“It can be helpful to think of humanity like a pearl necklace. Each human being is a pearl with distinct characteristics, but underneath there is a string that ties us all together, invisible to the naked eye.” (Gudjon Bergmann, Experifaith: At the Heart of Every Religion; An Experiential Approach to Individual Spirituality and Improved Interfaith Relations)
I’ve reflected a lot on this question: How can we, as faith leaders, use an interreligious lens to help create more hospitable religious communities and spaces of interreligious belonging? When I reflect on that question, I’m reminded of my favorite fellowship meeting this past March. During the meeting, we were asked to define interreligious leadership.
To create spaces of interreligious belonging, we must understand and define the purpose of interreligious works and dialogue. In the Muslim tradition, God says in the Holy Qur’an (Muslims’ Holy Scripture), “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.”
God also says in the Qur’an, “Had God willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race to [all that is] good. To God is your return all together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ.” We can simply acknowledge God’s command to serve him and humanity as Islam and many of our other faith traditions call us to do. However, we’ve made it complex and difficult. At times, we believe that because an individual or community follows a different doctrine or holds a different set of beliefs than us, they aren’t allowed in our sacred spaces UNLESS they’ve accepted what we believe. The purpose of creating interreligious communities and dialogues is to acknowledge the similarities that lead us to learn from our differences.
When using an interreligious approach to leadership within our congregations, we’re able to go beyond tolerating one another—rather, we learn and recognize others’ humanity and diversity. As we recognize each other’s humanity and diversity, we can listen to others’ authentic stories. We learn about their identities and shed our own biases, stereotypes, misconceptions, and bigotries. We can recognize the different rhythms of others and embrace these different beats from our own with empathy and compassion.
As a Black man in the United States, I’m reminded constantly that the color of my skin dictates the way others see and treat me. The history of Black persons in America cannot be discussed without acknowledging how faith traditions, such as Christianity and Islam, have fought for Black liberation. Martyrs Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., fought for collectivist approaches to acknowledging differences and working together towards justice, despite being treated as less than because of the color of their skin.
Both leaders used their faith to fight racial discrimination through spreading love, peace, and equality throughout communities and societies. If our faith traditions highlight that we’re derived from one source, regardless of the pigmentation of our skin, why can’t we acknowledge we’re from the one source, regardless of our faith?
Furthermore, once we can see without our distorted lenses, we can create interreligious spaces, where values are respected, and all individuals can belong. Once we create interreligious spaces, we can focus on societal issues that impact us all. These issues include poverty, hunger, racism, gun violence, and social justice.
One of my favorite quotes, when I think about interfaith relationships, is, “It can be helpful to think of humanity like a pearl necklace. Each human being is a pearl with distinct characteristics, but underneath there is a string that ties us all together, invisible to the naked eye” (Gudjon Bergmann, Experifaith: At the Heart of Every Religion; An Experiential Approach to Individual Spirituality and Improved Interfaith Relations).
A true leader acknowledges that our differences foster collective strength. A leader cannot move forward without the collective, and there is no collective without community. There is no religious faith without community.
With an interreligious approach, we can foster communities where individuals belong. They will see themselves as interconnected closely with others, develop interdependent selves and relationships, prioritize good relationship functioning, and work towards something bigger than themselves and their own individual particular faith goals.
When we step outside of our egocentrism and avoid fighting for superiority over which religion is right or wrong, we learn each faith offers psychological, sociological, anthropological, artistic, moral, and ethical dimensions. Every different faith of individuals I’ve come across has allowed me to think more broadly and critically as I engage in dialogue with others. Interfaith dialogue has allowed me to understand the foundation of an individual’s life, understand what has shaped their identity, and understand how I can create a space where individuals feel seen and that they belong.
Tala Drammeh is a member of the Muslim Community Cultural Center in Baltimore and was a member of the 2022 ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship. Learn more about the ICJS Congregational Leaders programs here.
Opinions expressed in blog posts by the ICJS Congregational Leader Fellows are solely the author’s. ICJS welcomes a diversity of opinions and perspectives.