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On a sunny day, a pastor, director of a homeless shelter and a Hindu took a walk in the University Heights neighborhood and talked about their religious upbringings, beliefs and views on a variety of issues.
“I was raised in a Christian home,” Jason Hynson, executive director of Victory Mission, said to start the conversation. “We went to church on Sundays.
“It felt somewhat ‘restrictive,’ is the word I use — the things you don’t do rather than the things you do,” he said, adding that he was raised in Protestant churches.
Jenn Simmons, the lead pastor at National Avenue Christian Church, said she was raised in the Central Christian Church.
“When I was 12 or 13, one of the ministers actually said, ‘Have you considered ministry,’” she recalled. “Which feels kind of revolutionary thinking about it — 30 years ago a male pastor would say that to a female, right?”
Soon Sailaja Tummala joined the conversation, saying that she grew up in India where almost everyone practices Hinduism. But she attended a Catholic school and had friends of all faiths: Muslims, Christians and Hindus, to name a few.
“It’s more than religion. It’s a way of life,” Tummala said of Hinduism. “You can be any religion and you can practice the principles which is like good over evil, do the right thing, do your duty — your usual things that every religion teaches. There’s no borders, like you have to do this to be a Hindu.”
Conversations are about faith, spirituality
The afternoon stroll was a planned event called “Walk and Talk.”
People from a variety of faith backgrounds and beliefs came together Tuesday afternoon and were split into groups and pairs. The participants were given a list of questions to guide the conversations a bit, and then told to go walk around the neighborhood.
The idea is simple: conversations about faith and spiritual practices with someone participants usually don’t associate with can help break down stereotypes and misconceptions.
Groups were given a sheet of paper with a list of questions. A few include: What was your spiritual upbringing? How has that formed your current spiritual/religious practice? What do you feel are the most important aspects of your spiritual/religious practice? What would you want people of other faiths to understand about your faith?
Participants walked around the neighborhood with the understanding that everyone would meet back at National Avenue Christian Church in about an hour.
Kristen Williams, a Buddhist, came up with the idea.
“We are all coming from a different place,” Williams said. “We create separation amongst ourselves because we don’t know each other. We make assumptions. We carry our biases from our childhood and society and culture.
“If you talk to people and you get to know what they are about — the gig is we really have so much more in common than we have differences,” she continued. “We need to understand each other. When it comes down to it, we all want basically the same thing: to be seen and to be heard and feel loved and wanted by our families and our friends.”
Walking leads to easy conversations
Williams was among those who helped organize the Ozarks Festival of Faiths in January 2023. The event brought together more than 15 faith groups including Christian denominations, Buddhist, Hindu, Bahai, Sikh, Muslim, Jewish, Unitarian and Native American groups.
She introduced her “Walk and Talk” idea during the Festival of Faiths planning meetings, and said those who participated really enjoyed the activity.
“A benefit about the walking thing is you can walk beside someone and you don’t have to look at somebody,” Williams said, “because that can be really intimidating, to not know someone and then delve into some things that are really important to you. So walking is a lot less threatening and people have a tendency to open up more than if you are sitting across from them at dinner.”
Williams hopes Tuesday’s Walk and Talk at University Heights will be the first of many to come, she said.
The challenge, she said, is figuring out when is the best time and day to host the walks.
To be informed about the next Walk and Talk event (which is still in the planning phase), email firstname.lastname@example.org.