What is Interfaith Dialogue and How to Prepare for It

Maybe_we_should_talkJust two and a half weeks ago, I received an invitation to be part of an interfaith dialogue on fasting and peace from Rizwan Peerzada, who is the President of the local Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’ in Abbotsford. “As people of faith, I feel we should have some kind of relationship,” he explained. What better way than to talk together about fasting and peace which are common concerns for both Christians and Muslims? What’s more, he offered to arrange the venue, we would both invite people to come, and his group would provide a meal for us to share together.

I’m honoured to participate, excited about this opportunity, and yes, also a bit nervous since this is a new experience for me. I’d love for you to join us, so please feel free to register by calling [or texting] 604 767 1965 as there are still spots available for this free event, which happens tonight, July 6, 2015, 7:30pm at Garden Park Tower, 2855 Clearbrook Road, Abbotsford, B.C.

In the meantime, and as part of my own preparation, here are a few thoughts on interfaith dialogue and how I’m getting ready for tonight. Please feel free to share your own interfaith experiences or links in the comments along with any recommendations. I’m eager to learn more!

A Journey Together: A Resource for Christian Muslim Dialogue offers this helpful definition (page 7):

Interreligious dialogue, also referred to as interfaith dialogue, is about people of different faiths coming to a mutual understanding and respect that allows them to live and cooperate with each other in spite of their differences. The term refers to cooperative and positive interaction between people of different religious traditions, (i.e. “faiths”) at both the individual and institutional level. Each party remains true to their own beliefs while respecting the right of the other to practise their faith freely.

So interfaith dialogue does not at all mean giving up my Christian faith. In fact, according to the Religion Communicators Council, “good dialogue should result in the deepening of the faith of every participant” (Guidelines for Interfaith Dialogue). At the same time, dialogue is also different from debate. “In debate winning is the goal. In dialogue finding common ground is the goal.” (Scarboro Missions, Principles and Guidelines for Interfaith Dialogue).

So how best to prepare for this kind of interfaith dialogue? As I reflect on my process so far, here’s what I recommend both for myself and others:

Be curious.

Rizwan’s invitation came to me completely unexpected, so I had a lot of questions. What would be the format? Who else would be speaking? How would my church respond? I hoped to get together with him in person, but given the short time frame of just a couple of weeks, that proved unworkable. Instead, we planned together by phone, text, and email, and I let the church know as well.

Be prepared for things to move quickly.

I confirmed my participation in the event, and two days later I received a draft of the poster:

Interfaith_Symposium

Have an attitude of respect and humility.

Again from A Journey Togetherpage 15:

Without dialogue between people of faith, the vacuum in communication and understanding can quickly and easily be filled by gossip, mistrust, prejudice, bigotry and racism. Bigotry is fed by fear and ignorance. Without dialogue and mutual respect, extremism and hatred can grow.

Learn from others. 

I called a fellow pastor in a nearby community who has engaged in interfaith dialogue with members of the Muslim community, and he encouraged me to focus on Jesus, to share the good news of God’s grace in “a winsome manner.” A college professor offered to share his lecture notes on fasting. Some friends who recently led a workshop on fasting sent me their handout. Thank you, Tim, Gareth, Frank and Riad for your support and for sharing your experience and expertise with me.

Be flexible.

On Friday I learned that I was also invited to have a book table to display or sell literature. Again, the time seemed short to pull everything together, but my church has New Testaments at our Welcome Centre to give away, as well as pamphlets on What Makes a Mennonite? and Making Peace with Enemies that related to our topic. Although this event is not a church event, I was quite sure they would be willing to share these. I could also bring copies of my book, Sacred Pauses: Spiritual Practices for Personal Renewal since it has a chapter on fasting.

Listen to those with concerns and build bridges of peace with them as well.

I received a phone call from someone in our wider Christian community concerned that interfaith dialogue might somehow represent a watering down of Christian faith. I explained that whenever we talk with someone who doesn’t share our faith, we’re actually having a form of interfaith dialogue–whether that person is a neighbour, a co-worker, or someone even in our own family. This event is an opportunity to have interfaith dialogue in a more deliberate and formal way around the topic of fasting and peace, in an atmosphere of respect and listening to others. “Will you be attending?” I asked her. “Oh no,” she said, “I’ll be on my knees praying.” I assured her that I am also praying for clarity and mutual understanding, and that our discussion of fasting and peace might itself be a step of peace building in our community.

Work collaboratively.

Thank you to Rizwan for modelling this even in our planning. I was not available on the July dates that he first proposed. My suggestion of fall was too late as he wanted our topic of fasting and peace to take place during Ramadan which would be over by then. We finally settled on July 6 as a mutually agreeable time. As host, he was also responsible for the venue, but there too he asked my opinion before confirming the booking at the Garden Park Towers.

Pray.

