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Learning to Build Interfaith Community

By Jennifer Peace

Interfaith Higher Education Immersion Approach

Early last June, while most students were packing their books and looking forward to a summer respite from papers and tests, twenty-three women and men, affiliated with Boston Theological Institute’s network of seminaries, participated in an intensive two-week seminar focused on developing interfaith leadership and community-building skills.

Professor Diana Eck (in blue) and seminar participants admire an interfaith quilt at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury, MA, on one of our class site visits.Professor Diana Eck (in blue) and seminar participants admire an interfaith quilt at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury, MA, on one of our class site visits.

Professor Diana Eck (in blue) and seminar participants admire an interfaith quilt at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury, MA, on one of our class site visits.Professor Diana Eck (in blue) and seminar participants admire an interfaith quilt at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury, MA, on one of our class site visits.

Building Interfaith Community and Leadership: Boston Seminar was a multi-modal learning experience. We had site visits to local religious communities, interfaith case study discussions, a public narrative workshop at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and a guided discussion on the power of art in interfaith learning at the Harvard Art Museums. In a range of settings, seminar participants explored the intersection of religious and civic life, reflecting all the while on their roles and responsibilities as future religious leaders.

An active online component developed a sense of community outside of class. Participants introduced themselves to each other before the course began, posted reflections after each site visit and shared driving directions and parking tips. The online course site offered participants a central site to pose questions and find resources for each daily session.

While learning about the challenges and possibility of building interfaith community, the heart of the course was about experiencing the challenges and possibilities first hand as we traveled to various communities. Over our first three days we visited the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury on Friday, Temple Beth Zion in Brookline on Saturday, and a choice of Christian churches on Sunday. Later we visited a Sikh gurdwara in Milford, a Hindu temple in Ashland, and a choice of Buddhist temples/meditation centers. These were new experiences for many students.

The course employed multiple methodologies to help participants gain an appreciative understanding of each tradition. Prior to site visits, participants were assigned sections from On Common Ground: World Religions in America, an online resource developed by the Pluralism Project and reviewed in TIO last December. It orients participants to key demographic, historical and theological information about each tradition. Participants also read first-person narratives of encounters across religious lines in My Neighbor’s Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth and Transformation, reviewed in TIO last April.

In addition to the rich sensory information and personal experience, seminar participants engaged in conversations with community members, worship leaders, and religious scholars at each site, gaining insight into the lived experience of each tradition.

Two other resources enriched our classroom sessions: case studies and public narratives. Case studies invite participants to put themselves in the shoes of various protagonists and make decisions in challenging scenarios. These situations often involve conflicting values or misunderstandings rooted in a lack of knowledge about each other’s religious traditions or communal norms. The Pluralism Project has pioneered the use of case studies for teaching interfaith understanding.

Public Narrative is a technique developed by Marshall Ganz at Harvard’s Kennedy School to train leaders to tell their own stories – connecting who they are with the work they’re called to do in ways that inspire others to join them. Participants created and practiced sharing their public narratives related to interfaith work in a day-long workshop.

The assignments for the course included daily reading in preparation for each session and reflection papers after each site visit. In a final integrative project, participants looked for ways to connect what they had learned with their own particular vocational goals. Projects included sermons, adult or youth group programming for congregations, and papers exploring the theological implications of the course’s content.

Collaborative leadership was modeled throughout this partnership. Building Interfaith Community and Leadership: Boston Seminar was co-developed by the Pluralism Project at Harvard University and Andover Newton Theological School, with funding from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.

Co-teachers, Professor Diana Eck and Professor Jennifer Peace.

Co-teachers, Professor Diana Eck and Professor Jennifer Peace.

The course was taught by Diana Eck, from Harvard, and myself, from Andover Newton. In addition to religious community leaders who served as guest instructors, we drew on the case-writing expertise of Ellie Pierce, research director at the Pluralism Project; the insights of Rev. Dr. Marcia Seistra who recently completed her D. Min. on interfaith case studies in congregational settings; and the grace and wisdom of Whittney Barth, assistant director of the Pluralism Project, who coordinated the complex logistics while contributing to the design and teaching of the course. More information about the course and student contribution can be found at the Pluralism Project.

The course offered a rich menu of tools and practices for building interfaith community and empowering interfaith leaders. What we ultimately wanted to teach, though, goes beyond any single educational strategy or formula. As one participant wrote, “Pluralism is not a technique or something you employ when you believe the circumstances require it. Pluralism is a way of ‘being’ in the world.” This is the kind of understanding that leads to healthy interfaith communities.