One Friday during Lent, Greg Foraker, director of adult formation ministries at St. Philip’s in the Hills Episcopal Church in Tucson, Arizona, entered the Islamic Center, the city’s largest mosque, to participate in worship with its 500 members. To the left of the entrance was a group of women in traditional attire and to the right was a room where the male members of the mosque wash their hands and feet in preparation for prayer. Feeling uncertain in this unfamiliar place, he turned to the room where he was to wash when he unexpectedly heard someone from the group of women call his name. To his surprise they turned out to be members of St. Philip’s, covered in traditional attire from head to toe, in keeping with the practice of their hosts! After a few nervous laughs of recognition, the group once again parted as the men and women gathered in separate areas for prayer and worship.
For Christians living in a predominantly Christian culture, it is relatively easy to go through life without learning about other faith traditions or seriouslyexamining our own. But Foraker and the women who attended the Islamic Center’s worship service were consciously and committedly doing so. They were part of their church’s Varieties of Religious Experience program, which grew out of the congregation’s desire to offer a less traditional Lenten program. It is essentially an experiential series of encounters focused on joining in worship with various religious traditions, followed by a meal and conversation.
The group of 18 who shared in prayers with Tucson’s Muslim community later gathered with the temple’s imam, or prayer leader, and a dozen members of the mosque community for a Middle Eastern meal, lively conversation, and an opportunity to build relationships across religious traditions. Members of St. Philip’s were impressed with the depth of the hospitality they received from the Muslim community, the shared dialogue experienced over the meal, as well as the shared commitment to forging deeper relationships across faith traditions in Tucson. “What at first seemed unfamiliar revealed connections not at first evident,” says Foraker.
In addition to Friday prayers at the mosque, the group was invited to sit zazen at Zen Desert Sangha, celebrate the festival of Ayyam-i-ha with the Tucson Baha’I, dance and chant “Hare Krishna” and at the Chaitanya Mandira, and keep Shabbat with Temple Emanu-El. The series culminated with the Great Vigil of Easter at St. Philip’s.
Foraker notes that not only did most participants attend each encounter, despite varying schedules and multiple locations, but that “each person reported that the experience was in some way transformative. This program was not your normative Sunday morning at 10:00 a.m. adult education offering. The participants considered the encounters an adventure, and grew deeper in their own faith as a result of the process.” Some participants reported that the experience of religious differences challenged them to reflect deeper on their faith as a Christian. Others felt that the encounters opened up new channels of prayer and reflection. Still others experienced a desire to continue to forge interfaith relationships within the larger Tucson community.
Dr. S. Asif Razvi of the Islamic Center of Boston affirms the value of such encounters between Muslims and non-Muslims from his perspective. “Islam is a continuation of the other two Abrahamic faiths and it is every practicing Muslim’s obligation to inform others about our faith,” he says. “We find dialogue to be the best approach to inform non-Muslims and to correct the widespread misconceptions about Islam.”
The fact that the United States is the most religiously pluralistic country on earth is a truism, and encounters between people from different religions have reshaped American religion. The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (2008) reports that over one-third of all married Americans are married to someone with a different religious affiliation.1 Porous world boundaries due to globalization, immigration, technology, and transportation have produced a climate where religious understanding—and misunderstanding—lies at the heart of local, national, and global issues.
Examples of religious pluralism abound in local communities everywhere. The Canadian television series “Little Mosque on the Prairie” features the town of Mercy, where a Muslim community forms a mosque inside a local Anglican parish hall. The series looks at community relationships and the balancing of Muslim beliefs and traditions in a prairie setting with humor and insight. Documentaries such as “Fremont USA” take a sharp look at the struggles of religiously pluralistic communities like Fremont, California, where Peace Terrace Muslims and Methodists built houses of worship side by side with a Sikh community, a women’s monastic retreat center, and Thai, Chinese, and Burmese Buddhist temples. Given these realities of American religion, what is the role of Christian congregations in relation to religious pluralism? How can we better form Christians for their role in a religiously pluralistic and increasingly interdependent world?
Interfaith education within congregations is an opportunity for people of faith to learn about and to experience faith traditions other than their own. Effective interfaith education allows us to deepen our understanding of our own traditions, discovering similarities with other traditions as well as acknowledging that which makes each faith distinct. Further, interfaith education offers both individuals and congregations opportunities for spiritual growth and for sharing in communal projects for the greater good. It also offers opportunities for members of congregations to build relationships with neighbors of other faiths that extend out into the community. Most importantly, interfaith education values relationships in community. Hence, congregations of all sizes and locations have the resources to develop transformative interfaith education.
