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When a tiny church houses three religions

Brookville Church, where three faiths meet at the same campus. (Susan Katz Miller for The Washington Post)
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On a wooded lane on Long Island, a white steeple rises from a historic church, home to a congregation established by Dutch settlers. The sign out front says: “Brookville Church, Founded 1732.”

It also says Muslim Reform Movement Organization. And New Synagogue of Long Island. And Interfaith Community of Long Island.

Together, these four communities form the Multifaith Campus, a novel experiment in multiple religions sharing not just a building but a community.

The relationships on this campus go far beyond chipping in to rent the sanctuary and fellowship hall. In Brookville, the interweaving of a Protestant church, a Jewish synagogue, a Muslim study group and a collective for interfaith families reflects the complex religious landscape in America today.

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At this year’s Palm Sunday service, the Rev. Vicky Eastland stood on the pulpit framed by the New Synagogue’s wooden ark containing the Torah scrolls. A crowd of children in the aisles waved palm fronds to reenact the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem. And because Palm Sunday fell near the Jewish holiday of Purim this year, after the church service, the children spilled into the fellowship hall for a Purim play reenacting the biblical story of Esther.

The aim is not to blend the religions but to demonstrate inclusivity, learn from each other and support interfaith families in the pews. “We all need to wake up and realize that we’re becoming a more integrated society,” said Eastland, the pastor at Brookville Church.

This New York suburb is not the only place where Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities are sharing space. In Omaha, a synagogue, church and mosque are planning a communal fellowship hall at the Tri-Faith Center. In Berlin, Germans are building the House of One, where the three religions would each have separate spaces in one building, with a shared room at the center.

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What makes Long Island’s Multifaith Campus more unusual is the participation of a fourth community, one created by interfaith couples who want an interfaith education program for their children. As part of their education, these children with one Christian and one Jewish parent are expected to attend at least one church service and one Shabbat service at the campus each month.

Like many mainline Protestant churches in America, Brookville Church had been losing parishioners before it opened its building to other faiths. Now, the church congregation of 40 is bolstered by about 100 members of the Interfaith Community.

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So far, most of the interfaith families are Jewish and Christian. But several Muslim interfaith families have started to participate in the various campus programs.

The religious leaders on the campus study together and officiate together at life-cycle ceremonies for interfaith families. “Prayer, charity, good neighborliness, the idea that what we do to others comes back to us, forgiveness, equality of all people: These things are in mainstream Islam,” said Sultan Abdulhameed, author of a book on the Koran who leads the Muslim study group. “Judaism and Christianity also believe in these things. On the campus, this is our focus.”

The faith leaders have invited each other into even their religions’ holiest moments. On Yom Kippur, the most sacred day of the Jewish year, Rabbi Stuart Paris invited Abdulhameed to give a sermon. Paris has also given Abdulhameed the High Holy Day honor of sounding the shofar, the ram’s horn. “It’s not easy to blow, but he finally got a tekiyah,” Paris said, referring to a blast from the horn. “And a standing ovation.”

Paris founded the New Synagogue specifically to create a Jewish congregation for families in the Interfaith Community.

Judaism, along with other religions, traditionally preaches strongly against marrying outside the faith. The idea of interfaith education for interfaith children, rather than raising children in one religion, faces opposition in many religions’ institutions.

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But Paris sees it differently. “How can you possibly reject the love that the parents give these children, the tools they give them to navigate life, no matter what happens? How lucky are these kids to be endowed with two traditions!”

Sarah Cirker grew up in a Lutheran family and married a conservative Jewish man, then helped found Long Island’s Interfaith Community. She said she appreciates that her children have many adult role models — Christians, Jews and Muslims — who all participate in positive interfaith relations.

“Our children are seeing this friendly, warm, loving spiritual community, which is so different from what they see on the news and in the political arena right now,” Cirker said. “It’s the strongest way to battle stereotypes.”

Susan Katz Miller is the author of “Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.”

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