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The Interfaith Movement’s Evolution and Future Challenges

By Katherine Marshall

“Winning Words” – An Interview with Bud Heckman

Bud Heckman, a frequent TIO contributor, has worked with many leading interreligious organizations, foundations, academic institutions, and community-based organizations. Much of the following interview is biographical, and it is the longest article TIO has ever posted! Bud’s grasp of the interfaith movement and its challenges is unparalleled – if you care about this work, his story is captivating. Katherine Marshall, an interfaith activist and leading authority on world development and religion, sat down with him on January 29, 2015. Along with sharing his background, he reflects on the evolution of understandings and practice in interreligious arenas; on current opportunities and obstacles; and on prospects and priorities for the future. Ed.

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How did you become interested in interreligious matters?

 Rev. Bud Heckman

Rev. Bud Heckman

I became interested and involved quite accidentally, through two separate routes: academic study and work experience. I went to Boston University (BU) to work on a Ph.D, with the intention to study a quite specific set of topics around theology. But with changes in faculty and also in the culture at BU, I found myself studying something quite different. I began studying process theology, but came to work on core texts and the motifs of the major world religions, as well as theology as an exercise across religious traditions. This meant looking at and studying theology from new angles. It was a bold experiment in reworking theological education.

Then, several years later on, I was working for the mission board of The United Methodist Church, when there was a catastrophic financial crisis and change. The person in charge of our denomination’s interfaith relations suggested that I shift and work as a consultant for Religions for Peace, which needed support, because of my knowledge in organizing and in world religions. I took up that challenge and served the first of what essentially became a series of tours of duty with Religions for Peace. In short order, I came to head the United States unit, then later shifted to the International Secretariat of Religions for Peace. 

When did your work with Religion for Peace begin?

I started with Religions for Peace U.S.A in 2002. It was in fact immediately after 9/11. And the shift and work there were indeed related to 9/11, because the financial crisis of The United Methodist Church, was a fallout from 9/11, as were the new challenges facing Religions for Peace. So the path led not primarily through interreligious work per se but was largely shaped in response to the cataclysmic financial and political repercussions of September 11. But as time would reveal, I came to love figuring out interreligious work, because each job that I had enjoyed in my young career was about developing new things and architecting. Interfaith was still in its infancy, so there were opportunities abounding to impact. And I came to think interfaith should be a purposed and public movement, the way that movements for civil, women’s, environmental, and human rights had become.

Why did you embark on studying theology in the first place?

I was committed to that course from a very early age. I grew up in Ohio, and was always interested in religion as a central part of my life. I lived in a home with an alcoholic father and the church was a second home, one that truly shaped my character. A calling to ministry came to me early in my first year of college.

 Professor Martin Marty – Photo: University of Chicago

Professor Martin Marty – Photo: University of Chicago

I went to Ohio University as an undergraduate, then to the University of Chicago Divinity School for graduate studies, and had a wonderful experience there. I took lots of classes with Martin E. Marty, a remarkable person and scholar, and that shaped how I looked at religion. I also served in a flagship church, the Chicago Temple/First United Methodist Church of Chicago. The Senior Pastor, Gene Winkler, genius father of the current General Secretary of the National Council of Church, framed how I saw the missional and social justice purposes of my faith. My classmates at the University of Chicago dubbed me Rev. CEO, because I was interested in administration and organizing and enamored with what the church could do through its structures and institutional prowess.

One route I took that is quite unusual is that I took classes at many different academic institutions, quite deliberately, as I wanted to get a sense of the range of flavors, ethos, and theologies. I have attended nine different seminaries over the years for course work. Each unique. The clusters of schools in Chicago and Boston made it simple.

 Boston University Marsh Chapel – Photo: Wikipedia

Boston University Marsh Chapel – Photo: Wikipedia

At Boston University, I was working for a Ph.D. in theology, quite generally. I ended up focusing more and more on religious pluralism and the theology of different religions. I became increasingly involved in organizational matters, in part because I was working full time throughout my graduate student years, as well as begin to raise a young family. I never finished my dissertation because my focus changed as I realized that my life would be far more in activism than in the academy, which was out of sync with what I saw as most important.

