They've built a Habitat for Humanity house together. They've had ritual meals together. They've even worshiped side-by-side at Thanksgiving eve religious services.
But things were different - and often difficult - when these local Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders met over the last several months to address an issue so emotional and so outside their comfort zones that they long avoided any mention of it in such mixed company.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Tonight, at a time when the tide of violence is rising yet again in Israel and Gaza, this Charlotte interfaith group, its rounds of edgy negotiations over wording finally done, is bringing to town "Children of Jerusalem: Painting Pain, Dreaming Peace."
The free art exhibit at ImaginOn in uptown Charlotte will showcase 61 paintings about the pain of war and the longing for peace by Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jewish elementary school students who started out fearing each other and ended up friends.
The 50 children participated in a three-year program initiated by the Institute for the Study of Religions and Communities in Israel. The paintings, 27 by Palestinians, 27 by Israelis and seven joint efforts, includes a picture of a caged dove.
Kicking off the exhibit tonight will be a 7:30 lecture, also free, featuring two grieving victims of the conflict who are now committed to reconciliation instead of revenge: an Israeli mother whose son, a soldier, was killed by a sniper, and a Palestinian refugee from the West Bank whose father was killed by an Israeli solider while returning from a grocery store.
Then, because the interfaith group also wanted local dialogues on issues that often divide Charlotte's churches, mosques and synagogues, "community conversations" are scheduled for April, May and June.
Among the topics: how difficult passages in the religions' various Scriptures sometimes conflict with the urge to reach out to those of other faiths.
In going deeper with the local dialogues, the interfaith group considers the Israeli and Palestinian children who did the paintings "our model," said Rabbi Judy Schindler of Temple Beth El, a Reform Jewish congregation. "We, too, need to be listening beyond our fear and our pain. If they can do it over there, we should be able to do it here."
Besides Schindler, the core group that met and e-mailed for months also included Rose Hamid, president of Muslim Women of the Carolinas; Maria Hanlin, who heads interfaith Mecklenburg Ministries and was a United Methodist pastor for 18 years; Rabbi Murray Ezring of Temple Israel, a Conservative Jewish congregation; architect Mohammad Ismail, who's Muslim; Nyala Hunt, head of the Charlotte Coalition for Social Justice; and retired businessman Basem Atallah, who's a Palestinian Christian.
Why all of this now?
When Schindler heard last summer about the "Children of Jerusalem" exhibit, she and others at Shalom Park, a campus that's also home to Temple Israel, wanted to bring it to town in 2008.
The goal was to spur reflection on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel.
But to attract a more diverse group of partners to the project - including Charlotte's Hamid, a Palestinian American - the presentation had to be balanced. And there couldn't be any suggestion that it was some kind of birthday celebration for Israel.
"For Jews, (its 60th anniversary) is a time for a wonderful celebration," said Hanlin, who became the main facilitator during months of meetings. "But it's a painful time for our Palestinian brothers and sisters."
Local mosques agreed to cooperate on the dialogues, but they said no to co-sponsoring the exhibit or opening lecture. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they said, is political, not religious.
Even inviting Palestinians to be partners wasn't easy. No one could find an official organization for local Palestinians.
The reason, Hamid said, is fear. "I know people who've been stripped of their U.S. citizenship and deported for supporting Palestinians and saying anything anti-Zionist," she said.
As a member of the Mecklenburg Ministries board, Hamid has become a familiar face at local interfaith gatherings - even attending a seder for women at the Levine Jewish Community Center. She signed on to help bring the exhibit because she hopes it will put a human face on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"Some people automatically think of Palestinians as terrorists or suicide bombers. But these are real people whose lives are affected," said Hamid, whose father grew up in Palestine and whose husband is Palestinian. "If we can all learn that the other person is worthy of justice and compassion, then maybe it'll be a benefit."
Though the group agreed on goals, it first had to deal with the tensions and challenges that came up during the many meetings - and in the more than 80 pages of e-mails.
Often they turned on words.
Ezring remembers a day when someone mentioned the Middle East conflict between "Jews and Palestinians."
"I said, `Wait. This isn't a conflict between Jews and Palestinians. I'm Jewish and I'm not involved in this. This is a political conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. This is not a religious conflict.' "
Later, Hamid told the group she didn't want to be called a Palestinian representative on the fliers for the exhibit. She said she didn't speak for all Palestinians.
The solution came during a late-night meeting at Schindler's house: The rabbi suggested "Palestinian Advisers to the Project."
Those advisers worried that the art exhibit, which featured only children from Jerusalem, would not tell the story of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Ezring had a solution. He and his wife had, on one of their trips to Israel, seen a touching program featuring parents - Israeli and Palestinian - talking about losing loved ones in the conflict. Tonight's version of that at ImaginOn will include Mazen Faraj, who lives in the Dehaisha Refugee Camp in the West Bank.
During the meetings, Hanlin said, "there were times when everybody thought about leaving the table, picking up their toys and going home."
Among the fears on the Jewish and Palestinian sides: that they would be considered "turncoats," as one put it, by their own communities.
But they soldiered on - in part, said Ezring, because "we are all supporters of the side of peace, tranquility and the ability of human beings to live without fear. That's what the Torah teaches. That's what the Christian Bible teaches. That's what the Quran teaches."