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Interfaith-Active Artists Promote Peace with Story & Song

By Ruth Broyde Sharone


Once the car capital of America, Detroit has come to be known for its urban decay, massive unemployment, decrepit housing, and endemic crime. Its vast freeway network resembles a ghost town during rush hour, an incongruous and troubling image for the once prosperous, vital home of Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler.

A Muslim drumming group performs in a Detroit synagogue.

A Muslim drumming group performs in a Detroit synagogue.

Can interfaith partnerships make a bit of difference in this sad story? On a trip to Detroit, I decided to find out. In fact, interfaith groups abound and thrive in this industrially depressed city. The Detroit Interfaith Outreach Network (DION) is led by Rabbi Dorit Edut. WISDOM (Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue and Outreach in Metro Detroit) is headed by co-founder Gail Katz. The Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion promotes understanding and respect among all races, religions, and cultures under the leadership of Thomas Costello. David Crumm, a distinguished local journalist, publishes an engaging set of religious, interfaith-friendly internet publications along with books for Kindle or in hard copy.Start with Read the Spirit.

Clearly, interfaith dialogue and collaboration are alive and well in this troubled city. The most fanciful and innovative interfaith center I found in my travels here was the Song and Spirit Institute for Peace.

Interfaith Artists Promoting Peace

Maggid Steve Klaper and Brother Al Mascia

Maggid Steve Klaper and Brother Al Mascia

A Franciscan minstrel and a Jewish troubadour bringing peace to the world one song at a time.” The tag line sounds like wishful thinking until you witness the solid friendship and hear the musical harmonies of Franciscan Brother Al Mascia and Maggid (Jewish troubadour and storyteller) Steve Klaper. Together with Steve’s wife, Mary Gilhuly, an accomplished mosaic artist, they founded the Song and Spirit Institute for Peace in central Detroit - three interfaith activists creating a unique, compelling way to involve the larger community in the quest for peace.

In a serendipitous turn of events, last year they were offered the use of a 27-bedroom house, formerly a noviatehouse for Catholic seminarians. Still the property of the Catholic Church, it is now dedicated to individuals from a variety of faith traditions to “gather together and engage with one another through the media of music, creative arts, storytelling, study, gardening, celebration, prayer, and compassionate acts of community service.” Recently two other friars have joined Brother Al in residence, and the upstairs of the house is now called the Duns Scotus Friary.

Mary loves giving visitors a tour of the house, pointing out the colorful patchwork quilts she added in most of the 27 sparsely furnished dorm rooms. Nary a mirror in sight. She guides me across the indoor patio – resplendent with newly rescued plants from a downtown Detroit office – and makes a quick right turn into the spacious dining room that seats 50 people and serves as a local community art studio for crafting mosaic tiles.

Next to the entryway is her newest undertaking, a tiny but ambitious gift shop boasting an array of votive candles, T-shirts with upbeat messages, peace signs employing the ancient art of paper-cutting joined to colorful contemporary designs from junk mail, and a huge collection of colorful mosaic tiles lovingly designed and painted by hundreds of volunteers from the local community.

Mary Gilhuly with tiles created at the Institute.

Mary Gilhuly with tiles created at the Institute.

Mary has dedicated more than 25 years to creating art pieces large and small – including commissioned mosaic installations – and has led classes, workshops, and community art projects for adults and children using various media.

Her favorite tile at the Institute is of St. Francis, designed by her mother. Other favorites involve participants who had never created art in their lives. Volunteering at the Institute of Peace, they discover and then marvel at their own hidden creativity, Mary reports, a tone of wonder in her ownvoice.

Brother Al, OFM, a Franciscan Friar of the St. John the Baptist Province, views his Franciscan heritage as “a veritable treasure trove of poetic, imaginative, and lyrical ways of preaching and living the Gospel.” Like his spiritual ancestors, known as ioculatores Domini, minstrels of God, Brother Al is an itinerant musician, going from place to place singing old melodies as well as story songs he composes.

Maggid Steve, a troubadour and storyteller drawing on 30 years experience as a professional musician, calls himself “a weaver of spiritual melodies and a teller of sacred tales.” He takes traditional Jewish teachings and puts a new spin on them through mystical chants and melodies, all the while incorporating stories and teachings from a variety of traditions.

Currently the three are building an interfaith library for research, scholarship, and study. A ceiling-to-floor book-lined room with a giant conference table is used to host interfaith meetings, retreats, film viewings, discussion groups, round tables, story telling, poetry reading, and a picture gallery of peacemakers and sages of all faiths and cultures. One activity listed in the program is titled “Theology-on-Tap;” imagine an English pub minus beer but with plenty of spirit.

An important goal revolves around an “Interfaith Community Garden.” With it they hope to engender “a just, beautiful food system through education, inspiration, and community development.” They are eager to restore people’s connection to the environment by growing and harvesting produce that is then distributed to local food pantries, serving the needs of the poor.

Detroit may be in trouble, but local interfaith activists are working to transform the worst of times into the best of times through the vehicle of interreligious partnering, powered by faith and with a tank fueled by optimism and collective good will. The recent ad-line “Imported from Detroit” suggests that American cars are making a comeback. Clearly, so is the life of the Spirit!

Why We Need Grassroots Interfaith Families

Why is there a need for a local interreligious Institute for Peace?

  • Because the metropolitan Detroit area is an epicenter of interfaith conflict, ground zero for dueling monologues.

  • Because, living in a diverse society and culture, interreligious cooperation is no longer an option but a fact of life. As individuals, we are already engaged in interreligious work — together, we can accomplish so much more.

  • Because talking and singing about our beliefs with others not only helps us explain ourselves to others, but also helps us to better understand ourselves. As we share faith-in-action and explore one another’s unique stories, we begin to understand what we share in common.

  • And, with understanding, we break down the walls between us and them. We celebrate and affirm them and ourselves.

Interreligious dialogue is a powerful spiritual resource for peace … We will act as if we are one family until this becomes a reality.

From the Song and Spirit Institute for Peace website.