The Reverend Vern Barnet, DMn
bio page CRES minister emeritus email@example.com
Vern Barnet Interview
Narrator: Vern Barnet
Interview: Kahlia Vaillancourt
Interview date: October 15, 2016
Location: Westport Coffee House, Kansas City, MO
Interviewer: This is Kahlia Vaillancourt interviewing Vern Barnet for a San Jose State University Information School Student project. Today is October 15th, 2016 and we are at Westport Coffee House in Kansas City, MO. This interview is recorded on a smartphone and we are going to get started.
So, it is ok for me to call you Vern?
Vern: Yes. Please.
Interviewer: Ok. So Vern. Can you start by just telling me a little bit about yourself, um, where you were born and um how would you generally describe your childhood?
Vern: Uh, I was born in Omaha, Nebraska, I did not have a happy, particularly happy childhood, uh, but I did enjoy school. However, although I palled around with the smart kids, I didn't think about going to college until by chance um the vice principal of my high school said he had an unclaimed scholarship and would I like it. So I said, why not? And that got me started. And so I went to undergraduate school and then graduate school and then University of Chicago where I completed my doctoral work.
Interviewer: Alright, so after you went to um you said you got your doctorate at the University of Chicago? So what um what got you interested in theology, like what was your main influence that made you come to that decision to pursue that path?
Vern:Well as a child I was a fanatical fundamentalist. And uh, then in high school in history class, uh, my teacher came into the classroom one time very disturbed, I knew he was a Methodist, a godless Methodist, and uh because you know, I believe in wearing black shoes and women should have at least 3/4 length sleeves and no makeup and all of that and um I knew he was disturbed and I wondered what was going on. And the whole class he admitted that he was reading a book by one of the nation's founding fathers and he found it perplexing. And I wanted to know what that book was because I knew from my faith and my knowledge of the bible, I would be able to cure him of his uncertainty. It turned out the book was Thomas Paine's Age of Reason. So I thought, well I, I found that he didn't want to tell, so I thought i will read this book and set my teacher straight to the truth of Jesus Christ. I read the book and I discovered in it statements that I had great difficulty reconciling with my faith. But I would come up with with I would now, later, call an ad hoc, uh, response. And i kept going through page after page until these this ad hoc edifice finally one day collapsed. I realized I was just contorting everything in order to respond to this. Um, Thomas Payne, uh, who wrote this crisis papers, uh these are the times that tried men's souls, that summer soldier and sunshine (inaudible) uh part of three revolutions in the United States, France, and England. Uh, attacks the literalism that by with which I approached the bible. And finally I decided I'm after the truth and everything I've believed up until now is fiction. So, I have to change my thinking. So I became a deist.
And then I read Bertrand Russell's essay “Why I am not a Christian,” and I became an atheist, but not just any atheist, I was so mad at being deceived I became a militant atheist and uh I rejected uh religion and I was only interested in science because I thought science can give me the truth. And uh I continued in that thought for a while but um in my first year of college I discovered the Unitarian church in this way. Uh, I was in the attic with my chemistry set, my mother said if I was going to blow things up I should blow just the ceiling instead of the whole house, I was in the attic and uh I was listening to the radio and I heard a talk this was in 1960 I'm that ancient and uh the talk was about a new book published or written by a paleontologist who had been part of the discovery of taking man. And of course by then I was very interested in evolution and all that.
