But quietly — and occasionally with a splash — some camps and conference centers are pushing a bit on the edges, and are beginning to introduce programming with an interfaith flavor.
The clearest example is at Stony Point Conference Center just outside New York City, which has created intentional communities of Christians, Muslims, and Jews, called the “Communities of Living Traditions.” They emphasize nonviolence and justice. Those communities are just beginning to take shape, said Stony Point co-director Rick Ufford-Chase.
Each is assembling a residential community of people who will live at Stony Point for a period of time, considering both the teachings of their own religious traditions regarding nonviolence and ways in which the three communities can work together on particular issues involving justice.
“We just want to be a little corner of the church that is making a fairly quiet, fairly humble attempt at figuring out a way to live into this kind of witness,” Ufford-Chase said.
Other Presbyterian camps and conference centers also are beginning to explore ways in which Christians and other people of faith can engage with themes common to many world religions.
In 2010, for example, Montreat Conference Center had for its annual college conference the theme “God Without Borders,” including a presentation from a Muslim interfaith activist, Eboo Patel, who is founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core. He discussed ways in which people from different religious traditions can work together — inspired to do so by the particular teachings of their own faiths.
That kind of interfaith work is critical, Patel told the college students, in what is the most religiously-diverse country in an interconnected age.
“What do you do when you realize that you are a Christian in a world of Muslims and Jews, of Buddhists and Baha’is, of Hindus and humanists?” Patel asked the participants. “How do you decide you’re going to relate to those people? And we’re not talking about just a few people … . America is the most religiously diverse nation in human history.”
That kind of work — intentional interfaith programming — occasionally gets overshadowed by a moment of controversy, as has happened occasionally when a Presbyterian camp or conference center rents its facilities to a non-Christian group, and someone objects.
The most recent example came in December at Mo-Ranch Conference Center in Texas, when some local pastors and residents protested Mo-Ranch allowing an Islamic group to hold a retreat there for Muslim teenagers. Some folks objected while others praised Mo-Ranch’s decision.
Brian Frick, director of the Office of Camp and Conference Ministries for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), said it’s not uncommon for Presbyterian camps and conference centers to rent their facilities for non-Christian groups — often with no difficulty.
Menucha Retreat and Conference Center in Oregon, for example, has hosted Baha’i, Jewish, and Christadelphian groups, according to Program Director Scott Crane, and hosts a Turkish Culture Camp that includes as part of its curriculum study of the Quran. Typically, such groups pay a fee to rent facilities at the camp during a particular time and provide their own programming – as do other non-Christian groups such as business, educational, or nonprofit groups holding meetings.
David Jordan, Mo-Ranch’s president, issued a statement saying that Mo-Ranch was showing “Christian hospitality” by allowing the Muslim teenagers to meet at the center.
“Consistent with Mo-Ranch’s values as a Presbyterian center, we do also welcome people from other Christian groups and from time to time members of non-Christian faith traditions in support of better interfaith communication, especially in these times of great misunderstanding among these American religious communities,” Jordan said in the statement.
In some places, it’s exactly that sense of longing for a greater understanding among people of different faiths that propels interfaith programming.
Ghost Ranch Conference Center in New Mexico has, for several years, offered a week-long interfaith seminar.
The 2010 college conference at Montreat, with an interfaith flavor, the participants were for the most Christian and Presbyterian — as were most of the speakers, including Bruce Reyes-Chow, moderator of the 218th General Assembly, and seminary professors Cynthia Rigby of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and Anna Carter-Florence of Columbia Theological Seminary.
The focus was not specifically interfaith relations. Rigby, a professor of theology at Austin, did not discuss that issue directly at all — her theological focus was “how do we think of God as bigger than we may have imagined,” so “we don’t put God in a box.”
But Rigby did listen to Eboo Patel’s presentation — and said she knows from her own speaking engagements around the country that teenagers and young adults particularly, but older people too, are intensely interested in learning how to interact and converse with people of other religious backgrounds.
“The number one question that I get, no matter what I’m lecturing on, from adults as well as youth, is ‘What about people from another faith?’” Rigby said in an interview. She gets asked that question more than “Why does God allow suffering?” — a question that used to be at the top of the list.
Rigby senses that many Christians struggle with knowing how to speak of their faith in a multicultural world.
“They want to be able to articulate it better,” she said. “They are stuck trying to figure out how to say ‘Christianity is compelling and transforming’ without saying ‘We are always right and everybody else is wrong.’ … That just shows how concerned people are about knowing how they can be Christians with an articulated Christian identity, disciples of Jesus Christ who is their Lord and Savior, and at the same time not be closed to neighbors and co-workers and friends who profess things that are different.”
At the Montreat college conference, Patel spoke of the importance of people knowing enough about their own religious traditions — what that tradition teaches about injustice and caring for the world — that the knowledge motivates them to join forces with those of other faiths who share the same commitments.
Being well grounded in the teachings of one’s own faith is vital, Patel said, because there will be people in every religious tradition ready to “quote chapter and verse” in making the case for bigotry, exclusion and hatred. So others need to have a deep enough knowledge of their own faith, he said, to be able to counter with an articulation of why that tradition stands for justice and peace.
“This is the theme of the 21st century,” Patel told the college students. “Is religion going to be a bomb? Is it going to be a barrier? Is it going to be about bigotry? Or is it going to be about building a bridge?”
He also encouraged them to work with those of other religions on causes that unite them.
“Malaria can be prevented with a $10 bed net,” Patel told the participants. “What if the 2 billion Christians on the planet and the 1.3 billion Muslims decided that their most important theological exercise with each other was going to be to end malaria? Because death is egregious in Islam and death is egregious in Christianity. ”
That kind of approach — working together as an interfaith team on particular issues — is part of what the intentional communities at Stony Point are trying to achieve as well.
They are studying nonviolence within each of their traditions — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — and sharing with one another what they’re learning and doing as separate communities. And they are providing a multi-faith witness around particular issues – for now, immigration reform; food justice and sustainable agriculture; peace in Israel-Palestine; and prison advocacy.
Gary Batty is chair of the Stony Point Governing Board, which he said is “very supportive” of the interfaith initiatives. “We believe that is the future of our center,” Batty said.
“We want a place where we can faithfully learn together how to stand against the violence that has affected all of our religious traditions,” Ufford-Chase said.