My family is religiously eclectic. I am in the midst of my studies to become a rabbi of the Reform Jewish movement. My wife is in the process of converting to Judaism. Her family is Mexican Roman Catholic in origin; my mother-in-law attends mass every day if she can. My mother, a Jew-by-Choice of 26 years, raised my siblings and I in the Reform Jewish denomination. My sister and brother recognize their cultural ties to Judaism, but are largely areligious. My mother’s family is German Baptist; my godparents are Baha’i.
And when we get together during the holidays or other important family events, our meals, our conversation, our protests, and our laughter, instill a sense of belonging around our table. We find amongst ourselves many differences and many commonalities, all of which served to unite us rather than divide.
I see the same trends at other interfaith events that I attend. The event entitled Why We Stay, held back in September, I consider to be similarly successful. According to the surveys submitted by participants, the women’s interfaith event met a need in the community for conversations about religion, across religious divides.
I’ve noticed that interfaith events we consider successful have 3 key elements:
I postulate that we each already hold a sense of trust for the others around the table when we come together for these events. We trust that our loved ones would not invite to the table individuals whom we could not trust ourselves. And so the inner barriers we all have inside to keep the “other” on the outside were permeable.
At Why We Stay, the participants with whom I sat expressed to me a sense of relief and safety to be able to be in company of other women of faith who want to talk about the roles of women in religious community and the challenges they face, even across faith traditions. They inherently trusted the intentions of the other participants to join with them in honest, open dialogue.
2. Time to Mingle
I have also attended interfaith events that absolutely tanked. When I was in Hebrew High, my congregation’s teen religious school program, we visited a church so that we could meet their teen religious school class. I am ashamed to say that I, like my fellow classmates, spurned the initial attempts by our Christian peers to engage in conversation. We didn’t feel comfortable in the new environment to start these conversations, and we knew that if we could hold out for 15 minutes, the organized programming would begin. We did not have the trust necessary, nor enough time to mingle.
The social element of an interfaith event cannot be understated. Virtually no one will remember the content of the presentation verbatim – but we’ll remember how pleasant the conversation was with the kind Buddhist gentleman who sat next to us at the event. We’ll remember that the 7th Day Adventist woman we met by the drink table is from the same home town. These social connections forge within us positive associations that take an interfaith event from ‘good’ to great.
That being said, an interfaith event must have a focus in order to be successful. Only mingling will not create the lasting impact that our best interfaith events achieve. There must be a focus, a main point around which we rally. At Why We Stay, it was the roles and experiences of women in faith communities, through the lens of the Faithfully Feminist book and its authors. I sit on an interfaith panel once every two months in Joplin, MO, and for each panel we convene, we panelists focus on a particular topic. Last weekend, the topic was: one holiday from my tradition, and what it says about my tradition. Previous topics include: misconceptions about my faith, life cycle events, origins of my religion, etc. Even in my home, my “interfaith events” are centered around enjoying ourselves as a family.
Each event needs a focus. Now, 5 months after Why We Stay, we are thinking about another possible women’s event. What shall our next event’s focus be? If you have suggestions, please submit them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.