Interfaith Dialogue

Submitted by Tamarack on July 12, 2011 - 8:22am

Many community development organizations struggle when trying to find ways to include people from all demographics of their community, including faith communities. There are sometimes significant barriers that need to be overcome for contact and communication to take place, including language, culture and religious practices. The challenge for community organizers is to respectfully engage people and find ways to make everyone feel welcome and included.

Contacting and connecting faith communities is a process of networking. It is important to be a “learner” and “discoverer” in order to find the faith leaders in the community and then invite them to participate in a community event or coalition. One contact will lead to other contacts, especially as religious leaders understand the project and see its relevance for the faith communities.

Trust is essential to developing support and participation in an organization. Without trust, individuals and groups may find it difficult to work together. As the religious group discovers the community organization or issue, the facilitator can learn more about that faith’s traditions.

Click to learn more about establishing an Interfaith Dialogue:

Building Trust

When building trust among people of different faiths, it helps to keep in mind the following:

  1. It is important to learn from and listen to members of the religious group as they explain and teach about their faith.
  2. Help the religious leaders/group understand the concepts of the organization or issue; it is important for the project to be placed within the religion’s theological understandings.
  3. Attending the faith group’s worship services and fellowship times is essential to the learning process.

Be careful not to presume Western religious structures, theology or clergy functions.

Realize that many immigrants may be busy learning about and adapting to North American customs, folkways and ideas. Their religious organization may be relatively new and, thus, they may be concentrating on developing a congregation, place of worship and organizational structures.

Understand that members/participants may not have time to participate in another organization or activity.

Allow sufficient time for community.

These are issues and concerns for which a facilitator must be prepared, although not all of these issues may be present in every group. Since listening and communication is crucial to building trust, these guidelines can help open up the facilitator’s ears, helping him/her become attuned to more than what is first apparent.

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The Formation of Interfaith Grand River

Interfaith Grand River (IGR) began as a subsidiary of the Kitchener-Waterloo Council of Churches but expanded into an interfaith group for broader dialogue and action. The Council of Churches continues as an ecumenical organization of Christians, while IGR is a coalition in which Bahá’i, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Unitarians and many other religions are represented.

Members of the IGR are active in their faith community, are recognized as leaders in their faith traditions, and can take concerns back to other members/participants. Because the structure of many religions has different expectations of the clergy, IGR representatives are not elected nor are they necessarily officially sanctioned by the wider religious organization.

Since September 2001, IGR has met with leaders from other sectors, including media, health, police, education, etc., to address concerns and talk about issues as the Waterloo Region becomes more multi-faith. During its history, IGR has:

  • Held a yearly peace walk with an interfaith prayer service each autumn
  • Consulted with the hospitals in designing a multi-faith chapel
  • Developed networks to provide spiritual care for persons infected or affected by HIV/AIDS
  • Worked with the public Board of Education on secular ethics and values
  • Participated in a variety of multi-faith/interfaith events in the Waterloo Region
  • Hosted a seminar for participants in the Canadian Governor General’s study tour
  • Sponsored two 13-week seminars with Encounter: World Religions, so residents of the Waterloo Region could understand and meet their multi-faith neighbours

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Section Contributors

Tamarack would like to thank Brice Balmer for gathering the information and resources necessary for our section on faith and faith communities.

As the founding chairperson of Interfaith Grand River, Brice Balmer is also the Secretary and Mennonite representative on Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition, an Ontario advocacy coalition working with the provincial government and with vulnerable populations in the province.

Brice is also an ordained Mennonite pastor and a chaplaincy director for the House of Friendship, a multi-service agency working with socially and economically marginalized peoples in Waterloo Region (Ontario, Canada).

His work includes teaching courses in practical theology, and he supervises social work and seminary interns in his role as a adjunct professor at Conrad Grebel University College,Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Renison College andWilfrid Laurier University.

During a four-month sabbatical, reflecting on how Christians enter multi-faith neighbourhoods in Canada and the USA, Brice assessed different styles of multi-faith organizations, as well as reflected on how religions can work together for community health, safety and justice for all residents. To learn more, read Brice’s article, Not Just a Social Gathering: Interfaith Dialogue.

Brice also solicited members of his interfaith community to write descriptions of their faith traditions. These have been included in this web section.

Do you have some tips on interfaith dialogue and communication? Are you a member of an interfaith coalition? Please share your thoughts and learning with us! E-mail us with your comments, ideas and resources.

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by Brice Balmer