This profile was last updated in 2009
“Reflection, Connection, Action”
The mission of Interfaith Action, Inc. (IFA) is to develop a healthy pluralistic culture in the town of Sharon, Massachusetts and to be a resource to other cities and towns interested in collaborating to strengthen the bonds of civil society. IFA’s primary means of achieving this mission is through the Youth Leadership Program, a unique program that engages high school students for one to four years of training and leadership education. This long-term involvement enables youth to reach across religious, ethnic, and racial barriers to break down fear and misunderstanding, dispel stereotypes, and take on leadership roles within their community. More recently, IFA launched the Sharon Pluralism Network to create partnerships among town organizations and engage diverse community members of all ages in building a sustainable culture of pluralism. The motto of Interfaith Action is “reflection, connection, action.” Janet Penn, IFA’s executive director, says the group had three goals at its inception: to promote interfaith learning; to build friendships across religious, cultural and racial divides; and to train the youth in leadership skills, specifically on how to facilitate interfaith dialogue.
Sharon: A “Living Laboratory” of Interfaith Relations
Sharon, Massachusetts is a leafy suburban town of 18,000 people located 22 miles from Boston. For a town of its size, it has an unusually high degree of religious diversity: Penn estimates that sixty-five percent of the town is Jewish, with sizeable Christian, Muslim and Hindu populations. The town is home to seven synagogues, eight active Christian congregations, and the Islamic Center of New England, with its Islamic school for students from kindergarten through eighth grade. Father Bullock, an instrumental figure in the founding of IFA and priest at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church until his death in June 2004, once called the town a “living laboratory” of small-town interfaith relations. Janet Penn said the interfaith work in Sharon is of a different sort from interfaith organizations in larger cities, since most people in Sharon see each other on a regular basis around town. Unlike the anonymity of a larger city, in Sharon, “there’s nowhere we can go to avoid seeing each other,” Penn said.
Creating a Sustainable Culture of Pluralism
IFA has partnered with town organizations, including Sharon’s Public Library, Council on Aging, Clergy Council, Public Schools, Community Center, and Community Youth Coalition, to develop a model for creating a positive and sustainable culture of pluralism in the town of Sharon. Together, these groups comprise the Sharon Pluralism Network. The Network envisions a community where people from diverse groups live together in peace and mutual respect; feel safe and valued; retain their group identity while also being part of a larger community; learn about, interact with, and stand up for each other; and work collaboratively for the common good. Working together with Interfaith Action as lead partner, the Network’s goals are to:
1) Raise awareness of the value of pluralism, and the strengths and challenges it presents;
2) Support educational programs that further understanding about racial, ethnic, national origin, cultural and religious groups, reduce stereotyping, demystify differences in beliefs, history, and practice, increase empathy between people, and showcase the richness of our diverse cultures;
3) Foster genuine encounter, dialogue and relationship-building among individuals and groups; and
4) Create a sustainable framework for preventing and addressing bias incidents.
To create a sustainable culture of pluralism in the town of Sharon, Massachusetts, partner organizations and representatives from different religious, cultural, and ethnic groups in town are working in collaboration to increase the impact of their existing programs. The Network is supporting existing events such as the Chinese New Year Celebration, and creating new programming to bring different groups together to enhance understanding. The Sharon Pluralism Network has initiated an interfaith women’s retreat and interfaith dialogues for parents of youth involved in the leadership program. The Pluralism Network is also partnering with the Sharon Arts Association to complete a multicultural quilt for the town’s Community Center; creating “One Town, Many Voices,” an Oral History series for Sharon Cable Television; developing a multicultural photography exhibit; and launching the First Annual Sharon Multicultural Film Festival. The group also plans to develop interfaith community service projects through social justice groups within local houses of worship. Through this work, Interfaith Action hopes to be a catalyst for social change within the community.
