Together We Build, a coalition of different faiths, gathered over the weekend to build houses for Habitat for Humanity — and to gain a greater understanding of one another.

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SNOQUALMIE — Here’s a remark rarely — if ever — overheard at a construction site:

“The Jewish experience was shaped by the Diaspora. … “

The speaker was Phil Gerson, a retired Boeing employee who belongs to Bellevue’s Temple B’nai Torah. Listening was Farhad Ahmed, a journalism student at Bellevue Community College and a member of the Muslim Association of Puget Sound in Redmond.

Gerson and Ahmed were among four dozen Jews, Muslims and Christians who gathered Sunday at an annual interfaith event to build houses for Habitat for Humanity, volunteers putting up drywall while trying to bridge religious and cultural chasms.

Gerson, wearing a hard hat and a tool belt, swung his arm around Ahmed, a first-time volunteer, and announced, “This here is my friend.”

Ahmed listened deferentially as the older man explained how Jews came to be “wired for social justice” through persecution, as well as the importance of Arabs and Jews understanding each other first as people.

This is the seventh year that the coalition, Together We Build, has built homes for low-income families in East King County. The group arose out of a Catholic prayer chain started after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It has grown to include 10 churches, mosques and synagogues, and this year is working at Habitat’s 50-home development in Snoqualmie Ridge.

Gretchen Stuenkel, who attends Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Bellevue, has volunteered for the past three years. Pounding nails alongside Muslims and Jews has taught Stuenkel a lot. She now knows that Muslims, as do Christians, believe in Abraham. She knows how Jews pray and the music they play.

“We are finding that the similarities in the religion are more than the differences,” Stuenkel, 32, said.

Dave Sanford, another Aldersgate congregant, echoed that sentiment, saying that about as much divergence exists within his own church between supporters of Sen. Barack Obama and those of Sen. John McCain.

The lunch table, however, pays careful heed to the volunteers’ various dietary differences. The meals are both kosher and halal: no pork, no shellfish, no meats and dairy together and all prepared according to Jewish and Muslim guidelines.

“The Christians really don’t have prohibitions unless somebody’s vegetarian,” Stuenkel said.

Gerson acknowledged that cultivating meaningful understanding among religious groups requires more than wielding hammers together a few days a year. Several years ago, the groups held an “interfaith Jeopardy” game to test knowledge of each others’ faiths (“Name the first king of Israel.” “What are the Five Pillars of Islam?”)

Next month, Gerson said, a small group of Muslims and Jews will meet for dinner to delve deeper into such sensitive issues as the Palestinian-Israeli relations.

Ahmed, who has many non-Muslim friends, said he is more familiar with Christianity than with Judaism. He did not know, for instance, that observant Jews, like Muslims, do not eat pork.

Ahmed said he and many other young people aren’t too keen on formal “interfaith discussions.” But he leapt at the chance to mix religion and carpentry.

The construction site, Ahmed said, was a much more relaxed venue for ecumenical lessons.

Gerson said that through volunteering he has deepened his knowledge of Judaism as well as his appreciation of other faiths. Gerson calls Kirkland’s Ithnasheri Muslim Association of the Northwest (IMAN) his “second-favorite place to worship.”

“Whether it’s a church or a synagogue or a mosque, there is one God,” he said.

Kyung Song: 206-464-2423 or