America's Interfaith Infrastructure: A Summary Report (2012)

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Summary Report of Pilot Study (2011-2012)


In an article in The Interfaith Observer, veteran organizer Bettina Gray reflected on nearly four decades of involvement in the interfaith movement. From the 1970s when mention of interfaith work “generally drew blank stares” to the revival of a Parliament for the World’s Religions in 1993, to the exponential growth of intentional interfaith engagement in the wake of September 11, 2001, Gray notes that “unimaginable projects then are bearing fruit now.”[1] Gray describes the current moment as “Interfaith 3.0”: interfaith efforts have moved from obscurity, to urgency, and now, into maturity. Yet few have studied this vital movement, nor sought to document the emerging landscape of interfaith activity.

The Interfaith Infrastructure Study, a pilot initiative of The Pluralism Project, documents this exponential growth of interfaith initiatives and considers the implications of our multi-religious reality for citizenship and leadership today and in the future. America’s Interfaith Infrastructure: An Emerging Landscape is the web-based result of this study, incorporating quantitative and qualitative analysis of interfaith initiatives in twenty American cities. The promising practices, leadership profiles, case studies, stories, and maps from these cities reveal a kaleidoscope of individuals and communities who engage with one another to tackle issues of social import, invite each other to share in acts of hospitality, and learn from one another about the traditions and inspirations that bring them to a common table.

Table of Contents 

Purpose and Scope: A Cities-Based Approach

America’s interfaith infrastructure consists of networks of interfaith organizations and leaders that organically link city, regional, state, national, and even international spheres. By focusing on the multi-religious city, we sought, in this pilot phase, to isolate context in order to determine the replicability of interfaith initiatives. Simultaneously, this pilot phase has yielded rich data that could be used in future research to compare initiatives, city to city, region to region, to gauge the impact of 9/11, immigration, or economic hardship on the viability and direction of the interfaith movement.

The twenty cities studied in this pilot project reflect the geographic, socio-economic, and racial diversity of the United States. Several cities were identified for this study based on prior knowledge through Pluralism Project networks that indicated further study in these metro areas would yield rich insights into the vitality and diversity of the interfaith movement.[2]

Cities selected range in population from 150,000 to 1.5 million. The focus on smaller cities for this pilot phase allowed for our research to reflect a broader cross-section of the country than would have been possible if larger cities had been the focus.

This pilot study sought not to define anew the terms “interfaith” and “city” but rather to engage with these terms as defined by local practitioners. If an organization understands itself and at least a portion of its mission to be “interfaith,” it was included here.

Similarly, if local interfaith experts included an organization as part of their city’s interfaith landscape—even if it was not geographically situated within city limits—it was included in this study. Kansas City, Missouri and the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota offer excellent examples of the fluidity that is necessary for documenting the interfaith movement accurately and in real-time using a cities-based approach.

While a cities-based approach to studying the interfaith movement is most instructive for highlighting the diversity within the movement, it became clear in our research that local organizations often are dynamically linked to national or, sometimes, international initiatives. We identified ten such national organizations without which any report on the interfaith movement would be incomplete. These organizations are themselves representative of a range of contexts and constituencies, a diversity of organizational models, and a wide range of goals. Most, if not all, of these organizations espouse an affiliate model for engaging with multiple localities from a central office or umbrella structure that acts as a hub—be it a physical space (Temple of Understanding), virtual, collaborative meeting place (URI), or support staff (IFYC). Research conducted contextually in multiple cities enables us to see the particular contours of local initiatives while keeping in sight the larger movement.

We also documented 10 national and international initiatives, and that information can be found here.

Mapping Twenty Cities (2011-2012)

Interfaith organizations in each of the twenty cities were identified through the Pluralism Project directory of religious centers, web-based research, and the Pluralism Project’s prior contacts. These organizations were then contacted via e-mail with an invitation to participate in an online survey. 410 organizations were catalogued as interfaith organizations across the twenty cities; 124 organizations responded to the survey, giving the pilot phase a response rate of just over thirty percent (30%). Candidates for follow up interviews were identified by survey responses and prior knowledge of fruitful initiatives within the field. Individuals were interviewed by members of the Pluralism Project’s 2011 summer internship cohort, student researchers during the academic year, and by members of the senior staff. Those interviewed were invited to give comment on final materials before publishing.

