May 2011


Doctrine divides, Action unites

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Understanding and Dialogue Key to Healing the World

Larry Hufford


On Sept. 11, 2001, I was in Madrid, Spain, attending an international education conference. Participants came from more than 50 countries and represented every major religion of the world.

When news spread of airplanes striking the World Trade Center towers, participants gathered in the large conference auditorium to watch the news. Hundreds of people sat in total silence watching the collapse of the Twin Towers. It seemed as though each person present had a friend or family member living in or close to New York City, and everyone wanted to contact them, but the phone lines to the United States had been shut down. The internet was also down preventing e-mail to those in the country as well. Moreover, all flights to the United States had been immediately cancelled, and the Spanish army had quickly surrounded the U.S. embassy. Board members of the conference’s host organization met to devise a strategic plan to calm concerned participants and to attend to their immediate logistical needs. As a board member, I participated in the planning.

We organized a computer center for those trying to e-mail family and friends throughout the world. We became travel agents assisting members in rebooking tickets, even though there was no indication of when flights to the United States would resume. A housing assistance center was also established to assure participants that they could remain in their hotel or dormitory rooms for the duration of the crisis, and we worked with catering so that meals would be provided. These were nuts and bolts issues that had to be dealt with first.

At the end of that initial strategic planning session, the discussion turned to the spiritual needs of the conference participants. Thus, on the evening of 9/11, a prayer service was organized. There was not an empty seat in that large auditorium. For close to three hours, there were spontaneous prayers, songs, chants, liturgical dances and readings of scripture or poems of peace as organizers opened the stage to anyone feeling moved to share. On that stage were Christians (Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant), Muslims (Sunni, Shi’a and Sufi), Jews (Modern Orthodox, Conservative and Reform), Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists (Theravada and Mahayana), people of other faith traditions—Baha’i, Jain, Confucian, Zoroastrian, Shinto, Tao and indigenous spirituality. This was, and remains, the most spiritual moment of my life. It was truly transformational. That evening I committed myself to interfaith understanding and dialogue. I realized that, while the Twin Towers were on U.S. soil, those who died represented many countries and religions. On the evening of 9/11 in that auditorium in Madrid, there was a spontaneous, deeply sincere unity present in the hearts of this spiritually diverse global community. Unity in diversity became reality. In that transformational setting, I experienced that all major religions represent “a” truth while none represented “the” truth.

It is my hope that the death of Osama bin Laden will lead to the healing of our wounded national psyche and an end to more than nine years of anger and bitterness. Then we can open our hearts to the personal spiritual transformation that theologian Martin Marty calls a theology of hospitality. I propose that President Barack Obama, every governor and mayor across the United States proclaim 9/11 as a day of interfaith understanding and dialogue that leads to action on the community level to create healthy relationships among people of different faiths. The aim is to understand other faiths, not to convert followers. If this became a national and global movement, it would defeat terrorism and the evil represented by religious extremists of all faiths.

* Larry Hufford is a professor of international relations at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, and a past president of the World Council on Curriculum and Instruction.
This article is reprinted by permission of the National Catholic Reporter, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, Missouri 64111, <>