An 84-year-old Baptist minister and an 84-year-old Jewish computer programmer and educator share more than an occasional cup of coffee at the retirement community where they live. They share a deep friendship and a desire to promote understanding among people of varied religious backgrounds.
Dale Hooper, who spent 27 years as a Baptist missionary in Kenya, and Bob Brenner, who taught 22 years in Dallas County Community Colleges, facilitate a multifaith dialogue group that meets monthly at the Highland Springs retirement community in Dallas.
Hooper and his wife, Polly, have lived at Highland Springs six years. Until recently, she worked at the Baptist Building in Dallas as a ministry assistant with Woman’s Missionary Union of Texas.
Friendship dispelled stereotypes
Soon after Brenner moved to the retirement community last year, he heard Hooper speak to a men’s breakfast club meeting there. He recognized the retired missionary defied some of negative preconceived ideas he held about Baptist preachers. One conversation led to another, and the two men became fast friends.
“I tell my daughter, ‘My best friend here is a Baptist minister,’” Brenner said.
“I tell people Bob is my second-best Jewish friend,” next to Jesus, Hooper added with a grin.
“At least I’m in good company,” Brenner responded, typical of the banter between the two.
Brenner and his wife, Viva, who attend Shearith Israel Congregation in Dallas, have served 25 years as Jewish facilitators for a multifaith dialogue group at All Saints Catholic Church.
After he became friends with Hooper, the pair talked about the possibility of launching a similar group at Highland Springs. Each independently presented the idea to Lil Smith, pastoral ministries coordinator at the retirement community, who already had been exploring ways to help residents learn from each other regarding their faith commitments.
‘Affirm multifaith engagement’
Under the sponsorship of the retirement community’s interfaith advisory council, on which Hooper serves, the group began in March with 26 members. Participants agreed to abide by a simple covenant “to affirm and promote multifaith engagement that respects the uniqueness of distinct and varying traditions.”
The group includes Jewish, Catholic and Protestant members who represent nine religious traditions, counting the different varieties of Baptists and Methodists. Participants engage in respectful, honest and open conversations, taking care to challenge ideas—but not people—in a nonthreatening manner.
“There’s not any attempt to convert anyone but simply to share our faith with one another,” Hooper explained.
While Hooper and Brenner developed a series of discussion topics—such as the calendar of holy days observed in varied faith traditions and specific religious customs regarding marriage and death—members eagerly moved ahead to telling their own faith stories.
Getting to the nitty-gritty
“The group really wanted to get to nitty-gritty stuff, so we started offering time each meeting for someone to tell about ‘my faith journey,’” Brenner said. “Dale and I just hold the reins, but we let the group go where they want to go.”
Members see the group as “a safe place” where they can honestly talk about deeply held beliefs and grow in their own faith as they learn more about the faith of their neighbors, Hooper noted.
The love Hooper and Brenner have for each other and their desire to help build bridges of understanding in the retirement community are key to the group’s success, Smith noted.
“The servant hearts of these two men as facilitators is what makes it work,” she said. “They have a prepared agenda for every meeting, but they have no personal agendas, other than to share with each other and help others come to a better understanding of their own faith traditions and the faith traditions in this community.”