Editor's note: Following is another installment in the continuing series, Faith in Westport, featuring contributions from the many communities of faith in town. For information, contact John Schwing at jschwing@ctpost.com.

I am a Christian. But recently I was served by a Muslim woman wearing a head scarf. A couple of days before that I ate food prepared by Hindu hands. A Zoroastrian told me how to handle a software problem with my computer. A Jewish friend contacted me about a Holy Land. And a secular humanist joined in a Christmas concert at my church.

Welcome to America -- multi-faith, multi-perspective America.

It's a very different place than the dominant Christian one in which most of us grew up. Islam is now the fastest-growing faith in the U.S., while, at the same time, traditional religious groups face decline and retrenchment as the country grows more diverse.

What does this increasingly complex landscape mean to people of faith, and to those who profess no faith? How are we to regard our neighbors and co-workers who are different from us? Can we ever talk about religion without seeming disrespectful?

True, religion has been the source of some of the world's problems -- division, discord and violence among them. But my experience has led me to believe that religion also holds the power to offer solutions to some of these very problems. The work of the Interfaith Council of Westport and Weston over the past 42 years, for example, has led to increased understanding and cooperation among our houses of worship that benefits the entire community.

Those who engage in meaningful interfaith interaction discover that true, lasting goodwill is built not on just tolerating those who are different from us but on accepting and respecting them as well. I have found that I am a better Christian as I understand those whose faith differs from my own and support them in their practice of it.

Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, names this "the dignity of difference." In his book by the same name, Rabbi Sacks calls for us "to see the image of God in one who is not in our image."

In our struggle with some misguided adherents of Islam, in particular, we dare not overlook the fact that the vast majority of the followers of this faith are peace-loving, law-abiding people.

Christian scholar Krister Stendahl outlines his approach to constructive conversation: "Let the other define herself (don't think you know the other without listening); compare equal to equal (not my positive qualities to the negative ones of the other); and find beauty in the other so as to develop `holy envy.' "

In January, the United Methodist Church will sponsor a series of expert speakers who will touch on various world religions, including Islam and Buddhism. The public is warmly invited to these presentations which begin on Sunday, Jan. 9, at 11 a.m., in the church library.

Finding the holy in "the other" would be a good way to observe this season of peace. Rather than seeking to find fault, find beauty. In doing so we will see that, beyond the difference, there is a common ground of compassion and respect upon which we all can stand.

UNITED METHODIST CHURCH of WESTPORT and WESTON

49 Weston Road, Westport

203-227-4707 / www.westportumc.org

HISTORY: The United Methodist Church was founded in 1790. The United Methodist Church of Westport and Weston moved in 1967 from downtown Westport to what is called Rabbit Hill on Weston Road.

NUMBER OF CONGREGANTS: 400 members

PROGRAMS: Adult, youth and children's programs and outreach, including Christian Community Action, Operation Christmas Child, Gillespie Center meals, Interfaith Council

COMING EVENTS: Christmas Eve services: 5-6 p.m. Family Worship, 10-11 p.m. Candlelight Service