Interfaith group encourages open religious dialogue

Audrey White

A Christian Scientist, a member of the Ethical Culture movement and a Methodist-Unitarian explained how certainty relates to their faith while a Buddhist moderated their conversation at the Interfaith Action of Central Texas Red Bench discussion last week.

This type of interfaith dialogue is critical in a global climate that often encourages religious isolation, fear and violence, said Tom Spencer, the CEO of iACT. The organization encourages faith and spiritual communities around Austin to connect with one another through dialogue and service work.

“Undercutting the threat of fear and working to prevent violence isn’t something we can just rely on happening in Cairo and Jerusalem,” Spencer said. “All those historic tensions exist here in our backyard, and we have to make a difference where we can.”

The organization iACT, formerly Austin Area Interreligious Ministries, has regular activities including a monthly dinner and Red Bench dialogue meetings, a refugee resource and education program and bi-annual home-building weekends. These different programs allow people who wouldn’t normally interact to become friends and learn about each other’s ideas and cultures, Spencer said.

Rich Harrison started attending Red Bench dialogues about a year and a half ago after learning about the program through the Ethical Society of Austin, of which he is a member. The ESA emphasizes individual worth and dignity and the creation of a more humane society, values Harrison said fit quite well with interfaith involvement.

“It’s always fascinating to learn what other people believe and practice, and I hope I can contribute as well,” Harrison said. “Most people grow up searching, I know I did. There is quite a lot to talk about.”

The student division of the University Interfaith Council tries to bring similar dialogue to UT. President Imad Khan has been working to revitalize the group for about three semesters and said up to 100 people attend their monthly programs.

“Here on campus, we want to teach people about other faiths and cultures so they get a better understanding,” Khan said. “When people have a friend from another faith, they can understand not just differences between faiths but also similarities.”

One of the council’s programs pairs random students with each other and encourages them to make plans for lunch or coffee, and Khan said students have made close friends with whom they might never have talked to before.

Spencer said he hopes to reach out to the UIC to create a partnership that would allow iACT to bring its programs to a younger community. He said because many college-aged students are discovering their spirituality, it can be a critical time to learn about as many communities as possible.

“We could be in the union having a coffee or drinking a beer and having these seriously important conversations,” Spencer said. “The content that we deal with is interesting if you’re 18 or 80, and I find it interesting to hear young people talking about searching.” 

Printed on Monday, October 3, 2011 as: Organizations foster interfaith discussions