The importance of religious institutions to the social fabric of the U.S. relegates an equally high importance to the training and networking of religious leaders. Throughout the history of Religions for Peace USA our work has consistently focused on the convening and training of religious leaders, in order to leverage their voices in the public square on issues they care deeply about. As the most broadly represented interfaith organization in the U.S. the work of Religions for Peace USA seeks to bring together a diversity of religious voices, so that all are heard and a part of the discussion.
One example of this work can be found in our work the Knoxville Evangelical Pastors Focus Group. For the last year, RfPUSA along with the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, has been bringing this group of Knoxville area religious leaders together to discuss Christian – Muslim relations. Although this group is “evangelical” we have several different denominations represented. “Evangelical” as a term itself is slippery and elusive — as many people avoid the term as those who embrace it. But what is clear is that these Christian pastors are committed to working with their congregations in the Knoxville area to improve Christian – Muslim relations. In order to do this to their best ability, our work has been one of listening, learning and acting together. Since this past May, the focus group has carried out several listening sessions in their congregations on the topic of anti-Muslim bigotry. The power of this focus group lies in its ability to convene large groups of people who are normally left out of the interfaith peacebuilding conversation; their congregations are stereotyped as “too conservative” or “too exclusive theologically,” to have these conversations. Our work through the focus group has decidedly proved the opposite.
The power of this focus group lies in its ability to convene large groups of people who are normally left out of the interfaith peacebuilding conversation; their congregations are stereotyped as “too conservative” or “too exclusive theologically,” to have these conversations. Our work through the focus group has decidedly proved the opposite.
When I attended my first listening session this summer, I asked the pastor why he had agreed to host such a conversation. He was understandably a bit anxious. After all, he was bringing in a “Yankee” to hold a conversation on anti-Muslim sentiment with his congregation. But, after a minute of reflection, he began his answer like so: I have my own struggles with Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry; I am nervous and fear for our country. But then he said, “But I am confronted by the person of Jesus to quit this hate from my heart.” Such honesty and theological commitment to the work is seldom heard.
Religions for Peace USA does not only work at the grassroots level. Since it’s founding, RfPUSA has regularly convened the Council of Presidents, a body of senior religious leaders in the U.S. This yearly gathering is a time for senior religious leaders to build relationships across religious divides, in order to facilitate the local work of interfaith peacebuilding. RfPUSA operates under the theory that if our “grasstops” are not in good relationship, how can we rightly expect the grassroots to be? In March of 2015, 50 senior religious leaders and activists came together to discuss the themes of Race and Violence. This consultation was a unique experience for the Council of Presidents to be informed and educated about the social justice movements that make up the interfaith movement in the U.S.
Religious leaders are looked to as an example by their constituents. Because there are so many multiple and simultaneous demands for the regular parish minister, we are aware that time for education and building networks of support are crucial to the life of the interfaith movement. That is why, in the fall of 2016, RfPUSA will host a pastor institute: Life Together. It is an educational space meant to build a network of pastors to support the anti-Islamophobia work Religions for Peace USA has been carrying on for the last four years through the Our Muslim Neighbor initiative.
The specific role of the Christian church in interfaith peacebuilding and engaging diverse communities is more pressing than ever. With social, political and religious unrest present worldwide, a voice of peace and justice is called from from Christian leaders. RfPUSA’s Pastoral Institute: Life Together will be a two-day gathering at Sewanee University, where Christian faith leaders and pastors in the Southeast can connect and build relationships with other faith leaders committed to the work of interfaith peacebuilding. This year’s theme: Life Together will address the challenges of anti-Muslim bigotry and rising islamophobia in the Southeast. This institute hopes to support and enrich ongoing grassroots efforts and individual ministries. By creating a broader network of leaders committed to loving our neighbors, we hope to create a more positive moral narrative for what sort of country we want to be, and what Christian responsibility we have to realize that vision.
Only by supporting our religious leaders, and connecting them with a network of relationships that break down walls of isolation and build bridges can the interfaith movement thrive. Movement activists at the grassroots need support from their religious leaders. Those who are curious about the movement need good examples for how to properly engage in the movement. Our work places these facts at the center of our understanding of social change.
Special Advisor, Aaron Stauffer