Sharing Prayers, Sharing Space

Sharing Prayers, Sharing SpaceIn seeking to worship together, members of different faiths often encounter logistical and spatial problems. Deeper questions, such as what language and prayers are appropriate at interfaith gatherings, also arise. Alternative forms of prayer and new, deliberately “multi-faith” spaces aim to solve these problems.

Can people of different faiths worship together? Can they pray with each other? Many groups plan a service together to demonstrate a common purpose as people of faith. Yet this, more often than any other interfaith activity, may test the limits of understanding and reinforce differences among faith traditions. From questions as basic as “Should we open and close our meetings with prayer?” “Could prayers be offered by people from each of several religious traditions, each in his or her distinctive way?” or “What about a moment of silence or period of meditation?” are accompanied by deeper theological and philosophical questions such as “Is there such a thing as ‘generic prayer’?” or “Is it even possible to share these most intimate moments of spiritual communion, such as prayer or meditation, with people of other faiths?” There is a wide spectrum of experience—and opinion—on this very question.

Monastics and contemplatives offer distinct contributions to this discussion. Christian and Buddhist monks and nuns, for example, have for years explored the traditions of meditation they have in common. American monk Thomas Merton, a Trappist and modern contemplative, spoke of this as “the dialogue between those who have kept their silences.” Merton died in 1968 during a trip to Asia in which he met with the Dalai Lama and many other Buddhist monks. The past five decades have seen the flowering of the dialogue he envisioned among those pursuing the inner paths of spiritual discipline, whether Hindu, Buddhist, or Christian. Today, there is an active Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, initiated by Catholic monks and nuns who have found monastic exchange visits with Buddhist monks and nuns to be mutually enriching and deepening. In July 1996, some twenty Buddhist monks and nuns, including the Dalai Lama, joined Christian monastics at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, where Thomas Merton had lived, for a remarkable week of dialogue and sharing along the spiritual path. Many gathered there again in 2002. The following year Catholic nuns visited Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple in Hacienda Heights, California and, in 2004, monks visited the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Ukiah, California. Gethesemani III was held in 2008.

The Assisi World Day of Prayer, called by Pope John Paul II in 1986, brought world religious leaders to Assisi in Italy to pray for peace, and focused worldwide attention on the issue of interfaith worship. Some Christians questioned whether they could pray together with people of other faiths. To avoid controversy, Pope John Paul II nuanced the Vatican’s intention: people would not come to pray together, but would come together to pray. In the end, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and others from many traditions gathered in a large convocation, then went their separate ways to different parts of Assisi for their own forms of prayer or meditation. Assisi World Day of Prayer celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2011.

The question of interfaith worship has been less controversial in America than in Rome: in the past several decades, the number of interfaith services of worship, including prayer, has increased almost exponentially. Planning such services can be an important exercise in interreligious understanding, as all faith traditions do not share the same understanding of God or look at the world in the same way. All do not pray, and those that do may not think of prayer in the same way. Does a faith tradition have to compromise its beliefs in order to worship together? Is it appropriate for a Christian to mention Jesus Christ or to pray “in Jesus’ name” if members of other traditions are present? Any attempt at interfaith worship must address these concerns. For many, interfaith worship is most authentic when each contributes in the ways and language distinctive to his or her own tradition: each listening, learning, and participating to the extent possible in the prayers of the others.

During the first Persian Gulf War, all across America there was a burst of local bridge-building, as many Jews and Christians reached out for the first time to the mosque across town. There were hundreds of interfaith prayer services, including one at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple in Hacienda Heights where people of all faiths gathered in the great hall dominated by Amida Buddha to pray for peace. In downtown Springfield, Massachusetts, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian clergy joined to pray for peace. Said one of the clergy, “We believe that Jews, Christians and Muslims have lived together peacefully and in harmony in the Greater Springfield area for many years. And we believe, just as we live together peacefully, our brothers in Israel and Gaza and the West Bank can live together in peace if they get to know each other as we have come to know each other here.”

As national and world events unfold, prayers for peace, repentance, and understanding have joined Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities in dozens of American cities and towns. Inspired by the historic “handshake” between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and P.L.O. leader Yasser Arafat on September 13, 1993, Cleveland’s Temple Ner Tamid invited Muslim clergyman Imam Rahman to offer prayers during the Yom Kippur service. It was believed to be the first time anywhere in the world that a Muslim leader had participated in Yom Kippur prayers.

The tragedy of September 11th, 2001 sparked interfaith prayer services across the nation and brought many such efforts into the national spotlight. Thousands gathered in Yankee Stadium twelve days after the terrorist attacks for a multifaith prayer service led by Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Protestant, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and civic leaders as well as several celebrities including James Earl Jones, Oprah Winfrey, and Bette Midler.

