God Squad: A symposium on religious violence
St. Augustine Record - 2/7/14
When WJCT’s interfaith God Squad comes to St. Augustine at 7 p.m. Thursday to discuss “Killing in the Name of God,” it will be the first public symposium of its kind in the city.
The panel, comprised of Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders from Jacksonville, will discuss the dangers of extremism in light of the rise of religious fundamentalism worldwide. The event, sponsored by the St. Augustine Initiative for Compassion and Flagler College, is in the Flagler Room in Ponce de Leon Hall, 74 King St.
According to Melissa Ross, host and producer of WJCT’s First Coast Connect radio program, the “squad” that she created a couple of years ago is “skilled at discussing any number of topics related to faith from debates over local social issues to unrest half a world away.”
Members of her squad are Rabbi Joshua Leif of Congregation Ahavath Chesed; Kyle Reese D.Min., pastor of Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church; Fr. Nick Louh of St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church; and Parvez Ahmed Ph.D. of the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida. The moderator for the symposium will be James Rowell Ph.D., assistant professor of religion at Flagler College and author of “Ghandi and Bin Laden: Religion at the Extremes.”
“The primary goal of the God Squad has been to have an ongoing conversation over the air,” Reese said. “Especially around cutting-edge issues that affect interfaith relationships personally, locally, nationally and globally.” For example, on one of the squad’s programs they discussed Jacksonville’s controversial Human Rights Ordinance that called for ethical and fair treatment of the city’s LGBT Community when it came to housing and employment. The city voted the ordinance down in 2012.
He adds, that the four members of the squad were good friends personally and professionally before being featured on Ross’ local NPR program. Three are currently serving as board members of OneJax, an interfaith organization that promotes being “different together” via respect and understanding that will overcome bias, bigotry and oppression.
Ahmed, a former board member who has been publicly attacked verbally and in the press by anti-Muslim extremists, is an associate professor of finance at the Coggin College of Business, University of North Florida and a Fulbright Scholar. Since 2010, he has been a mayoral appointee to the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission. In 2010, he was named “person of the year.”
The initiative is the nonprofit group behind the successful campaign for St. Augustine to become the first official Compassionate City in Florida and 20th in the world.
When asked why the grassroots organization felt it important to bring the God Squad symposium to St. Augustine, the Rev. Ted Voorhees, co-founder, said he felt their core message about compassion and civility resonated with the initiative’s mission and vision.
Voorhees explained that a strong impetus to invite them came from a God Squad discussion about extremism in Jacksonville last fall.
“I was particularly impressed by their thoughtful and non-anxious responses to a representative of a local group of anti-Muslim activists,” he said. “Despite the insulting and confrontational comments he directed at the panelists, they chose not to be reactive or argumentative. Instead, by being informative and non-defensive they modeled how each of us can treat others in ways that we would like to be treated.”
He adds that the mission of the initiative is to create a sustainable culture of compassion in the Nation’s Oldest City and have it be a legacy for the 450th commemoration.
“In other words, if we can help people learn to respectfully agree to disagree about certain issues and beliefs by way of advocacy, awareness and action, we can then get really busy strengthening and expanding the common threads that bind us together,” he said.