- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 23, 2004

ATLANTA (AP) — Shuffling between classes at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, Adam Meredith-Ployd saw an intriguing opportunity to apply what he’d learned in his studies on the history of Christians and Jews — an opportunity worth $25,000.

An essay contest had been founded to promote understanding between the two faiths after the release of Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ,” which drew criticism that it contained destructive Christian stereotypes of Jews.

“It highlighted a conflict that can be invisible in a lot of ways,” said Mr. Meredith-Ployd, a 22-year-old Christian graduate student whose essay took the top award last month. “I think what ‘Passion’ brought out is there’s still residual issues between Christians and Jews that are 2,000 years old.”

The contest’s founder, 25-year-old magazine heiress Elizabeth Goldhirsh, said she created the competition for people 16 to 22 as a way to develop interfaith unity within the younger generation.

“Unfortunately, we’ve grown up with so many leaders on TV using religion for very negative purposes,” said Miss Goldhirsh, who is Jewish. “When you think about other religions, you think about conflict rather than what brings everyone together.”

Miss Goldhirsh, a Harvard Divinity School graduate student and daughter of the late Inc. magazine founder Bernie Goldhirsh, said she offered a large prize package — a total of $100,000 — to attract interest in the issue.

Her strategy worked. The 4,000 entries, however, showed a surprising lack of familiarity with building interfaith relationships in general, said the Rev. Christopher Leighton, executive director of the Baltimore-based Institute of Christian & Jewish Studies and one of the contest’s judges.

The problem, Mr. Leighton said, was that many of the entrants — particularly Christians — thought that the answer was to make the other side see the error of its ways, rather than to promote respect for differing theological points of view.

Organizers found that many of entrants “haven’t developed the ability to cross a border to comprehend the religious sensibilities of their neighbors,” Mr. Leighton said. “The essay contest confirmed how much work needs to be done.”

That finding doesn’t surprise Eboo Patel , founder and executive director of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core, one of the only interfaith groups in the nation focused on young people.

“Although there’s lots of good interfaith work being done in the world, very few of them involve young people,” Mr. Patel said.

He said he’s been working to raise awareness of interfaith issues through high-school religious forums and national volunteer days that bring together young people of different faiths to do community-service projects.

“It is an enormously sensitive area,” said Mr. Patel, a Muslim. “People’s relationships with God is the single most precious thing that they have.”

In the contest-winning essay, Mr. Meredith-Ployd found common ground in Christians’ and Jews’ view of time, based on the Bible’s account of the seven-day creation of the world in Genesis. Both faiths, he noted, honor the seven-day cycle that culminates on the Jewish Sabbath and Christian Sunday.

“At the heart of both these ethics is the resounding declaration that God’s reality is not the world’s reality,” Mr. Meredith-Ployd wrote.

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