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. 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]

The Dinner Dialogues, as the events are now known, invite people into private homes for an evening meal and discussion. Participants register online and are assigned to a host home; the dinners are open to anyone, regardless of his or her religious affiliation or lack thereof. The people are assigned to homes to ensure a religiously diverse group of people is at each location. The hosts open up their homes and prepare a meal for eight to twelve participants. The meal always has a vegetarian option so that all may partake of the meal. During dinner and in the discussion time after the meal, a trained moderator facilitates dialogue by leading participants through the dialogue curriculum, asking questions, and modeling active listening.

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 of Greater Houston used the Amazing Faith Dinner Dialogue Kit to structure the Dinner Dialogues program. The kit was created by, and is available online from, a non-profit of the same name as Roy Spence’s book, The Amazing Faith of Texas.[5] 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 of 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 thus are 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]

Organizers of the Dinner Dialogues are regularly changing to find new ways to bring people together; recent changes include the addition of new conversation topics as well as some Dialogues that occur at a central location. 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.

[5] “Dialogue Kit.” The Amazing Faith of Texas. http://www.amazingfaithoftexas.com. 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.