History of the Ralph Anderson Interfaith Dialogues

Ralph Anderson Interfaith Dialogues – A Short History
By Ken Starbuck

What are now called the “Ralph Anderson Interfaith Dialogues” began in the 1980s out of the personal efforts of Ralph Anderson. Ralph was a teacher in the area, and active in the local religious community. He became concerned about what he considered a growing and unchallenged anti-Semitism in the area and nation. He worked with Dale Bengtson, professor of Religious Studies at Southern Illinois University, to begin a series of conversations between Christian and Jewish leaders and scholars. Early conversations between the two faiths began around issues like “authority, salvation, and inclusion or exclusion” in the two faith traditions. Rabbi Leonard Zoll and Father Roger Karban were frequent participants.

There was an article in the October 15, 1989 issue of the Southern Illinoisan written by Leonard Zoll about an upcoming Jewish-Christian Conversation on October 16th of that year to be held at the St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. The article states that the five discussants for the 17th session are Rabbi John Spiro, Rabbi Leonard Zoll, the Rev. Wyatt George, the Rev. Karen Knodt, and Father Roger Karban.” One paragraph of that article states “Thus, the creation and success of Carbondale’s Jewish-Christian Conversation Series since 1987, is certainly an exciting and refreshing experience”.

Charlotte Foote has provided a flyer that indicates the conversations started either early in 1987 or sometime in 1986. The flyer provides information about the sixth session of the Jewish-Christian Conversations which took place on November 16, 1987. Participants in this discussion on “Who Killed Jesus” were the Rev. Ted Braun, Rabbi Leonard Zoll, Dr. John Hayward, the Rev. Karen Knodt, Father Roger Karban, and Dr. Dale Bengtson.

Dr. Mazhar Butt, a dentist in the area, was a key figure in helping move the conversations toward an inclusion of Islam in 1988; and he is still active on the planning committee and on the interfaith council. Dr. Riaz Zobairi, a professor at SIU, became a frequent presenter on such major Islamic issues as the history of the Koran, sources of religious authority, and treatment of Christian and Jews in Islamic countries.

Many of the early dialogues were held at the Newman Center, but beginning in 1991 the main location for the next decade became St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. In about 1992 Steve Low, from the Jewish Federation of Southern Illinois, became a major spokesman for Judaism; more recently Sam Goldman has represented that faith. Beginning in about 1996, after the death of Dr. Zobairi, Imam Abdul Haqq, became the major spokesman for the Islamic community. The pattern of having six dialogues a year, three in the fall and three in the spring, developed early and continues to this day with some variation.

In 2004 the name was changed from “Jewish-Christian-Muslim Conversations” to the “Ralph Anderson Interfaith Dialogues,” and a serious effort has been made to include other major world religions. At that same time the Carbondale Interfaith Council assumed sponsorship of the dialogues. On November 8, 2004, the topic was “Prayer & Meditation: Eastern and Western Spiritual Practices” and included a Buddhist perspective. A dialogue on December 3, 2007 at the Carbondale Mosque on “Images of the Divine” also included a practicing Buddhist.

Another change dating back to early in the 21st century has been the effort to move the location of the dialogues to a variety of religious venues. Since 2003 several of the dialogues have been held at the Carbondale Mosque, the Congregation Beth Jacob, St. Francis Xavier Church, Carbondale Unitarian Fellowship and several Protestant Churches. A dialogue on “Religion and Politics In America” on September 18, 2006 at the Carbondale Civic Center drew more than 100 community members.

The Carbondale Muslim Community sponsored an awards banquet on September 30, 2005 and made presentations to many who had contributed to the dialogues since the beginning. An interfaith ethnic potluck dinner was held at the First Christian Church on June 20, 2007; the speaker was the Rev. Dirk Ficca, executive director of the Council for a Parliament of the World Religions. Several local participants at that occasion had attended annual gatherings of the Parliament of World Religions.

We celebrated a quarter century of interfaith dialogues at an Awards Banquet at the Carbondale Civic Center on April 12, 2008. That banquet was a part of Interfaith Week April 6-12, sponsored by the Carbondale Interfaith Council, and included a month-long interfaith art exhibit at the Carbondale Civic Center.

During the spring of 2009 we engaged in a week of Pre-Parliament events to highlight the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions to be held in Melbourne, Australia during the month of December. A Carbondale Interfaith Council fundraiser help provide assistance for three people to attend that event: Imam Abdul Haqq, Abdus Sami, and Marleen Shepherd.

We continue to offer several interfaith dialogues each year and to promote other interfaith learning and sharing events in our community and beyond.

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