“The Clock Can Never Be Turned Back”: The Formation and Growth of Interfaith Groups in the Greater Boston Area (1993)

“Something new and something good is happening,” declared an African-America minister at an interreligious worship service in Boston. “We are discovering each other by bringing our gifts together and offering them to God,” echoed a white Unitarian-Universalist minister at the same worship service. Reflecting upon this worship service with participants from Protestant, Roman Catholic, Unitarian-Universalist, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Neo-Pagan faith traditions, a Protestant minister stated emphatically, “The clock can never be turned back!”[1]

What is new and what is happening as different religious traditions discover and begin to interact with one another? What direction is the clock of interfaith associations and relationships turning? Based upon research and interviews conducted during the Spring and Summer of 1993, here are a few snapshots of interfaith activities in the greater Boston area.

Brockton, Massachusetts — At the November, 1992, annual meeting, members of the Brockton Interfaith Community, who gathered from fourteen Christian and Jewish congregations across the city, worshipped and prayed together for over one hour, celebrated their “victories” from the past year, such as challenging Shawmut Bank’s lending practices to low-income individuals and negotiating new mortgage programs with Shawmut, specifically the Brockton Housing Partnership, and then asked their state congressmen and national representatives specific requests for seeking grants for increasing the Brockton police force and for implementing drug-free zones around city pools and playgrounds; the elected officials immediately answered that they would work to fill request.

Sharon, Massachusetts — A Greek Orthodox Bishop, a Jewish Rabbi, and a Roman Catholic Bishop turned over the first shovels of soil in April, 1993, at the ground breaking for a new Islamic center. “Welcome to Sharon — the New Jerusalem,” exclaimed Imam Talal Eid.[2] By July, 1993, local construction workers had completed half of the social hall and education center; one worker drove a truck with a bumper stick: “Love me, I’m Italian!”

Quincy, Massachusetts — In April, 1993, a nursing class toured the Islamic Center of New England, observed prayers, and talked with Imam Talal Eid about Islam in order for the student nurses to gain a better understanding of the religious beliefs and practices of their future Muslim patients.

Somerville, Massachusetts — At the monthly meeting of the Somerville Interfaith Group in May 1993, members discussed and edited a letter which denounced religious prejudice and stereotyping directed against the Muslim community and called for understanding and respect among different faith communities; the group planned to send the letter to all religious communities in Somerville and to the local newspaper.

Boston, Massachusetts — Religious and lay leaders from Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Neo-Pagan faith traditions gathered June 13, 1993, at the Cathedral of St. Paul (Episcopal) and led an interrreligious worship service for racial and religious justice and harmony; the worship service celebrated and honored the lives of Martin Lurther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. Over 100 people attended the service.

Cohasset, Massachusetts — In July, 1993, during the Harbor Fest, religious leaders from Protestant, Unitarian-Universalist, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and the Vedanta Center participated in the blessing of the fleet and randomly took turns giving blessings and passing out flowers to the fleet, mainly pleasure boats, which passed by.

Boston, Massachusetts — In September, 1993, after careful study of patient census data, the chaplain’s office at Children’s Hospital hired a Muslim Imam to work part-time at the hospital. After earlier requests from doctors and patients, the staff at Children’s Hospital redesigned the chapel to include space for Muslim prayer rugs, marked clearly the direction East, and made available devotional literature for Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist faith traditions.

Most interpreters of religion in America agree that the influx of “new” and immigrant religious groups into the United States has created a new situation marked by broader representation of religious faith traditions than has ever before existed in the United States.[3] The new religious pluralism within the United States presents new opportunities for encountering and understanding diverse religious traditions, but at the same produces new challenges and problems for religious communities. How do diverse faith traditions interact and work together? What common set of values of commitments will hold American culture together in such a diverse and pluralistic situation?

In this study, the opportunities and challenges of religious pluralism within the United States will be examined by describing and then analyzing interfaith groups and activities in the greater Boston area. Following the work of Allen Richardson, the study centers on the development and role of “mediating institutions” in providing a space and vehicle for intercultural and interreligious discussion and interaction in public life.[4] The study focuses on how different faith communities are interacting with another, specifically how “newer” and immigrant religious communities are interacting and relating to “older” religious communities, particularly “mainline” Christian, through organized councils, groups, dialogue and education events, and social and community projects. The study follows four limiting parameters: descriptive breadth of major currents and trends were emphasized over analytical depth; the greater Boston area is defined as the area within I-495; an attempt was to focus and uncover the most local and grassroots expressions of interfaith groups; and, interfaith groups which move beyond Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Jewish faith traditions were the center of the study (see Appendix I for a fuller explanation).

In painting a contextual portrait of interfaith groups and activities in the greater Boston area, this study will be presented in three sections. The first section gives a descriptive overview of the types and activities of interfaith groups. This section addresses the question: what is happening and where does it happen? The second section examines factors which appear to promote or hinder interfaith activities and will ask why certain interfaith groups are successful and others not. The final section attempts to place the growth of interfaith group within the larger context of American culture and makes some tentative observations about the meaning and significance of interfaith groups and activities for understanding the place of and challenges to religion in United States.