These interfaith services, however, have not been without controversy. A Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, the Reverend David H. Benke, was later suspended and then reinstated by his denomination for participating in the Yankee Stadium event after 9/11. A New York Times article quotes one church leader who articulated his concern: “To participate with pagans in an interfaith service and, additionally, to give the impression that there might be more than one God, is an extremely serious offense.” Ten years later, the planning committee for the commemoration service, also held at Yankee Stadium, drew criticism for not inviting participation by any religious leaders.

In 2012, thousands gathered in gurdwaras, churches, temples, and public squares across the country in the days and weeks following the tragic shooting at a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike came together to mourn those who were killed and to show support for their neighbors. In Boston’s Trinity Church in Copley Square, an estimated 1500 people gathered for “A Service Rooted in the Sikh Tradition: A Demonstration of Solidarity and Support” hosted by local Christian, Jewish, and Muslim groups and featuring Sikh musicians from local gurdwaras. The event was followed by a langar meal offered by the Sikh community.

Another common occasion for interfaith worship and action is on national holidays: Thanksgiving, for instance, today is often construed as a religious, but non-sectarian holiday. A multitude of communities host interfaith Thanksgiving services, from the local maritime center in Port Townsend, Washington to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Assembly Hall in Salt Lake City’s Temple Square. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day increasingly is known as a day of interfaith worship and of community service. In Atlanta, Georgia, the service commemorating and celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has long been an interfaith service involving Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Bahá’ís, and Buddhists from the city. This service, like many others, often follow a pattern of sequential prayer, each in the style and distinctive vocabulary of his or her own tradition.

During interfaith services, people can come together to celebrate, to mourn, to commemorate, and also to protest. In 1995, in Brodheadsville, Pennsylvania, Hindus and Christians joined together at a Salesian Monastery for a special “Christmas puja.” Holocaust Remembrance Day brought people together in September of 1992, in St. Louis, Missouri, where representatives of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Sikh, and Hindu communities joined Native Americans for an interfaith service that took place at a powwow. A shared opposition to the death penalty joined San Diego Buddhists, Christians, and Jews on the night before the 1992 scheduled execution of Robert Alton Harris, the first person to be executed in California in 25 years. California People of Faith, a non-profit whose mission is to end the death penalty in that state, regularly holds multifaith vigils; statements from Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians, Buddhist, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Native American, and Unitarian Universalist groups in support of abolishing the death penalty are catalogued on CPF’s website. In 2007, the Brattleboro Area Interfaith Initiative in Vermont hosted a “Fast Day for Peace” on Columbus Day as a means of “rejecting the image of conquest and domination associated with the event.” In 2011 and 2012, the national Occupy Movement often incorporated interfaith gatherings, establishing interfaith tents and hosting multi-faith prayer circles.

Finally, there are places in America that have been specifically built for interfaith worship and for use by different traditions, contributing in striking ways to the American architectural landscape. The Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, housing fourteen paintings by American artist Mark Rothko, is dedicated to the vision of a world community; its doors are open to people of every faith. Downtown Dallas’ Chapel of Thanksgiving, with its dramatic spiraling stained glass window, brings together people from all faiths to express what all have in common: a sense of gratitude for the gifts of life. College and university campuses, airports, and hospitals are increasingly finding ways of offering adaptable spaces to accommodate the increasing religious diversity of students, passengers, staff, and patients. A research team from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom has catalogued many of these spaces in the United States and around the world. Their research, “Multifaith Spaces: Symptoms and Agents of Change” has been compiled as a traveling exhibit and website.

Additional Content

“Holy Harvard”

America Magazine: The National Catholic Review 
May 28, 2010

Francis X. Clooney, SJ
Director, Center for the Study of World Religions
Harvard Divinity School

May 27 was graduation day at Harvard, a splendid ceremonial event as well as occasion of myriad smaller personal and family instances of celebration and thanksgiving, as a truly global community descended upon Harvard Yard for the main ceremonies. But of still greater interest to me, this year as in other years, was the Divinity School’s Religious Service celebrating Commencement, held as usual the day before (May 26 this year) in the Yard’s Memorial Church.

This service is a marvel of organization, generous inclusivity and coherent ritual order — a mix of greetings, prayers, a faculty address, and readings and music from some at least of the various religious and cultural traditions present in the MTS, MDiv, and ThD graduating classes. It took about an hour altogether, and luckily so, since it was a steamy hot day in a Church mysteriously without air conditioning or open windows. Enormous credit is due to the Divinity School’s Office of Spiritual Life, and particularly to its Director, Rev. Kerry A. Maloney, and all those who worked with her.

[For full article, visit “Holy Harvard.”]

Thousands Fill Yankee Stadium To Pray For WTC Victims

Channel NY 1 News
September 23, 2001

Jeff Simmons’ report from September 23, 2001, on the interfaith prayer service held at Yankee stadium.

