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Community Building: Who Are Our Partners?

  • With integrity and dignity for all, how do I build a group out of people from diverse backgrounds?
  • How do we continue to develop a sense of common purpose, or connection, in groups when we don’t necessarily share the same or similar life stories or narratives?
  • How do people with differing or even conflicting values create a unified group?
  • Study and practice different methods for group building.
  • Examine case studies where people from unlike groups forged common paths forward.
  • Look into the values of groups you inhabit to see what kinds of coalitions can be made.
  • Comments from a Hindu sannyasani (a Hindu religious ascetic) about encounters between Hindus and Christians.
  • A story about Ruth Messinger inspiring a young Eboo Patel in his text, Interreligious Leadership: A Primer.
  • Helpful tools drawn from traditional Jewish methods of text study.
“A Community, Not Simply a Coalition” by Jonah Pesner with Hurmon Hamilton in My Neighbor’s Faith , pp. 249-51.

What is the difference between a community and a coalition? Coalitions are utilitarian. Members collaborate on a common purpose, and once that purpose is achieved, the coalition dissolves. In a community, the relationships are as important as the shared purpose. They transcend specific issues; the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Humans yearn for community, not coalitions. In community, we find inspiration, comfort, and joy. Sometimes, in community there is tension. The test of a community is its ability to deal with such tensions productively, and strengthen the relationships despite or even because of it.

What’s Your Stake?

In order to build a community with anyone, one must have a stake in the relationship–believe that your struggles are linked. In the words of Murri activist Lilla Watson, “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Consider this quote by Watson alongside the quote above. What do we need in order to feel like we have a stake in an interreligious and multifaith conversation, community, or world? What is part of your prayer or your wish as you embark on these relationships?

The Role of Interpersonal Relationships & Partnerships in Interfaith Encounters

Pravrajika Vrajaprana is a sannyasini at the Vedanta Society of Southern California, affiliated with the Ramakrishna Order of Hinduism. If you have the opportunity, please read her chapter “Interfaith Incognito: What a Hindu Nun Learned from Evangelical Christians” in My Neighbor’s Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation. There, she briefly surveys interfaith engagement from a Hindu perspective and then critiques the typical ways interfaith encounters conclude.

In this chapter, Vrajaprana points out, “that the learning that occurs in these gatherings typically flows in one direction: I speak; you listen. Then you listen; I speak. There is no two-way traffic here; thus the knowledge that is gained, while worthy, tends to be superficial.”

There’s an alternative, though: interpersonal relationships. She writes: “I would propose that what works more effectively as far as genuine interreligious dialogue is what I call ‘interfaith incognito.’ By this I mean interfaith dialogue that is not initiated for the sake of public consumption. It is spontaneous, unrehearsed, and often completely unexpected. This kind of encounter…can be much more genuine, contain much more truth, and can be much more transformative.”

Building on the importance of interpersonal relationships and interaction highlighted by Vrajaprana, let us consider another model of encounter through partnership drawn from traditional Jewish pedagogy. Chevruta, or chevrutot in the plural, meaning “partnership” or “study pairs,” is a classical way to study text in Jewish tradition. This style of paired study also informs how Jews and Jewish leaders engage in learning, conversation, and spiritual practice in addition to study.

students studying

The academics Dr. Orit Kent and Professor Elie Holzer studied the tradition as it was practiced in Jewish communities and determined that chevruta learning consisted of six practices:

    • Listening
    • Articulating
    • Wondering
    • Focusing
    • Supporting
    • Challenging

The wisdom embodied in this Jewish pedagogical tradition is also reflected in the community organizing practice of one-on-one relational meetings. These meetings are a powerful tool used by community organizers around the world to build community, to get to know the members of one’s community, to learn what people care about, to identify common interests, and to cultivate power at the grassroots level.

As Vrajaprana observed, deep interfaith relationships may, in her opinion, best be cultivated in spontaneous ways. It is impossible to find and cultivate such relationships without having the opportunity to encounter the other and to dedicate time and space in order to nurture these interpersonal relationships. Chevrutot and one-on-one relational meetings are two examples of how these spaces can be created and nurtured.

