Interfaith Dialogue in Appalachia

Interfaith Dialogue in Appalachia

Crowdfunding Completed: August 16, 2017

Amount Funded: $4080

Project Owner: First Unitarian Universalist (UU) Society of Marietta

Short Description of Project

Help us bring the internationally famous Interfaith Amigos (Jewish Rabbi, a Muslim Imam, and Christian Minister) to Appalachian Ohio.

How was this project connected to UU?

How Will We Claim UU'ism and UU Values (race, age, sexuality, etc. of participants): As is evidenced in the membership of the Interfaith Dialogue Planning Group, diversity of age, spiritual faith, race, and culture clearly expresses UU values of the inherent worth and dignity of every person as well as other UU values. It has not been difficult to find common ground on these values among the membership of the Planning Group even though several different faiths are represented.

How the Project Is Claimed by Unitarian Universalism:
• Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
• Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
• Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
• Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;

Full Description of Project

An interfaith dialogue group has been formed in southeast Ohio (Appalachia) to plan for a visit by the "Interfaith Amigos," a nationally known trio, composed of a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim Imam, and Christian Minister, in November 2017.  Please help us bring this internationally famous team to our area by assisting with the costs of their stipends and travel expenses.  We have also arranged preparatory activities such as a course on interfaith dialogue offered through the Institute for Learning in Retirement at Marietta College, and  the participation of the Muslim Student Organization and the Hillel Chapter at Ohio University. Follow-up activities include continued interfaith dialogue in the region among people of different faiths. The planning group includes representatives of the Muslim faith, those of Jewish heritage, several local ministers, representatives of  colleges and universities in the area, five UUs including the minister of our congregation, Rev. Kathryn Hawbaker,  and  another UU minister who is campus minister at the United Campus Ministry of Ohio University in Athens. .

Why Should I care About This Project? The area to be served is among the least diverse (culturally, religiously, and ethnically) in the U.S. In 2016 a national survey of diversity was conducted in 500 selected cities. The city that came in last in this survey was Parkersburg WV, located directly across the Ohio River from Washington County, OH, where Marietta is located. The demographics of southeast Ohio and the greater Parkersburg area are quite similar. Though there is evidence of increasing diversity in the area, the bulk of the current long-term residents are not prepared to embrace those of different cultural and religious backgrounds.  There are increasing numbers of international students at Marietta College and the Marietta Bible College, and the area is attracting more foreign-born professionals, particularly medical personnel, most of them employed by the Memorial Health System, the largest employer in Washington County.  A quick perusal of the Medical Directory indicates that there are over 50 foreign-born physicians in our community.  These physicians and their families are making the Marietta area their permanent home.

Many of these foreign nationals practice a faith other than Christianity.  Every week people are meeting together for Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Baha’i worship.  While we live in a country where, by law, there is freedom of religion, practically speaking, religious minorities often feel threatened

Some Christians also feel threatened when confronted with strangers in their neighborhoods.  The events of September 11, 2001 and other terrorist activities around the world and in our own country make many of us afraid and suspicious of those whose dress, speech, or skin color resemble the known terrorists we see on TV.  In Devola, a community just north of Marietta, last year neighbors became concerned when Marietta College students from Kuwait rented a house on their street.  Marietta College co-eds and female members of student households who wear headscarves or hajibs have been accosted in downtown Marietta.

With the rise of ISIS and terrorists who identify as Muslims, many Americans look at Muslims generally as a violent people.  Though this is far from the truth, it is a perception that needs to be addressed both locally and nationally.  Over the centuries, religions have been at the heart of some of the world’s most brutal conflicts.  We cannot allow misunderstanding, fear and suspicion to foment violence between Christians and Muslims in our beloved community.  We must not only build bridges to newcomers in our community but also seek to understand the faith that these persons hold dear.

There is a pressing need for people in southeast Ohio to learn about the growing number of Muslims that are coming to our community.  Even more important is to get to know some of them personally so that our fears, suspicions, prejudices, and pre-conceived notions can be re-evaluated in the light of genuine friendship.  And beyond getting to know them personally, we could benefit from the sincere engagement of interfaith dialogue among people of different faiths.

Unitarian Universalists of the area have been intimately involved in the project.  Five members of the Interfaith Dialogue Planning Group are members or friends of the First Unitarian Universalist (UU) Society of Marietta, including the minister, Rev. Kathryn Hawbaker, (see appended letter of participation from Rev. Hawbaker) and the President of the Board of Trustees, Dr. George Banziger, who serves as convener of the group. Another member of the planning group is Rev. Evan Young (see appended letter of participation), an ordained Unitarian Minister, who works full-time in the Office of Campus Ministry at Ohio University.  The project has been endorsed and will be supported by the UU congregation in Athens OH and by the Appalachian Cluster of the UU Central East Regional Group, a group of five UU congregations in WV and the Marietta congregation (see appended letter from the UUA liaison who covers the Appalachian Cluster).

