Coming Together at St. John’s Interfaith Dialogue

People on stage at the 2023 Interfaith Dialogue
March 31, 2023

Focusing on how various faiths can work together for the common good in a society that is increasingly polarized, representatives from various faiths throughout the local area gathered for the annual Interfaith Dialogue and Dinner, “Who Are We? Faith, Purpose, Belonging,” on March 9 in the D’Angelo Center on St. John’s University’s Queens, NY, campus.

“This interfaith dialogue is a bridge builder that shares what we have in common and appreciates our religious differences—which are a big influence on our daily decisions,” said Dennis Gallagher, Director of Liturgy and Faith Formation. “It’s been most enlightening to learn about people of other faiths and their experiences.”

The event was sponsored by St. John’s University’s Interfaith Council and the Division of Student Affairs. Comprised of students, faculty, administrators, and staff, the Interfaith Council seeks to create a respectful, cooperative campus environment where people of all religious backgrounds can speak about and practice their faiths.

Christopher P. Vogt, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Theology and Religious Studies, stressed that as a child of God, he saw his own sense of purpose as a response to that truth. “I’m called to learn to love God better, and to learn to love others and creation as God loves them—which is a tall task.” He added that he sees his life’s purpose as connecting and responding to God’s grace.

An important concept, he added, not unique to Catholicism, is that of solidarity. “It’s not simply about being concerned about each other, but working toward the common good—which I think is an important way my religious faith can deal with difference, overcome barriers, and realize we’re all part of one community.” Dr. Vogt noted that Pope Francis has fostered a “culture of encounter,” which means that to become fully ourselves, we must interact with people of all faiths.

Junior Jacxainett Valdera, a Criminal Justice major and a member of St. John’s University’s Sinai Radiant Liturgical Dance Ministry, stressed that the Bible teaches to love one’s neighbor as oneself—and that lesson encompasses people of all faiths. “Being young and of this generation, we are constantly faced with tremendous challenges,” she said. “For me, identity is having a faith and being able to maneuver about this campus, interact with faculty and students, and make an impact in my community.”

Sharon R. Marshall, Associate Professor in St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Coordinator of the First-Year Writing program, noted she was originally baptized a Christian, but as an adult became a Nichiren Buddhist. She explained that the Buddhist philosophy stresses that gratitude is what makes us worthy of being called human, and added, “I think when we have gratitude for others it helps us create a community of belonging.”

Rev. Fr. Abraham Malkhasyan, D.Min., Pastor of the Armenian Church of the Holy Martyrs in Bayside, NY, and an Adjunct Professor of Theology at St. John’s, noted that the sacrificial love embedded in the Christian faith and concern for others made this gathering possible.

“God is interested in kindness. He’s always interested in doing and giving,” offered Rabbi Mordechai Kraft, Adjunct Professor of Jewish Theology and Biblical Hebrew. “Judaism is about being faithful to what God instructed us.”

Being Jewish, Rabbi Kraft added, sometimes entails being somewhat separatist. “We have to be true to who we are, God’s word, and what God instructs us to do.” He added, “The purpose of that is not to remain apart, but to gain and create an awareness of personality. We can go out from that separatism and engage in the world and bring a greater spirit of God to all humanity.”

Imam Muhammad Ajmal, Director of the Islamic Center of Long Island, explained that for him, there was great beauty to be found at this event where people from many different faiths shared their beliefs, cultures, and worlds. “I have heard some beautiful words and I am thankful.” He stressed that no matter your faith, “We are all honored by God.”