On a smaller scale than the Varieties of Religious Experience program, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Tucson also sponsors a Tuesday evening dialogue group modeled after The Faith Club, a best-seller written shortly after September 11, 2001, that tells the story of three women—one Muslim, one Jewish, one Christian—who came together to write a children’s book only to have their project develop into a months-long dialogue about their faith traditions. According to Foraker, at least part of the appeal of dialogue groups is their ability to “embody” different faith traditions and their stress on “learning from the heart.” He is excited about the need to expand the program to include eight small groups, as well as to partner with Interfaith Community Services in Tucson to offer a similar dialogue including Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Reform Jews, and Muslims as participants.
Foraker credits the support of the clergy team at St. Philip’s, the church’s Adult Formation Council, as well as the local community, as being essential components of the success of interfaith education there. “It really is a community-wide movement now,” he says.
Other interfaith education efforts the congregation is planning include an interfaith pilgrimage to Israel, a meditation series, forums, and pulpit exchanges. Key to the success of the interfaith efforts at St. Philip’s, Foraker says, “is the need to create a space of welcome. Over time we have been able to develop a climate of trust and accountability. This work is not just about potlucks but about working through difficult things together.”
An annual Bible study is the focus of the interfaith education efforts of The Second Church (United Church of Christ) and Temple Shalom in Newton, Massachusetts. The two congregations share a 50-year friendship dating from the time when Temple Shalom was formed and held its religious school’s
classes at The Second Church during the construction of its own facilities. The Bible study, which began in 2000, focuses on a different theme each year, including the Song of Songs, the Psalms, and “Jesus and the Talmud.” Richard E. Malmberg, pastor of The Second Church, notes that members of his congregation have been both “touched and intimidated” by the serious Bible scholarship evident among the laity of the Jewish congregation. Over time the Bible study became a vehicle “to build trust and explore issues and questions on both sides, as well as to go beyond stereotypes of each other,” he says.
Malmberg’s own interest in interfaith education stems, in part, from his own experience growing up in an interfaith family. He also maintains a good friendship with the rabbi at Temple Shalom, and attends the Saturday Minyan on a weekly basis. “These experiences give me a chance to negotiate the boundaries [of my own faith], to learn about my heritage, and to celebrate my vocation at the same time,” he says. Because of the religious diversity experienced in the congregation, Malmberg says The Second Church has become known as “a good place for interfaith families to find a home.” The congregation also shares facilities with Jewish Reconstructionist congregation Dorshei Tzedek in the hope that the relationship between the two congregations will grow beyond space-sharing and into a more programmatic one. For this next step to develop, notes Malmberg, “the two boards need to get together, see each other’s faces, and forge lines of communication.”
The arts, including documentary films, are often another resource for interfaith education in congregations. Joyce Herman of the National Coalition Building Institute is a member of Temple Sinai in Rochester, New York, a congregation with historic interfaith relationships with the local Islamic Center and Baber African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Herman is involved in a number of interfaith education projects, including the development of a documentary on “Prayer in America.” The film follows senior religious leaders in the community as they discuss how public prayer should be done, the issues that arise in interfaith dialogue, and how prayer relates to the crises of violence in the community. Herman reports that the response to the film has brought some “profound interfaith challenges and healing.” Despite the history of conflict between religious communities, the film uncovers how prayer can promote greater understanding and forge relationships between people of faith.
The need for interfaith education for families was the concept behind the Families in Conversation program started by Jay L. Kanzler, Jr., an assistant clergyperson at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in St. Louis, Missouri, and a practicing attorney. The idea was to bring in families of other faith traditions to have dinner and conversations with families from St. Peter’s, a congregation that also includes a “rabbi-in-residence” as a member of its clergy staff. The focus of the encounters is twofold: to develop a better understanding of what others believe and to create an awareness of the similarities between faith traditions. “The initial sessions have been very positively received,” says Kanzler. One outcome from his own Families in Conversation dinner was the development of a friendship with the imam of the local Bosnian Islamic Community. When the Bosnian Islamic Community sought to gain approval for the building of a new community center and mosque, the county government blocked the request. Kanzler believed the denial was due to religious discrimination and agreed to represent the Islamic Community Center in litigation. With the support of many faith groups, the Center was able to reach a settlement and eventually build a new community center and a mosque. “This was a wonderful interfaith effort to bring together rather than to tear apart with ignorance and prejudices,” says Kanzler.
