One after another, pastors and religious leaders stood Wednesday to share their dismay over the lack of a formal interfaith organization in Augusta.
"When I first came to Augusta, I was surprised and disappointed there wasn't a broad-base interfaith group of clergy to meet," said Rabbi Robert Klensin of the Congregation Children of Israel.
The Rev. Greg DeLoach of First Baptist Church of Augusta organized an interfaith meeting upon arriving in Augusta five years ago, but soon discovered underlying tensions.
They met Wednesday over a meal at the Islamic Society of Augusta, where more than 40 religious leaders threw their support behind a new organization that would promote dialogue, understanding and relationships among different faith groups.
Together, they hope to plan service projects and educational programs for their congregations and the community at large.
"We come today to work for a better future," said Aladien Fadel, the Islamic Society's community outreach coordinator. "All of us here worship the same God. We are from the same family. We must act like it."
The need for a new organization became apparent once tensions rose in response to the controversy over Park 51 in New York, often referred to as the "Ground Zero mosque."
"All that negativism, that prejudice, that bigotry was showing its face," Klensin said. "We're concerned for our Muslim brothers."
Not only are tensions high, but traditionally, understanding has been low, said Andy Reese, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church.
"People don't understand one another because they don't know enough about one another," he said. "I grew up in rural Oklahoma. I did not know a Catholic or a Jew until I went to college. It gave me a broader outlook and that's part of what I see this group offering."
A recent test of basic religious knowledge showed that while Americans are deeply religious, most can't correctly answer questions about their own faith -- let alone others.
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life surveyed more than 3,000 adults by phone for a survey, released Tuesday.
The findings revealed a lack of basic Bible knowledge, and little understanding of church doctrines, world religions and constitutional protections of religion, said Pew Senior Researcher Greg Smith.
On average, Americans answered 16 of 32 questions correctly. Atheists, Jews and Mormons scored highest, while Hispanic Catholics, black Protestants and those who said their religion was "nothing in particular" scored lowest.
Wednesday's meeting, which began with lunch, included Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Baptists, Unitarian Universalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians and others.
"It's hard to demonize someone you sit down to eat with," Reese said. "My faith tradition makes a big deal of eating together -- of sharing bread -- because we get to know each other that way. I believe in the power of education. It changes people. It opens them up."
The meeting concluded with a call to further expand the alliance to include Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs.
Future meetings could also include opportunities for lay members.