I worked full time as the principal coordinator for the World Congress of Philosophy, which put me in touch with people from many different perspectives. The Congress was a rare global event on a large scale – more than 5,000 attendees from 65 different countries and seven languages fortranslation – which took place in Boston in 1998. At the same time, I was serving in a local small church, which seemed worlds apart, but much more real.

When and how did you decide to be ordained as a minister?

That too I decided when I was very young. I had a strong commitment to the church, both in its role as a family and community that had guided me, and to the issues involved in running the relevant systems and structures. My father’s aunt and youth pastors had profound influences on me in seeing what I desired as a potential calling and vocation. I was given early opportunities for leadership and was involved in the re-formation of the United Methodist Student Movement, for example. But there I began to see how the church was looking inwardly, deeply absorbed in controversial social issues, not engaging with people’s real needs too often, and slowly drifting and dying.

What was your early involvement with Religions for Peace?

My first assignment was as a consultant for the United States chapter. Religions for Peace had undertaken a major project, in a dozen U.S. cities, to help local leaders develop interreligious structures, and design programs that were of particular interest to them. We helped to identify and bring in experts with special experience. That proved to be fascinating, with a wide variegation among different cities and regions in how they approached “interfaith.”

It was out of that initial experience that I started a quest to try to define what interfaith relations are and what they involve. The end result of that early quest was my book with colleagues on interfaith (InterActive Faith: The Essential Interreligious Community-Building Handbook). It was essentially an interfaith directory of relevant things, growing out of a survey of different ways in which interfaith is lived out through action, advocacy, and dialogue. We were working to build a typology of interfaith activities and a directory of examples. By we, I mean myself, Rori Picker Niess, and a large team of interns and fellows who helped to make it happen, and then also eventually religious leaders and interfaith activists who gave it richness. It was created in 2004-7 and came out in 2008 via Skylight Paths Publishing, which has now made a real niche for itself of interfaith how-to resources.

What was done to build on the book itself, and, more significantly, the mapping effort involved?

The book won an award through an online magazine. It sold quite well, and we ended up giving away a large number of copies and also sharing the large data sets that we built on interreligious activity in the U.S.. It helped to facilitate a series of still ongoing discussions with leaders in the interfaith movement. A focus has been and remains on the necessary things that have to be done to advance the interfaith movement.

Since then, I have been engaged in various convenings of different sets of religious leaders and interfaith activists. I often launch discussions with two questions: What are you doing now that excites you most as a way to advance interfaith cooperation?And second, What do we as a whole need to be doing? These meetings have, I believe, led to some advances in helping inspired people work together. Programs and initiatives were born out of them.

Could you give an example of these programs and initiatives?

One of the most important areas (and the area I think is most important in the long run) is in education. The American Academy of Religion (AAR) has recently added an interfaith and interreligious studies group, the earmark of legitimation of a focal area in the academy. And the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) has developed a set of criteria that require schools to examine how they deal with religious others. AAR and ATS are involved in establishing accreditation standards.

Another example is groups involved in philanthropy that are getting together. The idea is to help advance interreligious cooperation as a movement and sell the idea of it as a method towards other means, one with a secondary benefit. I am most proud of the formation of an interreligious funders’ affinity group, for which I have personal responsibility. Early solicitations and meetings have drawn surprisingly wide participation in the foundation world.

A third area of focus is efforts to encourage governments, and especially the U.S. government, to recognize both the importance of religion and the potential of interreligious cooperation. I was involved in the White House Office on Faith and Neighborhood Partnerships and helped to develop recommendations. Some of those are being put in place, notably those related to training, representation, and access. Recent among those is that the State Department now has an office, headed by Shaun Casey, dedicated to engaging with faith communities. And other governments and intergovernmental agencies have followed suit. The advent of the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna is paramount among them. I had the pleasure of participating in some of their planning and visioning.

What is your central focus at this stage?