This book was written by a Jesuit! He had just died, the church had not permitted him to publish this book, but after his death it came out. It was Per Pierre te ar du chardad. The book in English, the phenomenon of man. And I was astonished that here was a, an amazing attempt to reconcile science and religion. And the talk was being delivered over the radio by a minister! I was amazed! It was a Unitarian minister, so I was very poor, so I walked all the way from south Omaha to downtown Omaha and discovered that the church closed for the summer (oh no) which was the pattern of the Unitarians in those days that said that god only trusted the Unitarians to close in the summer time. (laughing) So, I went back in the fall, there was a new minister, I never met the minister who whose voice I heard on the radio. And I was so intrigued that this church would accept me with my militant atheism and within a few months I was teaching 3rd grade a course how miracles abound and it was a science, like how amazing is your hand? you know, and toward the end of my term I got in a little Einstein’s relativity and um quantum mechanics and stuff it was very interesting, I ha 2 years of physics in high school. So, uh then I started college, and the relationship between science and religion really bothered me so uh in my sophomore year after one semester I dropped out. And spent allof my time in the library reading everything I could about science and religion and I discovered that not only is religion full of myths, but so is science. I read Thomas Kuhn's classic book the structure of scientific revolution and I realized science can't give me the truth either. So who searches for truth? Well, there are lots of ways of searching for truth. So, um I got interested in different religions. And then uh my pastor thought I might be ministerial material so he got me into thinking about that so eventually I went to theological school. And wanted simply to be a country pastor. Um, but, uh I happened to take a course in world religions while I was still in Nebraska. From a professor named Cen Chi Chang. Uh, who was visiting from Penn State, and uh he used Huston Smith's famous book and then a few years later I got to meet Huston Smith and have been friends for 50 years. Um, but from Chang, uh I studied world religions and his specialty was Buddhism and particularly Qui Yen Buddhism and my favorite story from studying with him now you may be too young to know what a typewriter is? [laughter, no not at all]. Alright so you know what typing paper is [I do) those were the days, so this was a seminar, we sat around a table about this size and professor Chang said to the class, "now for the next session I want you each we met I think once a week to prepare a 20 page paper on shin yin, the Buddhist doctrine of the void and emptiness." He gave the assignment and underneath the table I counted out from my box of blank typing paper, 20 sheets of blank paper and as soon as he completed the assignment I said, I was actually seated right there and he was here, Here professor Chang here is my paper on the void and he looked at these blank pages, "ah Mr. Barnet very good, and here is your grade [laughter] so that really led me into the discovery of what nothingness was. And so eventually, when I went to Chicago, I wrote my dissertation on the void and shun yen, and I like to say I wrote 500 pages about nothing [laughter]. And just skimmed the surface. It was the longest dissertation of my school's history. Uh, so, in studying about Buddhism I had to learn about Hinduism because Buddhism emerged out of that content, then I continued to study, continued to learn about different religions. And um then uh in my first pastorate, um I spoke, I did a series on world religions and I got tremendous response from the congregation then I was the interim minister there less than a year then when I started uh my church in Pennsylvania, um I uh did some traveling. I went to Asia, came back with slides, um, you may not be too young to remember slides [i do remember slides, laughter] um and again tremendous response, so the feedback from my congregation and my own interest just mutually reinforced each other and then when I came to Kansas City, I was astonished to discover in the 1980s that we had Zoroastrian families here, there aren't there are only 200 thousand in the world [oh wow] so uh that got me interested and I thought other people need to know about this so eventually I founded the interfaith council in 1989, after I developed a program that's still going on I don't do it anymore, um, that brought people of different religions together once a year and eventually that led to the interfaith council. And then I wrote a weekly column, a paid column, for the Kansas City Star on religion, I say paid because eventually we got other people to write, kind of once a month, but they weren't necessarily scholarly, the thing I like about what I've done in my career is that I've had on foot in scholarship and one foot in the community. I left the church and spent all my time in the community. And in teaching, I've taught uh in 3 different seminaries, uh locally, so, that kind of I'm sorry to say that I'm fairly unique in being able to combine practical experience [mmhmm ] with academic training and some degree of expertise.
That’s a long answer.
Interviewer: You answered so many of my questions, (laughing), so going back just a little bit, after you said you were a minister and had a church in Pennsylvania [uh huh], um what brought you to Kansas City, and when was that?
Vern: Uh it was in 1975. [ok] and I had an offer, a call from a church here. And it was a young congregation, they had only had one previous minister, and I am very interested in liturgy and experimental services and uh, they were a young congregation as I said and seemed to be open and I had basically a great time cuz I did all sorts of great things. The first thing when I came here, well actually before I came, I came for a visit but before I accepted, I said you have to get rid of these 6 seats, I can't live with 6 seats, I have to have a flexible space [right] for when I want to do sufi dancing, and so they got rid of the chairs [ok] the fixed chairs and um so that's how I came to Kansas City.
