Context

The United States today is an increasingly multi-religious society, and many who are engaged in religious formation, training, and ministry are seeking opportunities to dialogue with people outside their religious tradition. The Interfaith Academies for Religious Leaders serve as intensive study programs for people engaged in or training for leadership in various religious traditions. As well, the Interfaith Academy for Emerging Religious Leaders and the Interfaith Academy for Religious Professionals provides a forum for people from diverse religious traditions to learn about each other’s faiths with and from each other.

In recent years there have been significant advances in interfaith relations, largely due to efforts like those of the various foundation’s work on advancing public engagement and the academy in this arena. In spite of these good efforts, many religious community representatives who work in interfaith relations remain ill-equipped in leading their community’s engagement with the religious other. This is largely because during their formal education many ecumenical and interfaith officers of U.S. religious bodies were not equipped with these skills, nor even given adequate space to examine the best practices which support engaging with the religious other.  Another important factor is the rapidly changing landscape of religion in the US, with the increase of secularism (e.g., the rise of “nones and nons”) and with the decline of institutions and emergence of the “spiritual, but not religious” set, as but two examples.

The Interfaith Academies for Religious Community Leaders is meant to provide an intensive professional development opportunity to address these concerns. There is a need and multiplier benefit for ecumenical and interfaith leaders of U.S. religious communities to be trained in more nuanced ways for dealing with the challenges of interfaith relations.

Methodology

The primary goals of the Interfaith Academy for Religious Leaders are to:

  • Equip participants with the skills necessary to function as leaders to their own faith communities, even as they relate to those of others;
  • Create opportunities for participants to learn about some of the major religious traditions in the U.S.;
  • Generate discussion from multiple perspectives among participants about the meaning of religious pluralism in our society;
  • Provide religious leaders in educational institutions with the educational resources to duplicate such a forum regionally, thereby encouraging leadership skills in a multi-faith community;
  • Explore ways that unique religious communities may cooperate and collaborate around common issues; and
  • Provide the basis for future partnerships among participants.

To achieve these goals, the seminar has three emphases:

1)      A basic introduction to a variety of religious traditions;
2)      An interreligious discussion on the meaning of religious pluralism in the U.S.; and
3)      An interreligious discussion of best practices and necessary skills to function as an ecumenical and interreligious leader of one’s own tradition in a multi-faith world, i.e., how to best resource their communities.

1st Interfaith Academies (13-27 June 2007, Kansas City)

The first Interfaith Academies for Religious Leaders were hosted by Religions for Peace – USA in partnership with Saint Paul School of Theology, the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council, and the Harvard Pluralism Project, with generous funding by the Henry Luce Foundation. The Academies, held on June 13-27, 2007 in Kansas City, MO, assembled 45 religious leaders, graduate students, undergraduates, scholars, and specialists in interfaith affairs, on the campus of the Saint Paul School of Theology. Participants of the Academies visited a spectrum of religious communities, participated in worship services, and learned the richness of religious pluralism.

Graduates of the program left Kansas City with memories of Buddhist meditation, a Sikh langar, Greek Orthodox iconography, Hindu dance, and Muslim adhan. They saw the beauty in the lights and flowers ringing the deities at a Hindu temple, were moved to tears at a young man’s Bar Mitzvah, and were soothed in the cool silence of a Buddhist meditation room. Participants prayed together in Latin, Persian, Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish and a number of Indian dialects. They learned together, prayed together, and amid all the trips, the lectures, the ceremonies, and the late night movies, they came to dialogue together.