The Reverend Dr. Ben Campbell Johnson is not a solo voice in the interfaith movement when he urges people to move beyond tolerance of diverse neighbors and “genuinely affirm and accept people who are on different paths from ourselves.” The Interfaith Community Institute (ICI) in Atlanta, Georgia joins this chorus in a unique way. Founded in 1996 as a venue to explore the issue of health and spirituality, and to bridge racial, religious, and cultural divides, the ICI (then simply called the Community Institute) trains leaders and members of religious communities to be advocates for religious pluralism by providing them with experiences that they can then share with others.
Currently, the ICI boasts several vibrant programs including the Interfaith CI Press, Atlanta Interfaith Speaker’s Connection, and the Atlanta Interfaith Leaders Fellowship, in addition to its flagship program, World Pilgrims, and its derivative, Interfaith Immersion. The ICI acts as an umbrella organization for these programs and works with other area interfaith organizations to further inter-religious understanding and build peace. The ICI maintains partnerships with other local interfaith organizations, a list that includes the Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasting Network, Peace by Peace High School Program, and the Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta. The ICI is governed by a Board of Directors and several of its members are affiliated with these partner organizations. Other current board members include professors, an attorney, religious leaders, and a retired business executive. Plemon El-Amin, Imam Emeritus at the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam and the Executive Director of the World Pilgrims program, serves as the Board’s Chair. El-Amin, together with Johnson and another volunteer, Jan Swanson, staff the ICI; they have no paid counterparts.
The Reverend Wayne Smith, founder of the Friendship Force, launched the World Pilgrims program in 2002 when he led an interfaith group of Jews, Muslims, and Christians to Turkey. Imam El-Amin was among the forty-five religious and community leaders who participated in the inaugural trip. He and Swanson re-located the program to ICI in 2004 after Rev. Smith’s death. The initial World Pilgrims cohort developed “A Declaration of Principles,” a document that acknowledges the “current state of relations among our faith communities [as] strained by misunderstanding and animosity,” and affirms the need to remain “faithful and passionate about our own traditions…[as] critical to the continued vibrancy of religious and community life.” The signers of the Declaration of Principles pledge to “[m]ove beyond acknowledgement and tolerance and engage in education and exploration of both our Common Ground and our differences, in order to remove or minimize misunderstandings, misconceptions, myths and stereotypes,” create safe spaces for deep sharing, and to support one another in the building of “interfaith dialogue and cooperation.” The signers—and those who participate in the program after them—resolve to “…hold each other accountable to upholding these principles in the same spirit of friendship and love shared on [the] pilgrimage” and to invite other people of faith “to join this movement to build communities guided by God’s Word, Grace and Peace.”
Today, there are over 300 alumni of the World Pilgrims program. They become ICI associates who share their experience of the pilgrimage with congregations and groups in Greater Atlanta. The World Pilgrims Program is also the subject of an Emmy Award winning documentary film, “A Spiritual Journey to Turkey” (2006). To date, pilgrimages have taken place in over ten countries including Spain, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, and, in 2012, South Africa.
Leaders of ICI recognize that not everyone can afford to go on an international interfaith excursion, yet they are committed to offering individuals the opportunity to experience meaningful interfaith exchange. The Interfaith Immersion program, affectionately referred to as “the poor person’s version of the World Pilgrimage,” allows participants to engage with practitioners of the five major world religions—Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity—in one weekend. No passports needed, these pilgrims stay local by visiting communities in Greater Atlanta often during times of public worship. Much like their World Pilgrim counterparts, alumni of the Interfaith Immersion program stay connected to the ICI by becoming a part of the Interfaith Speaker’s Bureau, a group of associates at the ready to speak to congregations and community groups about their transformative experiences.
The Interfaith Community Institute Press provides another venue for ICI associate to share their experiences and provide resources about their particular tradition to others interested in interfaith sharing. According to Johnson, leaders from different faith traditions in Atlanta have produced a book on their “sacred spaces,” a resource that tells “the story of what happens in the sacred space of their particular faith, what they believe, and what they do when the come together, and how that influences their lives and how it changes they way that they relate to the world.”
All of ICI’s programs—World Pilgrims, Interfaith Immersion, Atlanta Interfaith Leaders Fellowship, the interfaith contemplative group—illustrate the organization’s commitment to a “relational methodology” for interfaith learning. Johnson firmly believes that it is only through a “transformative” experience that the biggest obstacles to interfaith understanding—ignorance and fear—will be overcome. “Transformed people, transformed communities have an enormous power that they carry.” The Interfaith Community Institute strives to equip themselves and their neighbors to be bridge-builders who will lead by example.