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

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.

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