Thank you, Twitter and Facebook friends and others who are joining me in prayer – some in Abbotsford, some in the USA and around the world, some who are active in interfaith dialogue and others for whom this is new. I so appreciate your support!

Your turn: Do you have a question, concern, or suggestion for engaging in interfaith dialogue? Can you help me refine and expand my list of how to prepare? I’d love to learn from you.   



Categories: Church and Ministry, Spiritual Practice

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18 replies

  1. Wonderful opportunity, April! Wish you well in that conversation!

    Your readers may have interest in knowing that CommonWord, in addition to the resources you mention, has MANY inter-faith dialogue materials – website links, downloadable documents, loan and purchase titles – http://www.commonword.ca/Browse/711. Thanks for giving this important topic profile – and for your willingness to accept the invitation. Blessings.

  2. Good for you, April! I’m sure your winsome manner and gracious spirit will help your words gain an open-eared (maybe open-hearted) audience. I’ll be praying for you!

  3. Fasting and prayer–in combination a powerful tool for renewal both individually and as a community. My prayers are with you, April!

    • Thank you so much, Elfrieda. It was a wonderful evening, bathed in prayer. Many were fasting according to the Muslim tradition of Ramadan, yet they had also planned for water and appetizers for those who were not observing the fast. I am looking forward to sharing more about the experience in a follow up post next week….

  4. April, how amazing that I was involved in interfaith dialogue last week, too. I wrote about it in my sermon that I delivered yesterday. Providential, for sure. I hope and pray your discussion went smoothly, and many people’s eyes and hearts were opened a little wider.

    I absolutely agree that we can be respectful, open, and willing to learn . . . from anyone. Here’s my tweet. Hospitality+Service=Discipleship! Acts 6:1-7 #pastorpreacherprayer #SummerSermonSeries http://wp.me/p5Nfg4-1i @StLukesChurch2 July 5, 2015 (and my Twitter handle is @chaplaineliza)

    • Eliza, I love to hear about your ministry, and how often we are tracking with one another. Although we may be in two different places and haven’t yet met in person, the same Spirit is moving! All went so well last night, and I’ll post my remarks and some reflection next week when I have a chance to get my thoughts together, and I’ll check out your blog post too. I appreciate your support and prayers, and knowing that we are serving in the same direction.

      • Great! I’m sure all your readers are eager to hear what happened at your interfaith discussion. (Including me!)

        The Muslim Community Center here in the Chicago suburbs is doing a tremendous amount of ministry during Ramadan. One of their major charity outreaches is one of feeding those in need–after sundown, of course. The Center is feeding hundreds of people each week during Ramadan, following one of the five pillars of Islam. Their devotion and outreach is commendable.

  5. I’m anxious to hear how it went. Great list. Our church invited the local mosque to present a series of conversations in our church school hour. Those from the mosque shared their stories and discussed common myths about Muslims and then we were free to ask any questions we wanted. We all learned alot about Islam. The Mosque and Synagogue here both participate in an interfaith ministry of housing homeless at a roving thermal shelter in the winter (hosted by various houses of worship. They take their turn during Christian holy days — Christmas and Easter which works out well for all of us!

    • Hi Melodie – thank you for sharing your interfaith experience, and how that extends beyond dialogue to doing some practical community work together. That’s encouraging! Last night went very well, and I’m planning to write a follow up for my next blog post, so please stay tuned 🙂

  6. Thank you for sharing on the topic of interfaith dialogue. The part that spoke to my experience the most was your comment related to the risk of watering down our faith when we talk with others, which I have copied below.

    “…whenever we talk with someone who doesn’t share our faith, we’re actually having a form of interfaith dialogue–whether that person is a neighbour, a co-worker, or someone even in our own family.”

    I think we need opportunities to have interfaith dialogue on topics of relating to our life and faith, in an atmosphere of respect and listening to others. It has been interesting and exciting to share with my ESL students of a different faith background, the stories both our faiths have in common, yet with differing details and interpretations. Thank you for the encouragement to listen to others and share my faith, without fear that I am ‘watering-down’ what I believe.

    • Pat, I love the everyday opportunities that you describe with your students where you interact with their faith and culture in a personal and authentic way and share your own faith and culture with them as well. I see this both as a form of peacemaking across cultures and also as a form of witness, as you bear witness to what you know and experience of God and give space for them to do the same. Respecting others doesn’t have to mean disrespecting or downplaying our own faith, but it does mean communicating wisely and well, and it sounds like you have been learning how to do that with your students. All the best as you continue!

  7. Glad to hear of this, and am excited to hear more. I always find these sorts of experiences to be rather like visiting another country in that they allow me to see home in a new and richer light.

    • I love your comparison of visiting another country and then seeing home “in a new and richer light.” When people return home from an extended time away, I will often ask “how have your travels changed you?” and often the change includes a new appreciation for home along with good questions. That makes for an apt parallel/metaphor for interfaith interactions as well–thanks for sharing.

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