Originally published Feb. 1, 2012

Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell recognized three members of Grand Valley State University’s Kaufman Interfaith Institute for their contributions to the 2012 Year of Interfaith Understanding during his State of the City address Saturday.

“I want to honor a group of individuals whose vision, creativity and hard work have brought about this celebration of the diversity of religious faith in our community,” Heartwell said.

Director Douglas Kindschi, Program Manager Whitney Belprez and advisory board member Petra Alsoofy each received plaques for their involvement.

“(Kindschi) is the brainchild of this Year of Interfaith Understanding and has been a great partner to work with,” Heartwell said in his speech. “Whitney coordinates the Year of Interfaith Understanding activities, sometimes juggling tasks like a master magician.”

Although Kindschi, Belprez and Alsoofy were recognized for their achievements, their work has not been easy.

Belprez said she has met challenges that currently impede the community’s potential to achieve complete understanding.

“We have met resistance with a few congregations that have made it clear that they are not interested in being a part of something that doesn’t have proselytizing as its end goal,” Belprez said. “It has been surprising to me, actually, how many old prejudices and intolerant opinions many people still hold.

“Many times we don’t realize how stereotypes become so ingrained in us that we become unconscious of them. Recognizing and removing these prejudices and stereotypes is the most difficult barrier in the process of learning about and understanding another.”

Kindschi said the barriers are not insurmountable, though, and added that the Kaufman Institute has received cooperation from “a broad range of persons and faith traditions.”

The director added that his involvement in the Year of Interfaith Understanding has been rewarding so far.

“To promote ‘understanding’ is what any faculty member seeks to do in the classroom,” he said. “To see the whole community as a classroom and to find such wide and enthusiastic support has been most rewarding.”

Belprez said her experiences have also been gratifying.

“I enjoy working with such a diverse group of people that cross so many lines — faiths, ethnicities, nationalities, ages, classes, races, etc,” she said. “It’s wonderful being a part of a grass roots, collaborative effort that seeks to make a positive impact in the community, even when we face difficulties and address problems. It’s incredibly rewarding to work in an environment in which each person is encouraged to truly live what they believe to be true, while also learning to live together in a more respectful, accepting and understanding way.”

She added that her participation in interfaith events has allowed her to grow spiritually.

“I am constantly challenged and inspired by the people I meet and work with on this initiative to live my faith more authentically,” she said.

Kindschi agreed that he, too, has become more spiritual through his involvement in interfaith events.

“It has also allowed me to deepen my own religious faith and commitment,” he said. “It has broadened my own understanding and increased my faith in people who seek understanding and peace.”

For a list of the events scheduled for the 2012 Year of Interfaith Understanding, visit http://www.gvsu.edu/2012interfaith/module-event-index.htm.


Original publication: http://www.lanthorn.com/article/2012/02/gr_mayor_awards_gv_members_for_interfaith_work