Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Tiny Woodford County church counters religious bigotry

The Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, right, pastor of New Union Christian Church in Woodford County, greeted Dan Rosenberg, left, who is Jewish; state Auditor Crit Luallen, a New Union member; and Mehmet Saracoglu, who is Muslim, at a special service Sunday to promote interfaith understanding. Rosenberg read from the Torah and Saracoglu read from the Quran. The service  emphasized the beliefs that Christianity, Judaism and Islam share.
The Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, right, pastor of New Union Christian Church in Woodford County, greeted Dan Rosenberg, left, who is Jewish; state Auditor Crit Luallen, a New Union member; and Mehmet Saracoglu, who is Muslim, at a special service Sunday to promote interfaith understanding. Rosenberg read from the Torah and Saracoglu read from the Quran. The service emphasized the beliefs that Christianity, Judaism and Islam share.

If a tiny church in Florida could inflame religious strife around the world, the Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper figured that her tiny church in Woodford County could help heal it.

So the pastor of the 176-year-old New Union Christian Church held a special service Sunday to promote interfaith understanding. She invited a Muslim to read from the Quran and a Jew to read from the Torah.

"This church is unashamedly Christian, but we try to be good listeners," Kemper told her two dozen parishioners. "We shall overcome hate and bigotry and narrow-mindedness."

The Disciples of Christ congregation is one of several Kentucky groups that have spoken out against the Rev. Terry Jones of Gainesville, Fla. His threats to burn the Quran on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists sparked deadly protests in Afghanistan and international condemnation.

Georgetown College, a Baptist-affiliated school, sponsored several well- attended events last week to promote understanding between Christians and Muslims. "I saw students from many backgrounds open themselves to learn from members of a faith community that differs from their own," said Emily Brandon, who helped organize the events.

Lexington's Christian-Muslim Dialogue, which meets monthly, will have a special speaker Saturday. Monica Marks, who grew up as a Jehovah's Witness in Carter County, is a Fulbright scholar and a Rhodes scholar who studies Islamic law and reform movements in modern Middle Eastern culture. Her free lecture, "The Interfaith Issue in America and Abroad," is at 10 a.m. in Lexington Theological Seminary's Fellowship Hall. The public is encouraged to attend.

Kemper, retired executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, began her Sunday morning service by telling the congregation, "A church not much larger than our own sent shock waves around the world with its threat to burn the Quran. We decided to read from it and learn more about it."

She then introduced Mehmet Saracoglu — a Muslim from Turkey, a graduate student in mining engineering and founder of the University of Kentucky's Interfaith Dialogue Organization. He told the congregation that the Quran clearly forbids killing innocent people, as terrorists have done.

Among the Quran passages he read was this one: "O mankind! We created you from a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that you may know and honor each other (not that you should despise one another)."

Saracoglu was followed by Dan Rosenberg, a Thoroughbred industry consultant and retired president of Three Chimneys Farm. He read from the Torah's book of Leviticus, including this passage: "When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."

Afterward, Rosenberg said he was pleased to participate in the service. "I think it is always important for people to speak out against intolerance and injustice," he said.

The service emphasized beliefs that Christianity, Judaism and Islam have in common as the three religious traditions that trace their origins to a covenant between God and Abraham, described in the Hebrew Bible. In all three religions, love of God and of neighbor are inseparable.

In her sermon, Kemper asked God's forgiveness for having called the headline-seeking Florida minister an idiot. "I think it is not for us to judge, but it is for us to act on our own values," she said. "Too often we all let our prejudices get hold of us and lead us in ways that are not helpful."

Jones' stunt followed well-publicized protests over plans to build an Islamic center in New York, a few blocks from the former World Trade Center site, and mosques in towns including Mayfield and Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Kemper noted that Christianity, as well as Islam, has been perverted throughout history by zealots. People can honor their own religion and still respect others' beliefs, she said. "All across America, people are saying 'no' to the Terry Joneses of the world, and for the most part they are doing it gently and kindly," she said.

In addition to scripture, Kemper read several quotes from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But she left out the one that keeps popping into my head each time I see another news story about religious intolerance.

"We must learn to live together as brothers," King said, "or perish together as fools."

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