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Common Ground

project interfaith: diversity in dialogue

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YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE AN armchair psychologist to understand that fear is a powerful sensation, one that has an oddly dual nature. Teaching a small child to fear an open flame speaks to practical issues of common-sense safety. There can be little debate that fear, manifested in this form, is anything but healthy and beneficial. Other types of fear, especially ones that require increasingly convoluted or spurious connect-the-dot thinking, have the power to become toxic.

Melissa Rotolo knows about fear.

“I was afraid of Muslims,” Rotolo admitted. Islam’s place in 20th century America was typified not so much by malaise as by a largely nebulous ambivalence. For many, the events of September 11, 2001 changed all that. What was perhaps once akin to the glowing embers of an unattended campfire burst forth, for too many, to become a pyrrhic cataclysm of fear.

“I decided I didn’t want to live in fear,” Rotolo explained. “How was I to teach my two young sons about the difference between ‘good’ fear and ‘bad’ fear if I can’t address my own? So I decided to meet some Muslims.”


Rotolo’s introduction to Project Interfaith was through its Community Mosaic Video Project. That’s where 35 volunteers armed with video cameras visited 47 places of worship educational institutions, businesses, community groups and nonprofits to chronicle the many religious and spiritual identities of the people who weave the rich fabric of faith in Omaha. The initiative began with an aim to capture 150 stories.
Things didn’t quite go as planned. Response was so strong that the nonprofit now has a library of 720 stories and counting.

The videotaped narratives, along with educational resources, community discussion guides and other interactive elements, will be available on the Project Interfaith website in January when the Community Mosaic Video Project is launched.

“I thought I was in the wrong place,” Rotolo said in recalling the introduction to her Community Mosaic Video Project partner. “I knew I was being teamed with a Muslim,” she said, “so I expected a hijab or a burqa or a… I guess I didn’t know what to expect. Instead I got her,” she chuckled in giving a good-natured elbow to her new friend.

The “her” in question was Kael Sagheer, a blue-eyed, fair-haired native of Kearney who converted to Islam in her 20’s. To Rotolo, Sagheer was anything but frightening.

“The arrangement was wholly intentional,” said Beth Katz, Project Interfaith’s founder and director. “Through our varied programs ranging from the most intimate, one-on-one interactions like Kael and Melissa’s volunteer experience, to small group initiatives and community-wide efforts like the Community Mosaic Video Project, we hope to connect community members and to facilitate conversations and learning on the rich, diverse religious and cultural landscape in Omaha.”


Rotolo and Sagheer, who bear more than a little of a resemblance, met with metroMAGAZINE for a recent photo shoot at the beautiful grotto in Elmwood Park on a crystalline Saturday morning. The casual ease of their interaction — the interview was continuously interrupted by laughter and gentle back-and-forth ribbing — was like that of sisters.

“It’s funny that you mention that,” Sagheer said, “because we are now often confused as sisters.”

“Yes,” added Rotolo, “like the time you came to my church! We spent a lot of time together… and I was surprised to find that we had so much in common. We talked about what you might call the ‘tough issues’ and… both of us came to understand that we didn’t have all the answers.”

“Isn’t that what’s great about life,” Sagheer said as Rotolo’s head bobbed in agreement, “It’s a journey and you meet the most interesting people along the way.”

“I think Melissa and Kael’s friendship speaks to what we are most focused on at Project Interfaith,” said Katz. “It’s about building understanding and relationships, not agreement, so that we can stamp out stereotypes and have a community where people of all faiths, beliefs and cultures are valued, included and protected.”


Project Interfaith is now gearing up for one of its most ambitious public events in its six-year history.

On September 11th the Joslyn Art Museum will be the scene of “Then & Now: Civil Liberties and Interfaith Relations Ten Years After 9/11.” A Project Interfaith partnership with the Center for Faith Studies at Countryside Community Church, the event offers the entire community an opportunity for reflection and remembrance. The program features civil rights attorney and writer Sahar Aziz, a frequent contributor to such media outlets as CNN.com and The Huffington Post. A former senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, she will share her insights on the delicate balance between national security and civil liberties in our post-9/11 America.

Melissa Rotolo plans to be there, but in what she would have previously considered the most unexpected of positions; as a volunteer with Project Interfaith now working to promote interfaith dialogues that, among other things, battle the sort of fear she knew all too well.


Increasingly the focus of national and international attention as a model for interfaith work, the nonprofit has enjoyed a notably momentum-building 12-month stretch.

Filming for the Community Mosaic Video Project launched in September 2010. October found the organization receiving a community service award from the Niagara Foundation and in April Katz was at the White House to be honored by President Obama in the
50 Community Leaders program. In June Project Interfaith was awarded a $100,000 Challenge Grant by the Peter Kiewit Foundation even as Harvard University’s Pluralism Project cited the organization as among “the most innovative in the country.”

And Katz recently returned from England, where she was among 23 social entrepreneurs invited to participate in the prestigious
Ariane de Rothschild Fellowship, a collaborative effort to increase the scale and impact of the most promising social enterprises.


Rotolo and Sagheer remain fast friends, and they have Project Interfaith to thank for that.

“This experience has been so important to me,” Rotolo said. “It’s made me a better mom, a better wife, a better Christian… a better person.”

Courage, Plato once wrote, is knowing what not to fear.

“I give Melissa Rotolo a lot of credit,” Katz explained. “She had the courage not just to confront her fears but to openly talk about them. There is tremendous power in that.”


Visit www.projectinterfaith.org for information on their 9/11 event, the Community Mosaic Video Project, and more.


-end- metroMAGAZINE



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