This profile was last updated in 2003
Just outside of a store full of bird seed, in full view of the birch bird houses and signs touting the ability of the Yankee Flipper to throw marauding squirrels out of your bird feeder, stands an inconspicuous signboard with the heading “Where to Worship!” The four-foot high structure holds informational cards for various area religious congregations—Baptist, Buddhist, Baha’i, and more. This board, located in front of the Wild Bird Store at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, is the physical presence of the Mall Area Religious Council (MARC), a group based in the religious communities around the mall. MARC describes itself as “a gathering of world religion congregations who have chosen to move beyond tolerance and into the realm of mutual respect.” With neighbors including Al’s Farm Toys, the Hat Zone, and the Mall’s huge indoor amusement park, Camp Snoopy, the signboard represents one of the Council’s goals: to bring a sense of values to the sphere of commerce, as represented by the Mall of America and its 520 stores.
How did we end up with a sign listing the addresses and worship times of reading rooms, mosques, churches and meditation centers next to the screaming people riding the Camp Snoopy rollercoaster and backlit by the natural light filtering in through the frosted sunroof over the park? MARC began in 1987, when Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians and others in the neighborhood of the proposed Mall of America began conversing about what this huge addition to their neighborhood would mean for their congregations and communities. The council was originally made up of only these Christian congregations, and struggled to find its purpose in its early days. The Council served the Mall during the construction phase by making their members available to workers in case of accidents at the construction site. It also served as a liaison between the Mall of America and its soon-to-be neighbors, alleviating fears and dispelling misinformation in the community.
Shortly after the mall opened, MARC held an ecumenical worship service in the rotunda of the mall. Between 1,000 and 2,000 people attended the event, sparking the interest of many congregations in the Twin Cities. As congregations began asking mall management to allow them to use space for worship, it became clear to the management that this was a trend they would have to deal with. Manager John Wheeler informed MARC of the mall’s new policy on worship space: worship services would not be allowed unless they were interfaith.
Initially MARC, as a Christian council, began looking for space in individual stores. But as it became clear how difficult it would be to find such space, the members began thinking about the management’s decision about interfaith groups. Soon, MARC’s member congregations decided that the council should become interfaith. Their purpose has shifted from offering ecumenical Christian worship to encouraging understanding among all faiths, with the ultimate goal of establishing the Meaning Store Interfaith Global Center. The center would be one of the Mall of America’s hundreds of tenants. The current design includes a public space with items representative of many different religions available for purchase, and with free access to educational materials about various religious traditions. The bulk of the center would be an interfaith meditation room, open to anyone of any faith, for use by the public as well as by employees at the Mall of America and its tenant stores. The space would also include a dialogue room, supplying a quiet space for discussion. Negotiations are ongoing with the Mall to develop this site. The Mall of America has expressed interest in establishing the Meaning Store as an alternative to building two very small meditation rooms to accommodate the prayer needs of their Muslim employees. MARC is currently engaging in discussion with faith leaders from communities around the Twin Cities in order to ascertain if such a meditation space would serve the needs of the greater Twin Cities area.
Establishing the Meaning Store is a large task, requiring the building of many relationships as well as the acquisition of funds. While pursuing the Meaning Store idea, MARC wanted to engage visitors to the Mall of America in a more immediate way. To this end, MARC runs various programs including an annual informational session called “Holy Days and Holidays Around the World,” at which MARC uses space at the Mall to present information about world religions. MARC also holds other annual events, including the Elder Expo and the Youth Expo, and various interfaith presentations.
From October 2000 to February 2001, MARC ran a short-term kiosk in the Mall of America. The theme of the OASIS kiosk was “One World Many Faiths,” and Mall visitors felt that this was a safe place to explore different aspects of faith. The kiosk offered some merchandise for purchase, but also offered free access to informational material on various world religions, and conversations with carefully selected volunteers who were ready and able to discuss the challenges and rewards of moving “beyond tolerance and into the realm of mutual respect.” The success of the kiosk, and especially MARC’s ability to staff the kiosk entirely with volunteers, 7 days a week for more than 8 hours a day for 5 months, helped to convince the mall of MARC’s commitment to its work and of the community’s interest in this resource.
The Mall of America draws 43-45 million people each year, more than Disney World, Graceland, and the Grand Canyon combined. John Chell, one of the founding members of MARC, says of the Mall of America, “It’s truly an international center. So that’s why an international, interfaith global center would be so appropriate for this location.” The Mall Area Religious Council is working to encourage the development of a Twin Cities community which joins with MARC in the belief that “Being in the presence of person of a world religion other than one’s own can have a transforming effect. In moments of personal contact, each may come to better appreciate their own unique spiritual tradition.” The members of the Mall Area Religious Council will continue to meet the challenges of encouraging interfaith endeavors, motivated by a deep belief that, as John Chell says, “If you can get people to that table in interfaith work, there’s no limit to what can be done.”