but those gathered wound up appreciating the depth of others in the room.

“I looked around and said, ‘I know we came here hoping that people would acknowledge and accept Paganism and here we are affirming others.’”

The Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center is located at 1101 Lincoln St. For more information, email: gatheringoffaiths

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