Interviewer: ok, um, my next question is um just in general terms how would you describe the meaning of interfaith?
Vern: There are different levels of meaning for interfaith. One is the nicey nicey bit, I tolerate you if you tolerate me, then a little nicer, uh I respect you, and that's pretty much the level that I think most interfaith groups are, that's disappointing to me. Uh because, uh there are 3 great crises in the world. One way of looking at it. If you look beyond Donald Trump. [laughing] the great crisis, right? Uh, there's a crisis in the environment, crisis in political, and crisis in society. Trump is obviously evidence of that political dimension. There are 3 families of faith. (inaudible), Asian, and monotheistic and each of them, has wisdom to help redeem the awfulness of the crises that we face. The Asian, uh the primary religions for example can help us deal with the ecological crisis that we have by teaching us that nature is to be respected, not used as a commodity! To be sold, to be exploited, keep that oil in the ground! Don't put it in the air, ok? Um, parallel arguments that I would make, there's wisdom in these traditions, and the interfaith community doesn't have that vision yet, and really, saddens me cause I've been telling them about it, but they don't listen. Um, here's the problem. My teacher, at the University of Chicago, (inaudible) Eliod, great man, wrote almost 100 books, he really uh developed the disciple of the history of religions, edited the 15 volume encyclopedia of religion, uh so fortune to study with him, and live next door to him, he came to my wedding. Uh, in one of his publications he laments that with the specialization of knowledge, even in the field of history of religions, uh in order to make a career, to make a name for yourself, you have to to specialize and then specialize in that specialty and (inaudible) to the nth point in the library of congress classification system, um he said, what's needed is someone brave enough to try to talk about the whole picture. Recognizing that any scheme is going to have imperfections, but at least the attempt to see the whole deal and Eliod also had a keen understanding about what the sacred means. And I maybe moved a little further from him on that but the sacred for me is um what our life depends upon, both in terms of meaning and in terms of literally, I mean, uh the planet is choking now because uh we don't find the sacred in the world of nature. I mean I'm embarrassed, I was walking last night and I noticed the full moon. It was a beautiful moon, and I thought, I am so detached from astronomical reality, what kind of a person am I that I was surprised at oh this is the moon, how disconnected I am from planetary awareness it's awful. And you know, we have light pollution, and all of that stuff, anyhow. The sacred is that on which our life depends so that's what I do and analyzing the 3 families of faith where do you go tot find what is sacred, and that as I mentioned the primal religions find the sacred in nature, the Asian religions look within, and the monotheistic religions find the sacred in the history of (inaudible) community. With the rules that go along with how we should be nice to each other, which Donald Trump is ignoring [laughing]. He keeps invading my space. I'm sorry, um alright did I answer that question?
Interviewer: You did, you did, Um, going just a little bit deeper than that, um so speaking of the Midwest, [oh excuse me just a minute] sure. [I've summarized that for you here] ok, thank you. (laughing). I actually read all that on your website, I did some of what you were talking about [you studied up on me] I did, I did. (laughing) But so for this project, I kind of wanted to focus on the Midwest, because I feel like the Midwest is a unique region, both culturally wise and just region wise, I'm from the Midwest and so I just kind of wanted to get your perspective on how you feel the Midwest is unique and how that also relates to the interfaith community.
Vern: Sure. Actually um, I was interviewed, long before I ever thought or the Star ever thought of having me write, but there were 2 articles when I founded my organization, uh, that the Star published, um and the question was, all my friends asked me this, why don't you go to California, there are lots of people there that are interested in that stuff, right, and I said yeah, number 1, you may not know it but we have this tremendous variety of faiths right here and I want people to be aware of it. Number 2, there are crazies on the coasts. [laughing] and we have a better opportunity of engaging one another in a more cogent and open way with the Midwestern style [mmhmm] than over there. And so, that's my first response to you to your question about the Midwest.
Interviewer: And you think that is kind of a cultural thing?
