Malibu religious leaders find common ground


The interfaith movement in Malibu started almost 40 years ago, bringing together Jews, Buddhists and a variety of Christian denominations.

By Sylvie Belmond/Staff Writer

Fellow clergymen reprimanded a reverend from the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod when he joined other religious leaders in offering comfort to the nation still raw from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The critics say he committed “heresy,” according to a report in the Los Angeles Times, because he prayed with leaders of other faiths, giving the sense of equality among the various denominations and religions.

This is but a small demonstration of the acrimony that exists between people of different faiths. Wars continue to be fought over religious beliefs and holy places, such as in Israel where blood is spilled over what is said to be sacred land.

However, religious boundaries do not hold Malibu’s clergy back. Conversely, variety here is an asset used to unify people no matter what their beliefs are.

“There is no reason people should not maintain and nurture their own traditions, and at the same time out of those traditions, have respect, love and concern for other traditions and be involved with other people,” said Our Lady of Malibu Monsignor John Sheridan, who initiated the ecumenical movement in Malibu.

In 1965, Sheridan started the first Thanksgiving interfaith service in Malibu, inviting ministers of other denominations and a rabbi from Pacific Palisades to participate. Later, Malibu Jewish leaders joined the services. The services transcended into regular lunch meetings where the religious leaders discuss the applications of religion in social circumstances.

“It is important for people to express their beliefs,” noted Malibu Chabad Rabbi Levy Cunin. “However, while people disagree on what they believe in, they cannot hate.”

“We as human beings have to start focusing on each other,” he said. “We should not get lost in our caves and live in fear.”

St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church Rev. Susan Klein concurred. “I think there is a lot of mutual respect and good relationships between pastors, and we work at it,” she said. “I believe that the clergy in Malibu is exemplary in the way they manage to work together for the betterment of the community as a whole.”

“The aftermath of Sept. 11 showed us that it’s important that we bond together as a community to support each other,” said Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue Rabbi Judith HaLevy. “We find we have a great deal in common.”

For Malibu clergy, their jobs are quite similar as they share equal challenges and joys.

“We all care very much about our children, we want them to have a firm spiritual education and we want to make that available,” said HaLevy.

Separation of church and state also helps in the interfaith movement.

Secularism on a governmental level helps to create interfaith acceptance because it tends to protect both the freedom of the church and of the state, said Sheridan. Individuals can choose to believe in what makes them comfortable.

The environment of violence that exists now in some parts of the world needs to be distinguished between religion and culture, explained Sheridan.

“When a government imposes religious beliefs it may create fanaticism more predominantly,” he said.

“The reason people think the worst fanaticism originates from religion is because religion is an underpinning part of human beings,” explained Sheridan. “So when you begin to discuss religion, then you get into social and political issues like cloning.”

HaLevy credited Malibu’s environment as a central source of coming together for its residents.

“We are all grateful to be where we are,” said HaLevy. “That helps us connect to a deeper source, no matter what the spiritual framework is.”