WILLMAR — An interfaith panel offered a message of hope Thursday that despite religious differences that sometimes run deep, Willmar can come together in ways that benefit the whole community.

"I think we all have that calling to go out to our neighbors and get to know them," said the Rev. Dane Skilbred, pastor for discipleship at Vinje Lutheran Church.

The panel discussion Thursday was part of a "Lunch with Leaders" series held quarterly by the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce to explore issues of interest to local businesses and the community. More than 60 people were there, making it the largest event in the series so far, according to Ken Warner, president of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber.

The discussion grew tense several times, illustrating the divides that have arisen throughout history over religious beliefs. But there was also an acknowledgment of the need to get past stereotypes and misinformation and have honest conversations with those of other faiths.

"There are times when we might not be on the same page," said the Rev. Keith Kerstetter of the Willmar Assembly of God. "We need to disagree better."

"Trying to have dialogue in this manner is so important," agreed the Rev. Jon Dahl of Bethel Lutheran Church.

The five-person panel included three Lutheran pastors, an evangelical pastor and the imam of the downtown Willmar mosque.

All five spoke of the need for more cross-faith understanding and connections. Formal efforts at this have been underway for the past year by the Willmar Interfaith Network, a collection of about a dozen local congregations working to forge connections and find common ground among varying faiths.

"We've been working at growing that group," said Skilbred, who is an active member in the interfaith network. "We know we have our differences but how can we work together to make a better Willmar?"

There's work to do. Sheikh Abdusalaam Hagi Hirsi, imam of the downtown mosque, held up an anti-Islam brochure that has recently been circulating in town, accusing Muslims of being violent and followers of terrorism.

"Imagine if non-Muslim people get this booklet — the image they will have of Islam. It is absolutely incorrect," he said. "It's actually dividing our community."

Local religious leaders can play a key role by creating opportunities to build bridges and address misinformation, he said. "All the community will receive the same message. They will respect one another and grow together."

Bias is real and present in Willmar, said the Rev. Naomi Mahler of Calvary Lutheran Church, recounting stories from Muslim friends who have had things thrown at them as they walked down the sidewalk.

"I think we need to really be honest this is happening," she said. "This is a very painful thing and it hurts my heart as a Christian woman that this is happening to other people in my community."

Where the panelists and the audience clashed most sharply, however, wasn't over Islam but over evangelism and its central place as an absolute truth among those of evangelical faith vs. the mainline Protestant and Catholic call to love one's neighbor.

"I don't think I could ever abandon my principles for the sake of relationship," Kerstetter said. "You're asking me to agree to something that I know is not true. I don't think anybody should be asked to do that."

Unity is a challenge, he acknowledged. But when Willmar's faith communities agree to work together and find common ground, "things of eternal significance can result," he said. "We can build relationships. We can build trust. We can start having some wins."

Asked to identify some areas the community could tackle with the help of faith leaders, one of the panelists suggested homelessness. Others suggested youth hunger and youth mental health.

While agreeing that religious beliefs are a sensitive and sometimes explosive area, the panelists also expressed optimism that people of faith can rise above their differences to create a better community.

"I believe in a God big enough to handle all of this," Mahler said.