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Religion’s New Face in the World

By Paul Chaffee


Googling, however imprecise a measure, can be instructive. Browsing interfaith one dayin the early nineties drew around 185,000 ‘hits’ in under a second. Today the figure is 10.5 million. Or try this: Google your hometown “and interfaith.” You may be startled.

Of course, spirituality clocks in at 168 million links, religion at 861 million. By the numbers, interreligious relations and interfaith culture remain newcomers. And yet, interfaith groups are emerging, willy-nilly, in villages and metroplexs on every continent. On my browser “Antarctica, interfaith” brings up 3.68 million links. At the top of the list is Chapel of the Snows, Camp McMurdo, Antarctica, a thoroughly interfaith ministry.

In 1980 the National Council of Churches sponsored a survey conducted by Bettina Gray which identified 36 interfaith councils in the United States. Twenty-six completed the survey. Setting the historic context, the report notes:

Twenty years ago there were eight inter-religious councils. From 1970 to 1980, during a surge of religious questing and experimentation, the number of inter-religious councils tripled in the U.S. from eight to twenty-four. Most of these councils were local, "grass roots" developments, generally unaware of the existence or growth of other similar groups, and, interestingly, not limited to any one geographic area or size of city. Such growth has been truly quiet, even unnoticed, but is an amazing development in the expression of positive relations between religions and religious people.

During the nineties the movement became a largely unnoticed wildfire, and 9/11 inspired numerous newcomers to help organize better relations with their new neighbors from other faiths. Thirty years since Gray’s report, it remains true that many interfaith groups are “generally unaware of the existence or growth of other similar groups” and are “not limited to any one geographic area or size of city.”

Having an interfaith fair or festival is a good way for people from individual traditions as well as interfaith groups to get acquainted.

Having an interfaith fair or festival is a good way for people from individual traditions as well as interfaith groups to get acquainted.

Still, at the local level one often finds overlapping collaboration that supports everyone. In San Francisco, the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples was founded in 1944, the first intentionally interracial, interfaith congregation in the country. In San Francisco’s Richmond District, people enjoy not one but two neighborhood interfaith groups as well as the Brahma Kumari Meditation Center, which welcomes people from all faiths.

The San Francisco Interfaith Council, now in its third decade, is a dynamic congregationally based institution with a growing variety of programs and civic clout. The Interfaith Center at the Presidio is a regional coalition connecting more than 25 San Francisco Bay Area interfaith groups. And the city is the home of United Religions Initiative, a global network of grassroots groups.

“I think of it as vertical integration,” says Rita Semel, the pioneering interfaith activist responsible for so much of this development.

Getting a sense of the whole picture is difficult because so many different kinds of group are emerging. Bud Heckman in InterActive Faith identifies 17 kinds of organization in his “taxonomy” or set of interfaith classifications (pp. 223-29):

Ad-hoc groups
Congregationally based organizations
Resource agencies
Interfaith offices or agencies (of a particular tradition)
Dialogue groups
Interfaith ministries/seminaries
For-profit groups
Media groups
National and international organizations
Chapters of national and international organizations
Umbrella organizations
Religious leaders/clergy groups
Retreat/conference centers
Social issue(s) and action groups
Women’s groups
Student/youth groups

The largest interfaith venture today falls under Heckman’s “national and international organization” classification. Religions for Peace, a collaboration of organizations in 87 countries, is profiled in this issue.

One organizational difference sets RFP apart from most interfaith efforts. Its participants represent and speak for their traditions, which cannot usually happen at the grassroots level, where people speak for themselves. RFP, with overriding concerns for peace, ending poverty, and protecting the Earth, plays a critical role in an evolving global religious community. A book or two needs to be written about its achievements these past 40 years.

Religious organizations and their networks, like the National Council of Churches, Religions for Peace, and many others, get precious little media attention, except for scandals. Their interfaith spokespeople get less, even as they do important work. Over the next decade ‘representative’ and ‘grassroots’ interfaith ventures will more and more find themselves in need of each other, fueled in particular by deeply shared concerns.

How it Happens Locally

Hospitality and food, carefully chosen so all can partake, helps grow local interfaith programs.

Hospitality and food, carefully chosen so all can partake, helps grow local interfaith programs.

As we enter the century’s second decade, the unprecedented proliferation of grassroots organizations is giving religion a new face in thousands of neighborhoods around the world. Often the most visible expression comes from a local “interfaith council” of congregations in a particular city or region. In 1987, the Temple of Understanding, having identified 125 interfaith ventures across the country, published the first directory of interfaith councils in the United States.

Typically, interfaith councils (which come with different kinds of names) are congregationally based, aim to bring coherence and networking to a community’s aggregate religious community, and have an influence on the larger community. Some provide direct services while others become expert in offering an open forum, referrals to existing services for those who need them the most, and an array of programs. Inter-Faith Ministries of Wichita, which co-sponsored the 1988 inaugural North American Interfaith Network (NAIN)conference, is one of the country’s oldest grassroots organizations and continues with a robust portfolio of programs.

You don’t need a long history to thrive. The Arizona Interfaith Movement (AIM), which hosted NAIN this year, began in 1995, branding itself with the Golden Rule. With Arizona’s legislative approval, AIM helps fund its work through the sale of Arizona Golden Rule license plates for cars. Members are actively engaged in the programming. “Experience Interfaith” events develop new champions for the cause, the kind of support structure few interfaith organizations enjoy. Subjects they have tackled include compassion and faith, forgiveness and reconciliation, faith and international conflict, texts of terror in scriptures of faith, and civil politics.

What must be said of all these councils as well as other local interfaith efforts: they usually are idiosyncratic. Location and leadership give each project its own fingerprint. Leaders tend to be more interested in working on their own programs than in joining a larger network. Extraordinary reservoirs of talent and commitment are displayed that never move beyond the local community.

On the other hand, a number of local groups affiliate as chapters of the Interfaith Alliance, URI, NAIN, and other national and international networks. Those that do can benefit hugely from these global connections. Becoming “glocal is an important new standard – being firmly engaged in your local community while networked globally with similarly minded groups.

Where We’re Headed

All of Heckman’s categories deserves attention and will find their way into The Interfaith Observer. Before concluding this overview, though, consider one other category – “Social issue(s) and action groups.” Dozens of social justice causes – immigration rights, the death penalty, economic reform, environmental responsibility, peace in the Middle East, and many more – organize as interfaith nonprofits.

They start locally, connect globally, develop resources, and create a series of programs for the cause. California Interfaith Power and Light, congregationally based and serving a focused, religiously grounded ethic, is a perfect example of being able to make a significant, growing impact. Google your favorite concern and “interfaith” and discover new colleagues and friends.

The cultural flux we live in makes prognostication a fool’s assignment. This much is clear though: despite the conflict and violence that curses the lives of so many, in neighborhoods around the world an act of grace is unfolding. Ordinary citizens, young and old, from every religious, spiritual background are emerging from their sanctuaries with an open hand of welcome to strangers. New friendships begin. People start to share core concerns, bridge their differences, and, far from losing anything, find themselves enriched. That’s the new face of religion, a palpable expression of healing is this broken world.