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Local Congregations Respond to Growing Religious Diversity

By Gilbert Friend-Jones

Elaborate Hindu temples, Islamic masajid and Buddhist monasteries are not quite how the nation perceives the Deep South. Nor do most people expect to find Ethiopian neighborhoods in icy Minnesota. But today, hospitals across America routinely call translators as well as doctors for emergencies. Schools where 20 or more languages are spoken present staggering intercultural challenges. Tamil-speaking congregations, Hispanic radio stations and Vietnamese shopping malls testify to the growing diversity of communities everywhere.

Diana Eck, Director of Harvard University's "Pluralism Project," has documented this shift in mainstream religious life in her book, A New Religious America: How a 'Christian Country' Has Now Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation. Muslims now outnumber Episcopalians in the United States. Los Angeles has more variants of Buddhism than anywhere else in the world. Muslim Girl Scouts promise to "serve Allah and my country." Nor is this solely an American phenomenon. It is happening in many parts of the world.

How are local congregations responding to this exploding diversity? In this article a few examples will be drawn from North America and Great Britain, though creative interfaith work is happening everywhere in the world.

Pass-A-Grille Beach Community UCC, an 850-member congregation near St. Petersburg, FL, has created an Interfaith Ministry Team to address the opportunities and challenges of a multi-cultural world. They conduct monthly "Lunch-And-Learn" sessions where representatives of neighboring non-Christian faith communities share their personal faith and provide overviews of their traditions. Because women's voices often are not heard in interfaith dialogue, this church insists on both male and female presenters. Lunches honor the dietary requirements of the guests. These guests also offer something from their own worship tradition in the church's regular worship.

Within weeks after each session, Pass-A-Grille members visit their guests' particular community of faith. The team maintains a "world religions shelf" in the church's library. It publishes an interfaith calendar, websites and general articles in the church's newsletter. It invites members of other faith traditions to join them for a "Labyrinth Walk For Peace" on New Year's Eve. When Muslims joined them this year, the Christians soon discovered how their meditative walk was congruent with the Islamic practice of haj or pilgrimage.

Plymouth Church, a large downtown congregation in Minneapolis, is participating with other Christian, Jewish and Islamic communities to create more affordable housing in their city. For the next five years, hundreds of volunteers from various faith traditions will be working side by side to reclaim an urban neighborhood, while creating an interfaith "neighborhood" of trust and understanding. Forming a partnership with Habitat for Humanity, they hope to raise approximately $3 million for materials. They have committed to build 55 units of mixed but affordable housing over the next five years.

"The faith communities of downtown Minneapolis realized that two major benefits would come from our cooperation on issues of affordable housing,"says the Rev. James Gertmenian, Plymouth's senior pastor and a UCC minister. "First, we'd be more able to make a significant response to our city's housing crisis. Second, the visibility of our common effort would be a telling statement in itself, about the nature of faith, the power of our mutual respect, and the passion that we feel about meeting a basic human need."

Central Congregational UCC, Atlanta, GA, now houses four congregations in its facilities — Jewish, Korean, Cuban and its own. These four come together occasionally for worship, service projects and fellowship. Central UCC has conducted support groups for interfaith couples, and made its Associate Membership category available to individuals whose primary affiliation is with a non-Christian tradition but who wish to associate with the congregation and affirm its covenant. It is currently involved in a citywide effort to create a metropolitan interfaith organization.

In Vancouver, Canada, laity and clergy from various faith communities are meeting regularly with politicians, economists and community leaders to address issues of the drug economy, labor disputes, and privatization. They are part of the "Faith and the Common Good" project in ten cities throughout Canada, encouraged by the World Conference on Religion and Peace.

Hindu temples, historic synagogues, ancient churches and Islamic mosques now face each other across busy roads in Leicester, England. Jain and Sikh temples testify to the diversity of this community. Where nearby cities are suffering racial and religious violence, Leicester has been cited for its successes in avoiding conflict and fostering mutual support. In 1986, its faith communities organized a "Council of Faiths" to encourage communication and cooperation among themselves and to respond to government initiatives. It is regularly involved in education, health care, police consultations, urban renewal, and community building. In cooperation with the University of Leicester, the Council of Faiths sponsors dialogues and educational opportunities in religious pluralism. Interfaith gardening groups have planted and tilled plots around nearly every house of worship in Leicester, and traveled to nearby Beth Shalom (Britain's Holocaust Center) to work together in its large memorial gardens.

In London, two congregations — St. Andrew's Anglican and St. Anne's United Reformed -- came together with an ecumenical vision to share a single building, and with an interfaith vision to create the London Inter Faith Centre. Hosted by two Christian churches, this center always works in close consultation with other faith communities. Its goals are to build bridges between faith communities, to broaden Christian perceptions of non-Christian traditions, and to facilitate cooperation with other service organizations. Supported by the Blair government, its mission has grown to national proportions. Following September 11 it organized a number of Christian-Muslim forums. It publishes materials, organizes conferences, maintains an interfaith library, and has developed a "Certificate in Interfaith Relations for Christians."

Many US and international organizations exist to encourage interfaith work at the global and local levels. Some are based on individual memberships and some are networks of member organizations. Some are focused on spirituality, some on dialogue, some on advocacy for human rights, peace and social justice. One of the best resources is the Inter Faith Network for the UK. Its small but able staff has published a manual for local interfaith efforts called The Local Inter Faith Guide. The Inter Faith Network also has developed a "code of conduct" that would be of great help to any new interfaith work.

(Previously printed in United Church News)

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