Interfaith Action’s Beginnings: Youth Leadership
The impetus for interfaith engagement in Sharon came from the youth. In 1999, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) sponsored an interfaith youth leadership program in which high school students from many communities in the Greater Boston Area would meet once a month to engage in dialogue. The ADL was seeking an opportunity to develop a series of conversations within a single community: Sharon was selected because of its rich religious diversity within a small-town context. This “experiment” in small-town interfaith community-building resulted in the development of Interfaith Action, Inc., a non-profit organization seeking to engage people of all ages and faiths in the town of Sharon. Today, the IFA supports a range of interfaith activities in town, and the Youth Leadership Program remains a foundational – and vital – aspect of this work. The IFA motto, “reflection, connection, action,” is also evident in the Youth Leadership Program. With an annual average of about fifty members, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Unitarian Universalist, and Wiccan high school students meet twice a month for programs that have included sessions on stereotyping, presentations on life-cycle rituals in their traditions, and trying to find enough common ground to write a prayer that would be acceptable to all traditions present. At the meetings, students clarify their own beliefs by describing their faith to others. In addition to the “reflection and connection” that take place at the meetings, the youth in the program are active leaders in interfaith work in the community. During a six-hour intensive training session, students in the program learn basic skills for facilitating interfaith dialogue, including setting ground rules to create a safe environment and how to moderate discussion. To build upon these skills, refresher trainings are available to facilitators before participating in a workshop or event and senior facilitators attend an annual full-day retreat.
Interfaith Action’s Youth Leadership Programs: A Role Reversal
In Interfaith Action’s Youth Leadership Program, students don’t just participate in dialogue: as trained facilitators, they are often called upon to mediate discussions in the broader community. They help to tackle the issues of understanding across faith lines. After receiving extensive training, and leading dialogue sessions among their peers, students bring these skills into the wider community by facilitating dialogue programs in the community. Students facilitated a discussion about Islam at a session of the Public Conversations Project’s “Islam Project”; led a dialogue at an interfaith service to commemorate September 11th; and have initiated community forums on race and religion in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the spring of 2003 and again in the fall of 2005, youth facilitated dialogues through translators between imams from Uzbekistan and community members in Sharon. For the past five years, with help from a state-funded grant program, students also facilitated two classes each semester at Sharon Middle School on labels, stereotypes, and the choices students can make to decrease hate and bigotry. Student leaders described this as one of the most popular activities among group members; indeed, some teens join Interfaith Action’s Youth Leadership Program because they remember the value in participating in the workshop as middle school students. Penn says the youth play a key role in bringing adults into interfaith conversation: “When high school students come in and talk to adults about stereotypes, it’s very powerful,” Penn said. “It’s kind of a role reversal. Adults say, ‘if kids are thinking about this, I should be thinking about this.'” In 2005, the students mediated a local interfaith dialogue between members of Young Israel, an Orthodox Jewish congregation, and the Islamic Center of New England. Mike Garber, a student leader, described the dialogue’s impact: “In the end, they actually realized that they had more in common with each other, these religious Muslims and religious Jews, than with their non-religious counterparts. That dialogue was really interesting and so helpful for the community.” In March 2007, students facilitated a community-wide program with imams visiting from the Middle East, as part of a U.S. State Department funded program, “Islam: Scholarship and Practice in the U.S.” The visiting clergy learned how several Muslim-American youth leaders in Sharon understand their identities during a charged but civil discussion addressing fears and misconceptions on topics related to anti-Semitism, the role of women in Islam, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a result of her involvement, Penn was chosen to participate in the final segment of the program and spent ten days visiting interfaith leaders, clerics and scholars in Jordan and Egypt. 2008 has been a busy year for youth leaders: they facilitated a community dialogue following the film “Knowledge is the Beginning”, a controversial film about Daniel Barenboim’s East/Western Diwan Orchestra; they developed activities to bring diverse groups of adults together at public school events, as well as the 2008 town-wide MLK celebration; and in March 2008, they coordinated interactive programs on respect to all 5th grade students at one of the Sharon elementary schools. Other activities over the years have included a presentation at the Interfaith Youth Core conference; small group facilitation at a community forum on interfaith dialogue moderated by Rabbi Gottstein of the Jerusalem-based Elijah Institute; and a student-led workshop on stereotypes for Unitarian clergy and lay leaders at their annual regional conference. In addition to facilitating dialogues, the group has performed “traditional” community service in area soup kitchens and the Greater Boston Food Bank, and more recently have undertaken the planning and facilitation of conferences and special events.
