Welcome to the first in a string of columns that I’ll be posting on Omaha.net exploring topics related to belief, religion, identity, culture, interfaith relations, and everything in between.
Each month, I’ll be busting some of the most common interfaith myths and expose the diversity and complexity of thought, opinion, and practice within religious and ethnic groups in our community. I’ll be interviewing people who are on the frontlines of how these issues intersect locally, regionally, and globally. I’ll also be shining the spotlight on some of the innovative initiatives bubbling up in our area to try to get people to connect on these issues. I invite you to weigh into the conversation as well by posting your comments and sharing issues and ideas that are important to you.
Why Write This Column in the First Place?
I run a homegrown interfaith organization right here in Omaha, Nebraska called Project Interfaith. One of the main responsibilities of my job is to address the misconceptions and concerns that exist about interfaith work and what interfaith work ultimately seeks to do for individuals and for a community.
Many people still equate interfaith work with gathering a bunch of people from different religions to sit down in a room together and share their deeply held beliefs. Yes, this is dialogue in its most conventional form, and it reflects the traditional model of interfaith work. But this model is limited because many people are simply not interested in or comfortable with participating in something which is so intimate, requires such a tremendous amount of trust, and frankly, can sometimes be pretty heady.
So, we’ve been trying to redefine what it means to be in dialogue with someone from a different religious and cultural tradition—or even from your own—by expanding the definition of dialogue. This means we use the arts to explore and educate about religious and cultural diversity; we bring in thoughtful speakers to examine how issues of faith and identity connect with popular culture and current events; we even offer workshops for professionals to help them become better prepared and more comfortable serving people of diverse beliefs and cultures.
We do all this so that we can give people a variety of opportunities to participate to the degree and depth that they are comfortable. I see these columns as another way to reconstruct what it means to be “in dialogue” about issues that are too important to ignore.
And while I am at it, let me bust several other prevalent myths about interfaith work that are out there:
Myth #1: Interfaith work is only for those who are connected to a religion
Not as I see it. Interfaith work is fundamentally about relationships and inclusion. It’s about creating healthy communities where people of all faiths, beliefs, and cultures are valued and included.
But to ensure that all community members are valued and included, we have to have a basic understanding of one another, and this can only be accomplished by giving people meaningful opportunities to learn, share, and connect. This means reaching out and engaging people who are very much rooted in a religious tradition. It also means reaching out to those who are not—and everyone in between.
Myth #2: Interfaith work weakens or dilutes one’s faith or identity
I can assure you from personal and professional experience that nothing is further from the truth. In order to fully participate in interfaith experiences, one must have a solid understanding of her or his own beliefs and culture.
This doesn’t mean that you need to be some sort of spiritual leader or a religious scholar. It just means that you have taken stock of who you are and are open to exploring this further. While it’s true that for many people, interfaith interactions often cause them to reflect, investigate, and sometimes question their own beliefs and traditions, I’ve found that this frequently leads people to develop a deeper understanding of their own religious/spiritual and cultural identity and awakens a desire to learn more about their tradition and themselves.
Myth #3: Interfaith work is just about getting people of different faiths & cultures to agree
Wrong. It is true that in the early years of the modern interfaith movement there was at times an overemphasis on commonality, consensus, and agreement, which minimized or even sacrificed many of the distinctions and differences central to each religious tradition (and often completely ignored the tremendous diversity of belief and practice within each tradition).
One of the main lessons that successful interfaith organizers and practitioners have learned from the past forty years is that the key ingredient to creating healthy, meaningful interfaith relations is to build trust and respect, not agreement, among individuals and communities. And that is what I hope we can do through the conversations that will flow from these columns.
Finally, you may have noticed that I’ve used the word culture almost as much as I’ve used the word religion. Why? Because the two are inextricably linked, and I’d be a fool to try to talk about one without the other. I’ll explore this connection more in future columns.
So, I hope you’ll join me each month and share your thoughts and experiences. In the meantime, do you agree with my definition of interfaith work? What has been your experience with interfaith work? What topics or issues would you like to see me cover in this column? In your view, what does culture have to do with religion and vice versa?