Religious Perspectives on Death and Dying – Interfaith Panel and Discussion

Rev. Elizabeth Thompson of Unity of Sarasota, our host for the evening.

Nearly 40 people gathered together on Tuesday, November 14, for an interfaith panel and evening of discussion on the topic “Religious Perspectives on Death and Dying.” The event was hosted by Unity of Sarasota, from 7-9 pm. Reverend Elizabeth Thompson, of Unity, opened the event by introducing the Abrahamic Reunion, then offered an opening prayer. She reminded everyone of the evening’s purpose, saying, “Love is our common language and we are here to serve a greater vision of what it means to be in fellowship with each other.”

Rev. Chris Miller thanked Reverend Elizabeth for hosting the event. He described  Abrahamic Reunion meetings as a place “where we can meet on common ground: the ground of the spirit, and the ground of the heart.” He then introduced the five religious leaders on the panel: Bob Griffiths, Father Joe Clifford, Murshid David Less, Rabbi Michael Werbow, and Reverend Elizabeth Thompson.

The panelists, from left: Bob Griffiths, Father Joe Clifford, Murshid David Less, Rabbi Michael Werbow, Rev. Elizabeth Thompson

Bob Griffiths spoke first. He explained that while he himself is Episcopalian, as an hospice chaplain, he ministers to people of all different faiths. He says that almost everyone he ministers to, of any faith, has a belief in the afterlife. “When I ask them, ‘Are you afraid of being dead, or are you afraid of dying?’, The answer almost unvaryingly is dying.” They aren’t afraid of being dead, because they believe there is something that comes after death. They may have different ideas of what that looks like, but the idea of an afterlife is shared among religions.

Father Joe Clifford speaks from a Catholic viewpoint

Father Joe Clifford then spoke about the wake, or vigil for the deceased. It is the first step in Catholic funeral rights, followed by the funeral mass and burial. He explained that the wake begins before death, saying, “the wake begins when we become aware of our loved one’s passing; that their passing is imminent.” So we may enter into the wake years, or just days before the passing of the person. According to Father Joe, “we enter into it mindfully,” receiving whatever emotions come with it, whether sadness, anger, anxiety, or something else.

Father Joe also lamented the place death is given in our society, remembering wakes and funerals in his native Ireland where the family would wash their deceased loved one’s body by hand – now, he pointed out, most people are less present throughout the dying process, and want someone else to fix up the body, dress it up nicely, and put it in a coffin for them, holding death at arms length. It is by embracing death that we are able to embrace life itself, he affirmed, referring to the Catholic wedding vows – “In good times and hard times, for richer or poorer, in health and sickness, in life and in death.”

“The soul has no beginning and no end,”David Less said, sharing from the Sufi perspective.  He went on to share about his experiences in India and burial rites in Hinduism. He explained that many people go to the city Varanasi, on the Ganges river, to die. In Hinduism, “if you go there and die, get cremated there… and your ashes are put in the river, your soul is totally free.” He shared a story about witnessing that ceremony. Then he read a selection of Sufi teachings, including “It is death which dies, not life.” He explained that in Sufism, the mind lives on after the body.

Rabbi Michael Werbow shares a Jewish perspective

Rabbi Michael Werbow pointed out the similarity between Sufism and Judaism with regards to the soul, because Judaism also holds that the soul is eternal. “The soul has no beginning, the soul has no end. And in a sense it’s on loan to us during this time that we’re here on earth.” He also talked about how the soul starts off pure, but because of our imperfections, we must ask for forgiveness in order to clean the soul from the “shmutz of life”. He shared the story of Rabbi Eliezer’s teaching: “‘Repent one day before your death’, the Rabbi taught. His students asked him ‘Does one know the day of one’s death?’ ‘That is all the more reason to repent today, lest one die tomorrow. And therefore all one’s days shall be filled with repentance.'” He further shared how even right after the forgiveness granted during Jewish High Holy Days, directly after another prayer of repentance is offered, to demonstrate that even in that time, by way of an inappropriate thought, word, glance, or deed, repentance may once again be gained.

Finally, Reverend Elizabeth Thompson explained that at Unity, they don’t call it “death,” they call it “transition”, meaning transition into a new phase of living. Shen further shared that in a way, it is a death, because it is the “death of feeling separate” from the divine. In helping people that are transitioning, she said she sees herself as “a midwife into their next adventure. I am being a part of their birth process into the next realm.”

One of the small groups shares in a discussion together

Once each faith leader had spoken, there was a brief Q&A. One man asked how the other panelists felt about the idea of death as a “transition.” David Less explained that in Sufism, they use a word that means “marriage,” and the idea is that death is a marriage between this reality and the next one. So in a way it is also a type of transition.