Vern: I do. [The Midwest culture, that perhaps people are more open to things like that?] Well, yes, and I'll give you a specific example of this dynamic. Um, and it's changing, but when you have a few Zoroastrians, and relatively few Jews, and relatively few Muslims, uh they are more likely to encounter each other than when you have a huge uh Vietnamese Buddhist community in Los Angeles, for example, who tend to draw a boundary around the community and they are more intimate focused. And it takes a while just from a sociological point of view from um a community which seeks to preserve an identity to bleed out again into the larger community. So, that's an important dynamic, I think.
Interviewer: Ok, that makes a lot of sense. Um, so I have to ask you, and I'm sure you've been asked this countless times before and I know going through your website and your writings and stuff like that, um , so a major turning point, um , especially for my generation was obviously 9/11, and I know that you have written on 9/11, and so my question is um, what is your view of post 9/11? How do you think, what do you think of post 9/11 America? What has changed for the better and what additional challenges have come up, um related to the interfaith community?
Vern: Well, um, Bush's response to 9/11 was exactly the wrong thing to do. Um, there are at least 3 metaphors for how to handle a terrible event like that. Uh, the previous metaphor for terrorism was to treat it as a crime. And we would be much better off it that had been treated as a crime rather than as a war. But Bush characterized it, I hate wars. We have the war on drugs, the war on cancer, uh it's all stupid rhetoric. Uh, and it's damaging rhetoric to think in conflict. I just go crazy, I read an article by a respected person recently who said we have to fight for peace [mmhmm, an oxymoron really]. It's awful! But that's the way we think, so um, the 3 metaphors are healing, crime, and war. So we chose the war metaphor. And that led us to the disaster. Uh, in Iraq, and then the further um nurturing of terrorist groups here at home, and abroad. Instead of healing by asking the question why did this happen, does anybody know that it was because we built an airbase in Saudi Arabia that was considered sacred soil? Well look at our relationship with Saudi Arabia! An oppressive culture where women still can't drive, and you can't take a bible into the country. But, because we didn't listen to Jimmy Carter, do you remember, you're too young [laughing, I don't remember] alright, he said, you know, uh, we are too dependent on oil. Again, that's how the crisis in the environment is related to the crisis in the social fabric. They are interrelated and the exciting thing about world religions and the study of world religions today is we can see how the 3 realms of the sacred are actually different dimensions of the same thing. So, um ask me your question again cause I got…
Interviewer: um, well I wanted to know are there any, first of all I guess are there any changes that have happened since 9/11 that you see have been for the better?
Vern: Yes, uh in Kansas City, uh by an amazing coincidence, the interfaith council began planning a conference, um the gifts of pluralism. Because we wanted to emphasize um what we can give to each other from our different faith traditions, and we made a deliberate decision not to invite somebody, a big name speaker, from out of town cuz we wanted people to get to know each other and not to focus on some outside expert. So, um we did planning for 2 or 3 years for this conference and then we notified the media that we were going to have um an announcement about this conference that we had set for uh the I forget 23rd of October. And the conference the announcement was going to be on September 11th, 2001. So, um just before I left my home to go to the school where we were going to have the conference, uh the press conference and then the gifts of pluralism conference 6 weeks later, uh on state line because we wanted to bring both Kansas and Missouri together, uh I turned on the news and discovered what was happening. [oh wow]. So, I thought, our Muslim member from Johnson County, might possibly not be able to come, and I needed to have a Muslim there in the worst way, because the press was going to be there [right] so I called another Muslim and I said can you make it? And he did. Both of them did. So, there's a TV monitor there actually in the library, of Pembroke Hill school, which is a private school, and in the library, cause one of the reasons we had it in the school, we actually had it in the conference itself the gift of pluralism conference was in uh the gym uh but, the press conference on 9/11 was in the library. Cause we wanted to emphasize learning. We were learning from each other. We had TV monitors behind a podium, behind a lectern, where each member of the interfaith council expressed his or her wish for the conference, and condemned what we saw being replayed over and over again, it was an awful, awful thing. And then, uh, I asked