Section One: Overview and Description of Interfaith Groups and Activities in the Greater Boston Area

Interfaith groups and activities at the local and grassroots level take many forms, yet most groups follow similar patterns and may be divided into eight different types of interfaith groups: religious leaders/clergy associations, social issue and action groups, community organization and action groups, education and dialogue groups, ad hoc groups, institutional groups, national and international groups with local chapters, and unitive groups. The eight types are delineated by the primary purpose and goal of the interfaith group, and groups within each typological category tend to have similar organizational structures, requirements for membership, and engage in similar activities. Thus, a general description and explanation of each type of interfaith group, followed by specific examples of groups and an estimate of the number of groups within the greater Boston area will provide a succinct overview of currents and trends of interfaith groups and activities in and around Boston.[5]

The most common type of interfaith group consists of religious leaders/clergy associations. Most religious leaders/clergy associations evolved from Christian clergy associations which tend to rise and fall depending upon the interest and energy of the local clergy. In the latest reorganization of many groups of local clergy in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the associations adopted an interfaith format and invited the leaders, both professional and lay, of every “recognized and legitimate” religious community in a local area to join the association. A name change from clergy to religious leaders associations often accompanied the change in format. The primary purposes of these religious leaders groups focuses on giving one another mutual support, to exchanging information about local issues, and organizing a small number of local events; intense theological discussions are usually discouraged. Among the activities, most associations sponsor and lead at least one interfaith service each year, which most likely coincided with the religiously neutral celebrations of Thanksgiving or Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. In the greater Boston area, there are at least twenty-six religious leaders/clergy associations which follow an interfaith format — beyond Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Jewish traditions.

The Quincy Clergy Association represents one example of a religious leaders/clergy association. The Quincy association reformed into an interfaith association in 1989 and members represent Protestant, Roman Catholic, Unitarian-Universalist, Greek Orthodox, Muslim, and Religious Science faith traditions, along with the representatives from the Quincy Interfaith Housing Coalition, the Salvation Army, a Roman Catholic convent, the Beechwood Counseling Service, and the Protestant Social Service Bureau. Approximately twenty-five out of a possible fifty religious leaders in the Quincy area attend the monthly luncheon meetings. Evangelical Christian clergy and often the Jewish rabbis in town usually do not attend the association but do participate in special events. The meetings intentionally focus on community concerns and attempt to avoid theological debates. The association sponsors a First Night Worship service at the Unitarian-Universalist church, along with occasional prayer vigils for AIDS. The structure of the association is informal and the association focuses on building relationships and collegiality among the religious leadership in Quincy while addressing issues of common concern among the religious leadership. [6]

A second type of interfaith group is the social issue and action group. This type of group focuses upon one, or a small cluster, of societal issues of problems and works to resolve the issue, or lessen the impact of the social problem. Issues addressed by this type of group include homelessness, hunger, AIDS, low-cost housing, environmental conservation, employment retention and retraining, and peace and justice issues. The agenda for each group is dictated by the demands of the specific issue but almost always entail some form of political advocacy at the local, state, or national level. Most social issue and action groups recruit members and financial support from both organizations and individuals; financial support provides the basis for membership. The resolution of the issue or problem is the overriding concern of the group, and dialogue and interaction among members almost always remains secondary. These groups encourage members to write letters to elected officials, attend social action marches and activities, and volunteer at social service agencies. Social issue and action groups do not often organize interfaith worship services. The full interfaith dimension of social issue and action groups is hard to determine. Yet, at least twenty-one social issue and action groups claim an interfaith base of support in the greater Boston area.

An example of a social issue and action group is Social Action Ministries of Greater Boston. Social Action Ministries, directed by Rev. Canon Brian Kelley, is an umbrella organization which attempts to coordinate the various social ministries in the Boston area and describes itself as “a coalition of religious groups, social service agencies and individuals concerned with alleviating the problems of hungry and homeless people in the greater Boston area.”[7] Specific activities include producing a directory of emergency resources and social services in the Boston area, lobbying for funding to social issues, a monthly newsletter informing members about specific issues and events, and maintaining funds for homeless families and rental assistance. In June, S.A.M. hosted a special reception honoring the work of departing Mayor Ray Flynn for economic and social justice. S.A.M. members include Protestant, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Muslim congregations and denominational agencies, as well as many individuals and social service agencies. Other examples of social issue and action groups include the Quincy Interfaith Sheltering Coalition, which runs a shelter for homeless men and women in Quincy and is supported by Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish and Unitarian-Univeralist, and Muslim faith communities and individuals, and the Interfaith AIDS Ministry, which supports AIDS patients and their families and receives support from Protestant, Roman Catholic, Unitarian-Universalist, and Jewish faith communities and individuals.

Community organizing and action groups present a third type of interfaith group. Unlike social issue and action groups which focus primarily upon the social issue or problem, community organizing and action groups emphasize the community. The central purpose consists of bringing community members together to discuss issues of common concern, which arise from their own experiences within the community, and then to explore ways to address the issues or concerns. The groups strive to build relationships among group members and concentrates on making the community a better place to live. Most of these interfaith groups in the greater Boston area formed within the past five years and use established faith communities as the basis for membership; thus, faith communities join the group as an institutional member and send representatives of their individual communities to the group meetings. Lay leadership predominates. Activities of community organizing and action groups range from providing support for community day care to lobbying local officials to paint crosswalks and improve playgrounds, from identifying and pressuring police to crack-down on local drug houses to challenging bank officials to alter lending practices. Approximately half of these groups participate in interfaith worship, and a faith commitment is viewed as a critical dimension of the organization. In the greater Boston area, there are at least seven interfaith community organizing and action groups with an interfaith format.