I see three important focal areas – the academy, funders with particular interest in interreligious cooperation, and governments. But now, more importantly, I want to work to develop greater clarity about the “winning words” we need for the interreligious movement and to build its capacity as a whole. There is often a lack of clarity in describing what we mean when we are talking about the movement’s objectives and directions. What do audiences need to hear in regard to this work? Where is help most needed? With what audiences? We need to get sharper about what would be most effective in advancing interreligious action and cooperation.

We can take a page from other movements, for just one example, work on LGBT issues and same-sex marriage. In that case, the leadership saw a need to step back and to undertake surveys and focus groups. An outcome was that there was a change in the song, designed to win hearts and minds. This meant that they stopped talking about rights and shifted to building empathy, through one-on personal exposures above all and storytelling with a there-is-one-in-my-extended-family-too approach. We can achieve a similar shift in relation to the religious “other.” There are affective and cognitive tactics and strategies to help people re-frame their in-group and out-group hard wiring. It’s doable.

I personally feel that a new era lies ahead for interreligious cooperation, in which better language adapted to the right kind of audiences will make a big difference. The key is to better appreciate what sorts of things can actually change relationships with and conceptions of the “other” and then to get smart about making those methods and means flourish. We have to move beyond preaching to the choir.

I hesitate at the continued use of the term “interfaith.” It has considerable plasticity and baggage, but the key point is this issue of relationships with other religious groups and communities.

What do you think makes the most difference in changing these images of the “other”?

Apart from the importance of personal contact and building empathy, we need to focus on the question of how we form identity, as individuals and groups. What groups do we see ourselves as part of? How do we build the basis of different means of cooperation?

Finding the “winning words” is critical. Working to that end with interreligious organizations is likely to take more energy, resources, and time than the other advances to date. Big ships turn slowly.

You have much experience in the intersecting worlds of philanthropy and interreligious action. What is your sense of the current state of play?

In general, there has been meager investment in most interreligious organizations to move forward interreligious work. In fact, there is a quite common allergy to religion as a focus and topic. Religion is demonized as the problem, and too infrequently understood as being a necessary part of solutions. However, there have been some bold moves of investment and support in interfaith cooperation. The Rockefeller and Ford Foundations stand out for long runs of investment, as do a significant number of private family foundations, including the Russell Berrie, Slifka, El-Hibri, Nathan Cummings, Luce, and GHR Foundations, among a cadre.

Broadly, there was a surge of activities after 9/11 that lasted for about ten years. It was mainly focused on relations with Muslims, but it did help interreligious cooperation overall. However, after the ten-year anniversary there was a sharp drop. But we are now seeing new avenues of interest opening, though interreligious cooperation is often not the primary purpose or focus. It is becoming valued as a secondary means towards the more primary purposes of funders. Interreligious cooperation, for example, is seen as a means towards working on immigration, poverty, development, or veterans’ issues, one that builds social cohesion and healthy communities.

How do you combine your role as a minister with your interreligious focus and work?

I tend largely to be seen as an outlier by my colleagues in ministry. That is despite the fact that my denomination (United Methodist) has been one of the champions of interreligious cooperation and was one of the founders of Religions for Peace (RfP). The Book of Discipline even stresses the value of engaging in ecumenical and interreligious cooperation and specifically names RfP as a partner.

Often people in local churches have trouble understanding my work, because they were given a conversion or chaos dichotomy as their only paradigm. At the same time, I do have the benefit of many brave people in the clergy ranks who have earnestly championed thoughtful ways our faith can relate to those of others in this diverse world. I inherit their successes and pick up their unsolved challenges.

There is much talk, especially in foundation circles, of theories of change. How would you approach an answer to your own approach? What do you think really makes the most difference?

My sense of what makes change happen centers on providing people with multiple points of personal exposure to religious others, concurrently framed with credible information about religions, including their own. This happens above all through personal contact and information that comes in ways that people can actually hear it, and overcomes their bias and cognitive and emotional dissonances. That is really the only way to make such transformations. Then we need to work backwards from there. How do we get the right people to experience the right sorts of such experiences in order to begin the long arc towards ending religious discrimination, conflict and violence in our world.

