We live in a moment in history in which chaos seems to reign. Tribal hatreds define decision-making and universal values are at a nadir. Is there anything, any vision, that can ameliorate this fractiousness and bring our world back to balance and civility? Counterintuitive as it may seem, faith may be an answer.
Underlying all the great faiths are simple truths. Whatever their differences, certain basic values underlie the teachings and mandates of all faiths. When we shed our presumptions, we find that all of them are founded on principles that insist that God calls on us to respect human dignity, lessen poverty, protect the viability of the planet, find people decent homes, insure a secure existence for everyone and provide equal justice.
Perhaps, to find a pathway for constructive cooperation, faith leaders will need to compromise. We can look to the Bible for inspiration. Abraham, father of the great monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is chosen by God to join in making the world just and right. Almost immediately, Abraham argues with God regarding the plan to kill everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah. The cities ultimately were destroyed, but it was only after a series of discussions and compromises with Abraham that God made this decision. If Abraham and God can compromise, surely the Evangelicals and the mainline Protestants, Jews and Muslims, can too.
Too often there is a tendency to presume the worst in the “other.” Yet, when people of different faiths get to know each other, and can discern their shared basic values, they discover there is more agreement among them than disagreement. When people of faith work together, presumptions of tribalism dissipate, and they find deep connections in their common humanity.
This belief in the power of faith as a cause for good underpins the Religious Leadership and Civic Engagement Project of the Wagner School at NYU (RLCE). This initiative, which was started several years ago by Professor David Elcott, is an effort to more deeply engage religious leaders, community by community, to constructively affect civil discourse and democracy.
In its initial stage, the programs were profound learning experiences. Small multifaith groups gathered throughout the country and discussed how best to transcend their differences to work together toward greater civic engagement and effect positive change in their communities.
A new community-based phase of the initiative was launched in 2017. It was based on the idea that acting together to make a difference in their communities, religious leaders would enhance interfaith relationships while, at the same time, improve the quality of life in their cities. San Antonio (seventh largest U.S. city) and Indianapolis (16th largest) were chosen initially because both cities are large enough to test whether this new organizing approach would work in significant but manageable urban areas.
Our operational model: Bring together the major faith leaders in each city, often who barely knew each other previously, help them choose an issue of concern to that community, and then plan a campaign around that issue. We have found that this process has both energized and increased mutual respect among the leaders.
The San Antonio RLCE project held its first set of meetings last October at which 30 interfaith leaders considered and then embraced this approach. Led by Rabbi Samuel Stahl, who joined with the Catholic archbishop, leading Evangelicals, mainline Christians, Muslims and Sikhs, the group reconvened on Feb. 8 and, after a fierce but civil debate, decided to take on the issue of homelessness, affordable housing and gentrification. Other issues had been considered, including sex trafficking and slavery, and prison reform with an emphasis on re-entry.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg recognizes the importance of the issue selected by the interfaith leaders as there are nearly 150,000 people living in inadequate housing in his city. He told me that because faith leaders have great respect in San Antonio, they can be a great boon to helping deal with the housing issue.
On May 30, the group, which has more than doubled since February, coalesced around a housing campaign plan. Since that meeting an office has been set up and articles of incorporation have been filed, tax-exempt status obtained and a paid professional hired to move the program forward this fall.
We want this initiative to take root in other cities. Interfaith leaders in Indianapolis are scheduled to select their priority issue this fall, and another city may pursue a project in 2019.
Our world is fractious. Dialogue alone is thin brew, rarely giving the participants a long-term connection. This idea of bringing interfaith leaders together in common cause is not a panacea to resolve all the ills of the world. But our experience shows that it can make a difference. And we don’t need to focus on hot-button issues that divide people. Our research and experience testify to the effectiveness of faith leaders in offering a pathway not only to reconciliation but to constructive change. Once the faith leaders and their communities have successfully addressed an issue of concern, belief in each other will grow, friendship and bonds will form, and trust and love will be much easier to hold sway in their town. This is our mission.
Rabbi Steve Gutow is co-director of the Religious Leadership and Civic Engagement Project of the NYU Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.