Building relationships through sharing a common meal is a theme that runs throughout interfaith education efforts in the college town of Bennington, Vermont. “We are also learning how a common meal instantly creates bonds of friendship and deep understanding,” says Anita Schell-Lambert, the rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Bennington. “For many in our interfaith circles, a common meal followed by a meditation group or reflection series is their faith community, thus we are expanding the way we ‘worship’ here at St. Peter’s.” Also sponsored by the congregation, a community education series called “Think Global, Eat Local” linked the theme of food with interfaith environmentalism. The five-week series served as a springboard to a variety of community-wide related activities, from communal gardens to a study of the impact of food choice on energy sustainability. “Caring for the planet and all its inhabitants is also integrally related to peace-building in best spiritual practices,” says Schell-Lambert. “In Bennington it is such environmental and economic justice initiatives that to date have found the most common ground for interfaith collaboration. They have profoundly changed the way we do business at St Peter’s.”
The communal vegetable garden sponsored by St. Peter’s Episcopal Church is open to all those in the community who may wish to work in it. The congregation provides space, training, and a team to manage it using organic gardening and composting methods. The food produced is shared among the gardeners, the congregation, and local agencies. “The garden is the latest example of how we, through interfaith relationships, are strengthening and deepening our ties to Bennington and to one another as members of the interfaith community,” says Schell-Lambert. The Bennington Interfaith Council, representing nine different faith traditions, also manages a local Food and Fuel Fund, with strong linkages to health and human services in the area. The local emphasis on developing food and other energy resources supports a commitment to interfaith environmentalism while acknowledging the diversity of religious traditions present. “Here a common creed is not found in prayer books,” says Schell-Lambert, “but rather in a passion for earth care so that we can continue to decrease our ecological footprint, living more simply so others live. Again, these programs always include a shared meal—with food grown locally,
All the interfaith education programs at St. Peter’s in Bennington are marked by collaborative planning and implementation throughout the town. “The real staying power of them is rooted in many faith traditions and new ways of doing business,” says Schell-Lambert. Further, the keys to interfaith community, she believes, are “shared goals for learning. We have discovered that we grow and learn more deeply through our diversity.” For instance, a recent Lenten series on the themes of forgiveness, atonement, and reconciliation included Christian, Native American, and Buddhist teachings about the nature of suffering and developing compassion. “Without exception, people felt their own particular faith tradition was enhanced by learning about a tradition very different from their own,” says Schell-Lambert. Participants in the series were challenged to articulate their understanding of forgiveness, atonement, and reconciliation as Christians from a deeper spiritual place when presented with perspectives from other faith traditions.
Creative congregational interfaith education efforts also include youth and young adults, who bring with them a curiosity, openness, and energy to the relationships formed. One such program is the Interfaith Youth Initiative (IFYI) sponsored by the Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries and the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This eight-day immersion program, followed by mentoring and gatherings for a full academic year, is designed for youth 15 through 18 years age as well as college and graduate student staff.
Its leadership currently comes from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Unitarian Universalist traditions. The curriculum focuses on spiritual formation, dialogue, service, peace and justice, and the arts. The five core values of the program are building bridges, engaging faith, training leaders, making peace, and serving others.
“All too often youth and young adults are both primary victims and chief perpetrators of religiously fueled violence,” says Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries executive director Alexander Levering Kern. “At the same time, the absence of faith—and the hope, community, and opportunity that faith can engineer—breeds cultures of nihilism that prove equally destructive. Like their parents, too many youth in the 21st century seem caught in the pincers of religious extremism and secular materialism.” For these reasons Kern believes that “what we need now are intentional interfaith communities where faith is real and peace is possible.” He sees interfaith education as one area where congregational leaders are trained in dialogue, the arts of peacemaking, and public witness. Further, youth who participate in interfaith education are equipped to bring positive change not only to their faith communities but to their schools and neighborhoods as well.
As the people of God we are called to respond to a world that experiences religious violence and broken relationships every day. But our differences and our interdependence can be a source of strength and a gift from God. People of faith everywhere know that lasting peace will not ultimately be built on separatism or political arguments but on the transformation of hearts—new life, not just reordered life. Interfaith education is a vehicle for faith communities to challenge ignorance and oppression as well as to explore forgiveness and reconciliation. Through commitment to interfaith education our communities are transformed, lives are saved, and faith is about the healing and wholeness that the world craves.
NOTE1. U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (released February 25, 2008), Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 8.
Questions for Reflection
- What is the religious diversity within your congregation? What interfaith relationships are already present (interfaith families, for instance) and how might they be supported?
- Research the religious diversity in your larger community. What relationships does your congregation already have with people of other faith traditions? What are some ways these relationships can be deepened?
- What are some opportunities for interfaith education that your congregation might explore?