This pilot study sought to capture glimpses into the breadth and depth of America’s growing interfaith infrastructure. Geo-coded maps of the twenty cities with live web links allow the user to directly access organizational sites. Although Pluralism Project researchers experimented with GIS technology to create multi-layer maps, this proved untenable because the WorldMap resource remains in a nascent stage of development. The Pluralism Project plans to incorporate the findings from this pilot interfaith infrastructure project into future research and mapping of religious diversity in the United States.

Atlanta, Georgia (Population: 420,003) [3]
Number of Interfaith Organizations: 40

Atlanta, the “buckle of the Bible Belt,” is now home to a global community. The interfaith landscape of the “Big Peach” is numerically and qualitatively rich with over forty organizations with constituencies that include people with disabilities, women, youth, campus communities, and travelers through Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Austin, Texas (Population: 790,390)
Number of Interfaith Organizations: 20

Austin’s interfaith infrastructure reflects the city’s identity as a center for arts, education, and social action. In addition to being the home of regional chapters of national interfaith organizations, the city boasts Austin Interfaith, a coalition of schools, unions, and congregations working together on justice issues.

Boston, Massachusetts (Population: 617,594)
Number of Interfaith Organizations: 60

A city with Puritan beginnings, Greater Boston is today home to over one hundred Jewish, thirty-five Hindu, more than twenty-five Muslim, and fifty-five interfaith organizations. While 9/11 may have catalyzed interfaith work in other cities, interfaith initiatives such as Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries have been thriving in Greater Boston for half a century.

Cleveland, Ohio (Population: 396,815)
Number of Interfaith Organizations: 25

Cleveland is a city re-defining itself in the wake of a shifting economy; interfaith initiatives in the “Rock and Roll Capital of the World” are active in these efforts. Local interfaith organizations are tackling issues such as affordable housing, fair employment, and race relations. Nearly a quarter of the city’s interfaith efforts are campus-based.

Fremont, California (Population: 214,089)
Number of Interfaith Organizations: 5

Fremont’s interfaith infrastructure took root in the early 1960s, with the founding of the Tri-City Interfaith Council (formerly the Tri-City Ministerial Association). Today, Fremont is considered to be one of the most diverse cities for its size in the U.S., with a majority Asian population. Here, the religions of the world are in evidence, and a mosque and church were built side by side on a street named “Peace Terrace.”

Hartford, Connecticut (Population: 124,775)
Number of Interfaith Organizations: 16

Hartford is home to vibrant interfaith initiatives, including Hartford Seminary, a Protestant seminary with a one-third Muslim student population. The “Insurance Capital of the World” is also home to interfaith initiatives seeking to promote universal healthcare, environmental stewardship, and partnerships between civic and faith-based institutions.

Jacksonville, Florida (Population: 821,784)
Number of Interfaith Organizations: 9

Jacksonville, by area the largest city in the contiguous United States, is a city both influenced by Protestant Christianity and shaped by its growing religious diversity. Interfaith organizations such as OneJax, the Institute for Prayer and Spirituality, and the Amity Turkish Cultural Center represent the diverse—yet intertwined—reality of the city’s interfaith landscape.

Kansas City, Missouri/Kansas (Population: 459,787/145,786)
Number of Interfaith Organizations: 17

Kansas City is replete with innovative interfaith initiatives that utilize the arts, education and social services. Since the early 1980s, organizations such as the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council have sought to promote a multi-religious and multi-cultural vision for the “Welcoming City.” The play “The Hindu and the Cowboy” tells some of Kansas City’s stories of encounter across lines of difference.

Las Vegas, Nevada (Population: 583,756)
Number of Interfaith Organizations: 5

Las Vegas has experienced exponential population growth since the 1980s, challenging the city’s infrastructure in a period of economic decline. While the interfaith initiatives within the city are numerically small, their impact on the city’s social services needs is sizable, especially through the Interfaith Council of Southern Nevada and Family Promise of Las Vegas.

Louisville, Kentucky (Population: 741,096) [4]
Number of Interfaith Organizations: 13

Louisville has been an energetic epicenter for interfaith engagement for three decades. Often known for the Festival of Faiths, which began in the mid-1980s and has been replicated around the nation, Louisville is also home to interfaith organizations serving local concerns, whether individuals living with HIV/AIDS or families in need of housing.

