Preaching A New Message

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The news was sketchy at first. A 14-year-old student had come to school, gunning for some teachers and classmates at Success Tech Academy, in downtown Cleveland. The scene outside the school was one of confusion and panic.

SOUND OF SCREAMING PARENT: You see all these parents out here? They're scared! You see those kids there? They're scared!

In times of fear, many people turn to their religious leaders. Speaking for his fellow clerics, Imam Abbas Ahmad of Cleveland's First Mosque admits those leaders are sometimes hard to find.

IMAM ABBAS: What the complaint is about clergy, all over the city, is that "Where are they?" They're never around when these types of things happen.

Rev. Marvin McMickle sits at the table in his office where the Greater Cleveland Interfaith Clergy Alliance was born.

Rev. Marvin McMickle of Cleveland's Antioch Baptist Church worked as a counselor in the days following the Success Tech shootings. Soon after, he was part of a core group that issued a call for a united religious response… across faiths… to what many see as a rising tide of urban youth violence. At first, the effort wasn't very diverse.

REV. McMICKLE: It was largely protestant. There was only, I think, Imam Abbas there. So, the first order of business was to broaden the circle. Get some rabbi's…get some other imams…get some non-African American presence…and see where it might go.

Richard Block, the senior Rabbi at Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood was an early member of the planning group. He sees area religious leaders as a source of authority, potentially as powerful as those from the political and business community.

Rabbi Richard Block says he lives by the Talmudic quote on his office wall: "It is not your duty to complete the task, but neither are you to desist from it."

RABBI BLOCK: All of us have access to congregations with a lot of people who are involved in various dimensions of community life. When there's an issue that needs a community response, we have the potential to reach out to those people, and hopefully mobilize them.

The group named their coalition the Greater Cleveland Interfaith Clergy Alliance. Like true ministers, the members of this new organization easily slip into scriptural writings to emphasize their points. Abbas Ahmad says Islam teaches believers to embrace different cultures and religions.

IMAM ABBAS: As God stated in the Koran, "I've created you in different tribes and nations so that you may know each other". Not so that you may despise each other. So, what impacts you, impacts me.

The prospect of finding solutions to youth violence is a daunting mission, but Richard Block says that shouldn't stop you from trying.

RABBI BLOCK: I'm looking at a quotation from the Talmud, that's on my wall --- a rather famous one --- the translation is, "It's not your duty to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it."

The only other major attempt to bring local clergy together in Greater Cleveland was the Interchurch Council --- a largely Protestant group that traced its roots to 1911. That long history came to an end in 1999, when the group fell apart due to disagreements over mission. Two years later, the shock of September 11th seemed to promote a new mixing of faiths… for a few months. As a former member of the defunct Interchurch Council, it gave Rev. Valentino Lassiter of Eastview Church of Shaker Heights some hope.

Rev. Valentino Lassiter

REV. LASSITER: I won't forget it. I was there at St. John's. It seemed as if every rabbi, every imam, every minister in town --- black or white --- was there.

But that unity dissolved during the aftermath of 9-11, when an old videotape surfaced, featuring Cleveland imam Fawaz Damra excoriating Jews, which chilled local Jewish and Islamic relations. Today, mindful of the challenges posed by theological differences, Marvin McMickle says the new Interfaith Alliance will try to learn from the past. One of the most vexing problems they face, though, may well be our propensity to forget.

REV. McMICKLE: People responded to 9-11 in immediate and wonderful ways. Once the dust settled, so to speak, and the smoke cleared, they kind of went back to their normal routine.

But, the trouble is, for some young people in Cleveland, the routine may never be normal again.

NERVOUS STUDENT: We all ran in there. Everybody was out of breath and everything. And some people were crying.

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