As Pacifica Institute we have started a new interview series with prominent leaders of today’s society. To launch the series, we sat down to enjoy an enlightening conversation with Rev. Alexei R. Smith, Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs Officer for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, to speak about interfaith dialogue. Rev. Smith is one of the very first interfaith activists on interfaith dialogue in the Los Angeles area and has paved the way in this meaningful cause.
Father Alexei served as an elected member of the Council of Priests of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for six years, serving as Vice President of the Council and Chair of the Priestly Life and Ministry Committee for the last two years of his service on the Council. In November of 2000, Cardinal Roger Mahony appointed Father Alexei to a five year term as Ecumenical and Interreligious Officer of the Archdiocese, and reappointed him to a second five year term in July 2006.
Father Alexei served as president of the Interreligious Council of Southern California for five years and is the recipient of numerous commendations and awards: in 2007 he was awarded the prestigious Religious Leadership Award of the Valley Interfaith Council.
- As we all know you are very active in the interfaith scene and our very first question to you is, what does interfaith dialog mean to you?
Interfaith dialog means at it differs from what we term as Ecumenical dialog. Ecumenical dialog means our interaction with our fellow Christians. Interfaith would mean our interaction with people who are non-Christian and the goals are different. In the sense they are the same, but different. In ecumenical dialog with our fellow Christians, the goal is to reunite all Christians into one entity as we were originally. Interfaith dialog does not have the same goal, the goal is to be enriched by each other, to embrace each other with open your arms. What are you doing you are making room in yourself for the other individual. Interfaith dialog for me is the embrace of one another, making room in myself for the other and to be enriched by the other. In order to be enriched by one another we will acknowledge that we don’t share total beliefs but we don’t allow those areas to impede our working together for the betterment of society.
- How did you first get involved in interfaith dialog?
Oh (laugh), I was assigned this job in the year 2000. The Catholic Arch bishop here took me aside one day and said, ‘I have a new job I want you to do’. And I knew nothing about this. He said, ‘we are looking for new ecumenical interreligious officer for the archdiocese. Everybody tells me it should be you. So if you want the job I’m telling you it’s yours.’ I was totally shocked, I had no idea this was coming and I immediately asked the Archbishop, ‘your eminence, who is telling you this?’, ‘Oh don’t worry about it’ and I said, ‘You know I have no academic background in this, I didn’t study any of these world religions and I have no degree in this stuff’, ‘Don’t worry about that stuff’. Every excuse I made he said ‘Don’t worry’ and finally I said, ‘I would like to think about this, pray about this and can I get back to you?’. He said, ‘Yes you may.’ I’ll never forget that was in a Wednesday and on Friday his secretary called and said the cardinal has a message for you. I said, ‘And what’s that?’, ‘he wants to know if you have finished praying and whether you can start on Monday. And I took that as a sign that I should engage in this work and I am still thankful that I did. I have been now at this position since the year 2000, so next month is my 14thyear and it’s made a total difference in the way it’s really enriched my life.
Perfect. Let me ask you about the interfaith community. How has the interfaith community changed over the years? Has it progressed?
Yes. That is not to say that we have not had setbacks, but it is to say that we have progressed. I believe we are for the most part understanding one another better, excepting one another better more and growing together.
Q.Why do you think interfaith dialog is so important particularly today?
Well look at where we live here in Los Angeles. We have absolutely every religion here, from A to Z. From the Armenian Orthodox to Zoroastrians. And I think Los Angeles is known for it being a city that many other cities of the world like to model. I mean look at the entertainment industry, all of these things. But I think and I told our mayors this, we should be exporting to these people is the fact that we can live together, people of different ethnicities, colors, races and religions but we can live together harmoniously. And this is what we have to show the world with.
And Los Angeles is the perfect platform, the perfect place for this.
Q.What are some of the, if there are any, unexpected challenges that you have come across in your work?
I think the main one for me, speaking as a catholic now, that not all of our people are 100% behind this. Even though this is the official teaching of the Catholic Church, it has been since the 2nd Vatican council in 1960’s. For we acknowledge there is truth in non-Christian religions, where we are told by the church that we should interact with other religions, all of these things. Not all of our people are there yet. So we have to work on them and try to bring them along.
Q.This actually connects to my second question which is, Why do you think some people do not believe in interfaith? Is it because they don’t really see it succeeding or do you think they might be some restrictions in their religion that would not permit them engaging?