Omaha, Nebraska (Population: 408,958)
Number of Interfaith Organizations: 9

Omaha is a city at the cutting edge of innovation within the interfaith movement. The largest city in the “Cornhusker State” is home to several interfaith initiatives including Project Interfaith, whose RavelUnravel video project is profiled in this pilot study, and the Tri-Faith Initiative, a partnership between Jews, Christians, and Muslims to build an interfaith campus in America’s Heartland.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Population: 1,526,006)
Number of Interfaith Organizations: 36

Philadelphia embraces its unique heritage as the “City of Brotherly Love” through a number of creative interfaith initiatives. The Interfaith Center, the Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives at the Rabbinical Reconstructionist College, and the Interfaith Walk for Peace and Reconciliation illustrate the city’s wealth of interfaith efforts.

Phoenix, Arizona (Population: 1,445,632)
Number of Interfaith Organizations: 12

Phoenix, the “Gateway to the Grand Canyon,” is a city that integrates the legacy of its puebloan, ranching, and mining fore-bearers with its status as America’s fifth largest city. A “Golden Rule” license plate campaign through the Arizona Interfaith Movement has extended Phoenix’s interfaith efforts to a statewide level in a very visible way.

Richmond, Virginia (Population: 204,214)
Number of Interfaith Organizations: 17

Richmond’s tradition of “southern hospitality” offers firm ground upon which numerous leaders and organizations have built the city’s interfaith infrastructure. In a city shaped by diverse “Christianities,” initiatives such as the Interfaith Trialogues and the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy are flourishing.

Salt Lake City, Utah (Population: 186,000)
Number of Interfaith Organizations: 14

Salt Lake City is a city shaped in culture and in landscape by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; it is also a city engaged in diverse interfaith initiatives on both local and national scales. In addition to the Utah Pride Interfaith Coalition and Utah Interfaith Power & Light, numerous hospitals within the city offer strong interfaith pastoral care services.

San Diego, California (Population: 1,307,402)
Number of Interfaith Organizations: 10

San Diego’s interfaith movement dates back to the late 1960s; several initiatives were born out of the first Gulf War when Muslims in California’s second largest city faced hostility. Social services, education, and a desire to build an interfaith network in the city offer rallying points. The Sikh Coalition also maintains a strong presence in interfaith relations.

Spokane, Washington (Population: 208,916)
Number of Interfaith Organizations: 9

Spokane is a city whose interfaith infrastructure is shaped by collaborative efforts to establish “The Heartland of the Inland Northwest” as a “City of Compassion.” In 2011, Eastern Washington University publicly confirmed its support for the Charter for Compassion, a worldwide initiative inspired by Dr. Karen Armstrong in 2009.

Syracuse, New York (Population: 145,170)
Number of Interfaith Organizations: 10

Syracuse’s interfaith infrastructure reflects the city’s commitment to refugee resettlement and its struggle with the industrial collapse of recent decades. InterFaith Works of Central New York and the Alliance for Communities Transforming Syracuse (ACTS) offer leadership in these two areas, respectively.

Twin Cities, Minnesota (Population: 667,646) [5]
Number of Interfaith Organizations: 28

Minneapolis and Saint Paul have become a microcosm of a diverse religious America. This diversity has brought its share of challenges and opportunities. The Twin Cities’ interfaith landscape includes a large number of campus-based programs and individual efforts on the part of local religious communities such the Islamic Center of Minnesota and the St. Paul Area Council of Churches.

Wichita, Kansas (Population: 382,368)
Number of Interfaith Organizations: 4

Wichita is a city with a relatively small number of interfaith organizations; however, the growing impact of these organizations far outweighs their size. InterFaith Ministries was established over a century ago and carries with it a long history of social activism. Global Faith in Action, a relatively young organization, is linking residents of the “Air Capital of the World” with a community in Lambert, Haiti.

Our initial research of the interfaith infrastructure in this select group of cities raises additional questions that remain to be explored. Why do cities of similar size have such a range of organizations? Is this a measure of interfaith engagement or not? Alternately, is this a reflection of whether efforts in a particular city are diffuse or coordinated by an umbrella organization? These are just a sampling of subjects uncovered by this pilot phase that warrant future study.

