An Interfaith Dialogue Model in Atlanta, Georgia
Born and nurtured in India, I had the opportunity to witness worship and rituals of Hindus, Muslims, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists and Zoroastrians. I read the history and lives of the religious leaders. As a preteen I discovered that all religions, including mine, had something special that moved my spirit.
In the United States I discovered that Christians knew little about other faiths and considered it unnecessary to learn because Christ’s way was sufficient. As a graduate and then a college professor and a church member, I developed a deep yearning to share my findings with others to help them accept those who are outside the boundaries of Christianity. I was able to introduce world religions as a course of study.
Atlanta, Ga., is an international city representing global businesses and diverse cultures, religions and ethnicities. In shopping malls, I see people dressed in native garbs and speaking in various tongues. In the late 1980s I became active in ecumenical and interfaith activities, locally and nationally and globally through the United Methodist General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. I was able to touch base with leaders of diverse faiths during those years. I also noticed that most religious leaders were men and a few women.
In the early 1990s, as the North Georgia Conference United Methodist Women president, I was invited to represent “women’s concerns” in the Christian Council of Metropolitan Atlanta. In 1991, I organized the first interfaith worship for and by women in Atlanta, which received an overwhelming response by many faiths. Those who attended decided to meet on a regular basis under the theme “Is it Worth Getting to Know You?”
Thus Interfaith Sisters Dialogue was founded in Atlanta, a first in Atlanta for women, by women. In Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Baha’I, etc., women are the backbone of their faiths as they nurture and teach their children by living their faith. We wanted to provide a safe place for them to share their role in the process. It has been and continues to be affirming and informative.
Interfaith Sisters Dialogue provides educative information through presentations by women and men with regard to diverse faiths with opportunities for question and answer and for attending rituals of birth, death, wedding, rites of passage, festival celebrations and art and book fares. The purpose is to promote understanding, respecting and accepting differences and recognizing commonalities. This process has strengthened our endeavor to break down barriers. We are moving toward building a community of women in which we are all neighbors and no longer strangers in a culturally and religiously diverse setting.
Every gathering (eight times a year) begins with meal sharing as we sit at small round tables. We share food stories of our and lives. The formal meeting convenes, beginning and ending with a religious quote, prayer or important story, as each one introduces herself saying, “I am [name] and I am a [member of religion]. There is no set theme, and the programs and speakers are chosen by all at the planning meeting in May.
We make a special endeavor to stay in touch with and participate in the activities of the many interfaith groups that exist in Atlanta. Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasters (AIB) and the Faith Alliance of Metropolitan Atlanta (FAMA) are two other groups who participate with us and we with them. Atlanta Interfaith Leaders Fellowship (AILF) is fast becoming a significant group. FAMA provides opportunities for world travel to areas of religious significance. Many of us are members of FAMA, AILF, AIB, Vedanta Center, National Council of Jewish Women–Atlanta, among other groups, in addition to our own faith community.
Is this a model for you to use in your community? Let your United Methodist Women group be the catalyst for interfaith dialogue.
Shan Yohan, Ph.D, is a former director of the Women’s Division.