for questions from the press. Would you believe not a single question to either of the Muslim members? I could not believe it! But, uh we got great coverage for the conference and we had about 3 times as many people show up and not just locally, but we had people from the region, [ok] um, and it was a very successful conference and out of that came uh the interfaith passport, which the national Catholic reporter wrote about it, full page story, um the play um the Hindu and the Cowboy [ok] which is still being performed occasionally. Uh, which comes from a project that one of our participants in the (inaudible) conference, uh developed interviewing she ended up she and her team interview about 120 people [oh, ok] and she was taking a course on playwriting and she married the different stories together into a coherent narrative, ultimately actually I'll take credit for the title the Hindu and the Cowboy, which is about a cowboy uh who uh had a gun or a rifle and went to the property in Shawnee, which is a suburb where the Hindus had bat, and were going to build a temple. (inaudible) many years, um, and the wife of the Hindu, Dindu Badachara, as the wife of Anand Badachara, uh was always afraid when her husband went to look over the property because this cowboy. Well, one day she was with him and they saw the cowboy picking up trash and they started talking and they cowboy was all in favor of the Hindus building a temple. And so, that was sort of a nice way of combining these many different stories, wonderful stories, with um there must be she's done different versions of it, she can arrange it for an hour, or longer with intermission, um so that's really been one very good thing that has come out of the conference, and I think uh the Star, like many newspapers have declined, for a time the conference really uh the gifts of pluralism conference really boosted the visibility of uh the different faith groups in the pages of the Star. At that time they had a religion editor and she was very interested in helping people understand so um through the work that I initiated uh she had contact with people of different faiths, she'd write about their festivals and so that was one of the good things that happened. Some awful things have happened too, locally as a result of 9/11, um, but you didn't I don't know if you want me to talk about that.
Interviewer: Uh, yeah, definitely that was kind of my next question, just um you know even though a lot of things you said a lot of good has come from uh, um, additional challenges that have come from it, um, what do you think are some of the most, um, important to focus on?
Vern: Well, I'm going to answer that very personally because it's affected me personally. And that is there are certain, or have been, certain leaders in the Jewish community uh who tried to do everything they can to thwart my efforts and I'm gonna start with September 16th, 2001. This is the first, now my very first award was from the Jewish community relations bureau [I read that as well] so I was just absolutely flabbergasted when this happened. Um Congressman Dennis Moore, who represented the 3rd district in Kansas at the time, was so concerned about the community here after uh 9/11, that he contacted his office contacted me, um and I've known him cause I was in the rotary club at Overland Park. And uh, he said we need to do something to bring people together and so by chance the interfaith council was scheduled to have an evening meeting at my house, um, and I told them that I'd gotten this call from Congressman Moore's office and uh, what we put together was a an interfaith event at Johnson County community college in their large auditorium. I happened to know the president of the college and they gave us space, and um very quickly we put together a program, and uh, it was fairly simple. Um, we had every member of the interfaith council light a candle on the stage, um, and we sang um an interfaith version of America the Beautiful, something like that. Um, I asked Congressman Moore to speak and I asked members, representatives of the 3 main Abrahamic faiths to speak. So I asked Ahmed El-Sherif, the members of the community, Bob Maneely, who is retired he founded village Presbyterian church, which at the time was the largest Presbyterian church in the country it grew up from nothing. It's still, I don't know first or second in size and then Mark Levine to represent Judaism. I asked them each to give brief greetings. I don't know if you've asked a clergy person to give brief greetings [I have not (laughing)] Well, they each went on for about 5 minutes, uh Ahmed El-Sherif spoke with love in his heart towards his Jewish brothers, his, uh and Christian, I mean, he raised when the black churches in the south, you may not remember this but there was a bunch of black churches in the south that were fire bombed. He raised money from Buddhists and Christians and Jews and Hindus and you know he raised money for them and I'm gonna, I cannot tell you this man is virtuous. So he spoke. In the content, in the process of