Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston (IMGH) brings people of diverse faith traditions together for dialogue, collaboration, and service, as a demonstration of our shared beliefs.
Demographic shifts over the past two decades have made Houston one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse metropolises in the nation. Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston (IMGH) has embraced the city’s diversity to promote dialogue and education in their interfaith work. Most famously, IMGH regularly hosts “Dinner Dialogues” and provides resources to groups hoping to host their own dialogues.
The Amazing Faiths Dinner Dialogues were inspired by The Amazing Faith of Texas: Common Ground on Higher Ground by Roy Spence, a book that documents the diverse expressions of faith throughout Texas. In 2007, Houston Mayor Bill White wanted to promote, at the citywide level, the virtues outlined in the book: tolerance and understanding. Mayor White brought together leaders of Houston’s prominent interfaith organizations to brainstorm a way to turn the spirit of the book into a tangible reality. The collaborative partnership between the City of Houston Mayor’s Office, Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, and the Boniuk Center for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance at Rice University, resulted in the formation of the Amazing Faith Dinner Dialogues.
Originally, the Dinner Dialogues invited people into private homes for an evening meal and discussion. Participants register online and are assigned to a host home. The dinners are open to anyone, regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof. Participants are assigned to homes to ensure a religiously diverse group of people are at each dinner. Hosts prepare a meal for eight to twelve participants, and always offer a vegetarian option to accommodate dietary restrictions. During and after dinner, a trained moderator facilitates dialogue by leading participants through the dialogue curriculum, asking questions, and modeling active listening. Today, Dinner Dialogues are hosted at more centralized locations such as places of worship or IMGH’s own space.
The first Dinner Dialogues event took place in January of 2007 and involved 20 host homes and 250 participants in the Houston area. The second event, in November of that same year, included 75 homes and over 750 participants across Texas. Since first taking off in Houston, Dinner Dialogues have been replicated in four additional cities in Texas—Austin, Brennan, Dallas, and San Antonio—as well as in cities around the country, such as Syracuse, Oklahoma City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. The model has also served as an example for the “Youth Dinner Dialogues” and campus-based Dinner Dialogues, which have been organized across the nation. Campus-based events are often organized through a university’s multicultural or student affairs office. Today, IMGH hosts Dinner Dialogues annually, averaging over 25 host homes every year.
Until 2007, IMGH used the Amazing Faith Dinner Dialogue Kit to structure the Dinner Dialogues program. The kit was created by a non-profit of the same name as Roy Spence’s book, The Amazing Faith of Texas. Using this model, each participant receives a Dinner Dialogue card that includes a question about their faith, such as: “Group or public worship is an important element of religious practices. Do you participate in communal worship or other kinds of spiritual activities? What role do these events play in your life?” After the person reads their questions to the group, people are invited to answer in a way that fosters listening and appreciation (rather agreement or disagreement) and refrains from comparing and contrasting his or her own experience to what has already been said. Personal stories and metaphors are emphasized over values or opinions. After the structured part of the evening, guests freely engage in discussions about faith, forming friendships that often last beyond the event.
While this model worked well, Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston modified the format of the Dinner Dialogues in 2011 so that each meal focuses on a specific religious tradition. This change was made to sustain participant interest in the Dinner Dialogues, and to promote continued learning among participants and hosts who have previously attended sessions. For example, the Dinner Dialogues scheduled in November 2012, February 2013, and May 2013, featured three different faiths practiced in India: Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. In each of these dialogues, families who practiced that specific faith served as the host homes, and participants were assigned to hosts in a way that created a diverse range of religious traditions at each dinner. Hosts provided a meal and shared aspects of their tradition with guests. The conversations were still facilitated by a trained moderator; however, instead of utilizing the “Dinner Dialogue Cards,” pictures and symbols—prayer beads, a meditation bell, a statue of a deity, for instance—were chosen by the host family to introduce their faith to the participants. Participants are thus introduced to a religion from the perspective of a practitioner in a way that is visually interactive and specific to that family. The family is asked to share how they live out their faith in daily life.
In 2015, Interfaith Ministries took a step back from organizing the logistics of Dinner Dialogue events. As other groups and organizations began organizing their own interfaith dialogues, and as Interfaith Ministries became more active in other areas of interfaith service, they focused their energy on serving as a resource for those organizations that wish to engage in interfaith dialogue. In addition, Interfaith Ministries has expanded their programming to provide new modes of interfaith encounter. Faith in Our City is a program that focuses on a different faith tradition in the city each month. During that month, there are two separate opportunities to learn about and engage with that faith: an in-depth visit and experience at a house of worship and an educational discussion over lunch.
Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston still hosts their own Dinner Dialogues at least once per year, attracting between 100 and 150 participants per event. Although there are different ways to structure a Dinner Dialogue event, the goal has remained the same: to learn about different cultures and faiths through breaking bread together. In the process, the IMGH has sought to create an atmosphere of comfort and intimacy that can transform a room full of strangers into neighbors.
 For brief reflections from participants about their experience, see http://sharedbeliefs.blogspot.com/2011/10/amazing-faiths-projects-dinner.html. (Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston, 2011). Accessed 21 August 2015.