Hundreds of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and atheists have convened at a Texas church in an effort to try to understand one another.
The Global Faith Forum kicked off Thursday at NorthWood Church in Keller and Pastor Bob Roberts, Jr., is hoping the crowd will be open to listen to one another and even build friendships.
Within a pluralistic world where prejudice and stereotypes often hinder understanding, Roberts says "there is a better way than hate and fear."
"Everyone is saying that the tension between the U.S. and the rest of the world is bad, tension between the faiths is bad, and things are spinning out of control," he wrote in his blog ahead of the conference. "We can complain, gripe, fear, worry – or we can act. This is an opportunity to gather and act."
The forum isn't a gathering of theologians to debate religions, he made clear. Rather, it's an opportunity for people of multiple faiths to get to know one another, start conversations, and learn from each other.
"For me, questions as to who is God and how do we find salvation, are not the primary questions I'm seeking and seeking to answer at this forum," he wrote. "I've come to acknowledge that theologically there are irreconcilable differences in some of what I believe and what others believe. But, how we relate to others, and how we work together in the world is everything."
He pointed out that evangelicals are not viewed in a favorable light by most of the world.
"It's time to begin to understand that and change that. The Great Commission demands it. The love of Jesus for all of humanity and his desire to see transformation demands it. We are boxed in by love on every side by Jesus Christ. Even those we fear and those that we would think are our enemies, we are commanded to love," he said.
As the purpose of the conference states, participants – most of whom are Christians – are "moving from a conversation about other faiths, to a conversation with other faiths. And many of the religious leaders involved are friends of Roberts.
The forum is part of what he calls a "multifaith" effort, and not an "interfaith" one. While interfaith implies dumbing down one's faith to get along with those of other religious traditions, multifaith allows participants to hold on to their convictions and not compromise on what they hold to be true.
Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research – the research arm of the Southern Baptist Convention – and a speaker at the Global Faith Forum, says admitting "that we are multifaith is only the beginning." Evangelicals, he stressed, need to be willing to learn to live together with those whose beliefs are different.
"Because we believe in the need to live together on this earth, we recognize that this involves allowing adherents of other faiths to live out their convictions without being in constant conflict," he stated on his blog. "The world has seen too much pain and suffering as the result of followers of one faith using political or military means to impose their views on the followers of another."
On a similar note, Roberts lamented that while many people are eager to share their religious views with others, they're less eager to share life together. And "that isn't how Jesus did it," the Northwood pastor stressed.
"He (Jesus) shared his views, but he did life with people and shared it along the way," he explained. "Like it or not, people's perception of what they believe about your faith is tied up in how they see you. If they see you as loving, open, and caring they are more open to what you believe. If they see you as hateful, mean spirited, arrogant that's how they will view your faith."
Ahead of the forum, Roberts provided attendees with a few tips on how to engage with those of other faiths, such as not shaking hands with a woman unless she initiates it.
He also advised that participants ask questions when conversing with people of other faiths and to make answers simple and clear. While encouraging theological questions, the Texas pastor suggested mixing it up with small talk.
"You don't want to interview someone. You want to have a conversation," he said.
Speakers at the Global Faith Forum include HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal, former Saudi Arabia ambassador to the United States; His Excellency Le Cong Phung, Vietnam ambassador to the United States; Eboo Patel of Interfaith Youth Core; John Esposito of Georgetown University; and Mark Galli of Christianity Today, among others.