Rev. Jonathan Lawrence, PhD, teaches in the religious studies and theology department at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. He became a Pluralism Project affiliate in 2011. His research project, “Religion in Western New York,” maps the diversity of religious communities in Buffalo and Western New York and offers a chance for people of many different faiths to describe their beliefs and practices in their own words. This project explores the following questions:
- How are the experiences of different religious communities affected by factors such as gender, immigration, economic change, and education?
- What kinds of interactions help improve relations between religious communities?
- Within a particular religion, how are internal differences understood and explained, and how visible are these differences to outsiders?
- What justifications and explanations do religious communities offer for inter-religious dialogue, especially when such dialogue challenges a tradition’s truth claims?
- How do religious diversity and interactions in Buffalo compare with experiences in other American cities?
Students are correct to think that that numerically “most people in Buffalo are Roman Catholic,” but they are amazed to find out that most major world religions are present in the area and that there are as many Baptist churches as Roman Catholic parishes. Many students and others in the community express interest in learning more about other religious communities, yet they are uncomfortable visiting other houses of worship and unsure about how to find reliable information about other religions.
With this level of religious diversity in Buffalo, there are incidents of hatred or intolerance, but there is much cooperation between religious groups in the Buffalo area as well. Religious leaders have supported each other in cases of mistreatment and quickly organized an interfaith prayer service after a plane crash in February 2009. In some cases, leaders have encouraged interfaith dialogue and interaction despite criticism from members of their own congregations and traditions. These interactions follow some of the patterns described in recent works by Gustav Niebuhr and Robert Putnam and deserve further study.
This project offers people a chance to share their stories–their own stories of what they believe and how those beliefs have developed and how those beliefs influence other parts of their lives as well as their stories of interactions with people from other religious traditions. Sharing these stories allows them to speak for themselves as individuals and illustrate the diversity within religious traditions.
Since 2011, Dr. Lawrence has been teaching a core capstone course on Religious Diversity in Buffalo at Canisius College. As part of this course the students filmed personal interviews about experiences with religious diversity and made field visits to congregations in the Buffalo area. Dr. Lawrence has also worked with the Buffalo Religious Arts Center, Forest Lawn Cemetery, a local convent, and the Network of Religious communities to expand opportunities for students.
Videos from interviews and field visits have been collected and will be presented on a website that categorizes them and sorts them by religious tradition, congregation and location. The website will also provide background information on the religious traditions and historical notes about the congregations and organizations in Buffalo. This website will then serve as a resource for community members interested in religious diversity here in Buffalo, but also as a wider resource concerning religious diversity in America. The visits and interviews will provide a basis for ongoing research examining broader factors affecting diversity and interactions here, including the economy, gender, immigration, and education. This project has also led to several possible small spinoff projects related to specific sites, congregations, and organizations. More information will be posted as it becomes available.
Dr. Lawrence intends to work with students and faculty in the Canisius College Video Institute to compile portions of filmed visits into a documentary. Clips discussing religious views of justice have already been collated into a short film, Voices of Justice in Buffalo, which has been shown at several conferences and is available online, free of charge. (This video may be downloaded and shared at no cost.)
From Dr. Lawrence:
This project grows out of a long personal interest in learning about other religious traditions and out of my previous research and publications concerning ancient and modern religious interactions. I have examined interactions between early Jews and Christians in terms of the context of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount and the connections between Jewish ritual bathing and Christian baptism. In recent years I have explored religious interactions in India, with a focus on Hindu influences on Jewish and Christian practices. These projects have given me experience in examining the complexities of the interactions between religious groups. I would now like to apply this expertise to the religious diversity and interactions in a modern American City.
As an ordained protestant minister and college professor, I hear many questions from students and parishioners about religious diversity and am sensitive to the need for people of all backgrounds to understand the differences between religious traditions. While it is becoming increasingly important for Christians to learn more about non-Christian traditions, it is equally vital for Christians and non-Christians to learn about the diversity within Christianity as well. While scholars can and do write useful treatises on such matters, it is also helpful to provide opportunities for people of all faiths to describe their beliefs and practices in their own words. I believe that my dual role as clergy and teacher can help create a safe environment for people to share such stories, since I can share that I too have experienced situations where my religious statements have been twisted and misused by others. Further, as a member of the Board of Governors for the Buffalo Area Network of Religious Communities I already have relationships with leaders in many local religious communities and can find contacts in others.