As an interfaith organizer, anyone who gives me advice is likely to affirm the value of building one-on-one, trusting relationships. As a social entrepreneur, many people give me advice to focus on design for scale. On face value, I find this amusing: “the interfaith entrepreneur must manufacture as many genuine relationships as can be.”
Upon further reflection, I find it inspiring. This is not an oxymoron, this is pure idealism: my job is to facilitate spaces in which people can build relationships across religious, political, and other divides. How else to respond to burgeoning social inequity, social tensions arising from resource scarcity, and toxic political rhetoric at national and global scales? Let’s bring it down to earth; let’s make it personal.
This communal work is the calling of 150 faith-based social entrepreneurs who convened this past July for a forum in Washington D.C.. People like Heather Larson, director of Compassion and Justice Ministries at Willow Creek Community Church, one of the largest churches in the nation. People like Salman Ravala, whose Dollar-a-Day Muslim Scholarship Fund has made waves, with small contributions adding up to the deal-maker for many young American Muslims. As I heard from these leaders, people of faith and of compassion, I began turning the question of one-on-one relationships over in my mind.
When others asked questions about the role of individual relationships in particular panelists’ work, I raised my hand and voiced the broader question on my mind:
“I would like to affirm the recent questions, and through a brief reflection, hone my own question. Jewish prayer-groups require a minimum of ten people. In Christianity, Jesus came as the savior of humanity, and spread his message by building 1:1 relationships with the 12 disciples. Other traditions also abound with such examples of the need for tight-knit community. We have talked a lot about scale, and I am wondering: how do you maintain the essential relationships and trust-building within your work?”
If I will be honest, I did not hear a compelling, singular answer. Rather, I heard unique responses from panelists whose organizations are unique. They did not give me a silver lining, but they said that meaningful, individual relationships must be the core of their work.
I heard a striving, across traditions and disciplines, to move communities forward with creativity and perseverance, one person at a time and en masse. And that is how the moderator had rephrased my question: “How do we move from Minyan to critical mass?”
Personally, I have come to advocate for interfaith immersion programs. Such programs take diverse people, bring them together, and force and facilitate challenging conversations. These transformed people return to their home communities as agents for broader social change.
For example, Auburn Seminary’s Face-to-Face/Faith-to-Faith program brings together students of Jewish, Muslim, Christian, secular, and other backgrounds from Northern Ireland, South Africa, Israel-Palestine, and the United States. They spend many months working in their home-region groups, and then attend a two week summer intensive in upstate New York.
Programs of all kinds do critical work in the interfaith movement and beyond, and these immersion programs fill a unique role. They create space for diverse people to confront the largest issues facing their communities, while forming unbreakable friendships with those who are often considered to be on the other side from them. Through the immersion, a new way of seeing the world emerges – and so a new way of living. Then, for example, two teens, Jewish and Christian, return home to Jerusalem to help create a public photography exhibit that expresses their desire for such a program to be unnecessary when their own children are coming of age.
Religious tensions are on the rise in global politics. Resource scarcity is mounting, as social inequity grows. The 2012 elections have their fair share of toxic rhetoric. These problems make me feel small.
Stories of friendship and optimism, particularly those I hear from powerful immersion programs, lift me up and help me remember that I am a hopeful one among the many. I was proud to attend the White House Forum, with people dedicated to this good work – Katharine Henderson, President of Auburn Seminary sitting to my immediate left, and Noah LaRoe, Youth Pastor at the Lynch Church of God, on my right.
May the small steps move us forward, from the Minyan to critical mass.
Photo by Horia Varlan, via Flickr Creative Commons.