his remarks he said and this is shortly after Bush took office [ok] he's still in the first year. He said, uh, one of the things that 9/11 might invite us to do is to revisit our foreign policy. OK? um, Rabbi Mark Levine spoke, uh the rev Robert Maneely spoke, uh the program went off very well we have some special He said, um, one of the things that 9/11 might invite us to do, is to revisit our foreign policy. Okay? Um, Rabbi Mark Levin spoke, uh, the Reverend Robert Maneely spoke. Uh, the program went off very well, we had some special music, and when the program was over people came up to me and thanked me for organizing this. Muslims told me this was the first time they dared come out of their home. And I had many Jewish friends who came up to me and said "Thank you this. We need to be a united community." As far as I knew, this had been a great success. And Congressman Moore was scheduled to meet with Bob Maneely, Ahmed El-Sherif, and Rabbi Mark Levin. So I was thanking people, if they didn't come up to me, uh, I was still on the stage. Um, finally I thought well now who haven't I thanked? Well, I haven't thanked Mark yet. And I looked for Mark, well he was down on the floor. So I came down to the floor and came over to him, there was a TV camera right there - cos they were, this was a noteworthy event - and I reached out to shake Mark's hand, and he refused to shake my hand. And he said, "You never should of done this!" And I said, "What?" "You never should of allowed Sherif to speak!" And I said, "What?" And he said, "He spewed hatred toward Israel!" And I said, "I didn't hear that, if Ahmed said anything let me get him and I'm sure he'll apologize and we'll get this misunderstanding..." So I found Ahmed, he came over, and he uh, Levin - the only time I've ever had a Rabbi shake his finger at me like that - and I've been friends with Mark for a long time. But with him was Marvin Schneller, who is the son of a Holocaust survivor, which he's let me know many times. And, uh, I saw what was about to happen, so I pushed, physically pushed the TV camera away, cause this is not what I wanted being reported. And the operator was kind enough to go away. So, what Rabbi Levin accused Ahmed of doing was supporting the Palestinians, uh, over the Israelis. Uh, and the only thing that Ahmed said, was that the U.S. needs to reexamine its foreign policy. Well, that was in the news. And a couple days later, there was a wire service that was published in the Star that said "Bush reexamining his position on the law of the sea and on the environmental cooperation." And nowhere was Israel mentioned. No where. Okay. So, Marvin has been traumatized by his surviving mother. I understand that. But Mark? So, Mark - this is during high holy days. So Mark goes to his congregation and begins his Rosh Hashanah sermon by saying, "How many of you will know what to do when a, um, Palestinian speaks at the invitation of a United States Congressman, uh, and says that 9/11 was caused by Israel? I have the text of Mark's sermon. There's so many errors in it. Ahmed is not a Palestinian, I mean, that's just an easy factual one, he didn't great straight. I told you what Ahmed actually said. Error after error. So, I'm trying to be the peacemaker.
So, and, Ahmed is very disturbed cause he wants a good relationship with, uh, his Jewish brother. And we tried to figure out, well Mark is busy during high holy days, so we finally find a place where Ahmed can go and talk to Mark. Ahmed brings a present, he wants to, so Ahmed, uh Mark finally figures out that he's made a mistake and promises in his Yom Kippur sermon to correct it. So I wait for the text from the Yom Kippur sermon. I didn't get it.So finally I asked for it. There is no retraction of what he said whatsoever. And so, I ask Mark about it. And he said, "Well I didn't think it was important to bring up." So he broke his promise. Okay, that lead to the poisoning of Interfaith work for a number of years after. After the Jewish Community leadership, I'll just give you one more example of many examples - no I'll give you two more. Uh, I'm hot about this. It, it - Cause I could of been such a good ally for the Jewish Community and I still have some wonderful Jewish friends. But the Jewish leadership really is screwed up. Well, finally they decided they can't get rid of the Muslims, and they need to bring the Muslims along. They've tried all sorts of things with Avila University and so forth. Finally Marvin Schneller decides the best thing he can do is to drive a wedge between the Muslim community and me. So he goes around privately saying "You know, this Vern Barnet his sexual preferences might not be, might not meet with your conservative approval." And this is after the Jewish Community Relations Bureau comes out in favor of same sex relationships. I think that is really below the belt. One more example. I was still writing my column for the Kansas City Star, and I interviewed Houston Smith who was in town giving a lecture. Do you know who Houston Smith is?
Interviewer: I'm not familiar, no.
