Interfaith Movement In America Digs Deeper

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 9, 2008

For more than a decade, interfaith efforts have been on the rise in the United States, fueled by the growth of newer religious minority groups and by post-Sept. 11 interest in Islam. But participants and experts say a new credo is changing the movement: Go deeper.

Meeting for months in small dialogue groups. Running a joint anti-gun violence program. Taking educational trips together.

This growing wave represents a significant change in the movement called "interfaith," a transformation driven by the belief that efforts have been too feel-good, not concrete or effective enough. It favors intimate group projects and community service over largely anonymous and safe group settings, such as lectures and joint worship services that happen once a year.

That philosophy made the small back room of the D.C. club Busboys and Poets feel even smaller one night last month, when a few dozen people listened to an imam interview a rabbi and then broke into groups for discussion. The assigned questions: What traditions of your own do you hold most dear? What could you learn from other groups you don't agree with?

People made soft, general comments. But by the time the whole group rejoined for a Q&A, they were more frank.

"How do you deal with a fanatic, a person who wants to kick you out of your home?" a Christian man originally from Palestine asked in a sharp tone, from the front corner of the room.

And a little later from the other corner: "How do you bond with people who believe when they destroy you, they will go to heaven?" a Jewish man who emigrated from Eastern Europe asked loudly.

Closeness can breed tension, but intimacy works for Larry Kugler, 59, of Springfield. "When you're in a lecture, you're not engaged," he said.

Kugler and his wife are members of Congregation Adat Reyim, whose interfaith work was centered for two decades on an annual Thanksgiving meal it shared with a Presbyterian congregation. About three years ago a dispute over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict led the two groups into a series of intense meetings of a few dozen people. Today there is a single group of about 20, including Muslims, that meets every other month to discuss books and fundraisers for its mission: supporting two Middle Eastern organizations that bring Israelis and Palestinians together.

The Kuglers were also members of a 12-person group of Muslim and Jewish couples who started meeting monthly around the time of the Second Intifada in 2000, when tensions began boiling over between Israelis and Palestinians.

"It changed me forever," said Eileen Kugler, 57, "in terms of opening my eyes to the fact that we really do -- all people -- view things through our own prism."

Yet even as interfaith efforts grow -- more than fourfold since 2000, according to research -- a small minority of Americans participates in it. This has caused advocates to look deeper at underlying questions, such as whether disputes that divide faith groups have anything to do with religion. Are they more political or cultural? And what does "interfaith" mean in an America where many families have blended-faith identities?

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