Documenting an Emerging Landscape

In our initial proposal, we acknowledged the need “to frame a counter-narrative of pluralism that is effective, timely, and compelling.” The rich stories we have collected through the online survey responses and through interviews with leaders in these twenty cities affirm the strength of this approach to capturing the institutional memory of the movement: its past, present, and hopes for the future.

The Pluralism Project’s two-decade long pursuit of an engaged approach to scholarship is evident in The Interfaith Infrastructure Study pilot initiative which has affirmed our understanding of research as enhanced when individuals and communities are empowered to tell their own stories. As we seek to document and resource the interfaith movement, the voices of organizers, youth, clergy, and everyday citizens are necessary conversation partners in the “documenting” as well as in the “resourcing.” This study includes four primary forms of documentation about interfaith organizations: Promising Practices, Leadership Profiles, Multimedia, and Case Studies.

Promising Practices

The bulk of qualitative research for this pilot project sought to identify “promising practices” within each of the twenty cities. Practices were deemed “promising” if they were context-driven and replicable. This approach differs from a “best practices” approach because it nuances our understanding of success. First, a practice is considered “promising” in its own right, not as it compares to other organizations. Second, while a “promising practice” may be identified because it is attuned to its local context, that does not mean it is immune to the challenges of that context.

Our research identified InterAct Cleveland as a promising practice, given its coalition structure that includes involvement from over sixty congregations and its status as the only interfaith organization in Cleveland to include non-Abrahamic traditions. As “one of the main voices” in the city’s interfaith scene, InterAct Cleveland promotes service and dialogue to meet the “challenges and opportunities facing Greater Cleveland, including religious diversity itself.” Despite its extensive networks, InterAct Cleveland announced in December 2011 that, after twenty years serving the city, it would be closing its doors due to financial uncertainty. The fact that, in an open letter to supporters announcing this news, the InterAct Cleveland Executive Committee gave detailed information about which organizations and individuals would be inheriting its programs—many of which are slated to continue despite the closing—is testament to the strength of these networks.

Note that, in some cities, video content, leadership profiles, or case studies serve as alternative coverage for a “Promising Practice.”

Leadership Profiles 

One way that we sought to document interfaith work taking place beyond or between organizations is through leadership profiles. These initial profiles offer a glimpse of the diverse motivations, leaders, and styles that contribute to a vital movement. Rev. Vern Barnet, almost 70, has made a significant impact on Greater Kansas City as one of the “elders” of the movement; at 21, Skyler Oberst represents the new wave of youth involvement, active in campus interfaith activity as well as developing two community interfaith organizations in Spokane, Washington. Two leadership profiles illustrate the ways in which members of minority religious traditions now play critical roles in the interfaith movement after 9/11, whether Dr. Imad Damaj in Richmond, Virginia or Gagandeep Kaur in San Diego, California. The profile of Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer offers insight into the increasingly prominent role of interfaith engagement in the training of the next generation of religious leaders. Finally, the profile of Rev. Tom Duke in St. Paul, Minnesota chronicles his move from a more traditional model of interfaith organization to cultivating a culture of interfaith dialogue; the emphasis on relationship-building emerges as a common theme for many leaders and organizations in this moment of “Interfaith 3.0.” (See archive.)


We developed a few key video pieces to help deepen the experience of the interfaith movement in America today. For the city of Fremont, California, we present two short videos to tell “The Alia Ansari Story.” Originally from the feature-length film “Fremont, U.S.A.,” this story focuses on a tragic murder and a community’s response. As part of the Interfaith Infrastructure project, the videos showcase some of the diverse expressions of the interfaith movement, from informal grassroots efforts, to church-based outreach organizations, to responses from civic leaders and interfaith activists. Together, these videos serve as a case study, enabling viewers to pause after viewing the first part and consider: “How might they respond?”; and, perhaps more importantly, “How would I respond?”

The video, “What I’ve Learned Through Project Interfaith,” is a conversation with two participants in Project Interfaith’s work in Omaha, Nebraska. This video emphasizes the personal dimensions of interfaith work beyond any programs or “Promising Practices” – transforming understandings and relationships for individuals.