Following the Q&A, people split into small groups of for deeper discussion and to get to know the perspectives of people from other congregations and faith communities. After a while, everyone came together and shared what their group had discussed. Each group had taken the discussion in different directions and had unique insights to contribute.

Panelist Bob Griffiths, left, listens as a representative of one of the groups shares what they discussed

The night ended with everyone holding hands in a circle and praying together for peace and  connection throughout the planet. Many people stayed after the event for refreshments and further discussion on the topic of death and dying.

A video of the panel discussion will be available soon for viewing. 

“Religion and Modernity” – Sarasota Discussion Group

Rabbi Geoff Huntting talks about modernity from the perspective of Reform Judaism

On Wednesday, October 25th, about 40 Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Sufis gathered to discuss the topic “Religion and Modernity.” The event was held at the Islamic Society of Sarasota. Representatives from each of the faiths brought sources about their religion’s perspectives on modernity.

Rabbi Geoff Huntting spoke from a Jewish perspective and talked about how different branches of Judaism evolved as different responses to modernity, especially during the Enlightenment. He explained that “all of Modern Orthodoxy, the Conservative movement, the Reform movement, Reconstructionist movement, all were a response to 19th century modernity and the challenges of the societies where Jews lived.” Rabbi Geoff also brought up the question of balance between modernization and maintaining identity.

People share from their faith traditions

Mary McNeill Homola told everyone about Gaudium et Spes, which was written by the Second Vatican Council in 1965. The document is also known as “Joy and Hope in the Modern World.” It was the Catholic Church’s response to modernity. It outlines the social responsibilities of Catholics in the modern world, saying “Help us see that rights and responsibilities are universal and critical to the ongoing creation of the common good.” It calls on everyone to “be concerned about the common good.”

Sheikh Ghassan Manasra watches as Imam Mohamed speaks with his group

Sheikh Ghassan Manasra spoke about how Islam has evolved in response to modernity, using the banks as an example. Because usury is forbidden in Islam, Muslims could not have bank accounts that accumulated interest. To adapt to the modern world, new banks were created for Muslims. It was also decided that Muslims could use other banks, as long as they set up their accounts to not accumulate interest

David Less pointed out every religion thought of itself as the modern religion when it began, and that the interfaith movement is modern religion. He asked everyone, “what’s the religion of today? In my eye, what we’re doing here, this is the religion of today. This is the modern religion. We each believe in the way our soul pulls us to believe. And yet, when we sit here, we feel the presence of God.”

Zeze Manasra shares her experiences with her small group

Finally, Anna Less shared a Sufi perspective. She read from the teachings of Hazrat Inayat Kahn, who said “If there is any coming religion, a new religion to come, it will be this religion, the religion of the heart.” She shared that the past, present, and future are all connected and affect each other.

When each representative had shared from their faith tradition, everyone broke into small groups of five or six people for intimate discussion. Sheikh Ghassan stopped to facilitate and spend some time with each group before everyone came back together.

People listen as a small group shares what they discussed

After 40 minutes of deep discussion, people rejoined as a large group again. Members from each small group shared what their group had discussed and the insights they had come to. Everyone then enjoyed some delicious hummus and cakes prepared by Sheikha Laila Manasra to close a night full of learning and connection.

Thanks to Imam Mohamad and ISSB (Sarasota Muslim Community) for hosting the discussion on “Religion and Modernity”.

“Welcoming in the Stranger” – The AR in Lake Worth, Florida

Carol Garrett sings “Circle of Friends”

On Wednesday, October 18th, the Abrahamic Reunion and Lake Worth Interfaith Network led an evening of sacred text sharing and discussion called “Sacred Discussion Circle: Welcoming in the Stranger.” The event took place at First Congregational Church of Lake Worth, hosted by Pastor Jason Fairbanks. Almost 40 people of different religious backgrounds came together to share and learn from one another.


Rev. Chris Miller introduces the work of the Abrahamic Reunion

Carol Garrett led everyone in the opening song “Circle of Friends.” Then Rev. Chris Miller introduced the Abrahamic Reunion and spoke about its work to unite Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Druze in the Holy Land, follwed by the showing of a brief video about the AR’s peacebuilding work in the Holy Land and around the world.


Maya Malay speaks from a Buddhist perspective

After the video, representatives from different faiths shared texts about the stranger from their own traditions. First, Maya Malay spoke about Buddhism, saying “When we aren’t in touch with that divine essence, which is our own true self, then we too are strangers to ourselves, to that which is in all beings, and also to each other.” She then read a poem by Derek Walcott called “Love After Love.”