Probably the most developed community organizing and action group, which has also achieved the most dramatic results, is the Brockton Interfaith Community. Founded in 1991 after a two year period of organization, the B.I.C. currently is composed of sixteen faith communities in Brockton representing Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Jewish faith traditions; Greek Orthodox and Muslim faith communities are currently being recruited for membership. B.I.C. “cultivates and deepens religious unity among people of faith. At the same time, it strengthens the moral and ethical fabric of the entire community.”[8] “Victories” by the group include pressuring Shawmut Bank to change its lending practices in Brockton, requesting the police chief to implement drug education programs in the elementary schools, and finding grants to keep city pools open during the summer. All meetings involve some form of prayer or worship, since B.I.C. members believe that their faith commitment and their commitment to their community are the driving forces of the organization.

The fourth type of interfaith group is education and dialogue groups. These types of groups form for the purpose of building relationships of understanding, respect, and trust among people from different faith traditions. The focus is upon dialogue and sharing information and insights from different faith traditions and not addressing community or social issues. Education and dialogue groups usually do not participate in interfaith worship. There are four education and dialogue groups in the greater Boston area.

The Catholic, Jewish, Muslim Trialogue represents one example of a dialogue and education group. The Trialogue, which formed in 1989, meets every six weeks. By design, the progress of the Trialogue remains slow and deliberate. The first meetings focused upon introductions of trialogue members and explanations of their different faith traditions. Group members then discussed each tradition’s perspective on major theological topics, such as creation. The trialogue also developed an interreligious panel to visit schools and explain the different faith traditions to students. By agreement, the Trialogue group promised to delay discussion of inflammatory political issues, such as the Middle East and the Muslim-Jewish relationships, until the relationships of members of the group were firmly established. Periodically, the Trialogue group extends its discussion beyond itself through letters to the editor of Boston area newspapers.

Another type of interfaith group is ad hoc groups. This type of group forms quickly in response to a specific crisis or event. When the event or crisis passes, the group disbands or evolves into another type of interfaith group. For example, ad hoc groups often restart and rejuvenate religious leadership/clergy associations, such as the Sharon Clergy Association which reformed after the clergy members gathered to address the crisis of an anti-semitic remark published in the high school yearbook. Since these groups evolve or disband, a concise count is not possible.

Examples of ad hoc interfaith groups include an interfaith worship service with representatives from Protestant, Roman Catholic, Unitarian-Universalist, Jewish, and Buddhist faith communities held at the moving Vietnam War memorial when it arrived at Lowell in the summer of 1993, and numerous prayer vigils and worship services organized before the outbreak of the Gulf War.

Three other types of interfaith groups, which will be briefly mentioned but not developed since these groups were not a focus or priority in this study, are institutional groups and agencies, national and international groups with local chapters, and unitive groups. Institutional groups and agencies represent communities in one faith tradition, yet often engage in dialogue and activities with institutional groups from other faith traditions. An example is the Massachusetts Council of Churches which represents a variety of Christian denominations and pursues an ecumenical agenda. At the same time, the Massachusetts Council of Churches engages in a Christian-Jewish and a Christian-Muslim dialogue, co-sponsors interfaith activities, and relates to other faith traditions at the institution to institution level only. National and International interfaith groups sustain a national or international agenda yet recruit and maintain membership through local chapters. The Boston chapter of the World Conference of Religion and Peace represents this type of interfaith group. A final type of interfaith group is unitive groups. Unitive groups attempt to create a space where all religious traditions can come together for deeper understanding, and in some cases, unity. An example is Peace Abbey in Sherborn which was established “to provide a sacred environment where The Sacred Office of Peace is prayed.”[9] The Sacred Office of Peace includes prayers from twelve major religious traditions, and the Abbey provides the space where different faith traditions can gather in the name of peace.

Beyond the description of different types of interfaith groups, one special activity which requires attention is interfaith worship. As stated above, several of the interfaith group types organize interfaith worship services. In the course of this research project, interfaith worship arose again and again as a point of frustration and contention in most groups. The frustration centers on the tension between expressing unity and maintaining the diversity and integrity of each faith tradition. No simple solutions had been found, but four strategies, or styles of worship, emerge from the various attempts at interfaith worship.[10] The first strategy focuses on the unity of all faith communities and uses common elements, or the lowest common denominators, of all faith traditions involved in the service. At meetings of the Brockton Interfaith Community, this type of worship is used; prayers do not end in the name of Jesus and scripture readings are chosen from the old faith traditions. A second strategy, which also stresses unity, centers upon worshipping God, but employs only neutral language about God. With members from Judeo-Christian and Neo-Pagan faith communities involved in worship, the Salem Religious Leaders Association uses this strategy. The third strategy emphasizes the diversity and integrity of each faith tradition instead of an underlying unity and consists of each faith community presenting something specific and appropriate to their own tradition in the service. At the interfaith worship service held by the moving Vietnam Memorial Wall in Lowell, each faith tradition was allotted approximately five minutes to present a prayer or other appropriate remembrance of Vietnam veterans. the fourth strategy consists of not worshipping together, unless an exceptional occasion arises. Rabbi Barry Starr, a Jewish rabbi from Sharon and a member of the Sharon group which employs this strategy, views community worship services as part of the Christian and not the Jewish agenda.[11] Starr correctly identifies that the impetus for interfaith worship usually arises from liberal Protestants. In some ways, this liberal Protestant urge marks the collapse of the Christian ecumenical agenda, which identifies worshipping together as the highest mark of Christian unity, into the interfaith agenda, which stresses the building of relationships of understanding, respect, and trust. Interfaith groups without liberal Protestant majorities, such as the Trialogue and the Sharon Clergy Association, keep those two agendas separate and tend not to emphasize or engage in interfaith worship. For interfaith groups in the greater Boston area, the first and third strategies are most popular.