Case Studies

Case studies are proven pedagogical tools, used to stimulate discussion and build critical thinking skills through real-life scenarios. At the Pluralism Project, we have been developing cases for use in the religious studies and theological school classroom, as well as in interfaith settings. The Interfaith Infrastructure website features two city-based case studies: “Cultivating Change (A & B)” in Austin, Texas; and “An Invitation to a Tri-Faith Neighborhood (A & B)” in Omaha, Nebraska. These case studies serve the dual purposes of this pilot project, which is to document and resource the interfaith movement.

“An Invitation to a Tri-Faith Neighborhood,” considers not only the challenges of the Tri-Faith Initiative, but also tells the story Omaha, Nebraska, and its distinctive experience with diversity. By understanding what a shared space project might look like in Omaha, readers are then challenged to think about how these issues would, or would not, apply in other cities: what is emblematic about the dilemmas they face, and what is specific? What are the risks – and rewards – of any co-location of religious communities?

In Austin, Texas, the case study of an Interfaith CEO, “Cultivating Change,” is uniquely “Austin,” at once corporate and creative. Yet the issues this interfaith organization faces, whether financial insolvency, lack of new, younger participants, or needing to change the organization’s name to reflect an expanded constituency, are common to many interfaith groups. As “city-based” cases they are specific and situated, which, in turn, makes them more generalizable for use as teaching tools.

Typologies and Survey Results

Our original proposal and initial research steps named three “typologies”—leadership and constituencies, context, and purpose—the Pluralism Project encountered in its previous research of interfaith initiatives. While we found these categories useful throughout this pilot project, through the surveys we also identified new limits and possibilities for understanding the interfaith movement in light of these typologies. In short, rather than becoming a yardstick by which interfaith efforts were to be measured, these typologies became the lens through which we were able to see distinctive features of organizations and interfaith ecosystems within particular cities.

We acknowledged from the outset the possibility that typologies could—and would—overlap, although it became clear in this pilot phase that our focus should remain organization-driven rather than typology-driven. Typologies, however, remain useful as lenses through which we can explore interfaith organizations and initiatives. As such, typologies—leadership and constituencies, context, and purpose—are tools for describing rather than defining the interfaith movement. This approach successfully highlights the multi-faceted nature of organizations and the larger movement.

Context and Purpose

Survey responses to questions about typologies indicate that “purpose” is, far and away, the most useful of these three lenses for mapping the contours of the movement.[6] The interfaith infrastructure of the United States emerged from this study as a collage of purpose-driven efforts. Despite this diversity, themes did emerge from both quantitative and qualitative research with regards to the self-identified purpose of the organization or initiative. Since respondents were able to select more than one purpose from the list provided, there was significant overlap as organizations espouse multiple foci; however, there emerged several popular responses. Just over eighty percent of survey respondents identified “relationship-building” as their organization’s purpose. “Education” and “dialogue” were close runners-up. “Service” ranked fourth, twelve percentage points above “Spiritual development,” the next most popular purpose listed by respondents.[7]

Context proved to be another useful typology for exploring the contours of the interfaith movement. Seventy-percent (70%) of respondents identified “city/metro area” as the context for their interfaith efforts.[8] Organizations such as Alliance for Communities Transforming Syracuse (ACTS), Cleveland’s Building Bridges, and the San Diego Regional Interfaith Collaborative (SDRIC) are examples of how interfaith efforts are formed as responses to the perceived needs of the local community. At the same time, partnerships with national and, on occasion, international efforts, are a vital stream of the interfaith movement in the United States. (See National Initiatives in “Purpose and Scope” for more information.)

When brought into conversation with one another, typologies accentuate the complexities of the emerging interfaith infrastructure. The ways in which purpose and context are intimately tied can be seen in the example of Women Transcending Boundaries (WTB), an interfaith group in Syracuse, NY that formed in the wake of 9/11. WTB organizes its initiatives based on members’ perception of the surrounding community’s needs. This emphasis led them to start A-OK! Weekend, two days of service projects that bring together individuals from diverse faith communities to work with existing non-profit organizations in Syracuse. Not only do projects bring people together who otherwise may not have known one another but they also serve to introduce people to the efforts of organizations in the city who have suffered as a result of the economic downturn. A Muslim and a Christian woman like Danya Wellmon and Betsy Wiggins, WTB co-founders, could have come together in any city across the nation, building up an organization one relationship at a time. WTB’s commitment to understanding the city’s needs has shaped the organization and its mission, gaining it national attention.[9] Sometimes, context can drive the purpose of an organization by providing its greatest obstacles.

