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Book offers 'how-to' guide to interfaith connections

The Rev. Bud Heckman and Rori Picker Neiss conceived and edited "InterActive Faith: The Essential Interreligious Community-Building Handbook."
UMNS photos by John C. Goodwin.

By Linda Bloom*
Dec. 17, 2008 | NEW YORK (UMNS)

The term "interfaith dialogue" often conjures up images of earnest church representatives discussing the finer points of theology in a meeting room.

"One of the big mistakes people make from the beginning is not to include the diversity," says Heckman, a United Methodist pastor.

But getting to know people of other faiths can be as easy as having a casual encounter at an ethnic restaurant, starting a book group or working together on an environmental project.

A how-to guide can be found in "InterActive Faith: The Essential Interreligious Community-Building Handbook," published by SkyLight Paths Publishing.

The book was conceived and edited by the Rev. Bud Heckman, a United Methodist pastor and director of external relations for Religions for Peace, with Rori Picker Neiss, assistant director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

Although they represent different generations and faiths, both Heckman and Neiss grew up in homogenous religious surroundings. Heckman, 39, the product of a white Protestant culture in small-town Ohio, didn’t really begin to understand religious diversity until he went to seminary.

Neiss, 23, who grew up in an insular Jewish community in Brooklyn, had been exposed to religious diversity through the media and Internet—an exposure encouraged by her family. "I was raised by parents who were very open-minded, very open to diversity," she explained.

She had no firsthand experience, however, until attending Hunter College in Manhattan and discussing politics and issues of conflict resolution with other students. Irritated by comments about the Middle East made by "a whole bunch of people who had no experience with people who actually live in these regions," Neiss sought resources on religious diversity. She became involved with Religions for Peace-USA in 2005, when Heckman was serving as its executive director.

Open attitude

Connecting with other faiths does not require special knowledge—just an attitude of openness and the right tools. Heckman and Neiss consider "InterActive Faith" a tool for both clergy and lay people to find new ways to address issues of diversity. "We simply haven’t had resources to help people understand how to deal with our religious diversity," Heckman said.

The book is meant as a follow-up to "How to be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook," by Stuart Matlins and Arthur Magida.

Chapters in "InterActive Faith" are written by contributors who are "the best in the field" of interfaith relations, according to Heckman. "There were people from many different walks of faith who helped inform this book," he told United Methodist News Service. "It reflects that diversity."

The first part offers guidance on achieving interfaith dialogue through words, the arts and shared worship. The second part focuses on putting interfaith connections into action through service or advocacy. The third part includes a brief overview of the major faith traditions, information on interfaith organizations and resource centers, and suggestions for further learning.

The expansion of religious diversity in the United States occurred after the Immigration Act of 1965 opened entry to a larger variety of ethnic groups and led to settlements across the country instead of just in a few states. The second and third generations of those immigrants "are the first generation to grow up" with a positive view of diversity, he said.

Between 1990 and 2001, the number of Americans self-identifying as Christians dropped from 86 to 76 percent of the population. In comparison, as many as 5 million Muslims, a million Hindus, more than 2 million Buddhists and nearly half a million Sikhs are estimated to reside in the United States.

Heckman and Neiss view the effects of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, as a turning point for interfaith relations. Prior to that event, Heckman said, immigrant communities had to deal with "their otherness." After 9/11, the predominant faiths were forced to recognize the influx of other religions.

The events of 9/11 made the issue of diversity "a much broader question," Neiss added, and put more of an emphasis on religious diversity.

Interfaith strategies

Building community across religious lines can be accomplished through a variety of strategies, some unconventional. "A lot of immigrant communities simply don’t have bricks and mortar," Heckman explained. "You have to employ different methods."

Young people today have an "incredibly different" viewpoint from older generations on "what it means to be a member of their faith tradition,"
says Neiss.

One tactic is simply to start speaking with people in the local Greek diner or Thai restaurant. "If you ask one of these citizens to share with you about his or hear faith, you may be surprised where the conversation goes," he writes in the book's introduction.

Interfaith contact doesn’t always have to be sanctioned by an official religious body. "We understand and value what happens on the grassroots level," Heckman added.

The most important factor is broad representation at the planning stages. "One of the big mistakes people make from the beginning is not to include the diversity … for the small group to plan for the larger group," he said.

For any interreligious interaction, the first step should be creating a safe space for that interaction where everyone feels comfortable, Neiss said, pointing out that a fundamental truth of diversity "is to let people express themselves on their own terms, in their own way."

Heckman and Neiss agree that a focus on young people is essential for interreligious community-building today. Young people are more interested in multifaith exploration, but also more likely to adhere to strict religious views. "The majority of interreligious conflicts … are created by people under 30 years of age," Heckman noted.

Young people today have an "incredibly different" viewpoint from older generations on "what it means to be a member of their faith tradition, what it means to know people of another faith tradition … and how you know somebody of another faith tradition," Neiss said.

Youth tend to place more of an emphasis on individual dialogue and giving back to the community, she added. They look for information from the Internet, meet people online "and use that technology to keep up those dialogues and relationships by e-mail, by chat, by Facebook.”

Ordering information about "InterActive Faith" can be found at www.skylightpaths.com. Proceeds from the book go to Religions for Peace-USA.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


The Rev. Bud Heckman: "…the necessity to engage…"

Rori Picker Neiss “They have an incredibly different viewpoint."

Rori Picker Neiss “…more of an emphasis on individual dialogue…”

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Skylight Paths Publishing

Religions for Peace—USA

American Jewish Committee

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