After an overview of the types and activities of interfaith groups, the question must be asked: Who participates and who does not participate in interfaith groups? Stated in different terms, who is at the table of interfaith dialogue and activity? Almost every faith community appears to be invited to participate in interfaith groups, but who does? It is dangerous to make sweeping generalizations about interfaith participation and exceptions can be found to any statement. But very marked trends of participation can be identified.

In almost every case, the overwhelming majority of members of each interfaith group consists of liberal Protestants. The two notable exceptions are the Catholic, Jewish, Muslim trialogue group, which intentionally excludes Protestants and uses the “minority” status of each religious tradition as an unifying factor, and the forerunner of Eco-Spirit, which planned the Earth Day 1990 worship service and maintained a ratio of less than 50% Christians at all worship planning meetings. To say that the liberal Protestants, particularly white males, form the majority of most interfaith groups is not hyperbolic. Not surprisingly, Unitarian-Universalists also always participate in interfaith groups.

It is harder to gauge the participation of Evangelical Christians, but most interfaith groups do not have Evangelical Christian representation, or at the most one or two individuals. One exception is Rev. Gary Mueller, who is the current president of the Sharon Clergy Association and the pastor of Evangelical Baptist Church. Mueller described himself on the “liberal” edge of Evangelical Christianity and remarked that he must often “suspend” his beliefs and commitments when working with the clergy association; in these situations, Mueller believed that the good of the community temporarily outweighed his Evangelical commitments.[12] The uneasiness between liberal and Evangelical Christians arises when both participate in interfaith groups. At monthly meetings of the Boston Interfaith Clergy Breakfast, there is always a period to exchange information about upcoming major events in the different faith communities and social agencies; after each announcements, flyers about the event are distributed and members ask questions about the event. During one meeting, a small groups of Evangelical Christians were asked to announce their plans about the upcoming “March for Jesus,” which was part of a national event in which marches for Jesus were held in every major city in the United States. No signs could be carried or literature distributed — in other words, no social agendas were to interfere with the event. An uneasy silence greeted the announcement and no questions were posed to the presenters, who quickly left the meeting at the first opportunit.[13] In these two and other cases, Evangelical Christians seem uneasy about the social agendas and “suspension” of faith convictions which most interfaith groups appear to demand. Thus, Evangelical Christians choose not to participate.

In most interfaith groups, Roman Catholic clergy or laity participate. Within specific parameters, the Archdiocese of Boston, following the lead of Vatican II, strongly supports and encourages involvement and dialogue in interfaith groups, particularly at the local parish level.[14] The most prominent restriction from the archdiocese involves interfaith worship. Officially, Roman Catholics worshipping with other faith traditions may “come together to pray” but not “come to pray together.” The integrity of the Roman Catholic tradition must be maintained. When Roman Catholic clergy do not participate in interfaith groups, the primary reason given for non-participation is the overwhelming parish duties and lack of time.

Anglo-European Buddhist and Hindu communities are not members of most interfaith groups, but they tend to join interfaith groups when asked. For example, a religious leader from the local Vedanta Center began meeting with the Cohasset Clergy Association when invited; no one previously had thought about asking someone from the Vedanta Center to participate.[15] The Boston Interfaith Clergy Breakfast includes representatives from the Cambridge Zen Center, ISKCON, and the Free Daist Community, and other Anglo-European Hindu and Buddhist groups who were intentionally and deliberately invited.

In contrast, members of newer immigrant Hindu and Buddhist communities rarely participate in interfaith groups. There are many reasons for non-participation which will be developed below (see barriers of interfaith groups). The one exception in this study was Brother Venerable John, a priest from the Cambodian Buddhist community in Lowell, who attended meetings of the Greater Lowell Interfaith Leadership Group for one year. Yet, during the entire yet, the Buddhist priest never spoke out publicly in any discussions at the monthly meetings.[16]

As for other faith traditions, Jewish communities usually participate, Greek Orthodox communities sometimes do and sometimes do not, and Neo-Pagan communities are starting to join interfaith groups. Neo-Pagan religious leaders have joined interfaith groups in Boston, Salem, and Medford, areas in which the Neo-Pagan communities are well-established, secure, and publicly visible.

