MORRILTON The Rev. Beth Turner of Morrilton, a retired Methodist minister, and some of her friends got tired of hearing the negative talk about other religions.
“There’s too much hatred,” she said.
She and four like-minded women planned a six-week series called Interfaith Dialogue as a Path to Peace.
The discussions, which are open to the public, will be in the Rialto Gallery in downtown Morrilton at 6 p.m. each Tuesday, beginning Jan. 22.
Turner, 72, said she noticed the negativity, especially toward Islam, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City.
“We have preconceived ideas about anyone we don’t know. If we don’t know something, we misunderstand it; we even fear it sometimes.
“But when we get to know it, it opens up a whole new world. … It doesn’t mean we change our faith. Nor are we trying to say they have to become Christians. We’re just trying to enrich our own faith,” she said. “We need to reach out to each other and say we want to be friends.”
Jay McDaniel, who has taught world religions at Hendrix College in Conway for more than 30 years, agreed.
“We don’t need to convert, but we do need to become more generous and warmhearted,” he said. “There’s no peace in the world unless there’s friendship among religions.”
McDaniel will introduce the series Jan. 22 and lead the discussion on Christianity and provide a summary Feb. 26, the last session.
“I’m actually very excited about this being in Morrilton, and I know Morrilton, and I like Morrilton,” he said.
McDaniel said he doesn’t like elitism and believes small cities have much to offer.
“The heroes of this world live in small towns,” he said.
But he doesn’t think interfaith dialogue is as common in a small town as it is in a large urban area.
“It’s a leading-edge experiment for that reason. If there’s hope for the world, it’s that it begins in places like Morrilton. It’s not so much that it begins in places like Chicago,” McDaniel said.
Anne Queen of Morrilton, a retired schoolteacher, also looks forward to the series.
“Someone said, ‘In Morrilton, you’re going to do that?’” she said. “Well, we are, and we’re excited about that. We just want to learn about world religions as a path to peace. We hope it’ll open a mind or two.”
Other series organizers are Mollie Williams and Nan Gibson, both of Morrilton, and Valerie Temple of Conway.
Turner is the daughter of a Methodist minister, but she didn’t feel called to the ministry until she was 59. She went to seminary in Atlanta at age 60.
Before that, she taught school and worked in community health. She retired from a church in Concord and moved to Morrilton 1 1/2 years ago.
“I grew up all over Arkansas,” she said, including Stamps, Camden and El Dorado.
“Just a part of my raising and how I view my theology had always been pretty much world theology, you might call it,” Turner said.
She said a “great teacher” of hers at seminary was from India, and she did the last six hours of her study in the Asian country.
“For me, it is part of my ministry to promote peace among people of different faiths,” she said.
“If you really sit down and get to know someone, if you sit down and visit with them, if you have a dialogue with them, you find out they are pretty much like we are. They have the same hopes and desires and dreams for their loved ones that we do,” Turner said. “We’re just
trying to sit down in a peaceful way so we can live together in peace and come together to make the world a better place.”
“When I grew up … in southern Arkansas, primarily, there were no Jews, even, in my little bitty town. There were no Muslims or Hindus, in our faith. That’s not true anymore — they’re our neighbors.
“As a Christian, we’re supposed to love our neighbor, and we can’t love our neighbor if we can’t get to know them,” Turner said.
She said the series might cause controversy.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if some people call and make comments,” Turner said. “That’s happened before in the past in other communities when I’ve done something of this nature.”
McDaniel said he believes more hatred has been directed toward Islam than other religions, and he calls it Islamaphobia.
“We’ve had Muslim immigrants … for a long, long time. I think Islam itself was an unknown for many, many Americans until Sept. 11,” McDaniel said.
“Needless to say, if those [terrorist] acts were committed in the act of Islam and similar acts are committed in the name of Islam, and we hear them on CNN, how could we not have stereotypes?” he said.
“It’s understandable, but once you know that you’ve got a stereotype, or once you at least suspect that, it’s time to inquire — not just to read, but to meet people,” McDaniel said.
“I will be happy if even just a small group shows, and they leave with a little more generosity of spirit and they’re more informed.
“What you hope for are slightly transformed hearts and minds that have a friendly disposition toward people who walk other paths in a sometimes scary world. Good things happen in small ways, and there is a ripple effect,” he said.
“The heart of the matter — it’s one thing to have ideas about world religions and another thing to have a friend who belongs to another religion. It puts a face on the religions and a face and a heart. You can’t hate anybody whose heart you know,” McDaniel said.
For more information, call Turner at (501) 266-2068.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.