Joseph Mathews remembers the day his father, a Methodist minister, packed his family up to join the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965 to help register black voters.
Mathews was just 19 at the time, but the experience had such a profound effect on him it moved him to work for social justice and to find common ground among people.
“It was exhilarating and it was frightening. It was my first experience with profound hate. The hate that was on the faces and that was in the words of the people along the streets ... was so intense you just physically felt it,” said Matthews, one of 90 people who attended the “Amazing Faiths Dinner” Wednesday night at the American Albanian Islamic Center at 60th Street and 88th Avenue.
The dinner, sponsored by Kenosha area Congregations United to Serve Humanity, brought together people of diverse faiths and religions — Buddhists, Christians, Jews and Muslims — and included those who also aren’t associated with a religio in a first-of-its-kind event during Kenosha’s annual Kindness Week.
“That rocked my soul and really was the reason that I ended up choosing to work for agencies and organizations that were involved in social justice,” said Matthews, a Christian who considers his spirituality to be eclectic. “I worked with the poor around the world for 15 years. Everywhere I went, no matter what faith the people were there, I always found common ground.”
The dinner’s concept, created by the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, encouraged each of the nearly 90 people in attendance to share answers to very specific questions offered at each of their tables, about their beliefs and how these beliefs have influenced responses to situations that have arisen in their lives.
Over vegetarian dinner they listened to each other’s answers and stories. No one was there to judge them, interrupt and no political or religious debates were allowed.
While Mathews answered about his spiritual awakening, Merrilee Follensbee picked a card that posed a question about miracles and how she would define them and whether she had ever seen one.
Follensbee said she didn’t know whether she believed in “burning bushes or water turning into wine.”
“I’m too scientific based for that,” she said. “I can look at the world around me and just feel that smile on the face of a stranger walking on the streets.”
Stories about a homeless man giving to someone else, she said, are acts of kindness that are miracles.
“The problem with the world today is that people don’t appreciate the little things,” she said. “They’re looking for something big like a burning bush ... but they don’t see the small, everyday things. The goodness of one person to another.”
Tom Heinen, executive director of the Milwaukee-based interfaith conference, said the dinners are a way to build dialogue and relationships in communities. The events are intended to counter hate and fear, he said, and to promote not only tolerance but friendship and understanding.
Nick Idrizi, president of the mosque, said the Islamic Center was pleased to host the dinner as the community continues to be involved with interfaith programs and dialogues.
“You have these many communities coming together ... so we learn from each other different perspectives and different beliefs,” he said. “The only way to understand is to (hear them). That’s how you live in peace — (through) understanding and by accepting each other as they are.”