I have been surprised (pleasantly!) at some breakthroughs in interreligious cooperation in recent years. At first, when the movement was in its infancy, it was not on the public radar, at least as something that was named and concrete. Now we are seeing countless efforts to advance interreligious cooperation. Religion is at the table and being taken seriously in places it wasn’t for a long time. Today it is something that has to be dealt with. The question is how to deal with it well.

Who are some of your heroes in this process?

I have quite a few! Good mentors abound. I am blessed. But above all those I admire most are quiet women, who have tended to work behind the scenes. Several have worked for foundations, unnamed and largely unknown. They make things happen. They are clever, smart, and humble and have played critical roles in instigating and leavening the process. Among them are Lynn Szwaja, Constance Buchanan, Peggy Thomas, Bettina Gray, and Hillary Wiesner. Because interreligious meetings are often with religious community leaders, they are often men, because of our cultures. I think that is deeply ironic and sad, though. The real work and adjustments most of the time are being done by women.

What do you want to do next? What do you see as the next major hurdles?

 Wajahat Ali                            – Photo: Linkedin

Wajahat Ali                            – Photo: Linkedin

The real challenge is to see interreligious cooperation truly in the mainstream, as a core reality, with sound operating processes and institutions. I take a page here from the previously so-called Cosby effect (though we now may want to call it the Huxtable effect, after the characters in the TV show that normalized healthier images of African American families in the cultural psyche). The idea is that you can put images of religious others into the mainstream media – TV shows, movies, and beyond – and thus build empathy more quickly than just one by one.

Various colleagues, including MOST, which involves colleagues at Georgetown like Cynthia Schneider, and Unity Productions Foundation, are pioneers here. There are people in the industry also involved, great people like Wajahat Ali, who is now with Al Jazeera America. Together these creative people are helping to influence several productions and increase the odds of positive, healthy, and integrated images of the religious ‘other’ beingseen in the larger culture. For example, the effort to develop a network television show with a Muslim cop as a central character. These things move the needle quickly.

How does this fit with secular trends in the U.S.?

The phenomenon of the rising number of “nones” and “nons” is very interesting: more than 30 percent of Americans under 30 are not checking any box that specifies a denomination or faith tradition. But the evidence also suggests that their interest in, respect for, and even practice of spirituality and religious ideas is as great as other groups. It is just that they do not identify with the institutions or labels. When they report on their personal lives there is as much practical religious activity as some who claim a religious identity. It would be a mistake to see them as “lost” to religion. I also see an important increase in people having what scholars have dubbed “multiple religious belonging,” but which many practitioners call “interspirituality.” This is not widely recognized, but a large part of the culture has more than one religious affiliation, and a high percentage (more than 40 percent) change their religion. This fits naturally with advancements in communications, travel, migration, intermarriage, and globalized workforces.

Secular people still are hungry for meaning-making in their lives. As such, the flame of religion and spirituality still flickers, albeit differently. They want to be meaningfully part of the equation of interreligious cooperation.

Since 2011, the United Nations has celebrated World Interfaith Harmony Weekeach year in the first week of February. Any thoughts or recommendations as to how this opening can, in a practical way, advance interreligious cooperation? Any special plans on your end this year?

The funny thing is that many good people worked tirelessly on trying to get the United Nations to name a decade or year for interfaith purposes. Some were persistent and others even naive in their efforts. Then when Jordan advanced with other countries the idea of WIHW, I kept telling person after person in the movement, “you succeeded in ways that you didn’t even imagine.” It began to sink in. The end result was even better than what was imagined originally.

Religions for Peace U.S.A and the El-Hibri Foundation partnered on a series of webinars last year featuring leading experts. The summary collage of the best bits of those webinars is here, and the whole series is here. This year we are doing a month’s worth short videos featuring top experts telling us their top ten learnings in their area of expertise.They will be featured at www.rfpusa.org and www.elhibrifoundation.org throughout February and beyond.

This interview was originally published by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs on January 29, 2015.