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Nov 18, 2013

American Seeds explore interfaith dialogue and community relations

NEW YORK | Why do different faith communities come together? Who is present at the discussion table, who isn’t, and why? What issues should be discussed in an interfaith setting? These are some of the questions that American Seeds grappled with during a seminar focused on faith as a personal matter and a powerful tool for community engagement.

The 15 Seeds met in New York on November 16-17 for a weekend packed with conversations with professionals working with faith-based organizations, as well as dialogue sessions which allowed them to delve deeper into their own roles and identities.

One session focused on the Seeds’ different faiths and religious identities. They examined questions of representation and their connection to faith-based communities and engaged in dialogue about the challenges and opportunities found in interfaith work. The Seeds also discussed the different intentions and objectives critical to this type of work, and examined the inherent sociopolitical issues at play.

“The sessions touched me and challenged me in ways I haven’t felt since Camp,” said one of the participants.

The Interfaith Dialogue: an Exploration and Reflection seminar was led by Sarah Brajtbord, US-Based Programs Manager, and Ashleigh Zimmerman, a former Seeds of Peace staff member and current Executive Director of the Muslim Consultative Network.

Seeds met with Karen Barkey, Director of Columbia University’s Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life, who gave a thought-provoking presentation on the role of institutions in promoting and maintaining tolerance in communities.

“To be tolerant of another doesn’t mean to give up one’s identity,” she said in defense of pluralism. “Rather, it requires a strength of identity.”

Maryam Said and Ayisha Irfan, activists from the Muslim community in New York, spoke of the challenges and potential pitfalls of engaging in interfaith dialogue from the Muslim community perspective. They shared advice with the Seeds on how to create safe, open spaces for honest conversations that avoid the common “othering” and marginalization that participants often feel happens in dialogue spaces. They also spoke of interfaith dialogue not as an end in itself, but rather a means towards achieving social justice.

Seeds also heard from Frank Fredericks, founder of World Faith, an organization that brings together people from different faith backgrounds for service-oriented projects that create change in their communities. Their work creates opportunities for humanization and for combatting the “otherism” so prevalent in religious contexts.

Mollie Krent, a Barnard Speaking Fellow, led the Seeds through a facilitation workshop to help them develop their abilities to structure participation, ask open questions, and manage the “burden of neutrality” often experienced by facilitators.

The Seeds also had the opportunity to hear from a panel of Columbia and Barnard student interfaith leaders. The speakers discussed student leadership and activism, sharing their different initiatives and personal experiences with interfaith work.

“My biggest takeaway from the weekend is a realization of how important it is to share your story,” said an American Seed participant.


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