While fundraising and maintaining a strong volunteer base were cited as prevalent challenges, many respondents identified the climate of their local community context as both a challenge and an impetus for their work. “Our organization is somewhat challenged in a community of relative social and theological conservatism. Our goal for the lecture series is to bring in voices that might not otherwise be invited or heard here,” noted one survey respondent. One interfaith leader in Atlanta acknowledged the city is more religiously diverse than “most people are comfortable with,” although the city’s interfaith infrastructure is comprised of organizations that date back to the 1970s.

Leadership and Constituencies

Questions concerning leadership and constituencies also provided a window into an organization’s self-perception. Survey respondents, most of whom held executive or volunteer leadership roles within the organization, identified Christians, Jews, and Muslims as the communities most likely to be involved in interfaith efforts.[10] Unitarian Universalists had the fourth highest rate of participation, followed by Buddhists, and then Hindus. Also noteworthy is that over one-third of respondents listed participants from “Atheist/Humanist/Non-religious philosophies” as actively engaged in interfaith efforts.

Responses to questions about the demographics of an organization’s leadership and the structure of the organization more generally reveal that women (44.9%) are significantly more likely than members of minority religious traditions (15.9%) to hold a paid leadership position within an interfaith organization. However, just over seventy-four percent (74.4%) of organizations noted that at least one member of a minority religious community served on their Board. For women, this number was 62.2% and for clergy 55.9%.[11] Despite the high percentage of organizations with minority religious representation on their Board, less than one quarter (23.1%) indicated that a member of a minority religious community held a leadership role (President, Convener, etc.) on the Board. One organization in the Twin Cities noted that their greatest accomplishment was a transformation of leadership:

This once all-white, all-male organization now has a staff that is 75% people of color and a board of directors that is 40% people of color. Today the Council’s leadership team is mostly women and half people of color. Women are as likely as men to become president of the Council’s board of directors…What makes us distinctive is the breadth of participation from over twenty Christian denominations and six different religions…

“Youth” were the constituency selected most frequently (71.1% of respondents) by organizations that identified as a part of their mission constituency-specific programming. At the same time, “youth” were the least likely to serve on an organization’s Board (32.4%), as a leader of the Board (17.6%), and as paid staff (2.9%). Significant, however, is the fact that 50% of organizations noted that “youth” served as unpaid committee leaders and 79.4% said “youth” held “other leadership positions” within the organization. Community organizations such as YouthLEAD in Sharon, MA are charting new territory when it comes to youth leadership and it is a commitment that does not come easily for some:

As [YouthLEAD brings] our training to other organizations…we find it difficult for adults working with youth to truly support the youth through mentorship without controlling the outcome.

Campus-based initiatives are also making inroads in the area of youth leadership, albeit with a college-aged population. Chaplains, students, and professors are increasingly confronted with religious difference on campus and administrators are tasked with setting curriculum standards that take into account the religious diversity of our world.

Within the last decade, the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), an internationally recognized organization based in Chicago, IL, has made substantial contributions to bringing campus-based interfaith efforts to national prominence. The President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, launched in 2011, built upon this momentum and inspired hundreds of campuses to work with local communities on service projects that will benefit their city or region.[12] A CBS News Religion and Culture story, “Finding Common Ground,” explores the impact of the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge in Reading, PA.[13] Here, as with purpose and context, two typologies—this time purpose and leadership and constituencies—can be placed in conversation in order to provide further in-depth analysis.

Common Challenges, Particular Successes

Challenges to interfaith work came in two forms: challenges that prove to be a stumbling block for organizations to achieve their mission; and, challenges around which an organization rallies, finding renewed purpose or direction for their work. Survey respondents most frequently identified funding (44%) and lack of an adequate number of staff/volunteers (25%) as the two “greatest challenges” faced by their organization.[14] While many interfaith organizations are reaching out to help their neighbors, the organization itself may be struggling to find sources of funding during these tough economic times. InterAct Cleveland cites the increasing trend of grants awarded to direct service organizations rather than organizations with a dual focus (service and dialogue in their case) as one of the reasons the organization is closing its doors.