This project can serve as a model for other UU congregations that are located in similar communities that lack diversity and where the need for interfaith understanding and dialogue is critical.


Who Will Benefit and How? The immediate beneficiaries of this project will be those who participate in the preparatory events, the four presentations by the Interfaith Amigos, and the follow-up activities. As other churches and organizations in southeast Ohio adopt programs on interfaith dialogue, the benefit of the project will expand throughout the area.

Specific Plans and Accomplishments:

A major presentation in Marietta, OH on Friday evening and a workshop on Saturday morning by the Interfaith Amigos (both will be held at Marietta College and will be free and open to the public)
A similar presentation/workshop in Athens OH on Saturday afternoon and Sunday afternoon on the same weekend
An Interfaith Dialogue Planning Group was formed in July 2016 in Marietta and has met regularly since that date. It is composed of ministers of three congregations in the Marietta area (including the UU congregation of Marietta), three persons of Jewish heritage, three persons who are practicing Muslims, a full-time minister (Unitarian Universalist) from the Ohio University Office of Campus Ministry, and several others with a strong interest in interfaith dialogue.
A course entitled Interfaith Dialogue: Finding Common Ground has been approved for the Fall 2017 Institute for Learning in Retirement (ILR) series (the ILR has also donated a $500 grant to the Interfaith Dialogue Project). This course is scheduled to culminate with the visit to Marietta and Athens by the Interfaith Amigos on November 10-12, 2017.
Films with an interfaith theme are being previewed in hopes of offering a film festival focused on interfaith issues.
A list of book clubs has been developed, and we are contacting them to encourage them to read the works of the Interfaith Amigos as well as other works with an interfaith theme. A presentation has already been made (October 18, 2017) to the Marietta Reading Club.
The Director of the Marietta Reads Program at Marietta College has designated the first book by the Interfaith Amigos, Getting to the Heart of Interfaith, as the essential reading for all students, faculty, and staff for the 2017-2018 academic year.
David Torbett, Professor of Religion, Philosophy, and History at Marietta College, will incorporate interfaith dialogue into his spring 2018 course on world religions and will include a service project and visit to the Muslim mosque and Jewish sabot in Athens, OH as part of the course.
The Office of Student Engagement at Marietta College, with the Support of the Vice President of Student Life, Dr. Richard Danford (a member of the Interfaith Planning Group,) will plan and conduct interfaith service projects in the Marietta area for fall 2017 and spring 2018.
Danford has committed $1,500 from his 2017-2018 budget to support the visit by the Interfaith Amigos.
A deposit of $600 for the visit by the Interfaith Amigos has already been paid to their bookings representative.
Sites for the two Marietta events (major presentation on November 10 and a workshop on the morning of November 11) have been booked for the McDonough Leadership Center on the Marietta College campus. Sites for the Athens events have also been booked.
A Religious Education curriculum focused on interfaith dialogue and learning about other faiths is being investigated in hopes of encouraging local churches to offer adult and youth classes.
The planning group itself has engaged in interfaith sharing as a component of our meetings.
A “save the date” flyer has been prepared highlighting the November visit by the Interfaith Amigos and distributed at events where those who might be interested attend, such as the celebration of Kuwaiti independence held at Marietta College in March 2017.
Members of the group have submitted articles to the local newspaper, the Marietta Times, for the Focus on Faith feature and as articles on the editorial page about the local importance of interfaith dialogue and, most recently, on the holy month of Ramadan.
The Manager of the Marietta College Bookstore, also a member of the Interfaith Dialogue Planning Group, has ordered 200 copies of the first book by the Interfaith Amigos, Getting to the Heart of Interfaith.
Specific Outcomes: The Interfaith Dialogue Planning Group envisions using the visit by the Interfaith Amigos to foster continuing interfaith dialogue.  We have allowed ourselves ample time to put together a number of programs – all aimed at laying the groundwork for ongoing interfaith dialogue.