Vern: Okay, he wrote the most popular book, for many years, on world religions. Now it's called, it originally had a sexist title, uh, something like "Man's Religions" or something, but now it's simply "The World Religions." An incredible human being. Born in China- I mean, just, amazing - I won't get off on him. And I interviewed him. This was in, just after the Oslo reports. And I asked him if, in his experience, uh, the tension - No, it was before Oslo. If the tension between Israel and the Palestinians, uh, was causing any impediment in Interfaith work? And he said, "yes", he said - and he had a son or a daughter who married a Jewish person - I forget which way it was. So, he had personal relationships, and you know he's a scholar of all these faiths. Um, so I, and he said it looks to many people that the Israeli government, by its continued expansion of settlements, wants to take all the land. Well, that was when they had a few settlements and now the settlements are multiplied six or eight times. And this latest one, uh, is, so far, is actually closer to Jordan than it is to the green line - or whatever that line is. Um, so. I wrote this column quoting Houston Smith, and I also balanced it with, uh, an opinion that, uh, represented the view that it's hard to find a Palestinian that you can really negotiate with. I forget exactly what it was, but very balanced column. At least I thought so. A few days later, my editor calls me and said "We've received this letter from Rabbi Alan Cohen." With whom I thought I had good relations. In fact, I had a major event at his Synagogue just a couple years earlier. Always been on good terms with him In the Christian/Jewish/Muslim Dialogue (inaudible) he wrote the editor of the paper complaining about my column. Ok, that’s fair. But, I was surprised that he didn't call me to talk about it first. And I wanted good relationships with his regardless of his opinion. So I called him up and i said Allen, I would like a chance to sit down with you. The point in your letter to the editor of the Kansas City Star is that i should not be allowed to write about Israel because, I'm incapable of separating the religious from the political. Of course rabbis every Sunday raise money for Israel, I'm exaggerating only slightly. Um, but I've been to Synagogue and I know , especially in those years, I mean we have J street know so things are a little better. And I'm no longer the pariah that I was. So, it takes me about 6 weeks to get an appointment with Rabbi Levine, and I promised him on the phone and I kept my word, I would not argue with him I just want to understand how you separate religion and politics in this situation, cause I sure can't hear the rabbis doing it. So. I came with a yellow pad, with my questions written in advance, cause I am determined I am not gonna argue I am going to try to understand. So I go through my questions, I listen, I take notes. He answers one of my questions in a way that startles me because it sounds as if he didn't actually read my column. So, Although it's not on my pad, I say you did read my column didn't you and he said, "no I wrote my letter on the basis of excerpts that had been supplied to me." Well. I didn't argue with that either. So, ok next question. But I remembered that. And then about ten years later, let's see, maybe a couple years ago, um I have to I got the dates on all this. Um, Rabbi Levine uh, working with others, arranged for a forum on the subject of the sacred scriptures of the monotheistic traditions. And he got a rabbi, and it happened that this was going to be at my own church. Because of a scheduling mixup. And, uh, we have some smart people in the congregation, I don't serve the church, this is just where I go as a lay person. So, uh the regular people who are going to come for this were combined with the people, it was actually during lent, and the people who are there for the lenten program found the menten program dismissed so they could attend this, you know, So, here we have a panel discussion on the 3, uh on the scriptures of the 3 monotheistic faiths. So, Rabbi Cohen gets this wonderful Rabbi, brilliant Rabbi, speaking about the Torah. And a brilliant Catholic scholar speaking about the Christian scriptures. And a brilliant Catholic scholar speaking about the Quran. So, I'm used to this crap by now, and, but, one of the members of my congregation gave the question and answer said, "You know, all 3 of these men (they were men) are brilliant, and indeed, the scholar who spoke about the Koran was brilliant, I have no quarrel with anything he said. But, the member of the congregation said, "Couldn't you get a Muslim to do this?" It's sort of like having a room full of men talk about women's issues, you know what I'm talking about? [mmhmm] ok. I mean I think men should have a part of that discussion, or can, depending on the circumstances, but, um, Rabbi Cohen said, "Well there wasn't anyone that we knew." So, after this meeting, Rabbi Cohen sees me and of course he thinks I put that man up to this question, which I did not. So I tell him, And then I remind him of the incident, there are witnesses for this too, Larry Guillot was there. I remind him of the letter he wrote to the editor of the Kansas City Star, and, I go through what I've told you, just to refresh his memory. He doesn't deny a thing. I mean, he's just, well, that happened. And I say, "Why didn't you call me? I know many Muslims who would be very capable of discussing the holy scriptures of the Qur'an." So, those are a few incidents. It's such a shame. Because, you know, I love the Jewish tradition. I do make a distinction between Judaism and Israeli politics which are awful in my opinion. Uh, and more and more, uh, Jewish people are doing that. I mean, I mentioned J Street. Which is- Do you know, are you familiar with J Street?
