KELLER, Texas — Deep in the heart of Texas, a religious movement is underway.
A coterie of faith leaders is proving it's possible for devout Christians, Muslims, and Jews to become friends even in deeply polarized times, despite their distinct religious differences. They're also upending the long-held conventional wisdom that suggests polite conversations must steer clear of religion to keep the peace.
Their premise is simple: to begin conversations, gain trust, and build relationships to help solve problems based on a mutual mores of serving others.
It's an idea that evolved out of a friendship between an evangelical pastor and a Muslim cleric during a retreat in Nepal in 2015.
"I thought all Muslims wanted to kill me; were extremists; and were bad people. And I found out I was wrong," explained Bob Roberts, a Southern Baptist pastor based in Texas.
Roberts met Mohamed Magid, an imam who leads the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in northern Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. The two instantly connected and later co-founded the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network based on a shared desire to help other religious leaders and their congregations see and treat each other as neighbors.
"We want to stand for religious freedom for everybody," Magid told CBN News. "We want to roll [up] our sleeves to feed people in our community; to heal people that are sick; to bring understanding among our people."
This spring, their network hosted a series of conferences in Dallas, Kansas City, and Washington, D.C. The event in Texas, billed the Global Faith Forum and fittingly titled "Unlikely," was held at Roberts' church—bringing together hundreds of Christians, Muslims, and Jews under one roof – along with government officials from the Department of Homeland Security and dozens of religious and nongovernmental partners.
Pathway to Peace
Just as the Abraham Accords opened the door to friendly relations between Israel and several Gulf Arab states, organizers of the multi-faith movement hope to export their roadmap to strategic and mutually beneficial relationships to communities of faith from coast to coast.
It's a message that has been amplified at the highest levels of government. Current and former officials with the Biden, Trump, and Obama administrations praised their efforts and are working in conjunction with the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network and its partners to promote the message of intentional, friendly co-existence.
The pathway to peace, according to Sam Brownback, former Kansas governor and U.S. Senator, starts with the Abrahamic faiths."You're going to have to get the children of Abraham to say, 'We're not going to kill each other,'" he told the Dallas audience. Brownback, who served as the U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom in the Trump administration, shared the spotlight with his predecessor and successor from the Obama and Biden administrations: Rabbi David Saperstein and Rashad Hussein, respectively.
The forum highlighted how the multi-faith approach paid off in January 2022, during an attack on Congregation Beth Israel – a synagogue in Colleyville about 20 miles west of Dallas.
The lone gunman, a British national, held four hostages captive for nearly 12 hours, demanding the release of a woman – nicknamed Lady al Qaeda – at a nearby Texas federal prison serving a lengthy sentence for the attempted murder of U.S. soldiers and officials in Afghanistan.
To boost law enforcement's cultural and religious awareness, Pastor Roberts leveraged his personal relationships with other faith leaders to introduce a trusted Muslim cleric to the police department to assist with the standoff negotiations.
Roberts' network also created a safe space for the hostages' loved ones, where family members received updates and support in a cloistered environment whose foundation of friendship preceded the hostage crisis – and was cemented across the faith spectrum.
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker survived the standoff. At the forum in Dallas, he publicly thanked Roberts, law enforcement, and leaders from other religious traditions for their support and friendship.
"In the aftermath of trauma, every message was an affirmation that our community was part of the human family and that we're all in this together," declared Cytron-Walker, whose appearance prompted a standing ovation.
The attack underscored a global rise in religious persecution and anti-Semitism.
"You can't address hatred against Jews without confronting hatred against all people," said Rabbi Saperstein, who advocated for religious freedom under Pres. Obama. "Every human being has the right to live with freedom and the peaceful practice of their religion."
Charter of Makkah
Organizers of the multi-faith movement are rallying around a Muslim document called the Charter of Makkah. Its guiding principles include promoting peace, denouncing racism, and defending religious freedom for all.
The charter's author, Dr. Mohammad Al-Issa, who leads the Muslim World League, addressed the forum.
"Real progress only happens when actions and courage are combined with unwavering resolve to cultivate lasting friendships and understanding regardless of race, ethnicity, faith, gender, or creed," al Issa said through an English translator. "The Charter of Makkah sets a new course for the future of humanity and ensures lasting peace and prosperity for all."
Roberts, who used light-hearted humor and took friendly jabs at his peers, wants to garner broad support for the charter among fellow Christian believers.
"As a Jesus-loving evangelical, my goal is to say, 'Hey, I'm grateful and excited that you're doing this. I want to work with you.' Because it has a huge impact on how Christians are treated all over the world," Roberts explained to CBN News.
Multiplying the Movement
Attendees expressed feeling inspired to join the movement, homing in on the similarities between faith communities as Americans seem to grow more divided.
"When you focus on the things that you have that are more alike than different, you can have unity without uniformity," said Rekyiah Abdul-Zahir, who traveled from Philadelphia.
"You can spend so many hours, days, months, [and] years focusing on the differences, but if we come together and really work on the things that we share to make the world better, then it will be better," she added.
With upbeat music and a DJ spurring them on, some of the young people who attended the faith forum illustrated another way to cross the doctrinal divide: by serving. They partnered with a nonprofit called the Pack Shack to prepare thousands of meals for area residents in need.
"Everybody came in wanting to help and do something kind for the community, and so I think that united us all," said Emerance Nkashama, who attends Northwood Baptist Church. "We talked a little bit. The music was good. We were all dancing and singing along. Everyone was just having fun and working."
While some may criticize the effort as an attempt to blend different religious beliefs, organizers insist that's a false accusation. They claim their aim is to start a dialogue and build fruitful relationships, while remaining true to their sincerely-held religious differences.
"This about deep relationship and commitment to friendship," explained Imam Magid, emphasizing why they refuse to label their movement as "interfaith." "It does not water down religion. That's why we call it multi-faith."
"This is like a salad bowl, not a melting pot," he added.