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father thomas michel

Father Thomas Michel, a Jesuit priest and senior fellow at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, will be the keynote speaker at Lincoln's first Niagara Abrahamic Traditions Dinner. His presentation will be "The Legacy of Abraham." (Courtesy photo)

On March 29, Muslims, Jews and Christians will gather in Lincoln's Westminster Presbyterian Church for food and fellowship.

The event, Children of Abraham: A Family Gathering, will be Lincoln's first ever Niagara Abrahamic Traditions Dinner. Its goal: to create lasting cross-cultural friendships, understanding and respect.

The Abrahamic dinner is a collaboration of Westminster Presbyterian and Saint Paul United Methodist churches, Congregation B'nai Jeshurun (South Street Temple), Niagara Foundation of Nebraska, Afghan Renascent Youth Association and Interfaith Ministries of Nebraska.

"The main idea is to sit and eat together," said Ferhat Ozturk, Lincoln coordinator of Niagara Foundation of Nebraska.

Through the breaking of bread and the sharing of traditions, the hope is people will come to understand and appreciate one another and to promote global fellowship, Ozturk said.

That mirrors the ultimate goal of the nonprofit, nondenominational, cross-cultural Niagara Foundation. Started in 1996, the national organization envisions a community in which people from all walks of life interact and cooperate to serve their communities, thereby strengthening civil society and promoting the development of human values. It sponsors Abrahamic traditions dinners annually in communities across the United States.

Father Thomas Michel, a Jesuit priest and senior fellow at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, will be the keynote speaker. Michel has a doctoral degree in Arabic and Islamic studies from the University of Chicago and has served interfaith programs throughout the world. For many years he headed the Vatican's Office of Islam. His presentation will be "The Legacy of Abraham."

Judaism, Christianity and Islam are monotheist faiths coming from the prophet Abraham. Christianity was born from the Jewish tradition, and Islam developed from both Judaism and Christianity.

Despite their vast differences, the faiths share many common tenets, such as  believing there is one God and cherishing values of honesty, respect and acceptance. Those commonalities will be the primary focus of the evening, said the Rev. Robert Snell, interim pastor at Westminster.

"We're not coming together and saying we are all the same. Our homes and churches are different. But we are coming together in a peaceful way," Snell said.

The fact that people are so different is the mercy of God, said Farida Ebrahim of the  Afghan Renascent Youth Association, an organization dedicated to helping widows and orphans in Afghanistan. God wants people to learn from one another and educate one another, Ebrahim said.

The evening will feature traditions from each of the faiths -- traditions that are different in appearance but similar in purpose, Ozturk said. For example, he will lead with a call to prayer and Rabbi Craig Lewis of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun will open with the playing of the shofar, a ram's horn, which is sounded to announce important events. Westminster's Snell will present a call to peace.

The idea for the gathering began last year after a program at Westminster. Snell wanted to find a way for people of the three religions -- Christian, Jewish and Muslim -- to just get together and become friends "with the hope of establishing a meaningful relationship," Snell said.

The Rev. Stephen Griffith of Saint Paul United Methodist Church had worked with the Niagara Foundation in the past, first in 2008 when Ozturk gave a presentation on Ramadan, the holiest of Muslim holidays.

"There was a lot of interest in our congregation of learning about one another and sitting at the table and visiting with people from different Muslim communities," Griffith said.

Then in 2009, he took part in a 10-day trip to Turkey through the Niagara Foundation.

As plans were unfolding, the group sent an email to Lewis asking if Congregation B'nai Jeshurun was interested in joining them.

The invitation came on the heels of a conversation Lewis had with his congregation about connecting with Lincoln's diverse religious communities.

"For one, it is a natural extension of the central Jewish tenet to reach out to neighbors of all faiths," Lewis said.

Last week, each of the faith leaders announced the Children of Abraham gathering to their congregations. The announcement was brief but the response was strong, with people in and outside of their congregations asking to take part.

In all, the faith leaders hope 150 people will attend the dinner, which will feature Middle Eastern foods and cross-cultural conversations.

The hope: That people will see one another as neighbors and that they will recognize and affirm their common roots while acknowledging their significant differences and discovering how mutual understanding and respect will enrich life in the community.

"I expect most people to say not when can we do this again, but why didn't you do it earlier," Ozturk said. "We may end up with long-lasting friendships."

Lewis agreed.

"We will plant the seeds and let them grow organically," he said.

Reach Erin Andersen at 402-473-7217 or


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