Although most interfaith groups maintain an open invitation to all faith communities, an examination of the groups reveals that there are implicit ground rules for joining interfaith groups which effectively encourage and discourage participation by certain faith communities. In order to uncover the unspoken rules and test the meaning and limits of “legitimate and recognized” religious communities, the researcher asked representatives of most interfaith groups if their group would allow and encourages representation from ISKCON or Neo-Pagan faith communities (the terms “Hare Krishnas” and “witches” were intentionally used in the interview since these words carry a negative image with most individuals). After reflecting on the question, almost every representative of interfaith groups answered in a similar manner. After a period of discussion and learning about these groups, there would be no problem inviting members to join the group. Most sources reasoned that there was nothing in the by-laws or practices of the group to exclude a specific faith community from membership. Membership appeared open. Yet, at the same time, certain faith communities created difficulties and were strictly not invited to participate. Two interfaith groups nearly split and one did over the presence of a “Chosen Ones” group (misidentified as “Jews for Jesus”) in the community. The Sharon Clergy Association nearly disbanded after the leader of the group was invited to a meeting, and the situation only resolved itself when the group moved to Norwood. The Norwood Clergy Association did splinter after the group arrived in town. In Waltham, the local clergy association almost split over the discussion of whether or not to invite a member of “Jews for Jesus” to give a short presentation to the group and explain the group’s beliefs; the debate was not about membership but listening to a short presentation, and the member from “Jews for Jesus” was not invited. In sum, two implicit rules arise out of these examples. First, a member of an interfaith group must respect other faith communities, which means that it must not be offensive to other members or create conflict. Second, a member of an interfaith group must not threaten, either actual or perceived, other faith communities, specifically through proselytizing. In other words, faith communities which appear aggressive or disrupt the decorum of the group through strong and unspoken commitments need not apply. In the end, Rev. Ed Atkinson, pastor of the First Parish in Cohasset, identifies the most basic rule in local interfaith groups: “All the clergy are liberal and flexible.”[17]

Section Two: Beyond Description: Factors which Promote and Hinder Interfaith Groups in the Greater Boston Area

Interfaith groups form and increase or decline for a variety of complex reasons. In order to understand the recent proliferation of interfaith groups in the greater Boston area, it is important to ask and begin to answer three questions: first, what are the most central factors in the formation and development of interfaith groups; second, what barriers limit participation or growth of interfaith groups; and third, what do interfaith groups accomplish?

In answering the first question, it is clear that interfaith groups form under different circumstances and for different reasons. Yet, three factors remain particularly significant: evolutionary development, an organizing issue or crisis, and individual leadership.

The first factor in the rise of interfaith groups stems from greater awareness about the diversity of faith communities in local areas. When Christian or Jewish-Christians groups become aware of other religious communities in their area, the existing group often adopts an interfaith format and invites the leader of the new religious community, or at least newly discovered, to participate in the group. This shift to interfaith is most pronounced in the change of local clergy associations to religious leaders associations, such as in Salem and Lowell. As mentioned above, the Cohasset clergy association shifted to an interfaith format when someone thought about inviting a leader form the Vedanta community to attend and the leader accepted. The shift also occurs in social issue and action groups which beginning recruiting members and soliciting support from the new religious communities. The evolutionary development toward interfaith groups may be understood, in part, as a trend, which for Christians started in the ecumenical movement, for greater inclusiveness and understanding among diverse faith communities.

Another critical factor in the formation of many interfaith groups is an event of crisis which suddenly pulls religious leaders together and becomes the catalyst for an ongoing organization. In Franklin, the Interfaith Council grew out relationships developed among religious leaders who attempted to respond together to the threat of the Gulf War. The relationships built among faith communities continued after the war as the group addressed the issue of the lack of affordable, low-cost housing.[18] Similarly, a dormant clergy association in Sharon reformed and was re-energized into an interfaith group by a need for a coordinated response to a suicide at the middle school, an anti-semitic remark in the high school yearbook, and a debate about prayer at the high school graduation. The events also led to the formation of a clergy Human rights Commission in the town.[19] In each case, the issue or crisis provides the initial spark for the formation of an interfaith group.

The third factor is leadership, specifically one or two individuals who are committed to the success of the interfaith agenda or group. One example of committed leadership and untiring support of interfaith cooperation in the Islamic community is the work of Imam Talal Eid. As one of the most visible Muslim leaders in the greater Boston area, Imam Eid participates in seven interfaith groups, represents the Muslim community in everything from a Christmas wreath controversy in the Weston public schools to interfaith worship services, and gave twenty presentations in one month (April 1993) to school and college groups. Imam Eid believes that educating others about Islam is a central component of his ministry.[20] Similarly, Rev. Steve Ellis, pastor of the Church of the New Jerusalem in Boston, energizes and leads the Boston Interfaith Clergy Breakfast through lining up speakers, organizing special events, constantly inviting religious leaders to attend the breakfast, and providing the meeting with a very generous breakfast. In both of these cases and others, interfaith groups succeed through the determination and commitment of its leadership.

In contrast to factors which assist in the formation and growth of interfaith groups, other factors create barriers which limit the formation and participation of interfaith groups, specifically for newer immigrant religious communities. The barriers fall into the broad categories of pragmatic barriers, religious and cultural barriers, and “it just takes time” barriers.

