By Ruth Broyde Sharone
IN THE HEARTLAND
For decades interfaith activists have been searching for “flint” to create the positive sparks needed for interfaith engagement and collaboration. In the beginning we would look for potential partners from different religious communities, speak to them separately, and then invite them into a wider circle for dialogue. We would lay the ground work and then praise the merits of their coming together, encouraging people to find a common language, to become comfortable with one another, share information about their religious practices, and “bond.” We wanted to create a non-threatening environment which we hoped would ultimately lead to a relationship of trust and then inspire more opportunities to engage the larger community. Sometimes it would take months to create that first encounter. Sometimes that first encounter would backfire because the individuals weren’t quite ready to go beyond their comfort zone.
But an amazing phenomenon is taking place in many parts of the country – not just in large metropolitan areas where religious diversity is guaranteed, but also in small cities. It’s what I call “spontaneous interfaith.” Not planned or pre-meditated, it just happens.
And that’s what makes it so noteworthy. Take the case of Green Bay, Wisconsin, a city founded in 1634, considered one of the oldest in the United States. Historically the population was primarily Catholic, with a smattering of Lutherans and a very small Jewish community. Until recently Green Bay – like many small cities in America – could not boast of any significant religious diversity. But that has changed substantially in the last 30 years. Today multiple religious communities co-exist in Green Bay. Along with the Catholics, Lutherans, and Jews, are Muslims, Buddhists, Unitarians, humanists, and the Hmong community that emigrated from Asia in the 70s.
More particularly, Green Bay is the site of a “spontaneous interfaith” relationship that developed among three doctors: one Jewish, one Christian, one Muslim, who together run a women’s health clinic.
Dr. Herb Coussons, 49, was an Evangelical Christian who converted to Judaism with his wife and children seven years ago. Born in Louisiana, he is an OBGYN and robotic surgeon, and one of the original founders of Women’s Specialty Care. He and his family keep kosher and observe the Sabbath.
Dr. Michael O’Toole, 48, is Catholic and goes to Mass regularly. Born in St. Louis, he is an OBGYN, and also specializes in robotic and gynecological surgery. He and Dr. Coussons launched the women’s center together in 2002.
Dr Allahyar Jazayeri, 55, is Muslim and has completed the “haj” (religious pilgrimage to Mecca) three times. Born in Iran, he came to the U.S. when he was 16, went to high school and college and completed his medical training.He arrived in Green Bay in 2002. A maternal and fetal specialist with additional training in genetics,he was invited to join Women’s Specialty Care by Drs. Coussons and O’Toole in 2005.His wife, Mary Katherine, a former Catholic, who converted to Islam when she married Jazayeri and now wears a hijab (headscarf), works on the staff of the Women’s Center as a midwife.
Sporting a prominent British accent, another treasured member of their staff is a Hindu doctor born in India, Seemanthini Hariharan, 65, who specializes in ultra-sound exams.
“We’re waiting for Michael to become a Buddhist,” Mary joked.
Having served on staff of other hospitals, O’Toole and Coussons were eager to establish a clinic based on their own moral values and ethics. They learned about Dr. Jazayeri when he was teaching on the faculty at Louisiana State University. “He had the reputation of being a quality doctor and a good teacher and we wanted to work with him.” They not only thought about the fact that he was Muslim before they invited him to join, they made a point of asking him to describe his religious beliefs at length.
In turn Dr. Jazayeri invited Herb and Mike and their families to meet his wife and children, and “to interact over the dinner table and see what our home was like.”
“If you listen to the messages relayed by the Koran and Islam, by Christianity and Judaism, in the New Testament and the Bible, you know that you practice your religion to please God not other people, and you allow people to make their own decisions about faith. You don’t force your opinion on other people,” Dr. Jazayeri emphasized.
