Dispelling Myths About the Interfaith Movement
Can Interfaith Activities Make a Difference?
by Adrian Bird
Interfaith Partners of South Carolina (IPSC) was one of 57 recipients of the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award for 2018. At the award ceremony in Washington D.C., Director Christopher Wray stated: “You’ve identified some of the toughest problems that are out there, and you haven’t waited for someone else to fix them. You’re out in our neighborhoods. You see what’s happening in our communities every day. And you’re taking action to make it better.”
The ceremony was a reminder of the many grassroots initiatives impacting local communities around the country, and I was struck by how many recipients reflected, directly or indirectly, positive encounters across religious boundaries. The interfaith movement offers a key to constructing strong and peaceable communities. This impact is, however, inhibited by several myths associated with the interfaith movement.
The Myth that Interfaith ‘Makes No Difference’
A colleague of mine recently received a Facebook post questioning why she was involved in the interfaith movement, which, according to this social media contributor, makes no difference in a world of prejudice and hate. This is a challenge we must take seriously, particularly as we become numbed by the seemingly endless repetition of violence, witnessed most recently in the synagogues of Pittsburgh and San Diego, the masjids of New Zealand, and the churches of Louisiana and Sri Lanka.
The question ‘What can we do?’ can be asked in a couple of ways, from a place of apathy to a place of constructive action. It is a question best asked together across religious boundaries. The key word in the question is we. Each particular religious community is a source of wisdom for how to ensure the wellbeing of the broader community. Change occurs when each group’s commitment to creating this wellbeing is brought together.
Following the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, synagogues across the US opened their doors to people from diverse religious traditions in a show of unshakable solidarity and community strength. At the Beth Shalom synagogue in Columbia, South Carolina, Mrs. Jennifer Pinckney, whose husband, Rev. Clementa Pinckney was among the nine killed at the Mother Emanuel church in 2015, lit a candle of peace. It was a light of resilience that shone bright in the haze of tragedy. The gesture captured the essence of shared mourning and shared commitment across the spectrum of religious diversity to resist the poison of hate in all its forms.
Do such gatherings make a tangible difference, or are the naysayers right in affirming the interfaith movement makes no difference? Ten- year-old Lydia was scared as she sat in the Beth Shalom synagogue as Mrs. Pinckney lit the candle of peace. Each time the door opened she nervously looked over to see who was coming in. During the course of the evening Lydia’s fear was eased by the show of strength within the synagogue. When she returned home that evening, she wrote to her elementary school teacher to see what the school could do to address the subject of religious prejudice and hate. The next day, Lydia met with the 5th grade teachers at her school, to discuss strategies of action. Several weeks later, Lydia gave a speech to the school on the subject of accepting and celebrating religious diversity. Small steps. Big hopes. Does the interfaith movement make a tangible difference? It certainly did in Lydia, at least.
The Myth of ‘Irrelevance’
The term ‘interfaith movement’ can at times seem disingenuous, for sometimes it feels as though we are not moving anywhere at all. In the Huffington Post long-time interfaith participant Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie describes interfaith meetings as frequently ‘excruciating’ and ‘irrelevant’ to the world around him. All too often the same faces gather around the same tables to rehash the same questions, address the same issues, and come up with the same oft-repeated sentiments.
This ‘myth’ of irrelevance certainly contains a grain of truth, particularly if we are unable to connect our discourse with pressing issues in our local community. As FBI Director Wray asserted, we have the capacity to identify the ‘toughest’ local issues, coming together to address them. There will surely be no ‘one size fits all’ solution, yet the interfaith movement is well-placed to make a genuine impact in communities.
In the small town of Irmo, outside of Columbia, South Carolina, a controversial Facebook post on the subject of Islamic extremism by Mayor Hardy King made national headlines in 2018. Following the post, the mayor received an invitation by leaders of a local mosque to visit with Muslims celebrating the end of the Ramadan fast. Local members joined the mayor at the mosque, engaging in a meaningful conversation sparked by the Facebook post. The mayor later stated: “I do not think I could have been welcomed more if I had been invited to my own family reunion that I hadn't been to in twenty years.”
In the following months, the important seeds sown within this interfaith encounter bore fruit in remarkable ways. Working in partnership with IPSC and PICNA (Peace and Integration Council of America), the local town hosted a public forum entitled “Demystifying Islam,” providing space for healthy community dialogue and an opportunity to acknowledge the vibrant contribution of the Muslim community to the broader community.
Building on the success of this forum, Mayor King approached IPSC with the idea of creating an International Festival in the heart of town. In April this year, IPSC worked with local artists, schools, and partners to host the first International Festival, delightfully showcasing the riches of diversity within the local community.