T.I.D.E. – The Wave of Change
On June 26, 2007, Interfaith Action’s Youth Leadership Program held their first regional conference at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which was sponsored by the Pluralism Project. Envisioned, planned, and facilitated by youth, the name of the conference was “T.I.D.E. (Teenage Interfaith Diversity Education) – The Wave of Change.” This gathering brought together 40 teens from as far north as Maine, and from as far south as New Jersey, including a delegation of Zoroastrian youth. Student Dan Resnick noted, “The participants were able to have fun and meet new friends, all the while being exposed to new religions and new communication skills. What the participants appreciated the most was that the event was youth-run. They said it made the experience that much more powerful and that much more enriching.”
Sharing Sacred Seasons
In the fall of 2005, Interfaith Action’s Youth Leadership Program prepared a meal for local Muslims to share after breaking the fast during Ramadan. This small gesture has grown into a large community celebration. The following fall, the holy month of Ramadan coincided with the Jewish High Holidays: the youth saw this as an opportunity to bring people of those faiths together. They approached a local synagogue, Temple Israel, to host the event. Some 350 members of the community participated, including leaders of local houses of worship, and a diverse group of Muslims, Jews, and Christians. During the event, the Muslims broke fast under a Sukkah, a wooden, shed-like structure build for the holiday of Sukkot. The Muslims then prayed before joining the rest of the community for a large dinner prepared by the youth. Building on the success of this event, and with an awareness that the holidays would not coincide again for another 32 years, the youth organized Sharing Sacred Seasons: A Community Gathering, in the fall of 2007, also at Temple Israel of Sharon. This event included the growing Hindu community and also celebrated the holiday of Navaratri. Together, religious leaders and community members gathered for what students described as “an evening of interfaith learning and understanding.” Student leaders shared their own personal experiences of the holidays. One hundred area Muslims prayed the Maghrib, or sunset prayer, and then the 400 participants gathered for a kosher/halal South Asian dinner prepared by the students. Participants were encouraged to sit at tables with people they did not know, and conversation was facilitated by the youth leaders.
Small Town, Global Vision
Although its focus is small-town, the vision of Interfaith Action’s Youth Leadership Program extends to the larger interfaith movement and its efforts to decrease violence in the world. Penn cited the phrase, “think globally and act locally” as grounding the group’s efforts. She related a story of a Jewish student who spoke up in a community forum to say that he realized he had been taught to hate Muslims, but now he considered the Muslim students in the group his friends. Penn said this kind of encounter demonstrates the ways in which individuals can start to address larger societal problems on a small scale. She is interested in exposing the students to larger, national interfaith youth work. In 2000, she took 20 students to the Interfaith Youth Forum at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City, in conjunction with the Millennium World Peace Summit for Religious and Spiritual Leaders at the United Nations. Two students, along with Penn, attended the Goldin Institute Conference titled “Reconciliation- Creating Partnerships for Peace,” in Amritsar, India in fall 2005. They were the only youth representatives who attended the international conference. Through Interfaith Action’s Youth Leadership Program, students feel that they have learned important life skills such as public speaking, conflict-resolution and mediation skills, as well as the ability to make friends and gain trust over rigid boundaries. As one former student leader explained, “Getting to be a part of something where there were people of different faith backgrounds, getting to learn, getting to find out new things about people is just amazing.” Penn hopes to make the interfaith leadership curriculum available to other people in small towns across the nation, in the form of a comprehensive, resource-rich website. As stated in the IFA’s Executive Summary, the organization seeks to be a model: “Interfaith Action’s youth-led programs will encourage people in towns and small cities across North America to choose hope and reconciliation, not hate and violence.”
Tracy Wells, Rose Golder-Novick, Amy Beckhusen, Dan Resnick