I think it is the opposite of what you said initially. I think they do see it as succeeding and it challenged them because that would mean they would have to change. They don’t want to change. They want to possess the idea that we are the sole possessor of the truth, nobody else has anything to offer society, no possible feedback that they learn from you, that type of mentality that is certainly faulty reasoning. I mean look at the world, those areas that live in isolation out there and you can see that it is not working. Well Francis now is a light for us, for the whole world, as almost everything he says in his official statements says he always mentions that we have to take inter-religious dialog deeper, not superficially or ‘hello, nice to see you again’ type of thing, but really delve into this whole realm of what makes you a Muslim, what make me a Catholic, what we can share together. How we can work together to build a society.
- What do you think is the biggest challenge that we have, that we haven’t passed yet? The biggest challenge that we have to build these bridges?
Well I think for many people it would be fear. Fear of the unknown. They don’t know and we do a lot of education programs. Pacifica has all kinds of educational programs, some of which I have been able to attend and they are wonderful. Just like we do, the Catholic Church does a number of programs that our parish and such that we try to educate people about things that. And we have to continue doing that, we have to continue throwing these seeds. Some of these seeds will germinate and they will grow to great trees and produce a lot of fruit, other will wither and die. But it is the fear factor that of what people just don’t know. Let me give you an example of what I mean. I occasionally put together what I call Father Alexi’s bus tour, where we gather at one of our catholic facilities through our parish here. We gather at one of these parishes, we begin with morning prayer and a Christian tradition other than Catholic, so that they are exposed to some other type of Christianity than Catholicism and then we go and visit four, maybe sometimes five houses of worship of different faith and I never tell these people where we are going. Just go. And I remember once distinctly we pulled into the parking lot then of Omar Ibn Al’Kattab mosque down there by the University (USC) and as we got off a lady grabbed my arm and said, ‘Oh I am so thankful you brought us here’ and I said ‘Why is that?’, and she said ‘because I live down the street, I have always wanted to go in here, but I haven’t’. And I said ‘Well why didn’t you go in?’, she said ‘Well I am afraid, I am afraid of the unknown, I am afraid that they won’t accept me or I will do something that will offend them or I won’t accept them or I won’t know how to behave or whatever’, so I said ‘Well, my dear, you just stick with me and we will walk you through this’. And we did and I watched her while she was there and as we walked out she grabbed my arm again and said ‘Well that was wonderful, I should have been in here a long time ago. These people are just like us.’ So once you get people to take a leap over there initial fear of something unknown you have a chance.
That was a great story. I can relate to that one in different ways as well. Sometimes you need that hand…
- Let me tie this all together with my last question about Pacifica. What is your experience with Pacifica Institute and Hizmet in general?
I’ll never forget that Ensar called and you weren’t Pacifica then, you were Global Cultural Connections, and he called and wanted to know whether he can come and talk with me. It wasn’t just Ensar it was Ibrahim and a couple of other gentlemen and I said ‘Okay, I have a half hour’. They came and we had such wonderful conversation that I cancelled some other appointments and we must have talked for two and a half hours our first day. And they were very interested in becoming active in the interfaith scene here. I gave him some contacts and took him around to a couple of places. We had a long association with now Pacifica and I think it is wonderful and what you are doing in marvelous. It is not only exposing people to Turkish culture and such, but also to a positive face of not only Islam but also a positive face to interfaith relations. So I commend you and have commended you. You have been gracious enough to invite me to come and speak at some of your Friendship Dinners not only here in Los Angeles, but in Hawaii once and where else, Reno I think and maybe someplace else. And I am more than willing to do that because I admire the work that you are doing and I certainly support that. With the Hizmet organization per see or movement, I am admirer of Mr. Gulen. I have read several of the books he has written, articles about him. I think he represents a positive future which should be emulated, his activities should be emulated in many different parts of the world, especially the Islamic world. This openness to the other, never denying who he is or what he is. I never deny that I am a Catholic or Catholic Priest, no one has asked me to do that in order to participate in interfaith dialog. Interfaith Dialog is certainly not about going out and trying to convert one to another religion. It’s growing in understanding and such, you maintain your identity while working together in making it a better world and that is the true sense for it.
Father Alexi thank you very much for your time.