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What Excites Me about Interfaith Work?

By Bettina Gray

This article grew out of a presentation Bettina Gray made at a meeting of interfaith leaders attending the November 2011 meetings of the American Academy of Religions/Society of Biblical Literature. The session focused on innovative interfaith activity and was organized by the Coexist Foundation.

INTRODUCING INTERFAITH 3.0

 Dr. Wesley Ariarajah, a global leader in building healthy relations between Christians and followers of other traditions, at last month’s AAR meetings.

Dr. Wesley Ariarajah, a global leader in building healthy relations between Christians and followers of other traditions, at last month’s AAR meetings.

Thirty-eight years ago Dr. Wesley Ariarajah and I were at a meeting about interfaith relations. This week at the American Academy of Religions in San Francisco we found ourselves back together in meetings that continued our earlier discussion. Nearly four decades ago the conference, sponsored by the World Council of Churches, asked whether or not interfaith encounter is possible. We did not know whether such conversation and interaction was doable. We were just exploring the topic. Those sessions became the basis for a report to the 1974 Nairobi World Council of Churches gathering. Today you might call the Nairobi report an early expression of Interfaith 1.0, though back then we wouldn’t have known what you meant.

In the seventies, when I talked about doing interfaith work, I generally drew blank stares. That was the polite response. Why was I wasting my time? What possible relevance could dialogue with other religions have? Those questions did not deter a handful of people who began to identify each other and communicate. Local interfaith projects and councils emerged here and there. In 1987 the Temple of Understanding published the first directory of interfaith councils in the United States, listing 125 groups. In 1988 the North American Interfaith Network began meeting.

We didn’t know what was possible, but we taught each other and began collaborating. In the nineties, we graduated to Interfaith 1.5: the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions put interfaith on the map, United Religions Initiative was forged over a seven-year process, and local interfaith councils started sprouting up all over the US and Canada.

Interfaith 2.0

Ten years ago 9-11 happened. In its wake came a shocked awareness that communications among religions and interfaith cooperation are vital. Interfaith 2.0 was born. In the wake of the tragedy compassionate and concerned people everywhere reached out to strangers and started talking, one conversation at a time.

In San Jose, California, two dozen Muslims showed up for worship at First Congregational Church, explaining at coffee-hour afterwards that they were neighbors and thought they should know each other. In Syracuse, New York, Betsy Wiggins started talking to her Muslim and Jewish neighbors, and "Women Transcending Boundaries" was born. The New York Times featured WTB on September 11, 2011. Hundreds of related conversations are transforming American’s religious landscape.

Where We Are Headed

 Ten thousand religion scholars and interested parties gathered at the San Francisco AAR meetings, and the interfaith activities helped inspire this article. Photo: Greg Harder

Ten thousand religion scholars and interested parties gathered at the San Francisco AAR meetings, and the interfaith activities helped inspire this article. Photo: Greg Harder

After three days at the American Academy of Religion, and after hearing all sorts of good news about interfaith education and grassroots activity, I have a renewed sense that we’re starting to experience Interfaith 3.0. Some years ago, I wrote three answers to a question that perplexed me: “How will we know that we have arrived?” What will graduation from this part of the journey look like? Here were my answers.

 Bettina Gray interviews Swami Chidananda at the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne. Her live webcasts from the Parliament dramatized a communications revolution unimaginable 25 years earlier when she began interfaith work.

Bettina Gray interviews Swami Chidananda at the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne. Her live webcasts from the Parliament dramatized a communications revolution unimaginable 25 years earlier when she began interfaith work.

  • We’ll get there when media begins to cover the religious landscape by more accurately reflecting the pluralism that exists.When I jumped into religious communications, there was no there there. Major media aired single-faith paid broadcasting or nothing. Today religious stories that include a focus on community and dialogue are burgeoning. An industry has emerged of interreligious media producers, web-based communications experts, writers, videographers, programmers, and, in their wake, a proliferation of digital information. The famine has become a feast.

Getting Involved

Personally, what excites me most is a long-term involvement with the North American Interfaith Network (NAIN). TIO’s recent profile of NAIN explains how it brings together people from across the continent who are actively involved in their local communities. We share stories, exchange program models and skill-sets, talk about what we learn along the way, and develop strong relationships. In recent years, I’m happy to report, many more young adults are attending, taking leadership roles, and reenergizing the whole operation.

NAIN has four categories of membership. First, local and regional interfaith projects and councils can be members. Second, single-faith traditions that have an interfaith office or committee for relating to other traditions are welcomed as members. Third, media groups with a focus on multiple religions are eligible members, bringing us the Hartley Film Foundation, Vision-TV in Canada, The Interfaith Observer, and a number of journalists and producers.

Academics and their programs teaching religion from a multi-faith perspective make up the fourth category of membership. From the beginning academic participation, though small, has been steady, supportive, and constructive. The Pluralism Project was here from the start. Dr. John Berthrong from Boston University was an early supporter, Dr. Hal French at the University of South Carolina is a truly local-global leader, and Dr. James Wiggins, former chair of the American Academy of Religion, currently serves on NAIN’s board. Distinguished academics like Diana Eck and Paul Knitter regularly present at NAIN events. We hope to see this category grow.

AAR 2011 has been exciting for those of us able to attend from NAIN. The horizon has shifted. New stories are bubbling. Unimaginable projects then are bearing fruit now. The grassroots community will be delighted to hear these stories. We find that a multi-sector, inclusive environment is a particularly rich way to explore interfaith culture. So we seriously need teachers and scholars of the world’s religions and their relationships to participate. You can link up at NAIN.org. Our keywords are Collaboration, Communication, and Community. NAIN’s next annual gathering will be in Atlanta, July 15-19, 2012.

My friend Wesley Ariarajah, a native of Sri Lanka and a professor at Drew Theological School, has been a towering interfaith proponent for decades. As a Christian theologian of international stature, he helped open up the door for Christians around the world to enter into mutually respectful, fruitful interfaith relationships. This week I was thrilled to find him still at it. So am I, and we’ll be glad to hear that you are too.