Dinner Dialogues: Breaking Bread and Making Neighbors in Houston and Beyond

Demographic shifts over the past two decades have made the Houston metro area one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse areas in the nation. Interfaith efforts like the Dinner Dialogues are one way in which Houstonians are responding to that diversity and working diligently to promote dialogue and education. Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston both hosts dialogues and provides resources to groups hoping to host their own dialogues.

The Amazing Faiths Dinner Dialogues were inspired by The Amazing Faith of Texas: Common Ground on Higher Ground by Roy Spence, a book that documents the diverse expressions of faith throughout Texas.[1] In 2007, Houston Mayor Bill White wanted to discover a way for the virtues outlined in the book—tolerance and understanding—to be enacted in Houston. Mayor White convened leaders of Houston’s prominent interfaith organizations to brainstorm a way to turn the spirit of the book into a tangible reality. The collaborative partnership between the City of Houston Mayor’s Office, Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, and the Boniuk Center for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance at Rice University, resulted in the formation of the Amazing Faith Dinner Dialogues.[2]

Originally, the Dinner Dialogues, as the events are now known, invited people into private homes for an evening meal and discussion. Participants registered online and were assigned to a host home; the dinners are open to anyone, regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof. The people were assigned to homes to ensure a religiously diverse group of people was at each location. The hosts opened up their homes and prepared a meal for eight to twelve participants. The meal always had a vegetarian option so that all could partake of the meal. During dinner and in the discussion time after the meal, a trained moderator facilitated dialogue by leading participants through the dialogue curriculum, asking questions, and modeling active listening. Currently, Dinner Dialogues are  hosted at more centralized locations such as places of worship or Interfaith Ministries’ own space.

The first Dinner Dialogues event took place in January of 2007 and included 20 host homes and 250 participants. The second event, in November of that same year, included 75 homes and over 750 participants across Texas. Since its take off in Houston, Dinner Dialogues have been replicated in four additional cities in Texas—Austin, Brennan, Dallas, and San Antonio—as well as in Syracuse, NY, Oklahoma, OK, Chicago, IL, Washington, D.C., and Greenville, SC. The model has also served as an example for the “Youth Dinner Dialogues” and campus-based Dinner Dialogues, which have been organized across the nation.[3] Campus-based events are often organized through a university’s multicultural or student affairs office. Today, the Dinner Dialogues in Houston are organized by Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, which hosts dinner dialogues annually, each with over twenty-five host homes.[4]

Until 2007, Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston used the Amazing Faith Dinner Dialogue Kit to structure the Dinner Dialogues program. The kit was created by, a non-profit of the same name as Roy Spence’s book, The Amazing Faith of Texas. Using this model, each participant receives a Dinner Dialogue card that includes a question about his or her faith, such as: Group or public worship is an important element of religious practices. Do you participate in communal worship or other kinds of spiritual activities? What role do these events play in your life? After the person reads their question to the group, people are invited to answer in a way that fosters listening and appreciation (rather agreement or disagreement) and refrains from comparing and contrasting his or her own experience to what has already been said. Personal stories and metaphors are emphasized over facts or opinions. After the structured part of the evening, guests are given free time to engage in more social and spontaneous sharing. At this time, people often exchange contact information to keep in touch with each other.

While this model worked well, Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston modified the format of the Dinner Dialogues in 2011 to have each meal focus on a specific religious tradition, as an effort to foster renewed interest and to promote continued learning among participants and hosts who have previously attended sessions.[6] For example, the Dinner Dialogues scheduled in November 2012, February 2013, and May 2013, featured three different faiths practiced in India: Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. The home-based format remained the same; in each of these dialogues, families who practiced that specific faith served as the host homes, and participants registered through Interfaith Ministries who then assigned them to host homes in such a way as each home had a religiously diverse group of attendees. Hosts provided a meal and shared aspects of their tradition with guests. The conversations are still facilitated by a trained moderator; however, instead of utilizing the “Dinner Dialogue Cards,” pictures and symbols—prayer beads, a meditation bell, a statue of a deity, for instance—are chosen by the host family to introduce their faith to the participants. Participants  are thus introduced to a religion from the perspective of a practitioner in a way that is visually interactive and specific to that family. The family is asked to share how they live out their faith in daily life.[7]

In 2015, Interfaith Ministries took a step back from organizing the logistics of dialogue events. As other groups and organizations began organizing their own interfaith dialogues, and Interfaith Ministries became more active in other areas of interfaith service, Interfaith Ministries focused their energies on being a resource for those organizations who wish to engage in interfaith dialogue. In addition, Interfaith Ministries have expanded their programming to provide new modes of interfaith encounter. Faith in Our City is a program that focuses on a different faith tradition in the city each month.  During that month there are two separate opportunities to learn about and engage with that faith: an in-depth visit and experience at a house of worship and an educational discussion over lunch. 

Interfaith Ministries still hosts their own Dinner Dialogues, at least once per year, attracting between one-hundred and one-hundred- fifty participants per event. Although there are different ways to structure a Dinner Dialogue event, the goal has remained constant: To learn about different cultures and faiths through breaking bread together. In the process, the Dinner Dialogues seek to create an atmosphere of comfort and intimacy that can transform a room full of strangers into neighbors.

[1] Spence, Roy. The Amazing Faith of Texas. (Austin: Idea City Press), 2006. http://www.amazingfaithoftexas.com. Accessed 21 August 2015.

[2] “Amazing Faiths.” ABC News 13. 2007. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFvv53VSOQc.

[3] “IMGH Youth Dinner Dialogues.” Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston. 2010. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fsrmtao4pb0. Accessed 21 August 2015.

[4] For brief reflections from participants about their experience, see http://sharedbeliefs.blogspot.com/2011/10/amazing-faiths-projects-dinner.html. (Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston, 2011). Accessed 21 August 2015.

[6] For an overview of the Dinner Dialogues, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wa_xPVGm0Rs (Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston, 2014). Accessed 21 August 2015.

[7] For an example of a facilitated discussion about the Bahá’í faith, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=–ZxZZQYF4I. (Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston, 2014). Accessed 21 August 2015.