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Mayor endorses event to celebrate all faiths

– Sounding as much like a religious leader as a politician and civil servant, Mayor Tom Henry on Tuesday called people of all faiths in Fort Wayne to prayer.

Flanked by a Christian minister, an Islamic imam and an IPFW university teacher of religious studies, the mayor announced from his office that he had developed and was supporting a May 5 event that will include prayers, singing, dances and readings from eight religious traditions represented in the city – Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, Unitarian-Universalism and Baha’i.

“Prayers for the City – A Celebration of One Community, Many Faiths” will take place at 4 p.m. in the University of Saint Francis Performing Arts Center, formerly the Scottish Rite Center.

Henry called the event “something very unique in the city that’s never been done before.” The last time something similar took place was after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, when then-Mayor Graham Richard asked for prayers for victims and families in New York and elsewhere, he said.

This is “the first time to pray for our city in general,” Henry said, adding he was asking for prayer “to face the challenges that are facing our city, state and our country.” Among them, he said, are the still-struggling economy and concerns about crime in Fort Wayne.

Three men have died and one was critically wounded in the city from gun violence in the past seven days.

But Henry said no specific happening or friction among religious groups caused him to support the event.

He said it was developed with the help of the Rev. Terry Anderson, executive director of Fort Wayne’s Interfaith Hospitality Network program for the homeless; Imam J. Tamir Rasheed of the Fort Wayne Islamic Center; and Michael Spath, continuing lecturer at IPFW and head of the Northeast Indiana Center for Middle East Peace.

All are longtime participants in, and advocates for, inter-religious dialogue.

However, not all area denominations will be participating.

When asked about recent news that a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod pastor had been reprimanded and apologized to members after participating in an interfaith prayer event after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Connecticut, organizers acknowledged that theological differences might keep some away. But, they said, they wanted to invite the entire city.

In a telephone interview after the news conference, the Rev. Daniel May of Fort Wayne, president of the Indiana District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, said its pastors and officials would not take part because the event “contradicts Scripture.”

The synod, which has churches nationwide, is one of the most conservative branches of Lutheranism. It has about 40 congregations in greater Fort Wayne and between 10,000 and 20,000 adherents, he said.

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, May said, takes Jesus at face value when he said, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the father but by me.”

“If we’re there and we participate, it sort of gives the impression that all religions are good and equally valid and all roads lead to the same place, and that would be to contradict that scripture,” he said.

“One guy praying to Allah and one guy standing up and praying to this god or that god – that’s really not what we believe, teach and confess. So in good conscience, if we are really honest to ourselves, we couldn’t do that.”

May said Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod pastors and members would be able to offer prayers for the city in their own congregations – something Spath said the event’s leaders encouraged.

Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod may join in interfaith community service projects or activism in conformity with the denomination’s values, May said.

Henry, who is Roman Catholic, said he hoped the May 5 event would showcase the city’s religious diversity by including more than Christians.

The first week in May is the traditional time for the National Day of Prayer, which is organized by primarily conservative Christians.

This year’s local gathering, sponsored by Associated Churches of Fort Wayne and Allen County, will take place at noon May 2 at Grand Wayne Center.

John Perlich, the mayor’s spokesman, said Tuesday that Henry planned to attend that event as well.

Henry said he decided to become part of the new interfaith effort because, as “head of the city, I feel it is appropriate for my office to stand up and say we need to work with various faiths.”

He added: “We do not feel this should be objectionable to anyone.”

Spath said the interfaith group hopes not only to have programs to address problems such as violence and poverty, but to start “a new era of service and dialogue and compassion” among members of all faiths.