By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published December 22, 2016
ALPHARETTA—Kathy Hoffman, parishioner of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Alpharetta, uses her experiences as a theology teacher to help others better understand the faith of neighbors in the Jewish and Muslim communities.
In September, Hoffman began teaching a weekly class on the Abrahamic religions at St. Thomas Aquinas. The classes neared conclusion Dec. 4 with a synagogue tour at Congregation Gesher L’Torah and a visit to the North Fulton Islamic Center, both in Alpharetta.
The 12-week course was offered “as a way of living out the call of ‘Nostra Aetate’ to grow in our knowledge and respect for other faith traditions,” said Hoffman. The Vatican II document revolutionized Catholic Church relations with other faiths.
Her class, which was offered for the first time, was positively received and drew people from other parishes and from local Protestant churches.
Hoffman said her 11 years of experience as a theology teacher at Blessed Trinity High School in Roswell gave her a sense of urgency on this subject.
“I taught world religion to all the seniors. That really awakened me to how important the topic is,” she said.
At the end of the class term, the seniors were “much more discerning citizens of the world,” said Hoffman. “Their perspective on faith had changed.”
When adults discovered what she taught, they would universally express interest in taking the course. Hoffman taught similar classes at Perimeter College for a few semesters. “Why don’t I do this in my parish?” she thought.
Thirty-eight students began coming together on Monday nights for two hours. The youngest was a recent University of Georgia graduate who had been one of her students at Blessed Trinity. The oldest was over 80.
The wide range in ages indicated an “amazingly broad appeal,” said Hoffman.
She started the series by asking students to give her their questions. She had a Russian Orthodox priest speak and also focused on Judaism and Islam. The participants wanted to visit a synagogue and a mosque in order to learn more about those faiths firsthand.
Hoffman said an effective tool in teaching is visiting a place that’s foreign to students. The excursions allow people to engage with people of other faiths and ask questions directly at the source.
Religious leaders welcome visits
Using contacts already established through Neshama Interfaith Center, Hoffman arranged for the visits with Rabbi Michael Bernstein of Congregation Gesher L’Torah and Dr. Moiz Mumtaz, president of North Fulton Islamic Center.
Despite having to rearrange his schedule due to a funeral, Rabbi Bernstein was very accommodating and gracious.
“He stayed with us as long as he could,” said Hoffman. “They really enjoyed hearing the Jewish worldview.”
In the afternoon, the group reconvened at the Islamic Center for a tour of the new mosque and a conversation about Islam.
“The more we understand each other, the better off we all are,” said Hoffman.
Some class members brought their children to the mosque and temple for the experience of understanding.
“They really do invite it,” said Hoffman of the other communities.
She noted that St. Thomas Aquinas pastor, Msgr. Daniel Stack, and the Islamic center president have developed a good relationship.
“He and Dr. Mumtaz are becoming buddies, becoming friends,” said Hoffman. “They’re participating in each other’s activities.”
For Mumtaz, this is a helpful connection.
“I can call Dan any time and say ‘let’s talk,’” he said.
“We are open for dialogue”
Education is a major part of his work. The Islamic Center has hosted school groups and other churches.
“I think it’s really very important,” said Mumtaz. “I strongly believe we should have more of these. These kind of visits are a reality check.”
When most people gather information about other religions from television, they are not getting a true or complete picture.
Mumtaz said while it’s “not necessarily by design,” the media doesn’t have the time to delve into the traditions.
Students were surprised to learn all that the Bible, the Quran and the Torah share.
The general reaction is, “Wow, we have a lot in common,” said Hoffman.
These educational efforts can help people better understand their own faith, said Mumtaz.
“I really feel these are good trips. They are sincere,” he said.
He emphasized it’s for the best that “God-fearing people hang together,” otherwise there will be divisions.
“We all believe in the one God. It’s not a different Creator. We have to be aware,” he said.
Mumtaz acknowledged the younger generation, including his own son, does a good job of being open-minded and listening to the beliefs of others.
“They are better human beings in that way,” he said.
All are busy with daily lives, but being people of faith and gratitude means sharing.
“You try to do things which will help others,” said Mumtaz. “We are open for dialogue. We are open any time.”
Hoffman may offer classes again either at the parish or another location.
Her goal is encouraging others to focus on the similarities among faiths, not the differences, and to enjoy one another.
“That’s our dream. It’s baby steps to get there,” said Hoffman.
If interested in taking an interfaith class, contact Kathy Hoffman at email@example.com.