Representatives from four world religions took part in a panel discussion in the Russell Union Ballroom at Georgia Southern University last week for the annual "Hot Wings and Hot Topics" event, where students and audience members dined on free wings and delved into contemporary and sometimes controversial religious subjects.
Rabbi Robert Haas of Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah represented Judaism; the Rev. Tony Pagliarullo, Statesboro First Baptist Church college minister, represented Christianity from a Baptist viewpoint; Father Douglas Clark of St. Matthew's Roman Catholic Church in Statesboro represented Christianity from a Catholic viewpoint; Nadia Kamal Hemmali Dreid, former president of GSU's Muslim Student Association, represented Islam; and Richmond Hill's Dr. Hugh Adamson, former secretary general of the National Spiritual Assembly of the United Kingdom, represented the Baha'i Faith. The Rev. Francys Johnson, the president of Georgia NAACP, served as moderator for the event.
Dr. Dan Rea, GSU College of Education professor and behind-the-scenes faculty organizer, was one of the early organizers of the event. He said the purpose of the event since its inception 10 years ago has been to dispel stereotypes and promote a mutual understanding of diverse world religions.
"We want to educate people and raise awareness," Rea said. "All religions talk about peace and working to achieve peace, but rarely are they working together.
"If we're ever to have world peace, we have to have dialog and work together. We need to talk about who we are. We have a lot more commonality than differences."
Some of those commonalities and differences were expressed over the course of the evening, starting with a brief introduction from each panel member.
Basic beliefs, different faiths
Adamson, who's been part of the Baha'i faith for 50 years, said, "I used to think I knew all about Baha'i, only later realizing I know precious little.
"The world is a very complicated place. We have to live together. Sometimes we manage that better than others."
Adamson said he drew great hope and strength for the future when looking out into the audience of the young people in attendance.
"As we look at this earth from outer space, do we see any lines drawn on it, dividing the world into your land and my land?" he asked.
"The Earth, in reality, is a single planet, and we are citizens of that planet. One of the gifts of the Baha'i faith is that we recognize there is one God, and we are the children of that God: one people, one God, one planet. Let's all learn to live together."
Nadia Dreid, 23, said she doesn't know what it's like to be Muslim in a world without the specter of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as she was just a girl in 2001.
"Most people know very little about being Muslim, and what they do know, in general, is negative," she said. "The Muslim faith is a monotheistic faith - one God. My religion teaches me, my holy book teaches me to stand up for injustice. To take a life is to take a life of mankind."
"The Catholic Church sees herself as the daughter of Israel, the mother of Christianity. Jesus Christ is God's word incarnate," Clark said.
Next to address the audience, Pagliarullo said: "Christianity is the story of God creating and calling a people to live in relationship with himself. The story has its beginning in the book of Genesis, as Adam and Eve were created in God's image but chose to rebel and choose sin over a perfect relationship with their creator.
"This act of sin and disobedience separated humanity from God. God begins to recreate a community to live in relationship with him with the calling of Abram and the promise that through Abram, the nations would be blessed.
"As a Christian, I understand that promise being fulfilled in the person of Jesus. Through Jesus' sinless, perfect life, sacrificial death on the cross, resurrection from the grave on Easter Sunday, God acts to bring us into a right relationship with himself.
"The central message of Christianity is the gospel. The gospel, in my adapted, nutshell illustration, is this: You and I are far more sinful than we could ever imagine, but you and I are far more loved than we ever dared hope."
'A path to God'
"We all have a path to God," Haas said. "Everyone can choose it. None are wrong; none are better than another. Religions are beautiful; people are sometimes not.
"The way to God is to follow commandments. We have expectations placed upon us as to how we are supposed to act towards other people.
"Judaism teaches us to discuss and revel in the differences. I may not agree, but I can give them their right, as long as they don't harm others. We preach the love of people, even if they believe differently."
Haas encouraged those in attendance to embrace and follow the ethics of whatever religion they choose.
Dealing with doubt
When a student in the audience asked about religious skeptics, the panel members, in their own words, encouraged a spirit of questioning and seeking answers.
"I welcome folks who are honest with me and say, 'I wrestle with these doubts,' " Pagliarullo said.
Clark pointed out that Pope Benedict XVI surprised people when he stated, "I'd rather have a discussion with a bright agnostic than some religious advisors I've spoken with."
"To truly believe something, you have to be skeptical early in your faith journey, and you wrestle with it and come to terms with it," Dreid responded.
"I would say, question everything," Johnson interjected. "If your faith cannot survive a few questions, maybe it's not a strong faith."
Adamson agreed, saying, "If your faith cannot stand up to questions, what kind of faith is it? It's a blind faith."
But, he added, once you've heard the answer, either accept it or don't, but don't continue pushing for argument's sake.
Before the night was over, students listened as panelists discussed homosexuality, sex outside of marriage, the use of alcohol and recreational drugs, religion in public schools and religious tolerance.
Ever mindful of the clock ticking and homework assignments waiting, panelists touched only briefly on each topic but encouraged students to seek them out for further discussion on these and other religious hot topics.