Boston is a microcosm of religious diversity and civic engagement in the United States. This list of ten religious practices for civic engagement was compiled from a two-year search of Boston Globe articles relating to religious diversity and civic engagement. These practices were selected to highlight the variety of religious engagement in civic life in Boston, such as great lobbying efforts, artistic expressions, youth leadership, and networking with other organizations.
The following practices are not exhaustive of the religious engagement in Boston civic life, nor are they necessarily representative. Certainly using media coverage as an indicator of civic engagement is problematic, as many organizations simply don’t garner coverage, for any number of reasons. Furthermore, each of the practices listed here would benefit from broader participation by the great variety of religious traditions in the Boston area. Nevertheless, these practices are models that are useful to consider.
The practices are listed in descending order of impact in terms of number of people affected by the practice, length of sustained effort, or degree of collaboration (either interfaith or with secular institutions).
1. Greater Boston Interfaith Organization
The Greater Boston Interfaith Organization tops the list of civic-religious practices for its ability to lobby local government and private businesses on a variety of issues—from better loan rates, to textbook funding, to better care for Haitian health care workers. It is well-supported by a broad coalition of different ethnicities and faith traditions (although mainly Christian) along a spectrum of political views.
In 2006, one of its larger campaigns was advocating for universal health care in Massachusetts. Hundreds of GBIO volunteers helped in the effort that collected the 112,000 signatures that qualified the health care initiative for the November 2006 ballot. Organizers also continue to push for universal health care by lobbying senators and representatives and writing Op-Eds in the Boston Globe. (1)
GBIO organizers identify keys to success in their one-on-one meetings with individual members of religious communities about their concerns and values, as well as their ability to teach other members how to organize. (2) As of 2006, there were 65 member institutions constituting 50,000 members and eight paid coordinators. (3)
The GBIO’s membership consists mainly of Anglo, African, and Haitian Americans. As far as being “interfaith,” a handful of Jewish communities participate; the Islamic Society of Boston and Old Path Sangha (Buddhist) are also listed as members. The GBIO welcomes religious minorities to join, but declines to design campaign platforms in the hopes that groups outside their current constituency will be drawn into the organization. (4) The membership and organizing leadership of the GBIO intentionally reflects the ethnic makeup of the city.
It has aptly used its ability to be in touch with the needs of citizens in order to successfully pass initiatives and legislation that improve members’ lives. Its broad-based support across ethnic lines ensures its future success.
2. Islamic Society of Boston
The Islamic Society of Boston participates in city-wide dialogue structures such as the Boston Dialogues, long-term interreligious dialogue partnerships with local congregations, and other dialogue workshops, making it a model example of how to build cultural understanding. The Society also conducts mosque dialogues and workshops on Islamic understandings of political participation in American civic life. It is aided in its workshop efforts by grant money from the National Conference for Community and Justice.
In 2001, the ISB hired Assistant Director Salma Kazmi to work on relationships with government agencies, schools, non-profits and other religious organizations as well as its own internal projects. (5) The ISB is well-organized in its efforts to coordinate with others and is very successful at earning grants.
Membership at the mosque is mainly Moroccan, but includes both first- and second-generation Muslims from around the world. It attracts membership from residents of the Greater Boston area and not just Cambridge. (6)
3. The Faith Quilts Project
Editor’s note 2016: The Faith Quilts Project is not operational at this time.
The Faith Quilts Project is the brainchild of quilt maker Clara Wainwright who has directed over 40 collaborative quilt-making projects in the past 14 years. She was inspired to start the project after viewing a PBS Frontline program in Sept. 2002 entitled, “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero.” (7)
Wainwright founded the project as a secular non-profit, though she has done an impressive job of recruiting quilt designers from a truly diverse range of faith backgrounds, from Evangelical to Pagan. Thus, while the quilts represent the faith journeys of a wide variety of faiths, the leadership and main coordination of the project is not inspired by or directly organized by religious or ethnic minority organizations.
The 56 collaborative quilts expressing the deeply-held religious beliefs of various Boston communities were on display at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Cyclorama April 6-10, 2006. They were then on display in April at the Boston Public Library, the Great Hall in Codman Square (Dorchester), the Museum of the National Center for Afro-American Artists, Cloud Place (youth quilts), and at a site at Harvard. Some quilts had already been on display at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem as a part of a 9/11 commemoration in fall of 2005.
The Public Conversations Project facilitated conversations sparked by the quilts at the exhibit, taking the impact of a striking visual display one step deeper.
