Building dialogue: 4 ways to engage in interfaith dialogue in your local community

Just this week, we witnessed another tragic act of violence. In Lisbon, two women were killed and other injured following a stabbing attack at an Ismaili mosque.

A religious minority within Islam, sectarian violence is sadly nothing new.

With Sunni-Shia tensions, in addition to the persecution of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, we’ve long been witnessing ongoing conflict between different sects of Islam.

And this isn’t the only division we’re seeing.

Conflicts fuelled or aggravated by religious and cultural/ethnic divides have long plagued the history of humankind.

So, what can we do about it? How do we move forward? How can we bring people together across such divides?

Well, the answer is dialogue!

Through empathetic, compassionate listening, we can:

  • Learn more about each other
  • Break down misconceptions and negative stereotypes
  • Build key relationships in solidarity and appreciation of each other

Sounds great, right? But, how do we do this?

Perhaps, you’ve long thought about reaching out to other faith communities but aren’t sure exactly how to take the first step. And you’re not alone:

People of different faiths are aware that we need to get to know one another, but it’s not always clear how to begin the conversation.”

(Cambridge University)

Fortunately, there are lots of varied and equally impactful ways to engage in interfaith dialogue.

Read on to find out how you can get going.

And of course, you can easily adapt these methods for intrafaith and intercultural dialogue too.

So, take a look!

1. Learn about each other’s faith traditions

Scriptural reasoning at St.Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace (UK).

If you want to build bridges with other faith communities, one obvious way you can start is through theology itself.

By learning about each other’s faiths (e.g. scared texts and religious traditions), you can work to (better) understand any differences in belief and discover (the most likely) similarities.

The better informed we are about other’s traditions, the less room for misunderstandings, negative stereotyping, fear and suspicion.

And, the more we build understanding, connection and an appreciation for diversity.

Plus: the good news is, that there are many ways you can do this!

Here’s a few:

Sacred site visits:

Gather your group of individuals from different faith traditions and organise a trip to one or each of their places of worship.

  • Prior to visit: agree on the purpose of the trip, including offering pointers for reflection. Ensure that the group is introduced to each other beforehand. Lastly, arrange a guided tour with a faith leader (explaining the purpose of the visit)
  • During the trip: engage! Ask and encourage others to ask questions during the guided tour – including to members of the group
  • Following the trip: organise a dialogue circle where participants can discuss their experiences, thoughts and feelings. Share similarities and learnings about the faith tradition to dispel negative stereotypes and increase understanding

Scriptural reasoning sessions:

For religious leaders/those more schooled in religious texts, scriptural reasoning is a great way to engage with members of other faiths.

Follow these steps to run an effective scriptural reasoning session:

  • Step 1: pick a theme (e.g. charity, prayer, marriage) and invite faith leaders of different faith traditions to pick a text from their tradition relevant to this theme
  • Step 2: arrange a scriptural reasoning session with the faith leaders and wider interfaith group
  • Step 3: open the session – introduce the theme and faith leaders, who each present their text and reflections
  • Step 4: start the dialogue – bring questions and reflections! Then, in small mixed groups, encourage people to talk about the similarities and differences between the texts
  • Step 5: conclude with final reflections. If possible, share the experience with a wider audience – e.g. write a blog or make a podcast. Then, plan your next session!

Other activities (with follow up dialogue circles), could also include:

  • Observing prayers or religious rituals
  • Celebrating religious festivals together
  • Going on pilgrimage together
  • Hosting thematic seminars, webinars or other learning opportunities

In essence, religious education and exchange is a great way to build bridges and learn more about each other’s faith traditions.

In this way, we can dispel negative stereotypes and misinformation. We can learn about our similarities as faiths. And, we can discover united solutions to contemporary questions, problems and debates from a theological perspective. 

Remember: education changes everything!

2. Talk about your shared experiences

Jewish and Muslim members of the Queen’s Park (London) Nisa-Nashim group marking Bastille Day – reflecting on what freedom means to each of them.

If you’re more secular in your practice of faith, or perhaps want something a little less academic, fear not! This is where “dialogue of life” comes in.

But, “what is dialogue of life” I hear you ask? Well, it’s simple!

It’s about building dialogue centred around your experiences as people (of different faiths) – rather than focussing on the theology itself.

In scriptural reasoning for example, you talk about theological traditions and “what the texts say”.

With dialogue of life, you get together and build dialogue based around your shared/different lived experiences.

To give a few ideas, you could, for example, host an interfaith dialogue group/get together centred around:

  • Gender: discussing life as a woman of faith or shared patriarchies (the similarities and differences in how these patriarchies affect lives)
  • Sexuality: sharing your experiences and struggles within your faith communities as queer people of faith
  • Family: looking at what family means to you as person of faith

Your discussion groups could centre around:

  • A book club and the book’s theme
  • Key dates in the calendar (e.g. Valentine’s Day and the theme of love, Pride or Mother’s Day)
  • What’s hot in the news

The world’s your oyster!

The key here is that you’re sharing your individual experiences. You’re not representing a whole faith tradition and you’re not aiming to discuss complex theology.

Sharing our lived experiences is critical to understanding the views, experiences, challenges and ultimately live our family, friends, colleagues and neighbours of other faith traditions.

By building thematic dialogue around your own social, religious and cultural experiences, as a person of faith or no faith, you can build understanding, trust and empathy.

