Imam Joe Bradford, left, and Pastor Kyle Reese share a light moment at Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church in Jacksonville in April.(Photo by Jeff Brumley)

Interreligious dialogue is nothing new, but the way ministers and others are going about it is changing.

Interfaith dialogue is on the rise, not just in formal conversations led by judicatory leaders but in local communities where friendships forge as ministers of various faiths work together for common goals amid increasing religious diversity in the Bible belt.

Kyle Reese, pastor at Hendricks Avenue Baptist in Jacksonville, Fla., has been highly visible in community interfaith efforts, especially in his dialogue with Muslim and Jewish spiritual leaders. He refers to Imam Joe Bradford as “best friend” – as he does a rabbi and an Orthodox Christian priest.

Pastor Steve Jones, who made headlines working with Jews and Muslims to tackle social injustice in Birmingham, Ala., said the same about Rabbi Jonathan Miller. “I am closer to these guys than I am with many other Baptist ministers,” said Jones, the senior pastor of Southside Baptist Church.

Expert: 9-11 changed interfaith

The emergence of a more grassroots, relational interfaith movement can be attributed to 9/11 and its aftermath, said Antonios Kireopoulos, who oversees interfaith issues for the New York-based National Council of Churches.

The attacks generated both suspicion and curiosity about Islam that raised interest in dialogue “10, 20 and 100 fold,” he said. He noted a growing “Baptist-Muslim dialogue” in the form of pulpit swaps and practical alliances on local issues.

Pastor: ‘Quest to befriend Muslims’

mitchrandallimamAmong them is Mitch Randall, pastor of NorthHaven Church in Norman, Okla. Randall said he once had little use for the historic interfaith model and its focus mostly on annual prayer breakfasts or worship services. All that changed shortly after 9/11, when a motorist gave him a rude gesture.

“I’m a quarter Native American and fairly dark-skinned, and he probably mistook me for a Middle Eastern individual,” Randall said. “I thought, ‘What must that feel like for people who truly are Muslims?’”

The result was “a quest to befriend people who are Muslim… to break down those barriers and stereotypes.” He has since developed friendships with Muslim religious leaders and their communities in Oklahoma. They’ve held plenty of dialogue sessions and 9/11 memorials, but it hasn’t stopped there.

“We began doing things together,” Randall said, “like feeding the poor or working on immigration issues.”

Editor: Interfaith ‘scares people’

But the interfaith movement isn’t out of the woods yet.

“That word still scares a lot of people,” said Paul Chaffee, founder and editor, which is based in California.

Many Christian conservatives see interreligious communication as an effort to blend all faiths into one. However, Chaffee said, even some conservative evangelicals have seen the value of working with the conservatives of other denominations and faiths on social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion opposition.

Meanwhile, the progress being made in interfaith work is slowly spilling over into ecumenical outreach, which experts say is a more difficult field. “The closer you get in the family, the more the temperature goes up in the room,” said Chaffee, who’s also on the board of the North American Interfaith Network.

Theologian: Emphasize the grassroots

Baptist theologian and ecumenism advocate Steven Harmon said he’s seen that phenomenon first-hand.

“Just about every observer thinks we are at something of an impasse,” said Harmon, adjunct professor of Christian theology at Gardner-Webb University. “It does not have the kind of excitement or urgency there was a few decades ago.”

Harmon, who last fall was on a Baptist World Alliance team that held exploratory talks with leaders of the Orthodox Church, said to be successful both movements must have more than symbolic and theological meanings.

“Whether it’s ecumenical or interfaith, ultimately there needs to be more emphasis on what happens on the grassroots level,” he said.

As Chaffee put it: “As soon as you start making friends, it changes everything.”

Imam: ‘Such a strong rapport’

In Jacksonville, Reese said his relationships with Imam Joe Bradford, Rabbi Joshua Lief and Greek Orthodox priest Nicholas Louh have provided him spiritual and emotional solace.

The four of them hang as friends, gather with their wives for dinner and speak to each others’ congregations. Their rapport became so well known they were invited to speak on local Public Radio monthly as “the God Squad.”

“We just have such a strong rapport and we can kind of rib each other,” Bradford said of the foursome’s behavior on and off the air.

Reese often jokes with Bradford about growing up in a Baptist home until he became a Muslim as a teenager. Reese mentioned the fact during Bradford’s talk at Hendricks Avenue in late April, and both men broke into wide smiles.

Reese said getting to know Bradford and his community has deepened his appreciation for the persecuted, minority origins of the Baptist tradition. “I would argue that I am a better Christian because I know Joe,” Reese said.

In Birmingham, Jones said he received complaints from conservatives about his relationship with the Jewish community and its rabbi. “We were really criticized because we weren’t preaching the gospel to them or trying to win them to Christ,” he recalled.

For him, however, participation is simply a way of being a good Christian.

“As a Baptist, my idea of evangelism isn’t ‘winning anyone to Jesus’ but being a good neighbor and showing respect,” Jones said. “And you can’t do that if you don’t get together.”