By Thomas Bonacci
Several years ago I joined a small group of concerned people responding to a growing interest in appreciating and respecting the faith traditions of humankind. We developed home-based educational programs for small groups of interested people who know little if anything about religions other than their own. It began informally, spread by word of mouth, and now hundreds of workshops have been held.
We calmly and respectfully introduce the faith traditions in an elementary manner, preparing participants to visit the worship sites of the traditions involved. Eventually, participants can choose to become involved in the fine art of interfaith dialogue in pursuit of world peace. Everything depends on the comfort level of the participants.
Early on we learn that we do not encounter religions but people of faith. Questions and discussions usually focus on a tradition’s followers rather than the tradition itself. While more than willing to learn what another person believes and how they practice that belief, participants express their concerns about the integrity, motivation, and trustworthiness of others. Fears, prejudices, and stereotypes emerge. This discovery invites participants to confront something within themselves. Preparing for dialogue with others invites us to confront the depth of our own truth and experience.
Large living rooms in homes provide a preferred setting. Making sure our meetings are conducted in quiet, calm, and safe situations, participants experience a certain freedom to search their minds and hearts and to confront their negative feelings about others. Such honest engagement with self is essential if honest, open, and respectful dialogue with others is to take place.
One question we invite groups to ponder asks, “What has been your experience to date of people from other cultures, religions, races, and languages?” This question helps us understand that we are not engaging a set of beliefs but real people like ourselves. What we have in common is not some aspect of faith or practice but our very humanity and experience as human beings.
A Hindu is now engaged by her name and person rather than the label of her tradition. “The Buddhist” did not attend my mother’s funeral; Beverly, who happens to be a practicing Buddhist, did. Farooq is no longer identified as a Muslim but as my friend, who is Muslim. Once again, people meet people. Without a personal perspective, we fall into the trap of thinking religions meet religions rather than people of faith engaging one another. Our dialogue helps us recover the humanity of self and others. It invites us to be human and humane to ourselves and others. In fact, the “other” now becomes my companion on the road of life.
Frequently, our participants note how deep reflection opens the way to engage in dialogue with others. Since most groups have rich past experiences and varied relationships, it soon dawns on them that they already live in an interfaith community. The neighborhood, school, hospital, shopping mall are all places and situations of interfaith encounter.
We are still in the first stages of our interfaith work, but these initial discussions are foundational to the great work yet to come. Now, more than ever, the song must be sung, “To see another person is to see the face of God.”
Participants readily admit their “interfaith education” is often in the hands of cable television news and pundits. In such a context, entire communities of people can become associated with extremists and extremism. The “we versus them” mentality clouds all perspectives. Real people are unjustly accused and forced to defend themselves in their innocence.
We ask participants in our study groups if such accusations have ever happened to them. “How did you feel? Was defense possible or explanation accepted?” These questions help participants identify with those unjustly accused and stereotyped simply because they belong to a given race or religion. As one woman said, “It is simply not fair to judge and condemn people I never really met. I would not want others to do that to me.” This kind of self-encounter and reflection goes a long way in helping us appreciate how others are injured by stereotypes and prejudices.
A young man remembered how a year earlier the local mosque was the site of arson in their town. The local and regional interfaith community rallied in a powerful gesture of solidarity. He recalled the march through the streets with banners and flags of good-will and peace-making. A diverse community rubbed shoulders. Perfect strangers became loving friends.
One person lamented, “Why does it always take violence and hate to bring us together?” Upon reflection, her lament speaks of great hope. If violence brings us together, what might respect, understanding, and mutuality cause? Her lamentation becomes a rallying call to confront our fears.
Our participants speak of their fears of meeting someone from a faith tradition other than their own. Prejudices and stereotypes are one thing. Fears are crippling. So in our discussions we turn the fear question around, asking, “In what way do you think others might be afraid to meet you?” Frightened people are rarely aware that they themselves can be frightening. Encountering how we might frighten others empowers us to be sensitive to others.
Prejudices, stereotypes, and fears do not mean one lacks good will. We learned, though, that even with good will, we will not overcome our fears and prejudices if we cannot safely address them. Our project is a first-stage attempt to help people confront and transform their fears. The assurance of safety and respect, the lack of judgment, and the willingness to identify with their struggles, creates a confidence by which others can be engaged in respectful, compassionate, and loving ways.