Through thematic “dialogue of life” circles, you’ll learn to:

  • Work together towards shared solutions on common issues (see point #3 below!)
  • Understand the differences and nuances between a faith and the lives and practices of members of that faith community
  • Be the best ally you can – to fight hate and stand in solidarity

And the best bit is: you don’t need to be an imam, rabbi or priest. You’re you – and the dialogue is no less important.


3. Engage in social action projects together

Interfaith cooking to support local charitable projects for Mitzvah Day – a Jewish day of social action.

Nothing unites people more than a common cause. And, that includes people of different faiths!

Yes, interfaith social action (social justice) activities are a great (and fun!) way to work together.

You’ll be:

  • Standing in solidarity with each other and the people you’re supporting
  • Learning about each other in the process
  • Supporting a critical cause and “giving back to society”

You can get involved or create a host of activities such as:

  • Interfaith cooking: cook (and talk!) together to provide hot meals for rough sleepers in your local area
  • Language classes: work together (team work!) to help migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in need of language support
  • Human rights activism: build or join campaigns centred around a cause you care about, e.g. women’s rights, LGBT+ rights, refugee inclusion or poverty reduction
  • Emergency/poverty relief: run a collection, convoy or pop-up shop to provide clothing, food, medical supplies etc. to support people in need in your local area/overseas

Working together and sharing your experiences with others, you’ll learn about each other, emphasise and affirm your shared values and interests and of course: build critical bonds and friendships.

Fun, charitable and full of dialogue – perfect!

4. Create a shared activity group

Sports are a great way to bring people together!

Just as shared values bring us together, so do shared hobbies and interests. And, this is where you can put your creativity, passions and talents to use!

By building an interfaith team or activity group, you’ll build shared experiences, shared understanding and a greater sense of solidarity.

Depending on your interests, you could join or build a group based on:

  • Travel: hiking, city breaks, adventure holidays
  • Music: singing in a choir, playing in a band, drumming circle
  • Visual and spoken arts: photography, poetry, comedy
  • Arts and crafts: knitting, painting, pottery, creating murals
  • Team sports: football, basketball, cricket
  • Health and wellbeing: yoga, Pilates, laughter therapy

The choice of activity is yours – obviously, taking in account financial, time-based and potential cultural and/or other restraints.

Of course, the key here is to:

  • Build/form a mixed group with members of different faith traditions (two or more)
  • Ensure that there’s space for dialogue both during and after the activity
  • Meet regularly as a group to sustain and deepen the dialogue and relationships built

Regular activities will enable you to share memories, engage in sustained dialogue and create crucial relationships with people of other faiths.


Dialoguing together: rules and tips to get started

So, if you’re feeling inspired, reach out to colleagues, neighbours and local communities and start dialoguing today!

You’ll learn a lot about each other – and yourself. And, most critically: you’ll be helping to build a more cohesive peaceful society.

Just remember, these three key steps:

1. Planning and implementation:

Ensure that you’ve carefully planned your activity and it’s goal.

Before you start, establish the rules of dialogue to ensure that you’re building a safe space for everyone involved.

Key rules include ensuring that the group facilitator (potentially you!):

  • Has collected key information about participants prior to any session (e.g. background info on sexuality, disabilities etc.) to ensure appropriate safeguarding and inclusion measures are in place
  • Provides trigger warnings when dealing with sensitive issues
  • Establishes a safe that is based on equality and inclusion – remembering the diversity within each faith group itself – each person is an individual!
  • Ensures there is a separate physical safe space for people to take time out if needed
  • Communicates to members of the group that they are available following the session if they need support
  • Introduces the session, steps in during the session if things get “heated” to de-escalate the session, and finally follows up after the dialogue session to ensure everyone’s wellbeing

The rules should also outline that participants in the group:

  • Don’t dominate the conversation or interrupt others
  • Don’t attempt to proselyte
  • Don’t force others to speak
  • Don’t use rude or derogatory language
  • Use “I” statements – speaking for themselves, not their whole faith tradition
  • Avoid stereotypes and generalisations – unless carefully attempting to understand/break these down (through the guidance of the group facilitator)

Planning your activity well is crucial – as is keeping an open mind to the outcomes.

It’s critical to establish ground rules prior to any dialogue sessions to ensure a safe space for those involved.

Participants must be aware that each person represents and speaks for themselves, not their faith tradition as a whole.

Remember: dialogue is about the process not a fixed “aim”. You’re not there to proselytise (please don’t!), to change views or to get everyone to agree. 

2. Monitoring and evaluation:

The true outcome of dialogue is about understanding each other and building relationships through mutual respect and empathy.  

And this why getting feedback and evaluating how the activities have gone are just as important as the planning stages.

Be sure to follow up on your activities to examine and evaluate the impact, to see where things went well or not so well, and see how your project could be improved/adapted.

Be sure to:

  • Check-in with the group to see how they are and to find out their thoughts as you’re closing/ending the session (allowing adequate time)
  • Follow up with a request for written/private feedback to ensure that participants can disclose anything they may not have felt comfortable sharing within the group

Review the feedback, follow up with your group and make any necessary changes for the next session/project.

3. Sustaining the project:

Implement any changes required (communicated through feedback or from your own learnings).

Continue with what works, face any (appropriate) challenges that may have surfaced, and keep the dialogue going!

It’s not easy but it’s a powerful and impactful process. Take the first step and see where it leads you!

Happy dialoguing!

P.S. Don’t forget to let us know how you get on!

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