Steven Nalls shares text from Judaism

Next, Steven Nalls presented a Jewish perspective with a few verses from the Torah and Hebrew Bible. He quoted Numbers 15:15, which says “The community is to have the same rules for you (the Hebrew) and for the foreigner residing among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the foreigner shall be the same before the Lord.” Nalls emphasized the words “lasting ordinance” saying, “There’s no expiration day. Somebody can’t say ‘Times were different… it’s not like that anymore.’ It doesn’t expire. It doesn’t end. And you can’t amend it.”

Pastor Jason Fairbanks shares Christian teachings

Pastor Jason Fairbanks shared a parable from the Gospel of Matthew, which teaches that how you treat others reflects how you treat God, saying “‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'” He also shared a contemporary quote from Henri Nouwen, saying “Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy… It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”

Imam Dr. Zahir Badaraany provides a Muslim perspective

Imam Dr. Zaher Badaraany shared from the Qur’an and pointed out that it refers to God as “the lord of all the worlds.” Imam Zaher said, “He didn’t say ‘lord of the Muslims,’ or ‘the believer.’ He said ‘Praise be known to God, the lord of all the worlds.’ So I believe that God, in the Qur’an, teaches us, as Muslims, how we should live with each other. And we live with each other under the humanity umbrella.”

Sheikh Ghassan Manasra speaks

Sheikh Ghassan Manasra also shared his perspective, saying “We need to love one another. If we love one another, we will not find more enemies. There will be no enemies. Come to love one another as a human being.”

Ted Brownstein shares from the Baha’i faith

Finally, Ted Brownstein shared a passage from the Baha’i writings that says “See ye no strangers; rather see all men as friends, for love and unity come hard when ye fix your gaze on otherness.” Brownstein explained that “The Baha’i faith is a world religion, whose primary teaching is the unity of mankind.”

With the words of the religions ringing in their ears, the group broke into small discussion groups of about five people each. Sheikh Ghassan went around to each table and helped facilitate conversation. At the end, he brought everyone together again to share what their group had discussed. Each group had taken their discussions in different directions and had unique insights to share.

Sheikh Ghassan Manasra listens to one group’s discussion

The evening closed with Carol Garrett leading everyone in singing “Haskivenu – Let There Be Love” by Noah Aronson. It was a truly special event, filled with love and a desire to connect and learn from each other.

Everyone sings the closing song together

The texts that were shared, as well as the lyrics to the songs, can be found here:

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Jewish Texts

Inaugural Interfaith Tampa Bay Youth Summit

On Saturday, September 30th, the Abrahamic Reunion attended the first Interfaith Youth Summit put on by Interfaith Tampa Bay. The event was held at the Church of Scientology Visitor Center in St. Petersburg. At the event, area youths were recognized for their service and commitment to the interfaith movement with an award and gift basket. The youth reflected the values of non-violence, social justice, interfaith dialogue, and environmentalism.

Amber Skjelset

Amber Skjelset, the Center Manager, began by giving background on the Church of Scientology’s belief in the importance of respecting other religious beliefs. “We are honored to support and work with other churches to encourage youth to be active in their communities,” she said. Jan

Joran Oppelt

Magray, the Coordinator of the Youth Outreach Committee for Interfaith Tampa Bay, spoke about this inaugural youth summit and the work that went into it. She recognized and thanked the committee members who helped make it happen.

The main speaker was Joran Oppelt, the President of Interfaith Tampa Bay. He spoke about the importance of youth in the interfaith movement. He described a study Harvard Divinity School, which found that the six traits  of religious and secular communities are: Community, Personal Transformation, Social Transformation, Purpose Finding, Creativity, and Accountability. (For more information on this study, click here)

Next, the interfaith youth leaders were introduced by their faith communities and were recognized for their work in interfaith cooperation. A young man from the Scientology community was nominated and shared how he had volunteered over 100hrs in the wake of Hurricane Irma. Rev. Chris Miller introduced Katie Emmons on behalf of the Abrahamic Reunion. She spoke about her current efforts to bring the Abrahamic Reunion and its message to college campuses through the AR’s Campus Peacemakers initiative that she is helping focalize. After that, Sheikh Ghassan Manasra introduced his daughter Zeze Manasra, who spoke about her experiences in Israel and the interfaith encounters she participated in there with her father and the Abrahamic Reunion, and how she now has friends of all faiths in Israel.

Win Thompkins closed the event by singing “What If,” a song about unity.

See the full Flickr album here) for more photos.

Katie Emmons

Zeze Manasra