The Project offers a well-funded, high-profile and creative invitation for dialogue about faith through the visual art of over fifty quilts depicting individual faith journeys. Over $150,000 has been raised for the quilting materials. (8)
4. Boston TenPoint Coalition
Beginning in the 1990s, clergy from what became the Boston TenPoint Coalition partnered with the Boston Police Department to connect at-risk youth to social services through one-on-one interventions. The Coalition became famous when it drastically and quickly reduced a skyrocketing violent crime rate related to gang activity. (9) In some years, it has had clergy from fifty congregations team up with police to meet with upwards of 800 at-risk youth during the summer months. (10)
The Coalition consists almost exclusively of Evangelical Christian and Pentecostal clergy members who minister in predominantly black and Latino areas and is related to the Black Ministerial Alliance, the Ella J. Baker House, and other religious organizations whose primary mission is delivery of social services to at-risk youth. It is involved in a number of crime-fighting programs.
The continuation of its participation in the Boston Reentry Initiative, a prison mentorship program, is now at risk since the federal government denied a grant application from the Black Ministerial Alliance when another organization proved better results in preventing recidivism.
5. Boston Dialogue Foundation
The Boston Dialogue Foundation, an Islamic group, also works on dialogue through a broad range of community events. It often partners with projects like the Public Conversations Project’s local discussion of a national conversation on Islam. Among its community events are high-profile iftar dinners open to the public to raise awareness of Islam and funds for community projects such as relief to survivors of Hurricane Katrina or the Southeast Asian earthquake. The Ramadan dinners are popular events that regularly sell out their 200 tickets.
The Boston Dialogue Foundation also dialogues in partnership with other communities such as Follen Community Church, a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Dialogue “allow[s] participants to describe and witness to their faith in their own terms… [with] mutual questioning of the understandings partners have about themselves and others.” This facilitates self-reform which is a prerequisite step for broader reform, according to the BDF’s Web site. (11) The participants discuss issues including stereotypes, women’s issues, and politics. (12)
Volunteers, students, academics and business people created the BDF in 2000 in order to facilitate Muslim integration into the larger community while maintaining and building a Muslim identity, primarily for the area’s Turkish Muslims. (13) The BDF has impressively diversified programming, ranging from a number of cultural events for Islamic education to interfaith events and community service efforts.
6. Public Conversations Project
The Public Conversations Project, also a secular non-profit, provides the funding, administration and communication structure for partnerships in a variety of Boston dialogues, including The Faith Quilts Project and the Islam in America Project in which the Islamic Society of Boston and the Boston Dialogue Foundation participated. It is fearless in taking on some of the most divisive national issues at the local level, but again, it can only facilitate, not provide, religious involvement in the civic sphere. It is women-led, but its ethnic composition is unknown and it is not directly inspired by any religious organizations.
It serves activists, politicians, educators, journalists, and religious leaders in facilitating constructive conversations. (14) The Project started as a small brainstorming group in 1989, evolving into a registered non-profit in 1996. For their first dialogue, PCP family therapists brought actors in the Boston pro-choice/pro-life battle into a series of closed-door conversations with each other. (15)
7. New England Faith Partners Composer Residency
Editor’s note 2016: The New England Faith Partners Composer Residency is not operational at this time.
The New England Faith Partners Composer Residency, sponsored by the New England branch of the American Composers Forum, provides the opportunity for two faith communities in the Boston area to bridge ethnic and religious boundaries through the composition and performance of a few musical pieces that reflect and blend the musical traditions of each community. While creative, this practice has limited scope both in terms of participation and dialogue. Usually a Jewish community is paired with a Christian congregation that is primarily African-American. The composer spends time talking to members, sitting in on Sunday school and attending worship services. Two or three pieces are composed, with a performance at each place of worship and usually a third location.
This program directly gets at the heart of religious communities because of the amount of time the composer spends with the communities and because music is a central component of worship. However, there is not necessarily a large amount of interaction or dialogue between the congregations that accompanies the music. The partnership is also limited to two congregations per year. (16)
8. Boston University’s Islamic Society and BU Dining Services
In past years, members of the Islamic Society of Boston University had to bring in catered food to celebrate Ramadan, but decided to seek collaboration with university dining services in 2006 to ease the organizational burden and increase the visibility of the celebration. The partnership resulted in the serving of halal food for Ramadan — a shining example of the success of student advocacy in gaining religious accommodation and increasing awareness about Islam. The holiday-inspired partnership may lead to the introduction of halal food to the year-round university menu. The Society worked out a guest pass system to allow Muslims from across the city to celebrate the holiday with the BU community, and also allowed non-Muslims with cafeteria plans to try out halal foods. (17)
This small concrete change is an example of how communities can become more pluralistic fairly easily. Serving halal in a very visible public space offers a chance for religious education and a greater sense of belonging for minorities. However, the food was offered with little explanation to non-Muslims, missing a chance to increase awareness about Islam.
