Interfaith group looks at state’s religious history

Photo provided by Alex Cassara Michael Pasquier, LSU history and religious studies professor, discusses Louisiana's religious diversity Tuesday during an interfaith dialogue session at St. Aloysius Catholic Church.
Photo provided by Alex Cassara Michael Pasquier, LSU history and religious studies professor, discusses Louisiana's religious diversity Tuesday during an interfaith dialogue session at St. Aloysius Catholic Church.

Michael Pasquier took the pulpit at St. Aloysius Catholic Church on Tuesday hoping to make it a little less strange for those he calls the “strangers.”

It may well be that intolerance is inevitable in a region as diverse as southeastern Louisiana, but Pasquier sought to ease and educate those with conflict-causing beliefs, the “strangers.” With a youthful exuberance for his gathered, graying audience, he outlined the history of religious diversity in the state.

“How will our gathering tonight be interpreted by historians 100 years from now?” the LSU religious studies professor asked the crowd. “… (We must) situate ourselves within this incredibly messy process of religions meeting religions. Will there be a record of what we say and do here tonight? And what are the consequences, if any, of what we do tonight for the future of religion in Louisiana?”

As the keynote speaker for the Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge event on “Interfaith Relations in Louisiana: Past, Present, Future,” Pasquier supplemented the present-day, minority experiences of his colleagues with his own knowledge of how Louisiana’s religious diversity has grown.

The Rev. Robin McCullough-Bade, executive director of the federation, said her organization sponsors interfaith dialogues to familiarize the “strangers” to what’s strange.

“Stranger” was a word Pasquier used often while rattling off instances of clashing religions in early Louisiana history, from Jacques Marquette and Cavelier de la Salle’s amusement at native rituals at the western dawn of this nation to the neutering of native and African religions in colonial times to the persistent Protestant preacher Theodore Clapp’s desire to learn from Catholic leaders in the 1820s and so on.

“If anything, the history of religion in Louisiana shows us that we haven’t always been interested in other religions and when we have, it’s not always on common ground,” Pasquier said.

With the background laid out, Pasquier could hand it over to the other experts, albeit of a different sort. While Pasquier has studied the struggle for diversity, his fellow speakers had lived it.

Local clinical psychologist John Pickering’s preference for Zen Buddhism’s life philosophies surprises some. He may not have been persecuted for it, but he said since he knew only one other Buddhist when he landed in Baton Rouge in 1972 he felt “isolated.”

Since 1991, when the small Vietnamese community that arrived in Baton Rouge after the Vietnam conflict opened its temple to Americans, Pickering’s spiritual group has increased nearly sevenfold.

“It’s not isolation any longer,” Pickering said.

Emad Nofal, donning his traditional taqiyah cap while speaking to the “strangers,” grew up a Muslim in the Middle East before coming to New Orleans to attend Tulane University in 1993, moving to Baton Rouge a few years later. He’s now the executive director of the Islamic Center of Baton Rouge.

When the facility opened in 2006, Nofal comforted a tearful fellow Muslim who couldn’t believe there was a place that could, and would, hold 1,000 of his brothers at once.

“My wife and I, we feel blessed,” Nofal said.

Opportunities are increasing, meaning acceptance must be increasing, said Pasquier, who finds reason to be optimistic by never forgetting how the state has gotten to where it is.

“There are similarities that we can learn from to not be so surprised when things get a little hairy and (remember) how things can proceed in more progressive and positive ways.”