In 1996, a world-renowned interfaith practice began along the banks of the Ohio River. Louisville, Kentucky became home to the Festival of Faiths, which was recognized as a model of interfaith activity by the United States Senate in 1998 and the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1999. The Festival of Faiths in Louisville, Kentucky is an annual multi-day event with the mission to “celebrate the diversity of our faiths, be grateful for our unity and strengthen the role of religion in society.” Since its inception, individuals and groups from cities like Atlanta, Georgia, Kansas City, Missouri, and Washington, D.C. have come to the Festival of Faiths to examine it as a replicable model of interfaith activity.
The roots of the Festival of Faiths can be traced back to 1985 when the Cathedral Heritage Foundation was created to oversee the restoration of the Cathedral of the Assumption in downtown Louisville. With the restoration came new vision, spearheaded by the Cathedral Heritage Foundation, who recognized the Cathedral’s civic engagement in the Louisville community and incorporated interfaith programming as a part of the restored Cathedral’s mission. In November 1991, the first annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Prayer Service was held in the Cathedral. The inaugural Festival of Faiths was held in 1996 to celebrate Louisville’s religious diversity. Participants in the first Festival were houses of worship and religious organizations that were present during the Cathedral’s first dedication in 1852, a gesture intended to offer a sense of historical continuity and connection. In 1997 the Festival of Faiths focused on expressions of faith within the Louisville community, and a mission statement for the Festival was unveiled: “To celebrate the diversity of our faiths, be grateful for our unity and strengthen the role of religion in society.” The Cathedral Heritage Foundation was renamed the Center for Interfaith Relations in 2006, a name change that marks the evolution of the Foundation’s mission.
Today the Festival of Faiths remains the Center for Interfaith Relations’ central program. The annual event draws thousands of visitors from Kentucky, the surrounding states, and from around the world. Each week-long Festival is centered around a theme. Past themes include “Song and Celebration,” “Healing Mind, Body, and Soul,” “Faces of Faith and Cooperation,” and “Faith and Justice.” The Festival of Faiths draws an array of guest speakers, a list that in past years has included Dr. Martin Marty, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Dr. Deepak Chopra, Dr. Diana Eck, and Dr. Huston Smith. The Festival of Faiths includes Seders, workshops, panel discussions, exhibits, films, cultural, religious, and festival-themed tours of Louisville, yoga and meditation exercises, and an annual Interfaith Thanksgiving service since the festival occurs during the month of November. The Festival of Faiths is multi-generational with workshops and lectures offered for youth and children. As a part of a four year cycle focused on the basic elements of soil, water, air, and fire, the 2011 Festival of Faiths was themed “Sacred Air: Breath of Life.” Programs were designed around the idea of air as a sacred symbol necessary for both human and planetary life. Workshops focused on air-quality problems, panels included arborists and conservationists, lectures were given on environmental justice and the environment as a moral issue, and a film series related to air was offered. Guest speakers included Dr. Martin Marty, Bill McKibben, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, Senator John Marty, Dr. Mary Evelyn Tucker, and Dr. John Grim.
John Reed, President of the Board of the Center for Interfaith Relations, believes that the Festival of Faiths actively promotes a broader culture of engagement in interfaith dialogue and community and has built on pre-existing relationships between various religious traditions represented in metro Louisville. The formal interaction among faith, civic, corporate, and governmental sectors during the Festival of Faiths is a small part of the in-depth engagement that occurs informally during the process of planning and preparing for the event. Collaboration takes place at board meetings where Jews, Muslims, Protestants, and Catholics come together to strategize for the event and in the countless smaller conversations to organize logistics. The friendships that result have sparked yearly and even monthly visits to each other’s sacred spaces. Patrick Potter, treasurer of the Board for the Center for Interfaith Relations and Chairperson of the 2011 Festival of Faiths, puts it this way: “[B]ecause of the Festival of Faith, the religious communities in Louisville are not strangers!”
The Festival of Faiths reaches well beyond religious communities in its scope and impact. In so doing, the Festival of Faiths not only brings together various religious traditions and faiths, but also strengthens the civic fabric of Louisville through these partnerships. Local organizations such as The Home of the Innocents, a non-profit that assists children in crisis; Faith Partners for Recovery, a program focused on addiction; and the World Affairs Council of Kentucky and Southern Indiana, a group that works to educate, inspire, and engage Americans about global issues and international affairs, are involved in the Festival of Faiths. Additional community groups like the River City Drum Corp, the Muhammad Ali Center, and the Speed Art Museum add to this diverse list. Institutions of higher education also participate in the Festival, including the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Bellarmine University, the University of Louisville and Sullivan University. A middle school program called Peace Casters sends students to the Festival of Faiths to conduct interviews with main speakers; these conversations are then broadcasted in their schools.
Louisville’s religious diversity rarely presents a stumbling block for the city, according to Potter, as evidenced by the level of cooperation among Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists in the planning and sustaining of the Festival of Faiths. The Festival creates an atmosphere that goes beyond tolerance and respect to deep friendship between diverse individuals and communities.