From Religious Diversity to Religious Pluralism in the Workplace

This article is the follow-up to my previous article about religious diversity in the workplace. As fellow contributor, Jenn Lindsay, has pointed out in this article, there is a difference between religious diversity and religious pluralism; she further states, “religious pluralism presupposes religious diversity but religious diversity does not guarantee religious pluralism…religious diversity does not automatically create interreligious tolerance (religious pluralism).” Trying to create a more pluralistic workplace in which people of different faiths (religious diversity) are recognized and respected equally and where bridges of understanding are built between the different groups is a very important issue for the workplace.

In order to see how these sorts of bridges can be built, I asked personal contacts (their names have been changed) to answer a set of questions dealing with how they adjusted to working in a faith-based institution that is different from their own personal tradition. I felt that getting first-hand accounts of how they adjusted, what issues arose – if any – and what was done to solve them would prove a useful vehicle for discussing the religious pluralism in the workplace.

My first contact, Rachel, is an Orthodox Jewish woman who works in a Catholic university. My second is Stephanie, a Catholic woman, who works in an Orthodox Jewish yeshiva. My third contact is James, a Jehovah’s Witness who works at a Reform Jewish institution. I think the responses from all three are very informative about how these adjustments are made and how religious tolerance can be fostered on a personal level when people of different traditions work together and find common ground in face of an “otherness”.

The questions I asked were:

1) Did any difference in religion/denomination make you feel any reticence to apply to your position?
2) Did you expect any conflict(s) to arise as the result of your current position?
3) If so, what are/or were they and how have they been resolved?
4) Has your view of the religion/denomination you work for changed as a result of your position there?
5) Has your understanding of your own tradition changed as a result?

For the first question, Rachel answered “As an observant Jew, the difference in religion between my own faith and the faith of the institution had no bearing on my decision to apply for my job as a faculty member in the program in special education. I was not teaching anything to do with religion so it was basically irrelevant. Also, I had been an adjunct faculty member at another Catholic college. I was also raised for the first 8 years of my life in an Irish Catholic neighborhood in which my father owned a corner grocery store. He owned that store until his death when I was 25 years old.”

Stephanie stated, “The two things that made feel reluctant to apply for the position was first the travel time to and from the work place. My commute is rather long and not very direct. Second, I wasn’t sure how I would be accepted by the staff but [I was assured] that it should not be a problem and there are a few other staff members that are not Jewish.

James answered in the affirmative as well and further elaborated on that answer with his second and third questions. To the second question, he answered, “Yes, I expected some conflict with my family as a result of accepting my current employment. I also do not enter into the chapel area during services for any reason. This hasn’t been a problem in the 8 years I’ve worked here.”

He also said, in response to Question 3, “My mother and sister were concerned, since as a Jehovah’s Witness, we are instructed to avoid false religion (religions which do not teach the truth as we know it according to the Bible). I discussed this with the elders of our congregation, the persons responsible for overseeing the congregation. This is a personal choice, not one that is “set in stone” so to speak. The issue hasn’t really been resolved, since I still work here, but it is not something that has been brought up in discussion with my family for years.”

Rachel answered Questions 2 and 3, saying, “I have felt very comfortable teaching in a Catholic institution of higher education. They respect religious observance here, even if they don’t understand my religion. A number of the same values are shared, as well. I feel very comfortable with the mission of the institution, since it does not require me to advocate for a particular religion. I also have felt very comfortable making reference to faith here. I had previously worked at a secular, state institution of higher learning, which took pride in disrespecting everyone’s religion equally. [However,] I feel a bit uncomfortable in some situations, such as the prayers that begin any communal gathering. They hold graduation ceremonies at a time when and in a place that makes it impossible for me to participate. I have chosen to attend a different celebration (of the end of student teaching and thesis work). My students are aware of my needs and seem to take it in stride, since there are other representatives of my department at the graduation ceremonies. Likewise they hold informal social gatherings at times when I am unable to attend. It sometimes makes me feel like an outsider, but as an outlier in a faith-based institution, I cannot expect them to change on my account, unless it is something explicitly for me.”

Stephanie stated, “No, I do not go into anything expecting a conflict. I do not discuss my faith unless specifically asked which frankly I can’t think of anyone who has asked. I look at all of the people I work with and the students as I do anyone else. I don’t really think of their religious beliefs when I am engaging someone in a conversation. The people I work with have made me feel welcome from day one. I have had many questions regarding their faith since I have not known many orthodox Jews. Sometimes I envy their Shabbos, it would be nice to have a day of relaxing. I have a respect for their beliefs but I personally don’t think I could be that disciplined in doing many of the things that are expected of them.”

For Question 4, James responded, “No, I think I am more mindful of my own faith, given the nature of the institution I work in,” while Rachel had a different perspective. “My view of the religion of the institution of my workplace has changed over time, as a result of working here,” she said, “I see it more individually than as a monolith because I know the people. Just as in every place there are people with whom I have a great deal in common, despite the faith difference. I think I see more specifics and the contrasts between the religion of my workplace and my own religion are more starkly drawn.”

Stephanie responded by saying, “I never really had a particular view of Orthodox Jews. I always thought Orthodox Jews wore the black hats and heavy clothes all year round. I thought that would be difficult and it must be very uncomfortable for them especially in the summer. I didn’t realize there were Modern Orthodox Jews who dress less extreme.”

In response to Question 5, Rachel answered, “My understanding of my own religious tradition has not changed as a result of my current job experience. What I think has changed is a greater appreciation for the differences and for what the practices of my religion mean to me.” James said “No. I have considered learning Hebrew, since teaching is available at the school I work in. I feel this would give me a better understanding of nuances and impact in many Bible verses.” While Stephanie responded by saying that her understanding of her own tradition has not changed as a result.

These varied responses, which I have quoted in their entirety, show that the process of adjustment did have an impact on the way in which my respondents view the faith tradition they work for to some degree on one hand, to having no impact on the way they view their own tradition on the other, in the cases of James and Stephanie. The process of adjusting gave a greater appreciation for the hard work involved in being an Orthodox Jew on the part of Stephanie, a deeper understanding of the differences between the two religions and what her practices as an Orthodox Jew mean to Rachel, and showed the importance of diversity in the workplace. James’ thinking about learning Hebrew, in order to deepen his understanding of the Bible which is shared between Jews and Christians, shows that the recognition of common bonds can strengthen each tradition rather than detract from it.
The ultimate goal of dialogue is to create a pluralistic community, in which all voices are attended to and respected on an equal footing.

Image Source: Jon Davis via Wikimedia Commons

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