9. Wayland Clergy Association
The Wayland Clergy Association is an example of a local clergy association that has chosen to use its resources for more effective organizing of community outreach in terms of food bank donations, interfaith dialogue, and other projects. It co-hosted an Interfaith Thanksgiving service in Fall of 2005 with the Islamic Center of Boston. (18) This is a wonderful example of a clergy association using its connections to be very active in interfaith work with its Christian and Muslim members. However, its work is not well publicized.
10. Daughters of Abraham
The Daughters of Abraham is a women’s book group for Muslims, Christians and Jews that has met once a month for several years to read books about these three Abrahamic faith traditions. While each group is small, the bonds developed by this trialogue mechanism are deeper than isolated, one-time interfaith events on a larger scale. Some members of the Daughters have visited historic sites in Spain, as well as Jerusalem’s religious sites together, and frequently participate in each other’s community celebrations, such as Bat Mitzvahs and First Communions and Iftars. The original organization of about a dozen women has inspired seven spin-off groups in the Greater Boston area, and inspired interest in starting groups nationwide. (19)
1. See the GBIO profile under Interfaith Organizations in World Religions in Boston, available at http://pluralism.org/profile/greater-boston-interfaith-organization-gbio/.
2. Ann McClenahan, “Meaning Making: A Socio-Cultural Analysis of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization and its Impact on Individuals and Congregations,” (Prepared for Harvard Divinity School Professor Ronald Thiemann, April 2003) 4.
3. Greater Boston Interfaith Organization Web site, accessed 24 March 2006 at http://www.gbio.org/about-gbio.
4. GBIO presentation by organizers Ari Lipman and the Rev. Ray Hammond in the course “Religion in American Public Life,” Harvard Divinity School, 30 Nov. 2005.
5. See the Islamic Society of Boston center profile in World Religions in Boston, http://pluralism.org/profile/islamic-society-of-boston/.
6. Islamic Society of Boston presentation and tour by ISB Assistant Director Salma Kazmi for the course “Muslims in Multicultural America,” Harvard Divinity School, 21 Nov. 2005.
7. See The Faith Quilts Project Research Report in World Religions in Boston, available at http://pluralism.org/research-report/the-faith-quilts-project-2006/.
8. Rich Barlow, “On Display at Library, Mosaic of Faith,” Boston Globe, 26 March 2005.
9. Lisa Wangsness, “Clergy Seek to Prevent Teen Violence During Summer,” Boston Globe (Metro), 26 June 2005.
10. Russell Nichols, “Initiative Connects with At-Risk Youths: City, Clergy Work to Hedge Violence,” Boston Globe (Metro), 5 July 2005.
11. Angelica Medaglia, “Clerics Overcome Fear and Suspicion to Build Bridges of Understanding,” Boston Globe (Northwest), 9 Nov. 2003.
12. See the Boston Dialogue Foundation center profile in World Religions in Boston.
13. Boston Dialogue Foundation Web site, accessed 9 Dec. 2005 at http://www.dialogboston.org/.
14. “About PCP,” Public Conversations Project Web site, accessed 24 March 2006 at http://www.publicconversations.org/about-us.
15. “Our History,” Public Conversations Project Web site, accessed 24 March 2006 at http://www.publicconversations.org/history.
16. “Composer Residency Program,” American Composers Forum New England, accessed 24 March 2006 at http://www.acfnewengland.org/cr.html. [Editor’s note 2016: residency program no longer operational. See http://composersforum.org/ for more information.]
17. Jessica Ullian, “Halal for All,” BU Today, 28 Oct. 2005, http://www.bu.edu/today/2005/halal-for-all/.
18. “Islamic Center of Boston to Host Interfaith Service to Mark Thanksgiving,” 13 Nov. 2005, Pluralism Project Religion Diversity News http://pluralism.org/news/islamic-center-of-boston-hosts-interfaith-thanksgiving-service/.
19. Jane Lampman, “Faithful Build Bridges with Books,” Christian Science Monitor, 30 Nov. 2005.