Pragmatic barriers arise when faith communities desire to participate in interfaith groups and activities but current circumstances make participation inconvenient or impossible. One barrier for the Asian-Indian Hindu community originates in the difference between regional Hindu temples, which attract worshippers from a three or four state area, and local interfaith events For example, the B.S.S. Temple in Stow has repeatedly been asked, and occasionally does, participate in the Stow area interfaith Thanksgiving service. Yet, involvement in the event is difficult and inconvenient, since members of the Hindu temple live an average of one hour drive from Stow.[21] Another barrier is the time of interfaith activities and meetings. For example, Rev. K.G. Philipose, a volunteer priest of St. Mary’s Indian Orthodox Church of Boston, contacted the Waltham Clergy Association about joining the group. Yet, since the Waltham association meets in the mornings when Philipose must work full-time at another job, Philipose is not able to be a part of the group.[22]Language barriers also inhibit interfaith groups. At interfaith worship services sponsored by the Somerville Interfaith Group, worship bulletins are translated into five languages.[23] The isolation, or sense of isolation, of religious communities and interfaith groups creates another barrier. In almost every interview conducted in this research project, the representatives sought information from the Pluralism Project about other faith communities in their local area and about similar interfaith groups in the greater Boston area. Even very informed sources had very little or no information about other groups. Most interfaith groups believed that they were alone and breaking new ground, even though, as this research suggests, similar developments are occurring throughout greater Boston.

Another set of barriers revolve around cultural and religious differences and misunderstandings. Some barriers involve the role of women. The women of the Weston Interfaith Action Group keep attempting to recruit a Muslim woman to join their group and are frustrated by their lack of success. Yet, the Weston group does not appear to understand the role of women in the Muslim community and the difficulty posed by a woman representing the Muslims in a public forum. Religious practices also can become barriers. The B.S.S. Temple in Stow was approached about housing the local food pantry and gladly volunteered for the task. But the Hindu temple declined after learning that much of the food supply consisted of meat which conflicted with their vow to vegetarianism. Another barrier contrasts private and public conceptions of faith. A leader of the Sri Lakshmi temple in Ashland explained that the Hindu faith is very private and individualistic and participation in public, interfaith activities is contrary to their private conceptions of religious practice; thus, the temple declines invitations to participate in interfaith activities. A final cultural and religious barrier forms with interfaith groups which explicitly push forward a liberal political and social agenda. Social Action Ministries’ reception honoring Mayor Ray Flynn illustrates its liberal political agenda. Many of the newer immigrant groups appear to distance themselves from political agendas (in interfaith activities) and may follow a more conservative political agenda which conflicts with the agenda of politically liberal interfaith groups.

The Cambodian Buddhist community in Lynn illustrates the third kind of barrier for interfaith groups. The Buddhist community has been approached and started informal discussions about joining the Essex County Community Organization. But the Buddhist community stated that it must first become better established, heal divisions within its own community, and get to know the other members of E.C.C.O before they can commit themselves to the interfaith group. In other words, the Cambodian Buddhists are interested in participating, but they need more time to build trust and relationships within their community and with others.

In spite of the barriers and factors of formation, what do interfaith groups accomplish? After reflecting upon a summer filled with gathering information about and interviewing participants of interfaith groups, several different areas of accomplishment and contributions of interfaith groups stand out.

On one level, interfaith groups create a network among religious leaders and communities which allow diverse faith traditions to communicate with one another, support one another’s activities, and advocate for one another when faced with difficulties. The most dramatic example of the ability of an interfaith group to advocate for another faith community is found in the building of a new Islamic center in Sharon. In Sharon, the Sharon Clergy Association ran interference for the Muslim community by attending every public town meeting and directly challenged the opponents of the new center. The clergy association opened the doors for the Muslims to move into Sharon.[24] In a different manner, the Boston Interfaith Clergy Breakfast provides a forum for different religious communities to share and exchange resources, support, and even credibility. According to one member, the “mainline” faith communities give stability and “validity” to the ministries and programs of the “outside” faith communities, while the “outside” communities instill energy and vitality into the declining “mainline” communities by injecting new and creative ministries into the community.[25] In this reciprocal relationship, the faith communities strengthen and support one another.

On another level, interfaith groups can respond to community issues of mutual concern and they are stronger when working together than alone. The Brockton Interfaith Community sees this premise as one key to their success in challenging Shawmut Bank and other “victories.”[26] In a similar manner, the members of the Sharon Clergy Association discovered that together they did have a voice, were a force, and could influence the plans and activities in Sharon.[27] The interfaith group provides the mechanism for channeling the diverse voices into one.

On a third level, and possibly the most important, interfaith groups help build relationships of understanding and trust among diverse faith communities. In the thoughts of Scott Spencer from the Brockton Interfaith Community, the interfaith groups change and transform the people involved.[28] Many sources echoed this thought. Whether relationships are built through addressing a common problem, dialogue, or attempting to come together to pray, the creation of relationships of understanding and mutual respect is the key which transforms mere diversity into pluralism.

Section Three: A Few Closing Thoughts about the State and Significance of Interfaith Groups

Before ending a discussion about interfaith groups in the greater Boston area, a few brief observations about the state and significance of interfaith groups are appropriate. In particular, what do the formation and growth of interfaith groups reveal about the state of religious pluralism in the Untied States? What do we learn about religion in America from observing and documenting the activities of interfaith groups?

