John and Katie Zawacki may be retired from their engineering and school careers respectively but they are hardly staying put. The couple are regional contacts for Voices of Faith, an outreach ministry based at Our Lady of Nazareth Catholic Church in Roanoke County. In 2007 the Catholic Diocese of Richmond started to set up groups of people around the region, hoping to encourage interfaith dialogue.
“John and I agreed to be the regional contacts, along with our pastor Father Joe Lehman,” noted Katie Zawacki. A Catholic Pope once said this, as notated on the bottom of e-mails sent out by the Zawackis: There cannot be peace in the world without peace between the world’s religions. “We hope to do something better than just [achieving] tolerance,” said John Zawacki. “The problem is people don’t really know other faiths at all. The lack of knowledge creates a defense mechanism against other religions.”
While the Zawackis endeavored to work “extremely hard” to forge mutual respect between people of different religions, John said they have met resistance. “Not everybody feels that way. It’s a little difficult for people to understand [Voices of Faith] and what we do.” They try to get information out to people, such as explaining the Muslim and Jewish faiths, for example.
A Voices of Faith multi-religion panel (a Catholic, a Jew and a Muslim) is also available for meetings with church groups and civic organizations. “What we’re aiming for first is to bring out the similarities,” said John, “we don’t want to start an argument or make anybody defensive.” The first event took place at the Beth Israel Synagogue, centered on why it is important to remember the Holocaust, “so it won’t be repeated.”
Programs on sacred spaces, Buddhism and the Mormon faith (while Mitt Romney was running for President) have also been offered. Presentations on Islam, which may include another regional contact, practicing Muslim Saleem Ahmed, are a challenge. “Often there is a ton of information out there [about Islam] that is simply false,” said John, who can find ill-informed sources on the Internet that may fan the flames of hatred against Muslims. “It makes it a little bit more difficult,” he added, noting why some who follow Islam can be very sensitive about how their faith is viewed.
Katie Zawacki notes that “tolerance” just means you just put up with someone – you don’t really try to understand him or her. Voices of Faith hopes to go well beyond tolerance. “It’s really showing respect for another human being…and what they believe.”
The Zawackis are also promoting an upcoming meeting geared towards getting high school students more involved, set for 10 am on July 17 at Our Lady of Nazareth Church. It’s part of the Connections Institute summer program, sponsored by a Richmond-based organization called Virginians for Inclusive Communities. Local community leaders who attend will learn more about reducing prejudice, bullying, social skills, intolerance and other related subjects “by examining one’s own prejudice and leaning towards stereotypes,” according to Katie Zawacki. She said the program has helped changed the lives of young people that have taken part in the past.
Zawacki was asked to help set up the July 17th meeting. The hope is that those who attend will go to local high schools, asking them to develop a plan and send students to summer camps. (RSVP to their e-mail address or Facebook page if you want to attend.)
Katie Zawacki said it’s been a topic of conversation for several years among those on the Voices of Faith steering committee: getting more young people involved in learning respect for people that practice a religion other than their own. She’s been thinking of the hubbub surrounding TV celebrity Paula Deen, and what she might have said years ago about African-Americans: “If we raise the [level] of awareness then people will know that what they are saying is insulting to one another. Using certain words with certain races and religious groups is really offensive.”
After a slow start in 2008, John Zawacki said they are more encouraged by the reception for Voices of Faith, often bolstered by guest speakers from local schools like Roanoke College and Hollins University. “Things have been progressing.”
(You can reach the Zawackis at [email protected] or on their Facebook page.)
By Gene Marrano