Boston Interfaith Dialogue

This profile was last updated in 2014

History

Boston Interfaith Dialogue is a small, intimate Jewish-Christian-Muslim trialogue whose membership has remained fairly constant since its founding in 2002. Members are committed to relationship building in a small group setting, as well as networking with other interfaith organizations in the area to help publicize larger, public interfaith events. The participants in this group are drawn from three Boston-area faith organizations: Trinity Episopal Church in Boston, Temple Israel in Boston, and the Muslim Student Association at the Massachusettes Institute of Technology (MIT). According to Carol Shedd, spokesperson and one of the founding members of the group, the group’s mission statement is to bring people from these three faith organizations together for education, social action, and relationship building.

Relationship Building

The primary focus of the Boston Interfaith Dialogue group is relationship building among Christians, Jews and Muslims, and learning about each other’s traditions. Because the group believes that smaller groups lend themselves more favorably to making connections on a deep level, the group has kept its numbers small and tried to keep a consistent group of members. The group rotates its monthly meetings between Trinity Church, Temple Israel and MIT, and each group gives a presentation when they are hosting. Shedd said meetings always begin with prayer, offered by a member of one of the two faiths who are not hosting that week. After opening prayer, the group has around 10 to 15 minutes of “one-on-one”s, where each member talks with another member whom he or she does not know well or at all–a method of community building they learned from the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. The individual dialogues are usually followed by a presentation by the hosting group, varying from “tours” of their sacred spaces to discussions of holidays and life-cycle events to personal faith journeys. The presentation is followed by more dialogue, which sometimes is conducted in smaller groups of four to five people if the whole group is too large for meaningful dialogue. The meetings then close with prayer, again, delivered by one of the groups who is not hosting that week.

Interfaith Networks

Although the group itself is rather self-contained, the Boston Interfaith Dialogue maintains connections with other interfaith organizations in the Boston area. Even the group’s origin flowed out of a network of interfaith connections that were already in place. The group was the outgrowth of a joint Jewish-Christian-Muslim Sept. 11 memorial service held on the one-year anniversary of the attacks. According to Joy Fallon, associate for urban and justice ministry at Trinity Church, that service itself was a merging of conversations with Trinity Church and the Jewish community at Temple Israel, and with a variety of Islamic groups over the previous year. Immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, Trinity organized a memorial service for the victims, which included a reading from the Qur’an. After the service, many parishoners at Trinity expressed an interest in learning more about Islam, and a series of forums were held with Professor Ali Asani from Harvard, who gave a basic introduction to Islam and Islam in America to interested parishoners. After this series, many parishoners sought out more opportunities for interaction and dialogue with Muslims, such as a community education event held at the Islamic Center of New England in Sharon, MA. Trinity Church was also one of the sites for the Islam Project, a dialogue formed around the PBS films “Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet” and “Muslims,” sponsored by the Boston-area Public Conversations Project. Meanwhile, Trinity was also forming a relationship with Temple Israel to address concerns among the Jewish community in Boston after one of the Anglican bishops of Massachusettes and number of other clergy had stood outside the Israeli consulate in Boston to express their concern for the situation of the Palestinian people. Fallon said the Jewish community perceived this as a “sharp criticism,” and Trinity’s ministerial staff sought out connections with the Jewish community in order to address this issue. Fallon’s predecessor, William Barnwell, had established a relationship with Jonah Pesner, associate rabbi at Temple Israel, through their common involvement in the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. “So, as is so helpful, anytime there’s a crisis, if there have been personal relationships established, we thought that was an opportunity for dialogue,” Fallon said. “So William arranged to have the priests from our staff go to Temple Israel to meet over lunch with the rabbis from Temple Israel…and that was the beginning of a wider relationship between our staff and the staff at Temple Israel, which has been strengthened over time by people getting to know one another better.” At the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Trinity brought together the groups they had been working with, but separately, to a joint Jewish-Christian-Muslim memorial service. Around the same time, Temple Israel was holding a series of congregational meetings on social justice issues, sponsored by the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. One of the areas to which they decided to give greater attention was the area of interfaith dialogue. Edie Muller, a member of Temple Israel, contacted Trinity about forming an interfaith dialogue group, to build on the connections already established between the two groups. The group was to be a trialogue between the Abrahamic faiths, so the group eventually identified the Muslim Student Associaton at MIT as a group that seemed interested in the dialogue. Since its formation, Boston Interfaith Dialogue has maintained connections with other interfaith groups in the city. For example, some members of the group attended a large public interfaith iftar sponsored by the Boston Dialogue Foundation (profile) during Ramadan of 2003, to which they were invited after meeting BDF’s director, Imam Salih Yucel, at the Islam Project dialogue in the fall of 2002. Shedd, who maintains the group’s email list-serv, also helped to publicize Temple Israel’s shabbat service in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 2004. “So there are times we’ll connect [with other groups], and then there are times they will be doing their activities and we will be doing ours,” Fallon said. “We want to be mindful, if our group is meeting and building relationships say, once a month, that there are these other offerings we can make available. On the other hand, one of the challenges is how broad a network do we engage in and still have meaningful dialogue?”

Moving Forward: Challenges

In 2004, after nearly two years of small-group dialogue mainly centered on learning about each other’s faiths and getting to know one another, the group began to consider ways in which it might want to expand or modify its focus. The group began to consider tackling more controversial or challenging issues. “The general feeling––and this was a group of about 16 at the last meeting––and the general feeling was that we should do that, we just have to figure out how, and what,” Shedd said. “We don’t want it to get to where we just concentrate on the Israel-Palestine situation, because there are more issues out there. So one of the things we talked about is how do we respond to the impression, now, for example, that ‘all Muslims are terrorists.’ Alright, how do Muslims respond to it, what do they do within their own groups in dealing with that? How should we respond to it?” The group is deliberate and thoughtful about the structure of the dialogue, and a variety of issues have been raised with regards to the group’s future. “So at this point, we’re still trying to decide, first of all, do we include any other religions?” Shedd said. “Do we try to reach out to Hindus and Buddhists? Do we just stay with the three?” She went on to enumerate a variety of other questions, including expanding the membership to interested Christians and Jews outside of Trinity Church and Temple Israel, since many of the Muslims who attend are not directly associated with the MSA at MIT, but only have loose connections with it. “So that’s really where we’re at at this point,” Shedd said. “We don’t know how far to go. Some people feel that it’s important to continue with the sort of core group, which can be enlarged to about, say, 20 to 24, to stick with them, because if we’re talking about relationships, we’ve made the relationships now. When you bring new people in, relationships change. Or, do we focus mostly on interfaith dialogue and therefore expand it to anybody that’s interested? And the relationships will be more superficial, but at least they’ll get to know people.”