In the middle of Allentown at the Jewish Community Center of the Lehigh Valley, a potpourri of people of all beliefs got together to talk about, not their differences, but their similarities.
This, the annual dinner hosted by the Lehigh Dialogue Center and the Jewish Community Center, focuses on an important topic every year, addressing it through different faith perspectives. This year was "The Water We Share" and the focus was on the many ways water can affect our lives: the effects of climate change, what can we do about storm water, and what can we do about the impacts of flooding.
As Rachel Rosenfeld, community outreach coordinator for the Sierra Club Pennsylvania -- the third host of the event -- said: "(Our focus is) on what we can do as a community, as a group of organized faiths, to bring about action and awareness. This is an issue that we're all going to have to deal with going into the future."
For Muhammed Said Selmanlar, the president of the Lehigh Dialogue Center, water is a metaphor for the whole human race.
"Water molecules have all different shapes," said Selmanlar, "when those molecules are together, we have a beautiful bright glass of water, essential to life.
"We are all human beings, no matter our backgrounds, or the colors of our skin. And our differences are our wealth. We have a chance here to enjoy our diversity as we come together to become more conscious."
Selmanlar also took note that the last time this group was together was in mourning for the killings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
"Then we were gathered in this same room in sorrow and now for joy."
Rabbi Michael Singer of the Congregation Brith Sholom talked about the Jewish faith's teachings on the care of the planet:
"We did not create the world -- everything we have is a blessing and a gift," he said. "Since we didn't create it, we don't own it. We're just temporary 'renters.'"
He quoted a line from the Midrash as an indication that we are all responsible for what we do to the earth: "Who can set right that which has been degraded?"
The Rev. Dr. Larry D. Pickens, who is the ecumenical director of the Lehigh Conference of Churches, was careful about describing God's charge to Christians. There are so many ways of being Christian, he couldn't speak for all for them.
Nevertheless, he said, "It's important to realize what we leave to all our children. We're all just passing through."
There is a song that he said captured his own viewpoint: A Change Is Coming
I was born by the river
In a little tent
And just like the river
I've been runnin' ever since
He said it's been a long time comin'
But I know my change is gonna come
And following that theme he quoted from the Book of Amos: "But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!"
He said Christianity encouraged a kind of activism, an engagement with the faith community creating the right relationship with the earth.
Ustadh Amjad Tarsin from Al-Maqasid in Macungie, Pa., reminded the audience that we need to go beyond thinking in an individualist way: "It's not just about me, and my family only.
"We have to work together. We have to acknowledge our differences and respect them. We have to get to work and have a positive impact on the world around us."
He referenced a teaching of Islam, "Even if the sun were to rise in the West (a sign of the end of the world) and you have a seed, plant that seed."
Because it's important to "do whatever good you can."
Since the theme of the evening was water, the featured speaker was David Brandes, professor of civil and environmental engineering from Lafayette College in Easton, Pa.
He started, as many scientists do these days, by "proving" a scientific fact: that the climate is changing. He linked the data collected over the years in the slides he showed, and emphasized that we are already experiencing the impacts of climate change with increased rainfall and river flows in recent years.
He reiterated the current prediction for the whole watershed as the climate changes: "Our future will be hotter. Our future will be wetter," he said.
He explained that it was important to understand the river and to talk to the various authorities about the future we want for the Delaware and the Lehigh.
"We have to do a better job of living with our beautiful rivers."
He referenced the F.E. Walter Dam, operated by the United State Army Corps of Engineers, which is undertaking a study of the dam and how it's used. There's a possibility that water from the dam could be used to push down the salt front -- the encroaching salty sea water -- forced farther up the Delaware by rising seas. As that happens, that salt water imperils the water intake from the Delaware that Philadelphia uses as one of its main drinking-water sources.
Part of the USACE study will evaluate whether the risk of flooding is increased for the Lehigh Valley if such a use is incorporated. There's a lot of discussion in the valley about those risks.
"You have to take part in this conversation," he said, "You can't just assume that someone else will be saying what you'd want to say."
Toward the end of the evening, Rachel Hogan Carr, the executive director of the Nurture Nature Center in Easton, facilitated each table's discussion of the environmental risks that the region is facing, which was a simple way to turn the evening's focus back on the audience and what they can do about the risks that present themselves in a changing world. The discussions followed the Nature Nature Center's model for community engagement called From Risk to Resiliency.
So participants had concrete examples of what they could do, to deepen the meaning of what the evening was about, which was as Rosenfeld said, "action and awareness."