Interfaith gatherings — in the form of peace marches, prayer breakfasts, demonstrations, panel discussions, academic conferences and inter-religious ceremonies — have grown in popularity over the last 5 years.
If you have seen one of these events advertised in your community, you may have thought it was a nice thing for other people to attend, but that it wasn’t for you. Or despite all the advertised information, you may have only noticed the word “faith” and thought, “that is an event for religious people or people who belong to a certain religion.” I assure you that neither are true.
Interfaith events may feature representatives from the various spiritual traditions from around the world, but they are certainly intended for — and convened around — everyone. An interfaith event may include attendees from religious and non-religious groups, atheists, scientists, politicians/city officials and academics. They may even include atheists or religious “nones” (those that don’t identify with a specific religion). These voices are gathered to engage in ongoing conversation about how to communicate effectively regardless of our differences, or how to respect the opinions of others, or ways to achieve peace in the world through non-violent means, and it is your perspective — and your voice — that deserves to be included.
Interfaith conversations can include such topics as ethics and morality; love and compassion; service to the community; climate change and global warming; personal spiritual practice such as prayer or meditation; social justice; human rights issues for women, children and minorities; or liturgy and the history of ritual as it relates to cultural and religious traditions from around the world.
But don’t fool yourself into thinking that these conversations are dry, academic, monotonous and uninspired — like some sermons or speeches tend to be. Most of these events are lively and passionate (sometimes heated), are fun and inspiring and most times involve great food and a focus on community.
Here are the top 5 reasons that you should start attending interfaith events:
1. Conflict resolution
No matter what model you’re using — the “Four S’s of Interfaith” or the “Interfaith Triangle” — using conversation to defuse violence and tension through peaceful means is something that we need more of in the home, the workplace, and the world. Using words to solve our disagreements and learning to take the role of other is one of the best examples we can set for our peers, our communities and our children. Peace begins with you.
2. It expands your own awareness
Discussing topics like spirituality and religion with others allows you to see the world through their eyes. And learning about others’ feelings, cultures and opinions helps you become more aware of the various perspectives that comprise our world. Allowing others to feel safe and encouraging them to share deeply — including sometimes personal details — is also a way to foster interpersonal connections that can bring about an expanded sense of awareness within your family, neighborhood and your community. By expressing and sharing together in this safe space, we are contributing more wisdom to the world — more goodness, more truth and more beauty.
3. It’s for a good cause
There is no equivalent of a “mega church” in the interfaith community. Most of these organizations are grassroots, very small and run by a few volunteers who are dedicated to a mission of unity and world peace. Most of these events do not benefit the individual faith communities, but give directly back to the community they are hosted in, donating proceeds to local charities and encouraging others to do the same. The charities are usually connected to universal concerns like human rights, hunger, poverty, the homeless and the abused. Consider showing up early and helping set up chairs or staying late and striking tables. It’s for a good cause and will be greatly appreciated.
4. Good conversation, good people
Interfaith events are not strictly educational, they are highly social and in some cases may put you in a situation where you have to think before you speak. This is great practice for the real world (especially the workplace). These gatherings usually attract a wide array of people from different backgrounds, cultures and walks of life. Introduce yourself to everyone you can and listen to their stories. Yes, you might learn something from passively observing a talk or panel discussion, but without an audience (or someone to ask meaningful questions) these conversations can be a lot of head-nodding and back-patting. Raise your hand, let your voice be heard. Interfaith events also attract people who are open-minded and who are willing to work out their problems (internal and external) through peaceful means. Be careful, you may unexpectedly find a new friend.
5. It’s trending
From the Festival of Faiths in Louisville, KY to the Parliament of the World’s Religions to Interfaith Week in St. Petersburg, interfaith events are taking hold around the world and gaining in popularity. The Parliament — typically held in a different country every five years — recently announced that due to an increase in demand (and worldwide interfaith activity) that it will be increasing the frequency of the conference to every two years. Eboo Patel and his Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core have made great strides to raise awareness around interfaith discussions at college campuses throughout the US by encouraging students to reach out to others and by producing a student-led podcast, “Common Knowledge.” At a local and national level, everyone from academics to politicians are interested in interfaith dialogue. Even Morgan Spurlock’s acclaimed episodic show, 30 Days, has put interfaith relations front and center more than once.
Still skeptical? Still think the whole thing sounds dubious?
Maybe you’re afraid that someone will try to engage you in a debate about your beliefs and that you won’t look smart or have the right answers. Or maybe you feel you already have the right answers and don’t need to listen to others — that listening to and contemplating the opinions and viewpoints of others could be seen as wavering or being soft on your own beliefs. Consider the fact that exposure to other opinions may help you grow as an individual — not only by expanding your capacity for compassion and care, but also by strengthening and allowing for a deeper understanding and appreciation of your own practice. It will also demonstrate your willingness to lead — to wade into the waters of interfaith dialogue and out of your comfort zone. If you are the leader of a spiritual community, ask them directly if they’re interested in joining this conversation.
Here’s one more thing to consider. Breaking out of your daily or weekly routine can be good for you. Because the majority of participants in interfaith events are representatives from the various faith traditions, and because those participants usually attend regular services at churches, temples and mosques, they are rarely held on Saturday or Sunday mornings. This means a healthy disruption of your chores, errands and other work.
So, get over yourself, get out there and connect with new people.
Peace begins at home, and world peace begins with you.