The Interfaith Trialogues, an annual event in Bon Air, Virginia (a suburb of Richmond), is an example of how religious diversity can be transformed into religious pluralism. Bon Air reflects the new suburban reality where the Islamic Center of Virginia, the Jewish Congregation Or Ami, and several Christian churches share a two-mile stretch of road. The Trialogues began in 2008 as a way to draw these different groups into meaningful conversation with each other. Today, Trialogue partners include Bon Air United Methodist Church, St. Edward’s Catholic Church, the Islamic Center of Virginia, and Congregation Or Ami. Once a year these congregations gather in houses of worship to share a meal and conversation, giving one another the opportunity to create community where it had been lacking.
Like Bon Air, there is more to the Trialogues than first meets the eye. “The power has been not talking heads, but people meeting people,” explains Rabbi Ben Romer from Congregation Or Ami. “And it’s not an intellectual exercise or a religious exercise, it’s people who make up sacred communities who discover they have sacred connections with people from other faith communities.” This organic impulse has characterized the Trialogues from the very beginning in 2008 when a last-minute interfaith prayer service was organized in response to international tensions between Israel and Palestine. The event drew 250 people, 200 more than expected. Dr. Imad Damaj of the Virginia Muslim Coalition for Public Affairs and a key organizer of the Trialogues, remembers this first event as an opportunity “…to say, you know, people are ready. We have got to do something.”
While passionate clergy spearheaded the initial Trialogue efforts, the commitment of congregations and lay individuals cannot be overlooked. The success of previous years’ programs led the leadership team to introduce a service component in 2011. Damaj explains that “[i]t’s about sharing, it’s about neighborhood relations. And we wanted to continue to promote knowing each other and living together and the idea that we are one community.”
The Trialogues have encouraged interfaith initiatives in greater Richmond to expand. These efforts include a women’s group modeled after the book The Faith Club, a community interfaith garden that is harvested for those in need, and a fledgling interfaith youth group driven by the desire of one Congregation Or-Ami youth who wanted to reach out to their Christian and Muslim peers. Rabbi Romer noted that the youth-driven Jeopardy-style program that ensued from this young person’s passion became a “really important moment” in the relationships among the congregations “because most of [the Jewish kids] had never met anyone [Muslim], had sort of met Christians but didn’t really understand the questions that would come up.”
As the fourth year approaches, the leadership is confronted with the best of challenges: what to do with the surplus of interest. Multiple congregations in the surrounding areas have asked to join, seeking to build community. Damaj notes that, from his perspective, “[w]hat made it a success was you had three houses of worship close to each other – it was a natural growth.” The presence of the local, the neighborhood, and the community in this model is essential and there are plans underway to replicate similar projects in nearby Chesterfield County. The Reverend William Davis of the United Methodist Church, sees the Trialogues as “an attempt to get to know each other, because we live next to each other, we interact with each other, we work with each other, our children go to the same schools.”