Vern: Well, you're familiar with AIPAC? The American Israeli, uh, A I.... Political Action Committee?
Vern: Minimally. Well J Street is kind of a liberal version of the Netanyahu stuff. I'd like just to have some peace, you know, let's get this thing settled. So, Um I've got story after story like that, and it's such a shame because I get put in embarrassing positions, and uh, I would like to serve the Jewish community relations bureau, and the Jewish community and I've been able to do that in some ways, but having this this uh barrier that has been erected, and as I say I understand it because of the trauma, uh but I just have to challenge these people. If you wanna get, if you really wanna be a if you want your faith to be understood and loved, then you don't go around saying, you know his sexual preferences might not that sort of thing, Alright so that's an example of some bad stuff
Interviewer: So I have one more question for you, so um, thinking back to you've described several conflicts where with religion and politics, just within the interfaith community. So, looking to the future, obviously a lot of changes are going to be happening in America with the upcoming election either way it goes. What are some new challenges that you foresee just based on your past experiences that you're going to encounter within the year or 2 ahead?
Vern: I am no longer actively involved with the interfaith council so i need to demure a little in answering your question. My first response is that the challenge still remains to help the secular society understand the wisdom treasures in the 3 families of faith. And in each particular family of faith. Now I've spoken about um my problems with a very few people in the Jewish community, so let me underline the treasures that I find in the Jewish community and the Jewish tradition which can be summarized by the sacred god uh being revealed in the history of covenanted community and the notion of covenant is lost in America today. Its secular expression is in the United States constitution. So I remember in the democratic convention when the Muslim father pulls out his copy of the constitution, and says to Donald Trump, Have you ever read this? but um those are the rules, and in Judaism, protestant, Catholics, Christians summarize it in 10 commandments, there are no 10 commandments if you count them it is 12 or 18 or whatever, uh but anyhow that's the way and even the Jewish community calls it 10 commandments, its just a nice summary for 613 mitzvoth, as I recall, the notion that we follow rules to get along with each other is invaluable and Donald Trump isn't doing that. So, I think one important challenge is finding a way, and i don't know how Hillary can do this assuming she is elected, uh is finding a way to establish social norms. And I think thee interfaith community which teaches listening to one another, I've been blabbing instead of listening, but that's what I've been asked to do. Um I think there are some people at least in the interfaith community that can offer that skill to others. And other people in therapeutic community and maybe some people in religious communities can do that too, not just the interfaith community. Listen to other people, and it is an enormous problem because you have Fox news and the mainstream media, and I had someone this morning talk to me about a disaster that is a worldwide disaster that's about to happen and I wanted to say but didn't, you've been listening to fox news again because I know this guy. and he could be right, but so far hasn't been yet. So, that's an enormous challenge to help people listen to each other to re-establish the norms and apart from the specific rules, love the lord thy god with all thy mind and all thy heart and all thy soul and thy neighbor as thyself even if he's Hispanic, even if he's Muslim, you know? [right] Donald Trump is the opposite of every religious ideal. So it is an enormous challenge how we are going to bring the country together after talking abouit poisoning the well we all need water. How are we going to be, how is our thirst going to be quenched if the well is poisoned? So that I see as an amazing difficulty.
Interviewer: Well thank you so much, I am going to conclude the interview now. I really appreciate you meeting with me. Is there any last words you’d like to share with my classmates and professor?
Vern: Peace, shalom, Salaam, shanti.
Interviewer: Thank you so much, Reverend.
Interview with the Reverend Vern Barnet, October 15th, 2016, conducted by Kahlia Vaillancourt.