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Prayer breakfast's insult leaves bad taste.

Byline: Yitzhak Husbands-Hankin For The Register-Guard

What sort of community are we? We live in a complex place struggling to define itself and, I hope, achieve real pluralism, inclusiveness of difference and genuine equality, not merely in our idealistic statements but in our day-to-day lives.

It will take work. Our best hope of growing in our sensitivity to each other's differences is through honest communication.

I welcome the discussion and hope to contribute to it with this cautionary tale. It centers on an annual event that takes place in the Eugene-Springfield area and throughout the country, the Mayors' Prayer Breakfast, a predominantly conservative Christian event which is part of a larger phenomenon that includes annual mayors', governors', and even presidential prayer breakfasts. It is not an official government affair, yet in its appropriation of public officials and American symbols it blurs the lines that separate church and state.

I expected that an event bearing the name Mayors' Prayer Breakfast would be open and welcoming to all of the community members of Eugene and Springfield, several hundred of whom assembled in a large banquet room of the Hilton Hotel.

Last year I was asked to participate in the Prayer Breakfast. I felt honored by the invitation. It was an opportunity to represent my community, and the Jewish tradition, in a setting that I assumed would confer a sense of respect and acceptance for my tradition and for me, as a fellow citizen alongside respected leaders of the Christian community and numerous civic leaders.

But the hope and promise of the occasion wilted as the program proved anything but welcoming, respectful of our community's diversity, or conscious of the religious freedom and pluralism at the very heart of American democracy.

My role was to read a selection from the Psalms, a welcome task. But it was hardly welcoming to be followed directly by the reading of the well-known passage from the Gospel of John (14:6), which quotes Jesus: `No man cometh unto the Father, but by me.'

Can it be that organizers failed to understand the implications of this text? Christian scripture is replete with beautiful lessons, and yet this passage explicitly denies the legitimacy of all other faiths, including mine.

It became painfully apparent that no other religious tradition but the one embraced by the organizers of the event would command respect or legitimacy.

The keynote speaker, Adolph Coors IV, made this clear when he told his personal story of conversion, while repeatedly addressing his talk to `rabbi' and others present. He persistently defined his faith as the only valid religion, even going so far as to ask all to bow their heads and invite Jesus into their lives. This was not the mayors' breakfast that I had agreed to attend and affirm with my presence.

Why was I invited? Was I a potential convert, some sort of living symbol of the work yet to be accomplished by proselytizers?

Could organizers so thoroughly misunderstand Judaism that they could not comprehend the pain I felt and their insult to the integrity of my religious tradition and others, which do not believe Jesus to be our messiah? Had they no awareness of the long and tragic history of oppressive practices including forced conversions of Jews by overzealous Christians over the past two millennia?

More broadly and equally troubling, the organizers went to great lengths to appropriate the symbols of America to their narrow purpose. The flag they displayed is a flag for all of us. The soldiers they honored defend the freedoms of Americans of every faith and no faith. The mayors present are leaders of varied and vibrant communities and are worthy of the respect and support of all.

Our democratic leaders, our symbols of freedom, and the community itself were diminished by the narrow exclusivity demonstrated by those who distorted their true meaning in this event. As a Jew, the specter of religious tyranny that so often has accompanied the blending of religion with the power of government stirred a chilling dread in my heart. I felt sickened by the horrific possibilities of loss of religious liberty should the crucial separation of church and state deteriorate.

How much was this slight like those felt so often by people of color and others who are marginalized in the United States and in our own community?

As much as my heart would want to share the pain of victims of racial prejudice, it is difficult for me to fully grasp the nuanced experience of a person of color who feels the sting of prejudice. Just as my heart would want to share the pain of one who is stung by the bitterness of gender bias, the limits of my sensitivity are defined by my limited life experience. Just as I would hope to embrace the pain of one who sits in a wheelchair at the foot of a flight of stairs, so my attention to this experience is limited by my lack of experience and the easy access provided me by those steps.

In each of these situations, not only do I live a life that is privileged by my membership in the dominant segment of our society, but I actually have a disincentive to expand my sensitivity because it might distract me from the comfort and self-satisfaction I enjoy as a result of my status. My expanded awareness might compel me to change and yield to others equally entitled to those privileges some of the privileges I have assumed to be rightfully mine.

My best hope for personal growth and change is by opening myself to the reflection of others who from their pain speak out about the sense of injustice that they experience.

I have experienced anguish that does not register in the hearts of others who cannot know my experience as a Jew. We must draw on these experiences in our own lives, and work to understand the likely impact of our words and deeds on those who are unlike us but no less entitled to the rights and respect we hold dear as members of our society.

It is in this spirit that I offer these words of reflection and protest.

It is my hope that the reflection I offer here will increase sensitivity and authentic mutual respect, which comes from understanding, acceptance, and respect for differences.

Let me be perfectly clear. I honor and respect members of our community who hold and cherish their Christian faith. I have no doubt that their faith has great value and can lead to righteous living.

My concern here is about the political agenda implied by the mixing of symbols of the state, which is the guardian of religious freedom for all, with a triumphal view of Christianity which disregards the validity of all other faiths.

I respect the right of organizers to hold a strictly Christian event. But it should not then blur the line between church and state by featuring public officials or using them (or others) as props. It should not invite a rabbi, and then show disrespect for Jewish beliefs and the Jewish people.

It should be unambiguously clear that the event will be one in which proselytizing and the denial of the validity of all other faiths will be articulated from the podium. Had I been informed of this in advance I would simply have declined the invitation.

The Eugene-Springfield Mayors' Prayer Breakfast will go on this year without me. I would like to take part, but only if it's able to respect the breadth of religious beliefs represented in our community.

I do not ascribe ill will to the event's organizers, but the harm they inflict is just as harmful whether it is intentional or not. I hope for progress in our effort to build acceptance and support for diversity. Let's pull together, not by assuming everyone should be like us, or expecting others to adopt our own sectarian views and interests, but through genuine appreciation and respect for our differences and the strength that our diverse ideas, beliefs, and experiences can provide.

I look forward to a day when Jews, Moslems, Christians, Native Americans, Sikhs and representatives of the full and radiant rainbow of faith communities will humbly sit together celebrating the awesome blessings of life and our system of government that protects the religious liberties of each and every one in attendance.

Yitzhak Husbands-Hankin is senior rabbi at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene.
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Title Annotation:Commentary; Why would organizers of the Mayors' Prayer Breakfast invite a rabbi, then show disrespect for religious pluralism?
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Apr 10, 2005
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