Winthrop Hudson, a prominent American religious historian, ended his one-volume interpretation of religion in America with a brief discussion of the “new pluralism” which had slipped unnoticed into American society and threatened the disintegration of American culture. America, according to Hudson, was no longer held together by shared commitments and convictions and a set of common assumptions, based upon the Judeo-Christian traditions. Hudson warned about the “unfinished business” of the American people and the critical need to develop a new cultural consensus. But where will this consensus be found and how will it be formed?[29]

In some ways, the formation of interfaith groups represents an attempt to construct a “new cultural consensus” by building relationships of trust, understanding, respect, and cooperation among faith traditions and within local communities. Three different strategies attempt to form the basis for consensus. Some interfaith groups employ a social strategy which builds consensus by working together to resolve a social issue; other groups use a community strategy which directs cooperative energies toward making a specific local community a better and more moral place to live; and, still other groups focus on a strategy of dialogue which constructs consensus through discussion and understanding. Thus, interfaith groups use different strategies to move from mere diversity to a pluralism based upon shared commitments. Yet, at the same time, it can be argued that most interfaith groups have not faced the “new pluralism” which Hudson described, since most groups remain within the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition and find consensus as “People of the Book” who worship the God of Abraham. What can be affirmed is that if these interfaith groups are not planting the seeds of a “new cultural consensus,” they are at least preparing the soil from which a consensus may grow. In different ways, interfaith groups address the “unfinished business” which Hudson identified.

Another way to approach the question uses the work of Robert Bellah. Bellah, citing the work of Richard Merelman, describes the key tension in American culture as a struggle between tight- and loose-boundedness.[30] A tight-bounded culture maintains strict structures and moral norms, while a loose-bounded culture rejects strict moral norms and structures in favor of radical individualism and freedom. Bellah argues for a middle course but sees the greatest threat in the triumph and current movement of American culture toward loose-boundedness, which denies any place or relevance for structure religious communities.

In many respects, Bellah identifies the engine that powers and drives the formation of interfaith groups. In interview after interview, the sources stated that the “enemy” was not the other faith communities, no matter how diverse or aggressive, but the real threat was a rising secular culture which gave no voice or relevance to religious faith.[31] Faith itself becomes the thread that unifies the faith traditions in the face of a secular culture, and interfaith groups create a unified from for facing the “enemy”– secularization.

Yet, another question which may be asked arises from Douglas Jacobsen’s study of religious pluralism in colonial New Jersey: what kind of religious pluralism do interfaith groups represent?[32] Jacobsen describes religious pluralism as external diversity that is internalized in which diversity is viewed as permanent and individuals define themselves in terms of others. Furthermore, Jacobsen distinguishes between “diffuse” and “focused” pluralism. “Diffuse” pluralism is pragmatic and private and occurs at the local level in which diverse faith communities compete in semi-cooperative manner. “Focused” pluralism is public and societal and has a unifying core of beliefs which represents a common civil faith. Using Jacobsen’s distinction, do interfaith groups represent “diffuse” or “focused” pluralism. It seems that most interfaith groups fall somewhere between the two types, since they have moved beyond the pragmatic level but, as discussed above, have not arrived at a common set of beliefs and values. Jacobsen’s distinction is helpful in identifying the movement within the interfaith groups from a “diffuse” toward a “focused” pluralism, even if it is unclear if interfaith groups and America culture will arrived at the “focused” point.

Even if the exact location of interfaith groups remains unclear, the challenge that these groups and religious pluralism poses to traditional religious concepts is very clear and sharp. In the greater Boston area, many challenges and redefinitions were observed, particularly in reference to descriptive language about religion. The names of clergy associations were changed to religious leaders associations in order to reflect the lay involvement and lay leadership in “new” and immigrant religious communities. Groups no longer wrote “mission statements” but “statements of purpose” in order to avoid the appearance of a proselytizing objective of the group. Many groups are split between using the term “interreligious,” which is more sensitive to Jewish communities which are uncomfortable being considered a faith community, and “interfaith,” which attempts to avoid the lack of definitional clarity in the term “religious.” In each case and many others, the shift in language signals a deeper growing awareness and sensitivity of the diverse faith communities and a redefinition of “legitimate and recognized” religions. In other words, it marks a shift from diversity toward pluralism.

A discussion and analysis of interfaith groups can not end without asking one last question: who sets the agenda and controls most interfaith groups? From the preceding discussion, it seems, not surprisingly, that liberal Protestants dominate and control the agendas of most interfaith groups. In the above discussion, the liberal Protestant agenda appears when Evangelical Christians describe “suspending” belief or are words are received with silence to the Trialogue meetings which deliberately excludes Protestant voices so that “minority” voices may be heard. The point where the liberal Protestant agenda is most visible occur in interfaith worship. Most interfaith worship services are “services of the Word” and revolve around a sermon. For example, at the planning meetings of the interreligious service sponsored by the Boston Interfaith Clergy Breakfast in which there was equal input from Eastern and Western faith traditions, a long discussion surrounded how long of a “silent meditation” Protestants could stand (two or three minutes), but no one questioned how long a sermon the other faith groups could endure.[33]

In summary, this report is an attempt to describe, analyze, and comment on the formation and growth of interfaith groups in the greater Boston area. It illustrates that something new is happening and the “clock can never be turned back.” But the report also reveals that there are significant barriers which exclude certain faith communities from participation and much work is yet to be completed. Yet, at the local and grassroots level there is a growing awareness of the religious diversity of American culture and as a result of this awareness a movement toward religious pluralism.

