JONESBORO — Law enforcement officers got a chance to learn about five major religious traditions firsthand during an interfaith workshop last week.

The workshop, held Friday at the Virginia Burton Gray Recreation Center, included presentations on Islam from Dr. Shakeer Abdullah, vice president for student affairs at Clayton State University, as well as Imam Plemon El-Amin. Traditional food also was shared.

Friday and Saturday tours included the Al-Ihsan Masjid and Chua Truc Lam Buddhist Temple, both in Riverdale; Congregation B’nai Israel and St. Phillip Benizi Catholic Church in Jonesboro; and the Hindu Temple in Riverdale.

“I’m one of the coordinators of the Interfaith Community Initiatives,” El-Amin said, “which is the parent organization of Immersions. We are operating in partnership with the Atlanta Regional Commission to take public safety members of five counties and the city of Atlanta separately to cultural and religious communities in their counties. This is the first one.”

For those officers who have not had exposure to faith traditions beyond their own, Chief Kevin Roberts said, the experience was eye-opening.

“As a patrolman, I’ve ridden up and down Highway 85, Riverdale Road, past temples and synagogues and things of that nature and have never been inside,” Roberts said. “If there’s a critical incident at one of those locations, we have to know how to move and be respectful as an agency, and hopefully if we establish relationships now, those representatives will keep us informed about things going on in our community that may be relative specific to their culture that we would be just unaware of unless we establish that.”

Abdullah shared what it was like to grow up Muslim in Akron, Ohio, the son of one of Akron’s first black firefighter paramedics, sliding down the fire pole and “literally trying to fill his shoes as his fire boots came to my waist…. And the thing that always stuck with me was that they always smelled like smoke…. I remember playing outside with friends and trying to see who was the fastest, and I also remember being outside in the summer and fasting.”

Roberts emphasized the immersion was not an exercise in proselytization. “They went out of their way to make us feel they’re not trying to convert anybody,” he said. “Once you have understanding, then I think you reduce the level of conflict and you reduce biases and things of that nature.”

Greg Mason, administrator of the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Urban Area Security Initiative, said his program is funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 33 urban areas around the country, including metro Atlanta. It prepares for “all hazard or emergent situations up to and including terrorism,” he explained, emphasizing five points: prepare, prevent, recover, respond and mitigate.

“We’re being proactive,” Mason said. “We just finished the Superbowl. If an incident had happened there, it would have touched people of all faiths, religions, cultures, and we want to avoid that. You’ve got to have established relationships on the front end, in this space of homeland security. If I’ve got to call you at 2 a.m. and introduce myself, it’s way too late.”

About a dozen representatives of Code Enforcement, Animal Control, patrol officers, chaplains and ranking leadership were present, Roberts said, “who will engage these different communities and cultures on a regular basis. When we debrief, my mission to them is to take the information that they’ve learned during the immersion and pass it on to their peers in their respective assignments.”

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