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."
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."
Without organizations like Hocky's and the interfaith efforts of individuals she meets with monthly, religious diversity can break apart a community, said Pete de Kock, a spokesman for the Interfaith Youth Corps, which establishes interfaith work on college campuses around the country.
Research by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam has shown that diversity can cause a breakdown in the so-called "social capital" of a community, which is embodied in institutions like religious groups and service organizations that keep a community from fracturing into distrusting tribes, Kock said.
In addition to serving the community at large, Fletcher explained, fledgling interfaith groups also provide minority faiths a vehicle to be understood and appreciated by those around them.
"The broadest objective would be a posture of response to the sheer fact that we are living with encounters of religious difference and the attempt to do something positive with that," Fletcher said.
That would partly explain the growth and interest in interreligious activity in community and academic circles since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which put Islam in an unfavorable light and continues to cause tension in communities where Muslims would like to erect mosques for worship.
A study by the Cooperative Congregations Studies Partnership and the Hartford Institute for Religion Research found that from 2000 to 2010, interfaith worship in religious communities doubled and involvement in interfaith community service activities nearly tripled.
“Sept. 11, 2001, made a significant piece of America aware that Islam was part of our civic fabric,” David A. Roozen, a professor of religion and society at the Hartford Seminary and author of the report, wrote. “Those congregations that had an investment in public presence could welcome Islam as a neighbor.”
Hocky, who has worked in interfaith relations since 1990, said 9/11 did inject a sense of urgency and purpose into interfaith organizations in the Philadelphia area as well as the informal women's group she had become a part of.
She remembers phone calls pouring in asking what kind of relationship the Jewish council had with Muslims in the community. When she told callers they had been working with the Islamic community for more than a decade, there was a sense of relief.
"There was an enormous outcry that we begin to know each other," she said.
Understanding the relationship
Najeeba Syeed-Miller, an assistant professor of interreligious education at Claremont Lincoln University, said she was working with a Muslim community on an educational effort about community peace building in Pittsburgh several years ago when she asked about their interfaith activities.
"One of the lay members said, 'Oh, I am afraid to engage because what if someone says something that I don't believe in or is problematic for me as Muslim to believe. Am I endorsing their beliefs by not saying anything?’ ” she recalled.
The exchange illustrates a common oversight in interreligious relations at any level. If individuals and leaders don't understand how interfaith work fits into their beliefs, people may not even show up.
"Any group considering interfaith dialogue needs to critically think through theologically how and why it is important in their tradition and what are the guidelines for engagement coming from their community," Syeed-Miller said. "You need to be skeptical of interfaith dialogue, not just assume it’s a good thing."
Syeed-Miller said working out these issues takes time, as does building trust, respect and understanding among people of different faith traditions. The successful, long-lasting interreligious efforts are those that respect each other's differences, whether it's a theological point or a dietary restriction.
"I see people as human not just when they are like me, but when they are different from me," she said. "If we don’t give space to address differences then we develop episodic empathy, where people just have a relationship for a particular cause then walk away from that."
In her interviews with members of the Philadelphia group, Fletcher discovered an evolution from discussing beliefs and practices to trusting each other enough to share "spiritual autobiographies" that revealed how religion had helped each individual navigate their personal lives.
"It’s not just about getting to know the other faith tradition and reading about another faith, it’s about getting to know the people and forging these relationships across religious lines," Fletcher said. "They were drawn into seeing this narrative of faith as really something that is sustaining someone in their life."
Hocky said the idea for the spiritual autobiographies came from other interfaith dialogue she had been involved in. Her rabbi had also used the method in a spiritual evaluation process for his congregants.
She said hearing the other women tell how faith played out in their lives as children and into adulthood deepened their relationships with each other.
"It ended up being foundational to our group becoming a group," Hocky recalled. "We got to know one another so deeply through this particular lens and we became so connected to one another’s stories that we carry them with us, like memorable passages in a good book."
Hearing the other women tell about how they held to their faith and rituals, such as prayer, as they worked through their doubts and trials, Hocky said, strengthened her own faith.
"I began to be more of a Shabbat attender, and it helped me find a way back to my own tradition," she said.
In January, about 70 residents of Rutherford, N.J., gathered in the gymnasium of nearby Felcian College for singing, speeches and an emotional scripture reading by the local Baptist pastor. The event was organized by the local interfaith council to remember the firebombing of the town's small synagogue a year before.
Fletcher, who lives in the quiet upper middle-class community, remembers how disturbed residents were after learning Molotov cocktails shattered windows of the Beth El Temple, starting a fire in the upper floor bedroom of Rabbi Nosson Shuman and his wife.
"There was a real sense within the community of how horrible it was, but without some sort of interfaith network of dialogue already in place it was not clear to members of the community, who didn’t know the Jewish synagogue was there, what they were supposed to do," she recalled.
The interfaith network in Rutherford tried to fill that void. Rabbi Shuman said the group organized a gathering of singing and sharing at the college attended by about 150 people four days after the firebombing. Four weeks later, the interfaith network sponsored another meeting where members of religious and ethnic groups in the community spoke of the challenges they face. Police spoke to residents about public safety.
At the anniversary event, in addition to singing, praying and reading, police were honored for making an arrest in the Rutherford case and a related firebombing of another New Jersey synagogue.
"It was a beautiful gathering. It was like a Messianic vision," Shuman said of the interfaith worship.
And the charge coming out of the anniversary event was to "keep the ball rolling" with regular events and gatherings to strengthen the relationships developed.
Shuman said he would like more block parties and initiatives to get the youth involved and more familiar with the community they live in.
"They are the next generation and they are going to have to realize how important these goals are," he said. "If we don’t put the burden on their shoulders now they may never realize it will be their burden."