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September 11
A Year Later

Interfaith ‘passport’ opens doors to a wider world

Kansas City

Once the smoke cleared from the tragic events of Sept. 11, many Americans came to realize that there was “collateral damage” far beyond what the nation first imagined. It took various names: racism, suspicion, religious intolerance, ignorance. As in cities around the country, religious leaders in Kansas City, Mo., quickly convened their congregations to provide interfaith services for the community, offering prayer and healing in the wake of the disaster. But they also knew that in the post-9/11 climate they needed to do even more.

Hatred and intolerance -- and a terrible distortion of one religion’s beliefs -- had been a major force behind the death and destruction America had suffered. One effective antidote to the poison, the Kansas City religious community realized, would be a positive outreach to promote better understanding among the area’s faith traditions.

The result of their planning is a tangible aid to achieving interfaith understanding: a “passport” -- more specifically the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Passport -- a 32-page document that’s the same size as the official U.S. document (minus the hefty fee). The catchy understanding-builder was a joint project of several groups active in interfaith and interracial efforts in the community, including the Kansas City Interfaith Council, Mosaic, CRES, Kansas City Harmony, and the Kansas City region of the National Conference for Community and Justice (formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews).

The person who brought the passport from concept to reality was the Rev. Vern Barnet, a Unitarian Universalist minister who serves as minister-in-residence for CRES and writes a weekly religion column in The Kansas City Star titled “Faiths and Beliefs.”

Barnet, a well-known figure on the Kansas City religious scene, has a lifelong passion for interreligious and ecumenical understanding. “We felt that one of the best ways to get people out of their denominational ‘boxes’ and comfort levels was to provide a resource that would encourage them to visit other faith traditions, to learn more about other religions,” he told NCR. “And from there, tolerance and understanding deepen, and appreciation and respect take root.”

In addition to knowing little or nothing of religious traditions other than their own, many people have no incentive to visit another faith’s house of worship, Barnet said. Kansas City’s religious leaders felt they needed to build some bridges to get people moving beyond the familiar. For Barnet, the passport concept was a natural one to achieve that.

“Just as travelers visit other cultures and countries, and come home with a stamped passport as proof of their expanded world, we thought an interfaith passport would do the same thing,” he said. And there are more than a dozen religious “lands” for the interested spiritual traveler in metropolitan Kansas City to visit, from A (American Indian spirituality) to Z (Zoroastrianism). In addition to the better-known religions like Buddhism, Christianity (with a category each for Orthodox, Protestant and Roman Catholic), Hinduism, Islam and Juda-ism, the passport also includes space to visit other traditions, from Jain and Sikh to Wicca, as well as interfaith activities and programs.

Each of the participating traditions in the metro-politan area has agreed to offer a stamp, a self-stick “visa” or to sign the passport when a person or group visits. There’s also a bit of healthy entrepreneurial spirit at work: Those who accumulate at least one visa on 12 pages for specific faiths and at least five visas for interfaith activities will be honored at an awards dinner and get a discounted rate to attend the city’s 2003 interfaith conference.

The interfaith passport was launched July 1, and Barnet said the first printing of 5,000 is almost sold out. The $2 cost covers just the printing, with a $5 donation asked to cover the booklet and postage if it’s mailed. In addition to orders from individuals, Barnet said several congregations have purchased quantities to give their members, encouraging them to “travel” to other faith “lands.”

Besides the official pages where “visas” can be affixed, the passport contains information on all the faith communities that are members of the Kansas City Interfaith Council and their representatives. Also included is the declaration from the “Gifts of Pluralism” Conference that brought participants from the area’s faith traditions together a year ago and was the genesis for the passport.

“This is a small step, certainly,” Barnet said, “but it’s a practical, tangible way for people to learn more, widen their perspective and embrace tolerance. We’re all journeying together, after all. Isn’t it a wonderful thing if we can widen the circle of our fellow travelers through respect and understanding?”

To learn more about the interfaith passport or to obtain a copy, visit the CRES Web site at www.cres.org/passport or e-mail: harmony@kcharmony.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 6, 2002