Interfaith work and Philanthropy – a faith-based revolution or a pragmatic innovation?

“ We did not hear the term “Abrahamic faiths,” until about ten years ago. This term is not only a great leap forward in terms of interfaith work, but also a radical shift in how people are looking at each other’s faith,” said William Enright, the Director of Lake Institute for Faith and Giving, Indianapolis. He said this when we were discussing the state of interfaith work in the U.S and the implications on philanthropy, a few weeks ago, when I was at the Lilly School of Philanthropy, IUPUI. While the interfaith movement has a long history in this country and has seen many ups and downs, I will briefly discuss how religious diversity in the U.S is impacting it. I will briefly look at the opportunities it presents in the field of philanthropy.

Source: Case Western Reserve University.
Source: Case Western Reserve University.

My first significant exposure to the interfaith movement in Washington D.C was when I attended a Jum’ah (Friday)prayer conducted in an Episcopal church in downtown D.C, about two years ago. Ever since, each time I visit the city on a Friday, this is where I attend Friday prayers. While the notion of praying in a church may seem anathema to many Muslims across the world, this seems like the most normal thing in the U.S, where space constraints and financial restrictions are forcing small Muslim congregations to creatively reach out to other faith based groups and create spaces where they can pray, conduct meetings etc. This is not the only instance where prayers are held in a Church. I personally know of two other venues in the greater D.C area where this is the norm. What this points out is also the growing recognition and accommodation of Muslims by Christian and Jewish groups, who see the need to accommodate Muslims and their needs. This is also a good illustration of the concept of “Abrahamic faiths,” that Mr.Enright pointed out. While not new radically new as a concept (the notion of Abrahamic faiths is centuries old) but its usage and acceptance is rather new.

In “America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity”, Robert Wuthnow, Princeton University professor of Religion takes a close, hard look at the changing religious landscape in the U.S, and analyzes its impact on the American population. Using in-depth interviews with religious leaders, lay-men and also people from the “new religions” in the American landscape i.e., Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, the book provides a compelling argument for greater inter-faith dialogue and also a call for Christians to be more pro-active in learning and accommodating these religious groups. The key argument in the book is that the increasing religious diversity is presenting challenges to the American social fabric and we must pay close attention to this issue. There is a call for greater interaction and also work between religious groups, though a stronger focus has been put on Christian groups to do more, in terms of inter-faith work.

He calls for reflective pluralism, one in which there is adequate thinking and consideration given to what one believes in, and where one’s beliefs are coming from. He points out rightly, that for exclusivists to ignore all other religions and to continue to live in a bubble will be hard in the future, as the country becomes increasingly diverse.

Shoulder to Shoulder and Interfaith Youth Core

Two organizations that seem to be at the cutting edge of interfaith work in the U.S are Shoulder to Shoulder, an interfaith alliance of over 20 national organizations, across the country from Jewish, Muslim, Christian and other faithbased groups that have come together to defend each other’s rights. This is exemplified in their stance against Islamophobia, and other racially motivated campaigns by radical groups in the country. Their mission is: “Sharing ideas for starting community initiatives to address anti-Muslim sentiment by maintaining an archive of past events. Offering resources materials in a comprehensive online library that includes worship materials, educational curricula, videos, and more.”

 

Interfaith Youth Core is another group that is redefining how interfaith work is being carried out. It is reaching out to Millennials across college campuses to form a coalition of groups that educate each other and also organize along faith lines to transform the religious context of the country. Eboo Patel, the founder of the group exemplifies this struggle, and he illustrates that in his autobiographical book Acts of Faith.

 

Challenges: One exclusive path or many ways to reach truth?

Exceptionalism is one of the biggest challenges facing America in the realm of interfaith dialogue. While some denominations tend to be exclusive, others take a more ecumenical perspective when it comes to reaching ultimate reality, or religious truth. Wuthnow points this out by saying : ““ Among the thorniest questions that religious diversity poses for all the major religious traditions is whether or not they can sustain their historic claims to being uniquely true or at least better than other traditions in relating people to the sacred. Much of the reason for believers taking an active part in particular denominations or congregations has been the conviction that God could be found best in one theological location rather than in the other”.

What this calls for, then, is not only willingness to dialogue and to be open to ideas, but also to be secure enough in one’s faith that this first step becomes possible. Most often, insecurity and lack of initiative hampers most efforts. A theme that Wuthnow brings up more than once is that of the majority community accommodating the minorities. This is not only a pragmatic position, but one that resonates with the ethos of building a civil society. And if the interfaith projects mentioned above are any indication, this seems to be happening, as we speak.

There is reason to be positive, though more efforts need to be made in this direction, Wuthnow adds. One of the most eclectic experiences I have had in Washington D.C (when I lived there) was attending Jum’ah at a church in downtown, walking out a few blocks and eating Matzo Ball soup at a Jewish restaurant. It was my little pilgrimage to honor all three faiths, though arguably the Matzo Ball soup is only culturally a Jewish delicacy. The diehard fundamentalists may cringe at this thought, but this is the reality of Islam in the U.S and also reflects the pragmatism that followers of each religion demonstrate. This, I believe will define the future of interfaith work in the U.S.

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