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As communication becomes increasingly global, interactions with people who have different beliefs, customs, and worldviews from our own become more common. We need to learn about those who are different from us and, at a minimum, to learn how to coexist with them. Building multifaith relationships bolsters the stability of our communities and country, and it also sustains one of America’s most cherished values — freedom of religion. Here are some ways to engage with people of multiple traditions.
1. Live in Peace
One of the stated purposes of the U.S. Constitution is to insure domestic tranquility. To have this tranquility, we need to be able to achieve a level of peace with ourselves and our fellow citizens. In Building a Global Civic Culture: Education for an Interdependent World, sociologist Elise Boulding asserts that “the peaceable kingdom” tradition is just as present in every religious tradition as is the idea of “holy-war.” As examples, she cites Martin Buber’s model community, which was meant to embody “the highest spiritual values of Judaism while practicing a nonviolent, reconciling relationship with Arab brothers as co-tillers of the same soil;” the use of the Baha’i transnational network for the International Year of Peace in 1986; the participation of Buddhist orders in the Second Disarmament Session of the United Nations in 1984; the Catholic Worker Movement; the work of the Quaker United Nations Office; and more. We suggest cultivating the democratic virtue of peace by learning about the teachings related to peace and peace movements in your own tradition as well as in other traditions with which you are unfamiliar. One source from the Christian tradition is Living Peace: A Spirituality of Contemplation and Action, by Catholic priest John Dear, in which he calls us to become peacemakers "within our own broken hearts and broken families, in our bloody city streets and corrupt government offices, in the war zones and refugee camps." Here are 12 passages from this book that can function as "peace prompts."
2. Create Memorials
Earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, wildfires, floods, mudslides, volcanic eruptions, disease outbreaks, virus epidemics, gang violence, civil wars, refugees displaced from their homes, oppression and suppression of freedoms by dictatorial leaders, water and air pollution -- the list of tragedies and atrocities keeps growing every day. Some of them are rightly attributed to religious differences. We have much to remember, many to pray for, and much to atone for. Host an open service at your place of worship to remember the deceased and those in need. Respond to these events by joining together to offer prayers for forgiveness, mercy, goodness, safety, and protection. Examples of such prayers can be found in Spirituality & Practice's Praying the News blog.
3. Honor Multifaith Leaders
In The Difference a Day Makes, Karen M. Jones, author and founder of Benevolent Planet, suggests recognizing a local citizen peacekeeper for his or her anti-violence efforts. Leaders could also be honored for their efforts in building bridges between spiritual communities. Recommend to your congregation, your local Multifaith Council, or your community center that you hold an event to honor a local citizen for his or her efforts in encouraging the practice of democratic values and virtues.
4. Take a Multifaith Road Trip
Rabbi Amy Eilberg offers a moving description of her experience of an multifaith road trip in From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace. Eilberg experienced friendship, camaraderie, and mutual appreciation with Imam Yahya Hendi, Rabbi Gerry Serotta, and pastor Steve Martin as they traveled with the Caravan of Reconciliation to promote interreligious dialogue. They gathered clergy from Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, offering teachings from their respective traditions in support of active, respectful engagement with people of different religions. They also discussed the dangers of religious intolerance to American democracy. The clergy offered stories from their own experiences in interreligious engagement as well as prayers for peace.
Whether through sharing prayers, worship, meals, spiritual practices, service projects, teachings, or road trips, interreligious engagement is a great way to support American democracy. You don’t have to travel thousands of miles like the Caravan of Reconciliation. You can start in your own community — making connections with other clergy, and then together visiting churches, synagogues, mosques, Buddhist centers, schools, universities, and community centers.
5. Observe a Three-Day Sabbath
In Getting to the Heart of Interfaith, the Interfaith Amigos (Protestant pastor Don Mackenzie, Rabbi Ted Falcon, and Sufi sheikh Jamal Rahman) describe a way for the three Abrahamic faiths to meet each other and deepen their dialogue. They celebrate a Three-Day Shabbat or Sabbath. Friday is the main gathering day for Muslims, Friday evening and Saturday is Shabbat for Jews, and Sunday is traditionally the day for communal worship for Christians. Meeting at each community's place of worship, they can witness or share in the rituals, then have a simple meal or snack, and talk together about the experience. "No one would be asked to 'water down' their tradition," the Interfaith Amigos write, "but each would celebrate the deepest yearnings of their own faith." This kind of engagement encourages respect, appreciation, empathy, open-mindedness, embrace of diversity, cooperation, searching for transcendence, and cultivation of wisdom — all democratic virtues.
6. Have a Service for the Nation
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees religious freedom. Remind people of this right by inviting the various faith communities in your area to plan and participate in a Service for the Nation. This might be held before an election or a national holiday such as the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, or Presidents' Day. Include a mix of spiritual practices representative of different groups, such as a Buddhist vow, a Christian litany, a Jewish blessing, a Muslim prayer, a Hindu chant, etc. For ideas for planning and hosting such an event, as well as a collection of sample prayers, see the resource Multifaith Prayer Service for the Nation at PracticingDemocracy.net.