—Christopher Coble, Pluralism Project Research Associate


[1] Statements by Rev. K. Gordon James and Rev. Carl Scovel at the Interreligious Community Service for Racial and Religious Justice and Harmony, held at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Boston, June 13, 1993. The third statement was by Rev. Canon Brian Kelley of Social Action Ministries, Boston, in an interview held July 13, 1993.↩︎

[2] Cited in Boston Guide, third edition, April 3, 1993.↩︎

[3] See Winthrop Hudson, Religion in America: an Historical Account of the Development of American Religious Life (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1987).↩︎

[4] Allen Richardson, Strangers in This Land: Pluralism and the Response to Diversity in the United States (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1988), pp. 200-202.↩︎

[5] I do not maintain that every interfaith group will neatly and perfectly fit into one type of group, and many groups attempt to maintain multiple functions. But each group is classified according to its primary purpose and function. With this consideration in mind, the interfaith groups may be placed within this typology. Also, after the Pluralism Conference, Fall 1993, I was reminded by one observer that many major interfaith councils in other cities, such as Fort Worth, Texas, sustain multiple goals and purposes, such as education/dialogue and social ministries. Although there are no major interfaith councils in the Boston area with this ability, the comment identifies the need for another typological category to describe larger regional interfaith councils with the ability to sustain multiple purposes.↩︎

[6] Interview with Rev. Fred Atwood-Lyon, pastor of Quincy Point Congregation Church, Quincy, on August 5, 1993; interview with Dr. Sheldon Bennett, pastor of United First Parish Church (U.U.), Quincy, on August 13, 1993.↩︎

[7] Pamphlet published by Social Action Ministries of Greater Boston, 1993.↩︎

[8] Statement of Purpose, Brockton Interfaith Community, Brockton.↩︎

[9] Pamphlet published by Peace Abbey, Sherborn, Massachusetts, 1993.↩︎

[10] A fuller discussion of interfaith worship will be included in my second paper, which will present four case-studies of interfaith activities in the greater Boston area.↩︎

[11] Interview with Rabbi Barry Starr, rabbi of Temple Israel, Sharon, Massachusetts, April 23, 1993.↩︎

[12] Interview with Rev. Gary Mueller, pastor of Evangelical Baptist Church, Sharon, Massachusetts, July 12, 1993.↩︎

[13] Meeting of Boston Interfaith Clergy Breakfast, May 26, 1993.↩︎

[14] Publication from the Archdiocese of Boston.↩︎

[15] Interview with Rev. Ed Atkinson, pastor of First Parish in Cohasset, Cohasset, July 30, 1993.↩︎

[16] Interview with Jeanne Pinnars, Notre Dame de Lourdes Church, Lowell, August 9, 1993.↩︎

[17] Interview with Atkinson, July 30, 1993.↩︎

[18] Interview with Rev. Whit Bodman, April 14, 1993.↩︎

[19] Interview with Mueller, July 12, 1993.↩︎

[20] Interview with Imam Talal Eid, Imam of the Islamic Center of New England, Quincy, on July 7, 1993.↩︎

[21] Interview with Dr. V.C. Patel, B.S.S. Temple, Stow, July 10, 1993.↩︎

[22] Interview with Rev. K.G. Philipose, pastor St Mary’s Indian Orthodox Church of Boston, July 15, 1993.↩︎

[23] Interview with Kathy Cobb, Somerville Interfaith Group, July 14, 1993.↩︎

[24] The building of the Islamic center in Sharon will be discussed at greater lengthen in my second paper.↩︎

[25] Interview with Rev. Steve Ellis, pastor of the Church of the New Jerusalem, Boston, June 2, 1993.↩︎

[26] Interview with Scott Spencer, executive director of Brockton Interfaith Community, Brockton, April 12, 1993.↩︎

[27] Interview with Starr, April 23, 1993.↩︎

[28] Interview with Spencer, April 12, 1993.↩︎

[29] Hudson, p. 399.↩︎

[30] Robert Bellah and Frederick E. Greenspahn, eds., Uncivil Religion: Interreligious Hostility in America (New York: Crossroads, p. 229.↩︎

[31] Interview with Eid, July 7, 1993; interview with Starr, April 16, 1993; and interview with Rev. David Dickerman, pastor of Grace Congregational Church, Framingham, July 26, 1993.↩︎

[32] See Douglas Jacobsen, An Unprov’d Experiment: Religious Pluralism in Colonial New Jersey (Brooklyn: Carlson, 1991).↩︎

[33] Planning meeting for the interreligious service by the Boston Interfaith Clergy Breakfast, May 26, 1993. The event will be discussed in greater detail in my second paper.↩︎


Editorial Note:

The following appendices were included in the original report:
Appendix I: Method and Parameters of the Study
Appendix II: Interfaith Groups in the Greater Boston Area Spring and Summer 1993
Appendix III: Interfaith Councils and Networks in the Greater Boston Area Spring and Summer 1993, Summary of Contacts and Interviews
Bibliography
Endnotes