The Truth About Interfaith Dialogue

By Monday, October 9, 2017

It was my fourth flight that week, and all I could think about was how foreign it felt to be back in the United States. I was seated next to a woman named Mary, a Methodist pastor of a church in Little Rock, Arkansas, and her husband Tony. The familiarity of their southern accents made me feel as if I’d never actually left home, let alone traveled around the Middle East for a month. After mentioning that I had just returned from a trip to Israel, Jordan, and Poland, we spent the whole flight discussing interfaith relations from a Christian perspective.

Mary and Tony shared that they are a part of an annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Dinner in Little Rock, which hosts about 350 people–Jews, Christians, and Muslims. I was encouraged that the motivation to create this space was not birthed out of a crisis, but out of celebration. With this model in mind, it is evident that interfaith relations flourish most at a local level, when people start to build relationships outside of their own faith communities and don’t wait for tragedy to bring them together in solidarity.

These interfaith gatherings are happening in other places across America, as well. For 17 years, Central Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI, has been hosting their annual Community Interfaith Thanksgiving Celebration, with over 650 people of all faiths in attendance. Katie Gordon, of Kaufman Interfaith Institute spoke about the increased attendance from year to year:

“Over the last year, in our increasingly divisive political climate, we’ve noticed more and more people coming into interfaith programs inspired to engage with our neighbors from different backgrounds. While nationally, a lot of other-izing rhetoric and policies are used, I think that people realize that they are empowered to do things locally–like showing up and getting to know our Muslim community members.”

This local approach to interfaith relations seems to be working.

In Detroit, Jews and Christians are working together to turn a historic synagogue which housed the first Jewish community of Detroit–and multiple churches– into an interfaith community center, which they hope will be “a place for reconciliation across socioeconomic, ethnic, [and] religious walls.” The former Temple Beth El, built in the early 1920s, will be renamed Bethel Community Transformation Center. In April, local Jews and Christians enjoyed a Passover seder together to signify the unity of the two communities and their efforts to make the new center a place for everyone.

Of course people of different religions can “get along,” but in order to get to the heart of the matter, there must be something deeper. A relationship.

One of the major barriers to improving interfaith relations is the reluctance to form relationships outside of one’s community. Overcoming this obstacle will go a long way in demonstrating a commitment to repairing centuries of brokenness and distrust. If we want to do something about the state of interfaith relations in our country, we have to start with individual friendships, and then spend time investing in those friendships. Friends can’t be “projects,” but friends can work on projects together.

The Jewish and Christian communities of Detroit have committed to work together on something that matters to both of them, and because of that, they have not only identified a common goal, they have established relationships. These relationships require daily effort, but rather than being superficial, they last, simply because they are real.

Sometimes the desire for interfaith cooperation is sparked by crisis. While people usually come together during these times, we must not wait for tragedy to unite us. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Jews, Muslims, and Christians have teamed up to provide aid to victims, as well as counseling those who have been displaced. Seven mosques have opened up to house those displaced by the storm, and two of those mosques are distributing medical supplies. Shariq Ghani, who works with the interfaith community in Houston commented:

“What’s really going to test us is after the storm. People listen to their faith leaders; after the storm is when faith leaders have to send a unified message of striving together for the common good.”

From Houston, we can learn that true interfaith cooperation isn’t just showing up when tragedy strikes, it’s staying faithfully to pick up the pieces even after everyone else has left. The determination to stick around is only formed out of relationships with people, otherwise, our interactions never move past merely doing “the neighborly thing.”

Across the United States, Jews, Muslims, and Christians are using their differences and similarities as a foundation, rather than a stumbling block, to benefit their communities. The past 2,000 years haven’t exactly been the model for interfaith relations, especially between Jews and Christians, but that does not mean it is too late to start repairing the damage through our individual words and actions. We can each play a significant role in local interreligious dialogue if we are willing to step out of our comfortable religious bubbles.

Changing the current state of Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations can only happen if every conversation and interaction is saturated with love, no strings attached. Here’s the truth about interfaith dialogue: It begins with relationships.

Elysia Martin

Elysia Martin is a student at American University pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Jewish studies. She formerly interned in the photo archives of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., has worked as a campus intern for The David Project, and was a research associate at Endowment for Middle East Truth, a pro-Israel think tank, where her article “The Hidden Agenda of the BDS Movement” was published. Elysia received a grant in 2016 to conduct original research on Jewish converts to Christianity during the Holocaust and was also a part of the 2016 Bonhoeffer Fellowship class for Christians United for Israel. She is currently president of CUFI at American University. When she is not watching Hallmark movies or talking about how much she loves Texas, she can be found perusing old archives around Washington, D.C.