[For video, visit “A Look Back: New Yorkers Pack Yankee Stadium for Prayer Service”]

Lutheran Panel Reinstates Pastor After Post-9/11 Interfaith Svc

The New York Times – Archives
May 13, 2003

A Lutheran pastor who was suspended by his church for praying publicly at Yankee Stadium with clergymen of other faiths after the September 2001 terrorist attacks has been reinstated by a church panel.

In an order dated April 10 and released yesterday, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s dispute resolution panel cleared the Rev. David H. Benke, the New York leader for the conservative Protestant denomination. Pastor Benke holds a position that is the Lutheran equivalent of bishop, and his suspension followed his appearance at an interfaith service 12 days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks with a Muslim imam, a rabbi, Cardinal Edward M. Egan, and Sikh and Hindu holy men.

[For full article, visit “Lutheran Panel Reinstates Pastor After Post-9/11 Interfaith Service“]

The Big Interfaith Tent at Occupy Oakland

The Huffington Post Religion Blog
November 28, 2011

Reverend Laura Rose

Fourteen members of the Interfaith Tent at Occupy Oakland locked arms in front of the tent and were arrested early Monday morning as the police raided the encampment. It is not surprising that our words and actions have been reduced to a few sound bites and fleeting images by the mainstream media, but there is a deeper, better story to be told.

Our Interfaith Tent is Big — spatially and spiritually. The tent has been a sacred space of solace at the encampment, but it has also provided a spiritual canopy for an interfaith coalition of Indigenous Elders, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and Jews in solidarity with the Occupy Movement, locally and globally.

[For full post, visit The Big Interfaith Tent at Occupy Oakland: Faithfully Engaging the 99%]

Multi-Faith Spaces: Symptoms and Agents of Change

A multi-year research project housed at the School of Environment and Development at the University of Manchester, UK. The project is led by a multi-disciplinary team whose research chronicles multi-faith spaces around the world.

Project Team:

Dr. Ralf Brand, Principal Investigator
Dr. Andrew Crompton, Co-Investigator
Rev. Dr. Terry Biddington, Theological Associate
Dr. Chris Hewson, Research Associate


Increasingly, both public and private organisations are attempting to accommodate religious diversity via the provision of multi-faith spaces (MFS). Some are small and mono-functional (located in airports, universities, hospitals, shopping malls, etc); others take the form of dedicated buildings or complexes, where different religions inhabit and utilise their own sacred space(s), whilst sharing collective ‘secular’ facilities. Here individuals can, notionally, come together to pray, relax, discuss and learn.


Within these spaces divergent worldviews might be brought together, with potential reconciliation between belief systems occurring. Some even view MFS as places where new religious practices might thrive. In the past MFS have received overt political endorsement, with the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) noting the importance of ‘shared spaces for interaction’. Here MFS are viewed as tangible manifestations of tolerance and pluralism, within a socio-religious landscape characterised by a certain degree of fragmentation. Yet issues arise as to whether these spaces are being constructed to promote narrow socio-political agendas (i.e. ‘cohesion’ or ‘inclusion’ policies), or are put in place to merely appease ‘customers’ – for example, in airports, shopping centres or universities.

This Project

Unlike existing studies, we focus specifically upon the embodiment of the multi-faith ideal in ‘built form’, exploring MFS as works of architecture, and more particularly as expressions of the interface between religious and secular worldviews. In assessing the motivations and controversies behind their creation, we seek to investigate:

  • MFS as symptoms of specific societal trends and political ambitions.
  • MFS as works of architecture, shaped through the actions of architects, designers, engineers, artists, users, etc.
  • MFS as agents that encourage, shape or facilitate particular activities.
  • MFS as historical entities, that have developed and consolidated over time.

[Excerpt from the Multifaith Spaces project website. To learn more, visit Multifaith Spaces: Symptoms and Agents of Change.]

Singing the Refuges: Worship and the Interreligious Family

State of Formation 
March 1, 2013

Margaret Ellsworth

About a month ago, just like every Sunday, I slipped into the worship space just before 10am, bowed before the altar, and found a seat in the back row. I leafed through the service bulletin to take a look at what songs we’d be singing that morning. And after a few brief announcements, I joined in singing the morning’s first song.

I’m no stranger to “church-hopping.”  This was in many ways a familiar process for me. But on this particular Sunday, things were a bit different than I was used to. When I bowed to the altar, I faced not a cross but a golden statue of the Buddha. The song we sang was not a Christian hymn, but a chant.  This was my first visit to a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temple, alongside my Buddhist/Christian husband, trying to make sense of our family’s interreligious identity.

[For full post, visit “Singing the Refuges: Worship and the Interreligious Family.”]