A two-week gathering of people from all over the world in Abilene last summer carried the cumberson title, Communities Engaging with Difference And Religion.

Thankfully, it was shortened to its acronym, CEDAR. Still, one participant, Kelvin Kelley, associate professor of theology and coordinator of student diverstiy programs at Hardin-Simmons University, kept asking himself a question throughout the two weeks: “What is CEDAR? What is CEDAR?”

He wasn’t alone. The concept is that difficult and no doubt most of the participants asked that question more than once. For two weeks in July, the “fellows” of CEDAR as they are called, practically lived together, attending classes, traveling, discussing difficult topics and learning about each other’s cultures and religions.


Some of the Abilene participants in a summer international gathering at Hardin-Simmons University discussed their experiences during the Sept. 20 meeting of the Abilene Interfaith Council. Front row left to right are Jacob Snowden, president of the AIC, Christina Martinez, Grace Mitchell, Melissa Milliorn, and Kelvin Kelley. In the back are left to right Nathan Adams and Michael LeRoux. Photo by Loretta Fulton

On Sept. 20, the ones who live in Abilene got the opportunity to delve deeper into what they experienced and to share those experiences with other Abilenians at the September meeting of the Abilene Interfaith Council.

The meeting was held at Hardin-Simmons University, which was the host site for the summer gathering. Jacob Snowden, president of the interfaith council and a CEDAR participant, moderated the panel, which consisted of Nathan Adams, Melissa Milliorn, Kelley, Grace Mitchell, Michael LeRoux, and Christina Martinez.

An interesting observation came from the international guests during the two-week gathering. They all commented on how nice people in Abilene were, Kelley noted, but that didn’t mean they were impressed.

“They didn’t want us to be nice,” Kelley said. “They wanted us to be real.”

“Being real” may have been the point of the entire two-week session. The purpose was to “engage” in conversation about hard topics–difference and religion.

“I volunteered to keep myself uncomfortable for two weeks,” said Milliorn, who heads the social work program at HSU.

Everyone got a little uncomfortable when the group attended the Juma’a or Friday prayers that are held in a prayer room at McMurry University for Muslim students and members of the community. Two of the CEDAR group were Muslims, and they participated in the prayers while others quietly observed.

After the prayers, a discussion was held and it got rather tense when a Christian in the group began asking questions about Muslim terrorists.

“In that moment, it was not fun,” LeRoux said. “What we just went through was embarrassing.”

Oddly, the two Muslims in the CEDAR group were not offended. One said the talk wasn’t that bad, and another, Jafar Usmanov of Tajikistan, went even futher, defending the man who asked the uncomfortable questions.

“He did exactly what we were supposed to be doing,” Jafar said at the time.

Milliorn may have spoken for the entire group at the Sept. 20 discussion. As tough as the conversations were at times and as uncomfortable as everyone got occasionally, it was worth it for what they learned.

“I don’t want to stop what we started,” Milliorn said.



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