Now is your opportunity to explore the power of chevrutot or relational meetings. In groups of two, start with the following questions; feel free to bring in other questions too as your conversation invites:

    • What keeps you up at night?
    • What gets you out of bed in the morning? What energizes you?
    • When did you first learn about how power operates in the world?
    • When did you learn the world was unfair?
    • What is a text that moves you? (It can also be a song, a book, a poem, or something else. Feel free to be creative.).

Seeking Connection Rather Than Division

In Eboo Patel’s Interreligious Leadership: A Primer, he begins with the story of Ruth Messinger, the former president and CEO of American Jewish World Service and New York City politician. In the 1960s, Messinger moved to rural Western Oklahoma in support of her husband’s efforts to avoid the draft for the Vietnam War by working as a doctor in a governmental facility. She eventually became the director of child welfare for two counties. After some less-than-cordial run-ins with the local sheriff, who had been jailing children because of the state’s lack of foster homes, Messinger started attending evangelical home church worship services. She was granted time at the end to talk about the children and their needs, namely parents and a home. According to Patel, “When she was done, the preacher would quote scripture and say to the gathered worshippers, ‘Who here will answer the call of God and serve as loving families for these young people?” At that point, families would line up in droves.

“Ruth sought connection rather than division. When she saw Christian signs outside of people’s homes, her instinct was not ‘I disagree with that understanding of Jesus, therefore I am staying away from that house.’ Instead, she thought to herself, ‘That is clearly a place where a leader lives and people gather. I will certainly have differences and disagreements with them, but we will also likely have some deeply held values in common. I will work to find those shared values and highlight them in a way that inspires all of us to create a foster-care network for youth.”

This alliance of an educated, Jewish, feminist woman from New York City and rural evangelicals from Oklahoma is a textbook example, literally and figuratively, of what interfaith leadership can look like.

Consider the issues you care about. Who are your current partners? What potential partners have you not considered? Why? And what might you be missing out on?

Being a Neighbor

Sometimes our neighbors face insecurities or dangers that we do not. Sometimes those near to us are in pain—these can be a chevruta partner, or a work friend, significant other, or a literal neighbor, perhaps a cashier at the local corner store you shop at or someone you see often on evening walks. When we experience comfort at the same time our neighbors experience discomfort, how are we to respond?

Consider this illustration by Andrew James Gilbert, a gender fluid artist based in Brasil. Which house do you feel is yours at this moment? How can you be a neighbor to the other house?

“A wooden house sits on a hill close to us, lit with a soft glow and surrounded by different colored roses. In the distance, it looks like there is a poorly ramshackle house atop a different hill, surrounded by thorns and dark clouds with thunder and lighting all around. The shack can’t really protect anyone from that intense of a storm. To me, the image raises some questions around inequality and protection: which resources are made available to protect us? Who gets the shorter end of the stick, and why? How do you be a neighbor in this situation? Is there a way to share or create bridges between these different places to share and create something new?”

 

As a way to understand the values that each person in your learning group holds, create a Venn Diagram (of sorts!). In each circle put a cause that motivates people in your group. In the overlapping space between circles, write in the common values that underline those causes. Invite people to sign their initials or place a colored dot next to the values and causes they also care about. For instance, between the circles of Gun Control and Reproductive Rights, one could write, “The creation of living beings in God’s image” as a value, or maybe “The sanctity of life.” This activity might bring up large and even challenging emotions for people. Approach each other with patience and curiosity. Then, as a whole group examine the diagram(s) you all have made and discuss what it means for you all to come together in this particular coalition.

Where are there similarities? Where are there differences?

Example: The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights is an interfaith political activist coalition composed of Protestants, Catholics, Unitarian Universalists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. According to their website, “We believe that decisions about our reproductive lives (such as whether or not to terminate a pregnancy) should be left to the person, in consultation with their loved ones, trusted medical professionals, and their faith.” In support of such a mission they come together from their different vantage points to work together as a community united by a particular cause.