living the faith
Kansas City UU minister builds interfaith bridges
by Donald E. Skinner
It is 6 a.m. on the last day of the year, and 250 people of different faiths have gathered at a Buddhist center in Kansas City, Missouri, for the seventeenth annual World Peace Meditation. They have come to witness and participate in Native American prayers, Tibetan Buddhist chants and meditations, Sufi dancing, and a Muslim call to prayer. And, of course, to hear the Rev. Vern Barnet speak about "The Path of Peace in World Religions."
Rev. Barnet has been a Unitarian Universalist minister since 1970. In 1984 he left his last parish, in a Kansas City suburb, to take up what had become his passion the study of world religions and the promotion of interfaith understanding. He founded the Center for Religious Experience and Study in 1982 (www.cres.org) and since then has gone on to help create or to inspire a broad array of multifaith programs, resources, and organizations that have helped make Kansas City a national model.
When CBS went looking last summer for a city actively involved in multifaith work, it selected Kansas City in large part because of Barnet's work and because after 9/11 Kansas City experienced little of the aggression against Muslims that other cities reported. A film crew spent a week in Kansas City filming what would become a half-hour documentary, "Open Hearts, Open Minds," which was shown in October 2002.
The intro to the film went as follows: "A growing number of people in this heartland city are trying to send a message to the rest of America Let's celebrate our diversity, let's get to know people of different religions and different backgrounds, respect them, maybe even love them. It's a simple message, and an old one, but since 9/11, the idea of brotherhood has gained new urgency."
CBS was initially attracted by a program that one of Barnet's groups launched last year. It printed thousands of thirty-two-page passport-size booklets and distributed them to congregations to hand out. Holders of these "interfaith passports" are encouraged to visit other religious groups and in the process collect a stamp, sticker, or signature just as they would in crossing international borders. The program, and other initiatives that Barnet helped create, are helping Kansas City-area residents appreciate each other's religious diversity in several ways:
Barnet's days are a round of speaking engagements, organizational meetings, teaching, and writing. His appointments for a recent two-week period included speaking to students at Unity School of Religious Studies on "The Various Forms of Prayer," at a Roman Catholic church on "How Other Faiths Respond to the Scripture for the Day," and on "Religious Stereotypes" at a PeaceJam youth workshop at a Roman Catholic university. He also gave "A Brief History of the Christian Denominations" to an interdenominational marriage group at a Roman Catholic church, spoke on "The Heart of Every Faith" to a Baptist men's group, and discussed interfaith topics on a local National Public Radio station talk show.
Barnet had always intended to be a parish minister. And he was for fourteen years. But he noticed that whenever he talked about world religions "there was great resonance in my congregations. I got a very noticeable response." That encouraged him to learn more about world religions and to explore his own community. As he became aware of the broad array of religious groups in Kansas City he decided to take up interfaith work. "I saw this as a mission field," he says. "And it's every bit as demanding as parish work."
He lives simply, or as he says, "low to the ground." He receives no salary for his interfaith work. Last year he earned about $5,000 from teaching at local colleges. He supplements that income with early withdrawals from his pension. Friends help with living expenses, including donating clothing and an occasional automobile. "It's a quasi-monastic model," he says. "I have learned what it is like to live under the poverty level. I am very aware of economic injustice."
Barnet is often called on to give inclusive prayers at public events and he has developed a guide for that purpose. He has also developed Earth Day resources that explain the ways in which various faiths regard the Earth. Both are available on the CRES Web site.
One of the first things Barnet did when he began his interfaith work was to help organize a comprehensive metro interfaith council, giving not only Christians, Jews, and Muslims a way to talk together, but also Baha'is, Sufis, Wiccans, Zoroastrians, Native Americans, and others. A multifaith speaker's bureau has also been created, and it has been much in demand since 9/11. An annual interfaith dinner is held on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, placing Thanksgiving in a worldwide religious context and celebrating the many ways that various religions express gratitude. More than 150 were in attendance at last November's dinner.
The interfaith council was instrumental in organizing multifaith memorial services after September 11, 2001, and its one-year anniversary, and also organized Kansas City's first interfaith conference, "The Gifts of Pluralism," in October 2001. More than 250 people from fifteen faith groups attended.
One of Barnet's close associates in interfaith work is Kansas City Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Brooks. "Vern has taken interfaith work to a new level," says Brooks. "He reaches out not only to the major faiths, but to others. He helps keep them all connected, and he provides a great service for the metro area."
Barnet is heartened by the growing interest that he sees in learning about other religions. "People are hungry for knowledge about other peoples' faiths," he says. "And they end up deepening their own faith when they have encounters with other faiths. This is what has to happen if the human race is going to survive."
Donald E. Skinner is a contributing editor to UU World and editor of the UUA's InterConnections newsletter for lay leaders.