The growth of interfaith activity since 9/11: Grass-roots groups get personal about faith

Published: Saturday, March 9 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

Dr. Rashad Zaydan, center, a pharmacist from Baghdad, Iraq, cries as Mary Trotochaud, left, and Pat Penner, right, comfort her at an Interfaith Prayer Service for Peace in Iraq and the Welfare of the Iraqi People in 2006 in Washington, D.C..


On the second Thursday of every month, Abby Stamelman Hocky drives to a stone Quaker meetinghouse in the suburbs of Philadelphia to meet a group of women who share her passion for interreligious dialogue. They sit on couches around a fireplace, enjoying tea and other refreshments while sharing their Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and other faith perspectives on a particular topic.

Hocky has made a career of getting people of diverse faith backgrounds working together. As executive director of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, she lives out her vision of building mutual trust, understanding and cooperation among faith communities, providing a way they can work together for the common good.

But these monthly meetings, which take place away from the office, represent the interfaith experience she values most.

It isn't just talking about beliefs and practices that gives these gatherings added meaning for Hocky. It's hearing how prayer pulled someone through a personal crisis or finding herself reflecting on her own faith when she listens to expressions of commitment or doubt.

"I have a lot of things I could be doing, but once a month I feel this strong pull to meet with these women," she said. "For me it's a personal source of interfaith nourishment and grounding in my own spiritual world and Jewish life."

Researchers have found that interfaith activity has been gaining momentum since 9/11, when one deadly and violent religious expression prompted people to get familiar with the increasingly diverse landscape of faith in their communities. Scholars who study and work in interreligious relations have observed that when people grounded in their own faith express their beliefs on a personal level, these interfaith encounters often evolve from one-time events to ongoing, meaningful relationships that foster understanding, bridge differences and enable diverse communities to work together.

"We create interfaith networks so that when religion is mobilized for violence or negative things, there will be relationships that can respond and mobilize religion in a different way," said Jeannine Hill Fletcher, an associate professor of theology at Fordham University. "It opens up another dimension that doesn’t split down denominational lines."

'Social capital'

Fletcher discovered the Philadelphia group of women while doing research on her forthcoming book, "Motherhood as Metaphor: Engendering Interreligious Dialogue,".

She explained there may be thousands of similar grass-roots groups working under the radar in neighborhoods and communities around the world. Many are comprised of women — a reflection of the fact that men may already be more involved in more formal interfaith organizations as faith leaders.

These formal and informal efforts alike are bridging religious gaps in communities around the country that now find mosques and temples alongside the Christian churches and Jewish synagogues that have historically dominated the religious landscape. And this diversity may only continue to increase. A March 2012 report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found the United States is the top destination for Christian and Buddhist immigrants and the second most popular place to relocate for the world's Hindus and Jews.

Hocky was already working in interreligious relations for the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia about 12 years ago when two women, one Episcopalian and the other Baha'i, who had been sponsoring an interfaith Thanksgiving event for years approached her about helping put together another event for their increasingly diverse community.

"They were determined that living in a neighborhood meant really knowing your neighbors," said Hocky. "They felt it was inauthentic and only symbolic to have this once-a-year thing on Thanksgiving."

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