Building personal connections with those of different faith traditions, especially with Muslims; There is a pressing need for people in southeast Ohio to learn about the growing number of Muslims that are coming to our community. Even more important is to get to know some of them personally so that our fears, suspicions, prejudices, and pre-conceived notions can be re-evaluated in the light of genuine friendship.  And beyond getting to know them personally, we could benefit from the sincere engagement of interfaith dialogue among people of different faiths.
Increased understanding of faith traditions outside of one's own, beginning with the Abrahamic religions and spreading to other faith traditions;
Enhanced thirst for information and engagement with different faiths;
Greater sense of welcoming and acceptance of those of minority faith traditions in the area.
Timeline: Since its inception in July 2016 the Interfaith Dialogue Planning Group has been meeting regularly and has arranged several preparatory events (mentioned above) to the visit by the Interfaith Amigos. Grant requests have been prepared and submitted to several organizations in the region in winter and spring 2017.The ILR course on interfaith dialogue will be offered starting in September 2017 for an eight-week period and will culminate with the visit by the Interfaith Amigos on November 10-12, 2017.  Interfaith service projects will be arranged for the fall semester at Marietta College. Follow-up activities in 2018 will include the establishment of interfaith dialogue groups throughout the area, continued service projects and incorporation of interfaith dialogue into college courses at Marietta College and at Ohio University. ILR courses on the Middle East will be offered in 2018 and a visit to the Arab-American Museum in Dearborn MI will be arranged for ILR participants in 2018.


Those Involved & Their Qualifications: Following is the membership list of the Interfaith Dialogue Planning Group.

Position on


Dr. George Banziger Convener Board President, First Unitarian Universalist Society of Marietta (retired college administrator)
Dr. Ziad Akir Member (contact at Washington State Community College)
Director of

E-Learning, Washington State Community College, Muslim

Ali Almeshary Member Student at Marietta College; Muslim
Gwen Banziger Member Retired teacher, FUUSM
Fatema Begum Member Chemical Engineer, Muslim
Rev. Evan Young Member (contact at Ohio University) Campus Minister, United Campus Ministry, Ohio U.
Lori Fahn Member Jewish heritage
Doug Kreinik Member (Parkersburg,WV contact) Jewish heritage
Dr. Janice Terry Member Middle East scholar/consultant           (retired)
Rev. Kat Hawbaker Member Minister-FUUSM
Rev. Linda Steelman Member Minister - First Congregational Church-Marietta
Dr. Martha McGovern Member Associate Professor Emerita, WVU-Parkersburg; AFWS Board; Chair-Worship & Music, FUUSM
Dr. M.J. Ebenhack Member Consulting Clergy, Marietta Memorial Hospital
Dr. Richard Danford Member (contact at Marietta College)  V.P Student Life, Marietta College
Rev. David Smith Member Minister- First Presbyterian Church-Marietta
Dr. Bill McNeely Member Retired physics professor, FUUSM
Dr. David Torbett Member Professor of Religion at Marietta College
Jessica French  Liaison at Marietta College Manager, MC Bookstore
Dr. Nicole Livengood Liaison at Marietta College Associate Professor of English & Director of Marietta Reads and Freshman Year Program
Dr. Nancy Naney Member Faculty member at West Virginia University-Parkersburg; Jewish heritage

Use of Money: Use of the total funds collected for the project and the use of Faithify funds to be collected are shown below:

  Total Project Costs Requested Portion
Salaries (*all personnel costs and administration costs are covered by volunteers) $0
Travel $2,100 $1,000
Utilities/Overhead $500 $0
Other -advertising/promotion $800 $0
Other -follow-up activities $2,000 $0
Other - stipends for Interfaith Amigos $9,000 $3,000
Total: $14,400 $4,000
Other Funds Already Raised; What We Will Do If We Don't Raise the Rest:

Source Amount Status
Individual contributions $1,600 Committed
Institute for Learning in Retirement at Marietta College $500 Committed
Student Activities Fund - Marietta College $1,500 Committed
First Presbyterian Church of Marietta $1,000 Committed
Matching grant of $4,000 from two members of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Marietta $4,000 Committed
Contributions from Ohio U groups $1,300  
Contribution from Athens UU Congregaton $500  
Faithify $4,000  
Total: $14,400  
If we are not able to collect the rest of the funds required for the project, we shall scale back advertising, follow-up activities, and some preparatory activities. However, we think that a Faithify donation will stimulate many others in the area to donate to the project.


How the Project Will Be Sustained: After conducting an evaluation of the visit by the Interfaith Amigos (using evaluation tools developed by a group in Alpena MI, a community similar n size to Marietta,  which hosted the Interfaith Amigos two years ago), the Interfaith Dialogue Group will arrange follow-up activities such as ILR courses on the Middle East, a visit to the Arab-American Museum in Dearborn MI and, most importantly, actual interfaith dialogue groups among churches and other organizations in the area.


Who Else in the Community Thinks It's Important? As evidenced by letters of support and the breadth of membership of the Interfaith Dialogue Planning Group, several religious groups, Unitarians, Presbyterians, UCC, community groups (e.g,, Memorial Health System [ see appended letter from CEO] ), educational institutions (e.g., Marietta College, Ohio University), regard this project as significant and worthy of ongoing support.


