The May 24 interfaith meetup might sound like a tired joke premise — a priest, a rabbi and an imam walk into a bar — but the topics of conversation are no laughing matter.
The event, called an interfaith trialogue, is a relaunching, of sorts, for interfaith discussions hosted by the Baltimore Jewish Council during lunchtime on the occasional weekday.
“We decided to reorganize and relaunch it because we were getting the same conversations again and again,” said Madeline Suggs, the director of public affairs for the council and one of the main organizers of the trialogue.
Suggs wasn’t alone in her effort. She recruited three young faith leaders interested in interfaith work —Rabbi Jessy Gross, 36; Reverend Jim Hamilton, 38; and Imam Tariq Najee-ullah, 37. This relaunch comes after nearly a year of planning and monthly lunches.
The group for those original discussions tended to skew older and they wanted to attract the coveted millennial, young professional crowd — those who can carry the torch in the future. Moving the event to Nancy by Station North Arts Café at 5:30 p.m. was just the start. The true change would come in not only the topics of discussion, but the approach.
“We’re trying to engage on an ongoing basis, instead of a one-off,” Gross said.
They realized during the planning stages that young people of faith do want to be involved in the religious community, but that involvement looks different than previous generations. For many millennials, their faith is interwoven with their views on social issues and giving back to the community, Suggs said, especially in a time of divisive politics and often extreme rhetoric.
The faith leaders touched on this idea in their brief introductions at the start of the trialogue.
“I believe that we share a belief that our faith should be relevant to the world around us,” Najee-ullah said.
The group of about 30 people was nearly half younger people, and included noticeable diversity. There were also several older attendees, who were pretty pleased by the youth turnout.
“I’m kind of bringing up the average age and I love it,” said Martha Weiman, the chair of interfaith dialogue at BJC. “This is what Baltimore is all about — falafel on North Avenue.”
After introductions, the larger group broke up into three small groups that Gross, Hamilton and Najee-ullah each joined. The leaders urged people to separate from those they came with and spread out, which most did. In one group, for example, three members identified as Christian, two as Jewish and two as Muslim, including Najee-ullah.
Gross stressed this meeting as preliminary, a way for the group to gauge what this can be in the future. She suggested three questions for conversation: If you could fix one problem facing society, what would it be? What topics should groups like this be talking about? And what kind of opportunities do you think should come from interfaith groups?
Once coming back together as a large group, there was no true consensus, but several themes did arise. Two of the groups had spent time talking representation and imagery, both in worship and in the media — a topic likely to become a future, more in-depth discussion. Most groups also wanted these discussions to be a safe space, a place to ask questions and learn more about each other’s religions.
Eventually, or perhaps even separately from the discussions, one goal brought up a few times was to build a community — one that undertakes projects such as serving the less fortunate or takes educational field trips to local places of worship.
“I think it was interesting,” said Omar Mohammad, 34, who identified as a Muslim. “There were a lot of important discussion topics that came up. It was a very positive experience.”
The sentiment from most attendees was equally optimistic.
“I thought it was great. I loved the energy,” said Doris Cawl, a 71-year-old Jewish woman.
Abigail Malis, 27, also Jewish, felt the discussions benefited from the impressive age range. Young people don’t always have a space to talk about their faith, she said, so it was nice to be a part of something where everyone started from a basis of faith in some form.
“I thought that it was great how open everyone was,” she said.
The faith leaders themselves were also happy with how the event turned out.
“I think it went great,” Hamilton said. “I was actually expecting it to be a bit smaller.”
Since he, Gross and Najee-ullah have been meeting for almost a year, they have great respect for each other, Hamilton said, and respect is a key part of any interfaith discussions.
“I think it was a great turnout for a first run,” Gross said. “These are people I would love to see show up regularly.”