On Sept. 11, 1893, the first Parliament of World Religions opened in Chicago. Thousands of religious leaders from across the globe convened, with the following faiths represented: Confucianism, Taoism, Shintoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Many reasons for such a gathering were named, with the final one being: “To bring the nations of the earth into a more friendly fellowship, in the hope of securing permanent international peace.”
Today in the U.S., interfaith and inter-religious groups are growing in numbers. Finding common ground and working for the greater good of the wider community are often among the reasons for these organizations’ existence. In our nation of many colors, ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, we have reason to hope for and work toward peace in this pluralist reality. Yet politics and debates threaten to push us apart, where unpassable lines are drawn on issues. Current and hopeful elected leaders often link their platforms to values, and those values are sometimes linked to religion. Emotions run high, and tempers flare as sides develop, each certain of its righteousness. Along the way, the goal of peaceable living among our neighbors, of trusting the goodwill of one another, is too often lost.
In Pocatello, we are fortunate to have a vibrant organization, Portneuf Valley Interfaith Fellowship, whose member faith communities hold fast to this understanding that we are all neighbors, coming from the common source, even as we each understand that source in different ways. To date, PVIF representatives have enjoyed interfaith and inter-religious dialogue experientially, through planning several annual community events for Pocatello. The familiar setting of working on a common project together is a great way for getting to know each other. Any teacher or coach would agree on the notable benefits of teamwork and cooperation. Common projects have advantages: They are specific; they follow an agenda; they are finite; once finished, the experience provides both affirmation of the group’s mission and feedback for future projects. With such experiences providing a sort of skeleton script, the group can learn about each other with little concern for broaching traditionally taboo topics. Tasks are divvied up according to individual resources of skill, interest and time. Deadlines are placed, and people hold themselves accountable to achieve their respective duties. Hiccups happen along the way, so flexibility can develop. Some individual growth happens, as we learn to receive and offer praise and encouragement, forgiveness and grace.
Beginning in September, the Portneuf Valley Interfaith Fellowship will add intentional opportunities for its members to engage in dialogue for its own sake.
This common-projects model is meaningful, both in its explicit task of providing community interfaith events and in the implicit opportunity of bringing people together. Why add intentional inter-religious dialogue? It has its own advantages, in that it is participant driven; its end goal is deeper understanding of each other as humans and as people of faith; it is open-ended, without pressure of a deadline. Participants enhance both their understanding of others and their ability to connect their own actions with their own faith and values.
We are often taught that it is best not to speak of certain subjects, in this case religion, faith and values. Intentionally coming together to share our beliefs may seem counter-intuitive to some, or a little scary at the very least. How best to go about these inter-religious dialogues? First, we will begin by defining dialogue as distinct from the all too common debate format. Debates require each participant to study a given subject, know the opposition’s strengths and vulnerabilities, listen intently — for the purpose of formulating a counter-strike. Debate becomes a battle of wits, of speaking talent and skill, and even of popularity. Dialogue asks only that each participant bring a willingness to both share and listen, with open curiosity and desire to understand. Dialogue requires trust among participants; all must enter the space with humility and a sense that each person’s contributions are necessary and unique.
We hope inter-religious dialogue for PVIF will provide a path to enhanced relationships, deeper understanding of ourselves and of our neighbors, as people of faith. Such work is much like an inoculation protecting participants from the perils of ignorance, prejudice and suspicions between groups of people. When we take the time to know our neighbors, we come closer to that goal of building an everlasting peace.
All faith communities of Pocatello and the surrounding area are welcome to join PVIF. Membership is $35 per year. For more information, find, like and message us on Facebook.
The Reverend Jenni Peek is minister of the Pocatello Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and the current President of the Portneuf Valley Interfaith Fellowship.