Finding the right balance between volunteer and paid staff for an organization—and finding the resources necessary to support either approach is difficult for many interfaith organization. One leader called his model “strategic disorganization” while other organizations struggle to move from a paid staff model to a volunteer one. Women Transforming Communities (WTC) in Greater Boston is one such example: “Given the established history and reputation, longevity of the organization, the member support and the desire to focus on spiritual leadership, it was hard to consider closing its doors when some felt it was the only option. However after many discussions and processing sessions, a group emerged that committed to bring the organization to its next phase of growth and transformation…” At the same time, other organizations expressed challenges brought about by exponential growth, taking their group from small group of women meeting for a book club to an organization in need of “more formal management.”

Volunteer recruitment and retention was a challenge noted on several occasions. Many noted the fact that many who volunteer in the interfaith movement are doing so in addition to other, often unrelated, work, increasing the likelihood of burnout.

Another significant challenge respondents cited was what to do when confronted with what one respondent called “elephant in the room conversations.” The ongoing conflict in the Middle East is the most commonly cited of these conversation topics. Although these topics often appear as conversation stoppers, several groups have harnessed the sensitive and difficult nature of these issues and used them as an opportunity for digging deeper and building further trust across religious differences. The Weston-Wayland Interfaith Action Group (WWIAG) brought in an outside consultant from the Public Conversations Project to assist in this process. The Daughters of Abraham described their approach to these conversations as their greatest accomplishment. Through reading diverse books, these women have “found a way to create safe space where women from our three faiths can really get to know each other over time.” Hartford Seminary’s Building Abrahamic Partnerships program is also a shining example of how difficult conversations can be approached constructively: participants in this intensive seminar are encouraged to tell their colleagues what they need as a Christian/Jew/Muslim in order to feel respected by the other groups.

Other challenges frequently cited focused on participation and organizational purpose or direction. Perhaps most striking in this category were campus-based interfaith initiatives who struggled with similar trends of lagging participation, but for very different reasons. One survey respondent from a Catholic college observed: “interfaith dialogue is not a priority with students who are basically getting along with their interfaith peers on campus. Hard to raise its importance when competing with classes, career development, social life, etc.” Other institutions, including many who may have been founded on sectarian religious principles, acknowledge “the balance of honoring our past while building upon our future remains a point of challenge.” Creating “sacred space” on campus that can be used and supported by multiple religious groups is also a popular challenge one that extends to airports, hospitals, and other public settings as well.

While survey results and interviews indicate that the challenges of the interfaith movement are common across context, many of the successes reported were more specific. For every success story shared in this pilot project through promising practices, leadership profiles, or case studies, there are dozens of other illustrious histories and initiatives, such as:

Wichita Inter-Faith Ministries began 125 years ago as a consortium of Protestant churches. The organization—which by the 1940s included Jews and Orthodox Christian and by the 1970s Baha’is, Buddhist, Hindus, and Muslims—boasts a long history of social activism. Public opposition to Nazism, support for international relief efforts including refugee resettlement beginning in the 1950s, and an ongoing commitment to ending homelessness since the 1970s are just a few of the organization’s efforts.

Members of the Inter-Religious Council of San Diego collaborated to produce a book on world religions. Bridging Our Faiths (Paulist Press: 1997) includes chapters written about and by Bahais, Buddhists, Christians (including Latter Day Saints), Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs.

The Office of Religious and Spiritual Life at Wellesley College offers robust interfaith programming for students, faculty, staff, and alumnae; initiatives include “Beyond Tolerance,” educational opportunities for inter-religious understanding coupled with conflict resolution, and a multifaith living and learning community.

Next Steps

The dual purposes of this pilot project—to document and to resource the interfaith movement—have guided both the methodology of our research and the presentation of our findings. As a pilot project, we have experimented with varied forms of presentation, including multimedia, essays on promising practices of organizations, profiles of individual leaders, and case studies. In each, we attempt to tell a story based on the perspective of those engaged in interfaith efforts at the grassroots level. What we do not attempt, at this early stage, is to conduct a comprehensive study of interfaith activity in America, or even within one town. Given the dynamism and complexity of the interfaith movement, we consider this a selective portrait. We hope that this project, like the movement itself, will be expanded through collaboration, using the maps and other materials as a starting point. As we look to the next stage of the project, we will begin collecting stories from other cities and towns, of individuals and organizations. Storytelling bridges this intersection of historical memory and future possibilities by providing a venue for collaborative sharing and learning.