7. Host a “Love Your Neighbors” Panel or Conference
It is one thing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and recite “liberty and justice for all.” It’s another to actively strive to ensure that the liberty and justice of everyone you encounter is protected. It is one thing to say that Americans hold common good as a core democratic value. It’s another to actively strive to ensure that the common good of all Americans is pursued. To that end, organize a panel or conference with speakers from various religions to share teachings about charity, responding to injustice, and loving our neighbors. Have each speaker give historical and more immediate examples. Use this panel discussion/conference to start an multifaith partnership if there isn’t one already in place in your community. Commit to working together on monthly service projects or justice-oriented projects in your area.
8. Share What’s Real
One of the many important freedoms of American democracy is the freedom of press. However, that freedom may be eroded by leaders denouncing media that is critical of them as being “fake” or biased. This trend can be especially troublesome when believers of a particular religion are singled out and denounced, often with erroneous information about their beliefs and practices. Pundits argue that denouncements by a governmental leader contribute to an erosion of public trust in fact-based journalism and encourage leaders to attack other pillars of democracy.
While you can fact check with sites like Fact Check, Snopes, Politifact, and Open Secrets, why not go a step further by publishing your own fact-filled interreligious newsletter for your area? Consider creating a comprehensive bulletin, calendar, and/or website that tells your community what actually happens — the projects, activities, and services — at your local places of worship. Then your community can easily access the truth of what your neighbors are doing, like the synagogue that prepares a meal for the local women’s shelter once a month, the mosque that operates a donation center on site, or the church that opens its doors to shelter undocumented immigrants and help them with legal and job assistance.
9. Practice Unity
While the news continues to call our attention to political divisions, we are mindful of the spiritual teaching of “one hand, one heart” — that all our individual appearances are specific manifestations of the Whole Essence. This concept of Divine Oneness — of a prevailing unity behind the appearance of diversity — is a central theme in many mystical traditions. Regardless of our political stance, we can benefit from considering and focusing on our oneness — our commonalities — rather than on that which scares and divides us. Here are some spiritual practices to build awareness of our unity.
*Consider this quote from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki: “We all have the same colored bones.”Contemplate the wonder of the infinite varieties of what God has done with two eyes, two ears, a nose, and a mouth in your fellow humans; then contemplate all the ways we are the same.
*Use the phrase "just like me" to signify your unity with others. Whenever you find yourself assessing another person, whether you are saying something critical or something complimentary, right after you think or say it, add the statement "just like me." For example, "That (person from a different religion) is so sure of himself, just like me." "That (person from a different spiritual community) is very generous, just like me."
*Consider this quote from The Heart of the Enlightened by Anthony de Mello, “The human mind makes foolish divisions in what love sees as one.” Pay special attention to those moments in your daily life when separations disappear.
*Try Jane Vennard’s suggestion for intercessory prayer in Embracing the World. When it is hard to articulate prayers for an enemy, do it nonverbally. Simply hold that person up to God's love.
*Try the meditation that Ted Falcon recommends in Religion Gone Astray. Meditate on the Hebrew "Adonai Hu ha-Elohim" (1 Kings 18:39) or an English equivalent, "The One indwells in all." Originally spoken by the children of Israel when the prophet Elijah demonstrated the power of their God, this verse is traditionally recited as a meditation and spoken at the moment of death. We are called to remember that everyone and everything that exists is an expression of the One Life we share.
*Take what Andrew Harvey, in The Direct Path, calls a "Unity Walk." Through it you attempt to experience the innate "unity" of all experience. As you walk, consider and "know" everything you see, smell, touch, and feel as different aspects of the One you are one with in the core of your consciousness. The flower you love in the flower bed is the smile of the One; the wind brushing against your arm is the One moving against you; the faces of the people you pass in the street are all different masks of the One face that is also yours; every tiny sensation in your body belongs to the One living in and as you. It helps when you are doing this exercise to say the Sanskrit word for divine peace, Shantih, again and again in your heart center. As your experience of inner profound peace deepens, your unity with everything inside you and outside you can naturally shine out. At the end of your walk, extend peace and unity to all beings in the four directions, and dedicate any insights or joys you may have experienced to the happiness of all beings everywhere.
10. Connect with Others
Many dedicated people are doing amazing work across our country, including that of the many active Multifaith Councils. Sometimes it’s best to join with an existing project rather than to start from scratch. To find out what’s already happening and who’s doing it, explore groups like the United Religions Initiative (there are URI Cooperation Circles in nearly 100 U.S. communities), the Interfaith Youth Core, the Interfaith Observer, and/or the more than 1,300 non-governmental organizations associated with the United Nations.
Photo credit: iStock/Stefano Ember