For twenty years, the Pluralism Project has followed the development of America’s fast-changing religious landscape and studied new forms of civic and interfaith relationships. The events of 9/11 demonstrated the importance of interfaith groups already formed; in the ensuing decade we have witnessed the growth of hundreds of new interfaith initiatives. Given this rapid expansion, what we might describe as the “interfaith infrastructure” is emerging in real-time, providing an innovative context for the kind of engagement we describe as “pluralism.” In 2011, we embarked on a pilot study, funded by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, to look closely at interfaith efforts in twenty cities across the United States. While this initial study is a selective portrait, it is a first step towards our larger goal: to document and resource the interfaith movement in America.
Among the interfaith projects highlighted by this survey, the Pluralism Project provides a profile of Gagandeep Kaur, an interfaith (she would prefer “interreligious”) activist in San Diego, California, who recognizes that even the words we use in such endeavors are significant:
Reflecting upon her thirteen years of experience in the interfaith organizing, Kaur identifies the reliance upon Abrahamic, particularly Christian, language that is applied by many to all world religions as the biggest stumbling block to effective engagement. She explains, “language [is] a very big part of the challenge in interreligious dialogue; language is charged and powerful. An understanding of difference must happen in order for interreligious dialogue to happen.”
Gagandeep Kaur also discusses how her interfaith work has opened her understanding of Sikh principles to a broader context:
Theologically, Kaur explains that “when two or more people get together and talk about God, that’s called holy ‘congregation,” a concept and practice many in the Sikh community consider find to be enlightening and deeply moving. Before her work in interfaith organizing, she believed this kind of congregation could only take place among Sikhs. Now, her perspective has shifted; she is most proud of the fact that she understands that groups of people coming together, from any religious or ethnic group, as something profound and deeply meaningful.
When we consider the origins of Sikhism in the late 15th century with Guru Nanak, the first Guru of of the Sikhs, it is apparent that Guru Nanak himself embarked on an interfaith journey. My limited experience in engaging in this type of work has made me reflect on Guru Nanak in a very similar way – so much so that I felt his presence in that atmosphere.
Guru Nanak’s travels across the Indian subcontinent brought him to centers of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, and he is revered by many of these communities. His discussions with these communities focused on the fundamental truth behind all of these faiths – that while there are many paths to the all-pervasive Divine Spirit, the source and the destination are the same.
Accordingly, it’s easy to relate to Gagandeep Kaur’s comments about the meaningfulness behind interfaith work. For the Sikh, it connects her or him to the heart of Sikhism itself. In this context, the Pluralism’s survey of interfaith activity across the country is a very interesting read.