“At the time when we were first established we held ourselves out as a religious practice,” recalls Dr. Coussons. “Originally, it was worded that way, indicating we practiced biblical principles and, as a result, our first patients were evangelicals and home schoolers.” He and Dr. O’Toole wondered what would happen and how their patients would respond if they took both Jazayeri and wife, Mary Katherine, on board, but it never became a problem.
They discovered they all identified as ‘pro-life.’ But their approach to that topic is based on their medical ethics, not politics, they emphasize.
A former Marine, Dr. O’Toole said his ethics are derived as much from the Marine Corps as from Catholicism. A huge majority of people in Green Bay are Catholic, he pointed out, “so our philosophy fits in with the community majority. But I have worked in other communities where they were not Catholic, and it was still my stance.”
“The value of the individual goes beyond the pro-life stance,” Dr. Coussons stressed. “It goes to the value of every patient we take care of, whether it be a 78-year-old, or pregnant women and their children. And it also extends to how we view our own employees,” he added.
“Faith is important to all of us, “said Dr. O’Toole. “God is a just God. I’m far from being a theologian, but my family is typical Irish-Catholic. We never have any religious conflict among us at the clinic. You have to have a barometer that guides your moral character in life and the barometers for our faiths are the same and the similarities are striking: Do the right thing. Be a good person.”
A few months ago when they sat together with a marketing expert, he kept asking them: “Why are you together? What distinguishes your relationship and your practice?” And the words that kept surfacing, they reported, were identical: “Our value systems” and “trust.”
“It changes a patient’s experience to come in for an annual exam and to be able to share personal things,” Dr. Coussons emphasized. “God doesn’t really want people to get divorced or commit adultery, or for a husband to abuse his wife. You can’t sit in front of 25-30 women a day and not hear terrible stories of abuse. Realizing that they’re in a bad relationship at home when they’re here is more important than doing a pap smear. A spiritual check-in and weight loss are of equal importance.”
Although they are of one accord in ethical matters, they all have distinct personalities. Dr. Coussons is the diplomat. Dr. Jazayeri identifies himself as “the hothead,” while Dr. O’Toole is known as the cool and collected one.
Each of the doctor’s offices also tells a unique personal story.
Dr. Coussons, who is also a pilot, has football helmets in his room, and a special certificate from a patient for whom he performed a brith milah (circumcision). He studies Torah regularly with a Chabad rabbi and every once in a while you can hear the sounds of the Shofar (ram’s horn blown in the synagogue on High Holidays) coming from his office. The staff is used to it.
In Dr. O’Toole’s modest office, you will find sculptures of miniature angels on the wall, alongside of a framed “Physician’s Prayer.”
In Dr. Jazayeri’s office the most notable piece of a furniture is an étagère bursting with Disney toys, his “childhood friends,” as he calls them. Admitting he is an ardent Disney fan, you will also find on the wall leading to his office a plethora of framed animation cells from his favorite Disney movies. In his lower desk drawer he keeps a prayer rug he uses five times a day, between patient visits.
At Christmas time, Dr. O’Toole has a Christmas tree in his office, but in the main lobby the staff puts up their non-denominational “Festivus Pole,” inspired by the Jerry Seinfeld episode.
Perhaps the most challenging situation they face is when they share a box with their families at the Green Bay Packer games and it comes time to eat and drink. They can never order one identical meal.
Dr. O’Toole likes pork hot dogs, but they don’t work for Dr. Jazayeri or Dr. Coussons. Seafood is good for Dr. Jazayeri and Dr. O’Toole, but not for their Jewish compadre. Dr. Jazayeri won’t drink alcohol, but that doesn’t stop his Christian and Jewish colleagues from ordering wine or beer.
Working out those gastronomic wrinkles seems like “small potatoes” in the light of their inspiring interfaith relationships. Today their center has 15 health providers, 80 percent of them women, a thoroughly interfaith group.
Spontaneous interfaith is alive and well in Green Bay and you can look forward to finding many such examples in other small cities and towns across the U.S. as the grooves of pluralism continue to deepen and spread.