Interfaith relationships

Rev. Rebecca Aardahl, from left, Rola Koleilat, Rev. Gretchen Deeg and Darlene Hyder talk about organizing interfaith events to form relationships among Christians, Muslims and those of other faiths. The women have organized a cleanup day today at the 16th Street Park in Bismarck from 10 a.m. to noon.

A four-person lunch prompted a 100-person picnic, which set in motion a service project today that could draw any number of people to 16th Street Park.

Those participating don't necessarily share the same religion, but they have a common goal.

"All of our faiths are about positively impacting our community," said the Rev. Gretchen Deeg of the United Church of Christ. "It's nice to be doing that together."

Today's cleanup at the park is part of an effort launched by a group of four women of Christian and Muslim faiths to build relationships between people of all religions in the Bismarck area.

Rola Koleilat of the Muslim Community Center invited three other women to her house several months ago to discuss the possibility.

"I had this idea we can do more together," she said.

The four organized a picnic this summer at Sertoma Park, which drew more than 100 people despite minimal efforts to publicize it.

They were overwhelmed by the response. People showed up from the United Church of Christ, Faith Lutheran Church, the Muslim Community Center, the Annunciation Monastery and St. George's Episcopal Church, among other churches.

People brought food and mingled, asking about one another's kids and other subjects of common interest.

"I don't think there was any hesitation," said Darlene Hyder of the Muslim Community Center.

Koleilat said she often finds people curious to learn more about Islam. When her kids were in Bismarck for school, she attended several classes to answer questions from students.

They wanted to know why some Muslim women wear a hijab, how they date, what their weddings are like and why they don't drink alcohol.

They also wanted to know if what they see on TV news is accurate portrayal of Muslims.

"It's a religion of peace," Koleilat told them.

The organizers of the interfaith events say they do not intend to convert anyone. The purpose is to build relationships.

"I'm hoping we won't be hesitant about moving forward," said the Rev. Rebecca Aardahl, chaplain at Missouri Slope Lutheran Care Center.

She said she's not sure where their efforts will lead, but at the very least, they're developing friendships.

Today's cleanup at 16th Street Park will take place from 10 a.m. to noon. Participants should bring a rake and gloves, as well as canned food to be donated to a local food pantry. The Benedictine Sisters of Annunciation Monastery will provide hot beverages.

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(Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8267 or amy.sisk@bismarcktribune.com.)