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Photo Exhibit Puts Focus on Religious Similarities
The Charlotte Observer (North Carolina)

Dec. 15--At a time when religion has become a code word for confrontation, even violence, around the world, Charlotteans will be asked over the next five months to focus more on the similarities among Jews, Christians and Muslims -- all of whom claim Abraham as a spiritual ancestor.

Starting today, the Levine Museum of the New South will spotlight 11 area families in an ambitious photo exhibit -- "Families of Abraham" -- that follows them over a year as they celebrate holy days and go about rituals of daily life.

Eight local photographers clicked away at the families' homes and houses of worship, shooting everything from an Indian American wedding to a Passover Seder to a Christmas Mass at Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe).

The museum walls will also be filled with information, prayers and Scripture from the monotheistic faiths, all of which have thousands of practitioners in a Charlotte that has grown increasingly diverse in recent years.

"But I hope (the exhibit experience) will be a feeling thing," says Eleanor Brawley, a Charlotte photographer and TV documentary producer who conceived and directed the project. "We want people to make connections as people ... These are their neighbors."

Many of the 204 black-and-white images are of children: Abdul Basith whispers the Muslim call of prayer into the ear of his newborn son, Raahil; Asher Bernstein carries the Torah after his Bar Mitzvah at Temple Beth El; and Bailey Turner plays an angel in a Christmas Eve pageant at Memorial Presbyterian Church on Beatties Ford Road.

Bailey's father, Lemuel Turner, who owns a landscaping company and is an elder at his church, says he and wife Toni agreed to be part of the exhibit for their kids.

"The way the world is right now, I wanted my children to be comfortable with people who are different from them -- but who are also really the same," says Turner, a Charlotte native.

One man, different meanings

At different times in their histories, Jews, Christians and Muslims have co-existed, cooperated or battled. In their beliefs, they have great similarities and profound differences. Though all three faiths claim a common heritage in Abraham, the 4,000-year-old figure means different things to them: For Jews, he's the founder of Judaism, their first patriarch and the one God entered into a covenant with; for Christians, he's a model of faith and action, doing what God tells him to do; and for Muslims, Abraham -- or Ibrahim -- is a friend of Allah, a prophet, and the first person to proclaim belief in one God.

The uptown Charlotte museum agreed to host "Families of Abraham" because, like its award-winning exhibit on the Carolinas' role in public school desegregation, it promises to be "a superb catalyst for getting people talking across boundaries," says Emily Zimmern, the museum's director. "(Levine) is a place where people of different backgrounds can come together and talk about issues that matter."

Zimmern hopes the exhibit will be the kickoff to conversations that will continue in January and February, when the museum and various partners -- primarily Mecklenburg Ministries -- will host dialogue groups and nationally renowned speakers. Among the speakers: Diana Eck, director of Harvard's Pluralism Project, and Imam W.D. Mohammed of Illinois. The Muslim leader will speak at Temple Beth El, home to a Reform Jewish congregation.

Desire to learn

Brawley says the exhibit grew out of her participation in a class at her church, First Presbyterian in uptown Charlotte.

After the attacks of September 11, she says, she and others realized they knew little about others' religions. So they launched a series to learn more.

"We can all just get into our own little groove," she says. "We may think we're world citizens, but perhaps we're not."

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