Saturday, March 31, 2012

Fostering hope for an interfaith future, and creating new tools for achieving it

Yet one more reason I attend meetings of the Michigan Professional Communicators with interest in religion and cross-culture issues is hope. This meeting really got me thinking about how realistic my hopes are for the success of the group members’ efforts to help create a truly interfaith and power-balanced culture.

The world “realistic” has acquired a negative connotation—many people automatically associate it with the injection of pessimism into a situation considered too na├»vely optimistic. Ironically, our culture’s worldview is one of the least realistic. A perfect example of this is what media scholars call “mean world syndrome,” in which people think crime rates are higher than they actually are, because that’s almost all they hear about in American mainstream news.

So, what we need now to make our view of the situation more realistic is an injection of optimism. Very Twilight Zone stuff. A lovely irony in this situation is that many of the people involved in the MPC—people striving to foster support and publicity for local peacemaking efforts—are long-time journalists from mainstream news outlets.

This month’s meeting was held at Temple Beth Shalom in Oak Park, Michigan; as usual, the first third of the meeting was an explanation of the history of the place and of the community that gathers there. I appreciated learning more about Judaism, especially in the context of Passover, and about the differences among different forms of Judaism. The MPC meetings are amazing cultural experiences—I always learn something new about my home state, which makes me appreciate and value the Detroit area’s history, as well as its present, even more.

As I’ve said before, one of the biggest benefits of attending the MPC meetings is hearing about initiatives and organizations I otherwise may never hear about, because our mainstream media simply does not talk about such things. This meeting put interfaith initiatives in the corporate world on my radar.

“There are interfaith initiatives in the corporate world?”, I thought to myself. I heard in passing once about interfaith awareness within Ford Motor Company, but assumed it was a small employee club or part of some interoffice morale improvement effort. We hear such horrible things about corporations and corporate culture, that many of us have the jaded assumption anything philanthropic that corporations say or do is disingenuous and for the primary purpose of making themselves look good. Our host, Joe Lewis, has been participating in interfaith work in the corporate setting for a long time, as part of Ford Motor Company’s interfaith network.

A project highlighted at this meeting was the use of photography in helping to achieve interfaith and peacemaking goals. The new House of Worship Photos Project is an effort to develop a photographic record of all the diverse houses of worship in southeastern Michigan—from run-down storefront ministries to mega-churches, from mainstream Christian churches to temples of religions many people don’t realize exist in their area.

I keep finding out about more and more Buddhist temples, Sikh Gurdwaras, and Hindu temples “hidden” in plain sight in the middle of culturally-homogenous-looking residential neighborhoods. The in-progress Web site will give detailed instructions for how photographers can submit their work to the site. In the meantime, has more information. Credit will always be given to the photographers, but the photos are licensed to Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Commons permits the general public, media, congregations and individuals to use the photos for education and publicity purposes, and prohibits their use for propaganda and hate purposes.

Another hot topic discussed at this meeting was the rise in popularity of “minibooks”—the publishing of 40-60-page books, the type of writing that used to be available only or primarily in magazines. The growing popularity of minibooks, particularly by authors who historically public nothing between full-length books, has the potential for making certain topics and ideas far more accessible to more people.

For younger and busy readers who are accustomed to finding out what they need to know in short, few-page online articles, and who tend to shy away from few-hundred-page tomes about unfamiliar topics or difficult issues, a book that’s less than 100 pages may be far less intimidating.

One topic many Americans may be intimidated by a few-hundred-page book about is Muslim customs. Read the Spirit just published the minibook The Beauty of Ramadan: A Guide to the Muslim Month of Prayer and Fasting for Muslims and Non-Muslims, by Najah Bazzy. People fear what they don’t know. It was pointed out this book is the only of its kind, so it’ll serve as another valuable tool for helping to improve interfaith relations by correcting misconceptions about faiths the media is full of little but negative stereotypes about.

The women’s interfaith group WISDOM had three upcoming events to announce at this meeting. One of its initiatives is the House of Worship Visit series, with two upcoming destinations. April 22’s is the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, and June 20’s is the SikhGurdwara Hidden Falls, in Plymouth Township. On May 16 the Birmingham Community House (in Birmingham, Michigan) will host a forum presentation on “Mental Health Issues and Challenges Facing Metro Detroit’s Diverse Faith Traditions.”

Though the number of attendees and friends of the MPC group is very small compared with the larger population, these people and their efforts are generating a tremendous amount of energy. The number and quality of, not to mention attendance at, the events they organize and host continue to grow.

Sure, these events receive little or no mainstream publicity, and inevitably the success of some ends up being overestimated. Overall, though, the efforts of groups such as the InterFaith Leadership Council, WISDOM, and the Song & Spirit Institute for Peace show real promise for spilling over into mainstream consciousness, with the slow development toward the critical mass of people required to activate a paradigm shift. The paradigm shift from the glorification of violence to the glorification of peace may not happen anytime “soon,” but it will happen, as long as people don’t give up hope.

It’s important to remember that if these efforts are being carried out at the grass-roots level in southeastern Michigan, they likely are in other localities, too. If you live in another state, I hope what I write here will inspire you to investigate the existence of such organizations and events in your area. They’re hard to find without already knowing someone who’s involved with them, but hopefully my reports will give you some ideas in how to look for them and get involved. Maybe you yourself will be the one to start such activities where you are.


Image: “Young Patriots Park #5” by Karla Joy Huber, 2007; colored pencil

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