The interfaith movement is not irrelevant to the local context when the local context is interfaith.
The Myth that ‘Particular Identity’ is Lost in the Interfaith Movement
Indian theologian Stanley Samartha cautions against the interfaith ‘fruit salad,’ whereby the distinct taste of each ‘faith’ is lost in a syncretistic blend. The perceived loss of particular identity is too high a price for participation in the interfaith movement, he suggests.
Scholar Lynne Thompson describes the goal of interfaith dialogue as finding common ground among the values and goals of different religions. While this is a noble quest, common ground suggests that the interfaith movement is merely one directional.
The perception is that as we move from our distinct communities towards common ground, we must check our particular identities at the door. The interfaith movement is not merely unidirectional. The current flows back and forth, between the particular community and the interreligious community. Indeed, it is within the movement that we find the greatest potential to bring the discoveries of common ground into our distinct communities of faith (or ‘no’ faith), and to bring, in the words of Rabbi Yoffie, our distinct “exceptionalism”’ into the realm of the common ground. If we take nothing of our experience in one setting into another, there is little opportunity for mutual transformation.
The Myth that ‘It’s Someone Else’s Problem’
Sikh activist Valarie Kaur tells the story of 17th century Sikh activist Mai Bagho. During a time of religious persecution, Mai Bhago fearfully waited in her village for news of a nearby battle against religious oppressors. When the Sikh warriors returned from the battlefield, conceding defeat, Mai Bagho took to her horse and led the warriors back into the heart of the fight. Mai Bagho became, Kaur says, “the one she was waiting for.” Rather than wait for someone else to resolve the conflict, Mai Bagho found the courage to act, inspiring others to join her in the fight for liberation.
Often, the effects of hate’s poison seem overwhelming. We are numbed by the complexity of multi-faceted, seemingly insurmountable problems, looking elsewhere to see where the solutions may come from. Our communities of faith become a place of solace while we wait for someone else to respond. Yet even our sacred gatherings are encroached by fear and suspicion. Cheryl Nail, vice chair of IPSC notes: “Many faith traditions teach us to welcome the stranger; however, news of violent attacks have us fearing the stranger who walks into our houses of worship. Instead of being welcomed warmly by a greeter, our first encounter is from a member of the security detail.”
The story of Mai Bagho encourages us to look within for effective solutions. Welcoming the stranger is not a gesture of naivety but an act of resilience and hope. The interfaith movement is a network of allies who model hospitality and welcome strangers in the midst of the struggle to build strong and peaceable community. Between us we have remarkable resources, experience, and expertise to identify problems and find solutions.
The Myth of ‘Sentimentality’
The interfaith movement is often perceived as overly sentimental, whose goal is merely for everyone to ‘get along.’ Such a perception is detrimental to the interfaith movement, for it fails to adequately grasp the seriousness of our work. The growing fatigue of the oft-repeated sentiment ‘in our thoughts and prayers’ in the aftermath of acts of violence reflects the perception that interfaith has its place in spiritual solace, rather than the realm of collaborative action. These two components are not mutually exclusive, but mutually dependent.
The interfaith movement depends, ultimately, on our capacity to build positive relationships rooted in dignity and respect. Done well, this affords the opportunity to work diligently to identify and address important issues within the local community. There are no short cuts to building strong relationships that lead to healthy communities. The ability to mobilize quickly in the aftermath of a crisis depends upon the long-term investment in nurturing relationships of trust and respect. Perhaps more importantly, this investment lays the essential groundwork in communication and networking in which strategies of preventative action can be created and implemented.
Recognizing the importance of the interfaith movement, the governor of South Carolina has for the last several years proclaimed January as ‘Interfaith Harmony Month.’ This is no passive proclamation but a recognition of the importance of interfaith collaboration in building strong and peaceable communities. At a recent press conference at the Columbia State House, Holli Emore told reporters: “We thank you for coming to what you probably thought was another ‘woo-woo,’ kumbaya, feel-good moment. But this is no longer about feeling good; this is dead serious. Interfaith may save our lives someday.”
The interfaith movement is not merely an opportunity to get along but to lay foundations for critical community building. The days of working in isolation are surely over. The poison of prejudice and hate is powerful, adaptable, resilient. It can infiltrate, slowly over time, infusing and consuming. Or it can infiltrate rapidly with devastating effect. The antidote is powerful, adaptable, resilient. It can infiltrate, slowly over time, or rapidly and with great effect. By joining the interfaith movement, we have the opportunity to model together the difference we wish to see in the world.
Header Photo: Pixabay