Partnerships & Endorsements: Partnerships and endorsements include those from UU congregations in southeast OH and WV (Appalachian Cluster), academic institutions, such as Marietta College, churches in the Marietta area including Congregational (UCC) and Presbyterian, the local Jewish congregation (of Marietta/Parkersburg), the Muslim Student Association of Ohio University, reading clubs, such as the Marietta Reading Club.


How Will We Share What We Learn? Members of the Interfaith Dialogue Planning Group have already written articles for the local newspaper about interfaith dialogue. Just before the visit by the Interfaith Amigos, a press release will be prepared for local media (newspaper, radio, television), and after the visit members of the Planning Group will continue to submit articles to the local media about lessons learned and follow-up activities on interfaith dialogue.


Mutual Relationship with UU People, Values, and Communities: Since five members of the Interfaith Dialogue Planning Group are members/friends of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Marietta and two UU ministers are involved in the group, UU values are well represented in the plans and activities of the group. In a vivid testimony to the effort to seek common ground among those of different faiths, values of empathy, understanding, and sincere listening have all been evident in the meetings and plans of the Interfaith Dialogue Planning Group. Group members have taken these values and this message of seeking common ground to other groups in the community when the topic of interfaith understanding is mentioned.


June 8, 2017

To Faithify Donors,

I want to express my endorsement and support of the “Interfaith Dialogue in Appalachia” project being led by the First UU Society of Marietta, OH.
This congregation has been working in the area of interfaith dialogue since the lead up to the November 2016 elections. They have reached out to a number of groups, including a major university, a private college, and several local religious communities to make this event happen. They have worked hard to widen the effect of the visit of the Interfaith Amigos by working to have the issue of interfaith dialogue raised in a number of activities and events before and after this main event. The congregation is already having an effect in the area, the presentation they are working to bring to the area will only increase that effect.
My support of this project as the CER Communications Consultant will be to help them promote their various activities before and after this event as well as the presentations by the Interfaith Amigos in March. As the primary contact for the cluster, I have already made sure that the other congregations are aware of Marietta’s plans and have encouraged them to participate as much as possible.
This project could serve as a model for other congregations and clusters to consider as a way to reach out into their communities and help make a positive impact in this time of division.

Beth Casebolt
Communications Consultant and Operations Manager
Central East Region of the UUA

15 June 2017

To Whom It May Concern:
As a member of the Interfaith Dialogue Planning Group, as Campus Minister at United Campus Ministry at Ohio University, and as an ordained UU minister, I am writing to attest to my commitment to the project "Interfaith Dialogue in Appalachia," which is being presented by the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Marietta, FUUSM (OH), where I served as intern minister from 2013-2015.

Since completing my internship at FUUSM, I have assumed a full-time position as Campus Minister with United Campus Ministry, an ecumenical and interfaith ministry serving the Ohio University community. I have been involved in the planning group for “Interfaith Dialogue in Appalachia” from its inception during the summer of 2016. My role has been to arrange for participation by groups at Ohio University and in the Athens area in the activities being planned around the visit to Marietta and Athens by the Interfaith Amigos. I have worked to engage the support and participation of the Muslim Student Association and Hillel at Ohio University, and have also secured co-sponsorship and substantial financial support from the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens. The Athens portion of the project is planned to include a public presentation on Saturday evening and a workshop on Sunday afternoon during the weekend of November 10-12, 2017.

As a UU minister, I have been most engaged and inspired by the aspect of this project that addresses our common goal (as stated in our Principles) of world community with liberty and justice for all. The Interfaith Amigos have shown themselves to be able teachers and exemplars of a way of practicing interfaith communication that builds community across faith divides. I find the possibility of bringing their abilities and wisdom to my community exciting and hopeful—in a campus climate that can often feel divisive, this offers the possibility of a unifying experience.

The planning group for this project, drawn like the Amigos from a variety of faith traditions and communities, has made significant progress in confirming the arrangements for the Amigos’ visit. Ths is particularly noteworthy in light of our Appalachian Ohio context, which is not known for either its religious diversity or its capacity to accept and celebrate difference. That our group has enjoyed some success in raising funds for this effort and has assembled a wide range of experiences that will prepare for, communicate about, and support the Amigos’ message (adult education courses, reading groups, film showings, community discussions, and much more) is a testament to our commitment to the project—and our belief that it is sorely needed in the communities in which we live.

I believe this project can serve as a model program worthy of emulation by other congregations, campuses, and communities throughout the United States. I believe it’s a model with potential to address one of the great social ills of our world. I believe the healing and unity that will result from it will be transformative for our little corner of Appalachia, and I hope our experience, shared widely, will prove to have transformative power that extends far beyond Ohio.

Sincerely yours,

Rev. Evan Young
Campus Minister