Based on initial feedback from organizations and individuals within the interfaith movement, we are confident that a dynamic storytelling portal would be an investment worth making. Seventy-three percent (73 %) of survey respondents indicated that would be willing to participate further in our research. Interview and survey responses questions about the challenges organizations face, coupled with explicit interest in the results of this pilot phase, indicate a strong desire for engagement and exploration of others’ work in the movement on the part of many interfaith leaders and organizations.

After exploring storytelling initiatives undertaken by several interfaith organizations—including Project Interfaith’s innovative RavelUnravel video project in Omaha, NE—we determined that an online storytelling portal, instead of a more static “storybook” model, would most effectively accomplish these dual tasks. An online storytelling portal will extend the life and relevancy of this pilot project, offering seeds for future research and offering support to others in the movement. This online storytelling portal is in keeping with the interactive nature of the interfaith infrastructure website which, through research conducted from primary data sources and through direct links to organizations’ websites, are equipping leaders and practitioners to tell the story of the vibrancy of this movement.


This pilot project was made possible by a generous grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

The research team for this pilot study, led by Dr. Diana Eck, included Pluralism Project senior staff members: Whittney Barth, Erin Loeb, Kathryn Lohre and Elinor Pierce; and the following interns and researchers: Liza Carens, Francesca Chubb-Confer, Amrita Dani, Alexander Hernandez-Siegel, Abbas Jaffer, Melissa Nozell, Skyler Oberst, Megan Odell-Scott, Marcia Sietstra, Alison Solso, Rachel Templeton, Joshua Whitson, and April Winebrenner-Palo.

The original Interfaith Infrastructure website was designed by Sarabjot Kaur of Creative Stride and implemented by Ryan Overbey.

Thank you to the numerous leaders and staff members at interfaith organizations across America who gave generously of their time and effort to contribute to this study. We are inspired by your dedication, and see you as critical partners in this ongoing work.


[1] “What Excites Me About Interfaith Work?” Bettina Gray. The Interfaith Observer. 5 December 2011.

[2] For a complete list of twenty cities and brief introductions, please see the “Documentation” section of this report.

[3] Population figures are taken from the 2010 U.S. Census:

[4] This number reflects merged Louisville/Jefferson County, Kentucky, a consolidated city government area as of 2003. 

[5] Minneapolis: 382,578; St. Paul: 285,068 

[6] Evidence for this claim can be seen in the response rate associated with each question asking about individual typologies. Just over eighty-three percent (83.5%) of respondents said “defined by purpose” applied “well” to their organization. Compare this to the 46% who identified context and 41% who identified leadership and constituencies as applying “well” to their organization. 

[7] A note on process: Respondents were able to select more than one “purpose” for their organization. Although this does not negate the fact that relationship-building, dialogue, and service emerge as distinctive facets of the interfaith movement, interpreters of this data should be cautioned that these numbers alone do not do justice to the multi-vocal nature of many interfaith initiatives and organizations. 

[8] This percentage includes those who identified the “city/metro area” as the “primary” context for the work and those who identified it as one of possibly several contexts including “national,” “state,” “campus,” “congregation,” “hospital,” and “other” (user-defined). 

[9] “Small Leaps of Faith: Jews, Christians, Muslims come together, hoping to fight fear with familiarity. How it’s playing out in Syracuse.” Laurie Goodstein. The New York Times. 3 September 2011.
“Interfaith Relations Ten Years On.” Kim Lawton. PBS Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. 2 September 2011.

[10] For analysis of theological and civic positions that motivate specific Christian denominations (and, to a lesser extent, Jewish and Muslim communities) to become involved in interfaith work, see “American Congregations Reach Out to Other Faith Traditions: A Decade of Change.” Faith Communities Today Survey. David Roozen. Hartford Seminary.

[11] At least one organization noted that this gender binary did not allow for exploration of transgender experiences within the interfaith movement, yet another aspect of the movement that is ripe for further exploration.


[13] “Finding Common Ground.” CBS News.

[14] The survey asked respondents to “identify the greatest challenge your organization has faced since it was established.” This was a user-defined question (not multiple choice) and garnered an 80% response rate.