Designing a Future for Interfaith Relations
by David Crumm
Bud Heckman is an interfaith Frank Lloyd Wright. This pastor, scholar, and author is a global architect designing the structures we all will need – if we are to transform religious conflict into interfaith cooperation that can benefit communities worldwide.
Most of our readers are meeting him for the first time today, because the majority of Heckman’s work takes place behind the scenes. He works through foundations, universities, government agencies, and nonprofits. For years, he has been tirelessly crisscrossing the U.S., and often circling the globe, encouraging the formation of new programs and professional best practices.
DAVID CRUMM: First, let’s tell readers about your own religious and professional base: You’re a Protestant minister from the Midwest, right?
DAVID: The Mosaic Initiative is new, and I think it’s fascinating. Among other things, that program provides grants to graduate students pursuing peace studies or conflict resolution.
BUD: The El-Hibri Foundation encourages respect for diversity specifically through interfaith cooperation. We are still developing the Mosaic Initiative, which is focused on interfaith cooperation, organizing events, webinars and meetings of “thought leaders” who can help in this effort. We’re also encouraging men and women in the philanthropic world to offer more funding in this area.
DAVID: We at Read the Spirit have published more than 350 author interviews since 2007, and that list includes a lot of men and women trying to inspire interfaith cooperation. Just in these seven years, we’ve seen this message take hold in new ways: a lot of professional groups now require people to take “cultural competence” training, professionals in law enforcement, medicine, education and many other fields. Our publishing house works with a team at Michigan State University School of Journalism that is producing short books about “cultural competence,” so we share your goal.
What impresses me about your work is that you’re really an architect, trying to design permanent structures that will encourage cooperation. You’re looking at the structures – large and small – that must be in place to ensure this effort is more than just a fleeting inspiration.
BUD: That’s the heart of this work for me. When I got into this enterprise in 2001, I found there wasn’t so much as a phone book for this movement. We didn’t have the kinds of guidebooks that were needed for training and for developing new programs. Of course, this has changed over the last decade. These priorities and practices are becoming more formalized now at universities, in many kinds of groups and organizations, and also in government agencies.
But there’s still so much more to do.
DAVID: One big area you support is university-level research into the psychology and sociology of human responses to diversity.
BUD: We need more research into the ways that we can help people to move past the barriers they have built up so that they can appreciate a religiously pluralistic world. There’s so much we need to know: We need research on how people’s attitudes change. We also need research on the kinds of words and phrases we might use in approaching people to talk about religious pluralism.
Right now, the leading organizations in interfaith work have found that storytelling is an effective way to encourage cooperation across religious lines. So, we’ve got a lot of groups working on storytelling and specifically on creating programs to facilitate storytelling across religious lines. This does create change. But we need to know so much more about how this process works – and what other experiences also help to overcome conflict.
Building New Structures to Encourage Cooperation
DAVID: Many of the authors we interview work on the theology of cooperation and peacemaking – and on storytelling, just as you have described. What’s distinctive about your role, I think, is that you’re also looking at the nuts and bolts that connect this new architecture to ensure it will stand the test of time.
BUD: Yes, we need to put new structures in place. One example is that we now have 13 different federal agencies with officers who focus on the role of faith in the work that we do from the federal level. President Clinton originally envisioned having faith officers; President Bush expanded on that; and President Obama expanded this idea further. From the time this idea first was raised in the Clinton era, we’ve gone from zero faith officers to a dozen now in place who lift up the value of religions working together on projects. Other countries also are stepping up and creating new kinds of programs: One example is Jordan stepping forward to create World Interfaith Harmony Week.
DAVID: Universities and academic researchers have gotten on board, too.
BUD: As recently as 2006, the American Academy of Religion just had a couple of references to “interfaith” among the hundreds of workshops at their annual conference. Now, they have formalized “interreligious and interfaith studies” as a theme within the academy and they offer so many different activities, workshops, and conversations around interfaith issues that one could actually spend several days just focusing on these sessions. It’s important to see this established within the academy.
And we’re seeing some major funders focus on interfaith cooperation. One example: for a while, the Ford Foundation seemed to be stepping back from funding in this area. But now we’re seeing the Ford Foundation supporting interfaith cooperation again.
Building a Permanent Interfaith Movement
DAVID: As a journalist covering religious and cultural diversity for more than 30 years, I’ve participated in thousands of interviews, meetings and events. I’ve heard all kinds of messages about faith and diversity. What’s distinctive in your approach is the bigger picture you paint for audiences. Yes, you’re interested in inspiring individual men and women, but you’ve got a much larger goal.
BUD: There are too many examples of rising religious conflict around the world. When I talk to people, I can provide many examples domestically and internationally. There are new headlines every day. But, I’m interested in showing people, instead, how religion can become more of an asset in our world. We cannot ignore religious differences. And, we have to involve religion in the answers that will help us resolve these conflicts we face.
DAVID: That’s a tall order: Recognizing the explosive nature of religious conflict – and at the same time recognizing the value of religion in resolving conflict.
The Foundation Stones …
BUD: We need to “actualize” the interfaith movement. When I talk this way about the development of a movement toward better interfaith relations, people wonder if this is possible. I point out that, at one time, the environmental movement that has reshaped our world wasn’t a movement at all. There was a time when civil rights wasn’t a movement. There was a time when no one at the university level was studying the environment or civil rights. There was a time when nonprofits weren’t supporting these movements. But now? We all know the success of the civil rights and environmental movements.
We need to see a similar movement in interfaith relations. The academy needs to conduct more research and help us develop a rigorous discipline for developing these relationships. Nonprofits need to understand how to advance this movement and how to set measurable outcomes and to expect results that people can understand. These are the building blocks that can establish a successful interfaith movement. Governments are now taking a keen interest in learning how religions can work together for peace. Now, we need to consciously be designing and building the capacity so that the interfaith movement can become well established.
DAVID: We are strongly recommending your book, Interactive Faith. I’ve got shelves in my library packed with books on religious diversity, but I can say: Your book is unique in the practical advice it packs between these covers. In fact, your book is the only one on my shelf that tries to describe more than a dozen different types of interfaith groups that people have organized across the country.
How can readers follow your work? Much of what you do is invisible to the public. Can you suggest a way that our readers can keep track of your work?
BUD: You’re right. Much of the work is behind the scenes, but I try to put interesting things I’m finding on Twitter.
A longer version of this interview was published by Read the Spirit, August 4, 2014.