This past summer, I worked with Harvard’s Pluralism Project to assess religious diversity and interfaith cooperation within my own south central Kentucky context. Bowling Green, Kentucky is a refugee relocation city and has welcomed Cambodian, Iraqi, Burmese, and Bosnian refugees since the 1990s making it a unique research case study. As these groups settle, they inevitably bring their cultural resources with them including their religious traditions. And as I engaged these religious communities, which include two Islamic centers, two Buddhist monasteries, a Jewish group, and an eclectic group that might best be described as “religious nones,” two conclusions resonated throughout my research. First, all of the investigated religious communities existed literally on the geographical periphery of Bowling Green. Second and closely related, I found very little institutionalized interfaith collaboration between the faith communities. As a matter of fact, the religious communities were spaces of seclusion.
This religious seclusion, however, is not unique. In Robert Putnam’s American Grace, he argues that the more religiously diverse an area is, the less likely the people that live in that area are to socially interact and collaborate leading to a reduction in social capital. But Putnam’s statement should not be taken as prescriptive, but rather descriptive in nature. For what Putnam describes is the way that many American citizens, including those in Bowling Green, have responded to religious pluralism, not how Americans should respond to pluralism.
The Dalai Lama suggests that harmony among religious traditions is sacred work. I completely agree with His Holiness; yet I would expand his proposal by positing that interfaith harmony is sacred and secular work. The reality is that religious communities are in powerful positions to influence the attitudes and perceptions of millions of adherents as it relates to the Religious Other, but also the political, social, and ethnic Other. In short, religious communities have the potential to create healthier neighborhoods and communities by increasing knowledge, building relationships, and developing positive perceptions (according to the Interfaith Youth Core model). And in a time when the religious landscape of the United States is diversifying, it is the work of all citizens, religious and nonreligious, to collaborate in alleviating social justice issues. However, I intentionally italicized the word “potential” because many faith communities are not capitalizing on their inherent power in my areas of the American South.
As someone who inherited a Christian religious tradition, I resonate with Humanism and usually identify as a Christian Humanist. I am interested in building relationships with those of different religious and ethnic backgrounds than my own. By understanding someone’s religious beliefs, you get a glimpse into his or her values, hopes, and worldviews. Further, I am interested in establishing relationships between religious communities and adherents. I truly believe that the betterment of our neighborhoods and communities starts with religious communities coming together, establishing relationships, and ameliorating the social divisions that exist. And I want to be active in creating a better tomorrow.