Interfaith Movement In America Digs Deeper
Efforts Shifting to Intimate Dialogue, Service Projects

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?

The Rev. William Sachs, who runs interfaith programs at the 4,000-member St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Richmond, has started organizing small groups of Episcopalians and Muslims to talk, including in one another's homes, about local projects they can do, such as helping to boost downtown development. And last fall he took a small group of parishioners to Oman, Jordan and Qatar to learn about Islam.

Sachs, who founded the church's Center for Reconciliation and Mission, said the interfaith change mirrors something much wider.

"Over the last generation there has been a profound shift away from Christian denominational leaders plotting theological agreements and organizations in conference rooms in New York. There has been a complete pendulum shift, with the emphasis on local, congregational initiatives," he said.

For 25 years, Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation has conducted lectures and large interfaith worship services with a Catholic parish, and it started similar sessions about a decade ago with a mosque. But the Reform temple in Reston is in the process of making what Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk calls "a dynamic change." That will include starting a months-long, small-group dialogue with the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, a mosque in Sterling.

The dialogue, which will touch on issues from similarities and differences in the faiths to the supercharged subject of Jerusalem, is a pilot for a major national push announced in December by the Reform movement and the Islamic Society of North America -- the continent's largest Jewish and Muslim organizations. The groups unveiled a curriculum and urged their hundreds of thousands of members to use it.

It's unclear how participants will navigate controversial topics and more concentrated discussion.

Judy Naiman, 58, a synagogue volunteer from Vienna who hopes to be part of the group, said she views interfaith dialogue as "not political at all." The purpose is to view one another as American Muslims and American Jews, she said, and to learn about their religion -- not debate the Arab-Israeli conflict. She prefers to focus on commonalities, such as the similarities between Arabic and Hebrew, the faiths' views on the afterlife and the fact that the words for "charity" sound similar.

"When you learn things like that, it draws you closer," she said. But what about tackling the political issues that are a key source of tensions between the groups? "I don't see it as a choice. It's supposed to be an interfaith dialogue, so the purpose is to discuss faith."

Some experts say the percentage of congregations that do interfaith work is about 10 percent -- the vast majority discussion- and education-oriented, as opposed to being involved in community service. But the numbers are rising. A Hartford Institute for Religion Research study found that 37 percent of American congregations in 2005 had been involved in the previous year in interfaith community service, up from 8 percent in 2000; 22 percent had participated in an interfaith worship service, up from 7 percent in 2000.

Bud Heckman, a United Methodist minister who has worked at the top of several interfaith organizations, said some groups -- particularly those "from the right of center"-- see interfaith work as being apart from their mission.

"I think there is a concern about diluting their own faith, that they don't believe there is any faith, validity or truth to it," said Heckman, who led Religions For Peace-USA from 2003 to 2006.

Even for those who believe interfaith has merit, success can be hard to measure. The couples group the Kuglers were in, for example, broke down with participants "angry, discouraged and ready to kill each other," said Andy Shallal, who attended and went on to found the dialogue group at his club Busboys and Poets.

Yet the process was life-changing, participants said.

"I really carry it with me all the time," Eileen Kugler said, "that you get a very skewed view if you only talk with people from your background."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company