Grand Rapids Interfaith Year


JUDY VALENTE, correspondent: Grand Rapids, Michigan, is a city with deep roots in conservative Calvinist Christianity—a place where dancing and card playing were once banned, mowing the lawn on Sunday was frowned upon into the 1960s, and in more recent years, a professor who taught evolution at Calvin College encountered harsh criticism.

Though the Dutch Reformed Church and its more conservative offshoot, the Christian Reformed Church, is still a strong presence here, Grand Rapids today is also home to 82 Catholic parishes, five mosques, two synagogues, and Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh temples. Interfaith dialogue would have been considered unacceptable by many here in the past. But in the last year, with support from the mayor and a wide range of community leaders, Grand Rapids has held 250 events aimed at deepening interfaith understanding. The effort resulted in some strange sights like this one: a Muslim imam preaching on Christian scripture at the Sunday morning service to a United Church of Christ congregation.

DR. DOUGLAS KINDSCHI (Grand Valley State University): If we can make this kind of thing happen in Grand Rapids, then I think that can be a model for it happening in other communities and really a model for the nation.


VALENTE: Grand Rapids has become a microcosm of global religious diversity. Its interfaith project is unique because it includes not only churches and religious organizations, but a public university, the art museum, the community theater, even the local newspaper. The Grand Rapids Press publishes weekly columns on interfaith understanding. The museum is exhibiting Salvador Dali’s prints of “The 12 Tribes of Israel.” And the symphony has hosted a number of events, like this performance of a Stephen Paulus oratorio commemorating the Holocaust. Leaders of the effort took pains to reassure religiously conservative groups that delving into other religions doesn’t risk diluting any one religion’s set of beliefs.

DR. KINDSCHI: One concept that I think is important, particularly for our community, is the difference between what I call “thin” dialogue and “thick.” Thin dialogue is where you try to get people to narrow their faith commitment down so thin that they can agree with everybody else. Karen Armstrong says all religions are basically compassion. Hans King says all religions are basically the Golden Rule. And there’s a place for that. There’s a place for seeing where the commonality is, but in this community with the strong religious traditions, the strong religious commitments on the part of individuals and organizations, we’ve talked about thick interfaith dialogue. Bring the thickness of your faith to the table. Talk about all that you believe. Don’t see how thin you can make your belief, but talk about the thickness of your belief, but do it in a spirit of understanding and a willingness to the other person to bring their thickness of their faith to it as well.

post03-interfaith-yearVALENTE: A major goal is to build deeper interpersonal relationships through efforts like the Tuesday Table Talks—regular dinner meetings between Jewish, Christian, and Muslim couples that take place in a Catholic spirituality center. The Tuesday Table Talks were an eye opener for Derek Atkins, who grew up in a church that discouraged exploring other faiths.

DEREK ATKINS: It was kind of one of those church settings where you kind of stuck with your own, you know, if you’re a Christian then you should hang out with Christians.

VALENTE: But at the dinners…

ATKINS: I was amazed at the generation that was there and to look now and see, because of this movement here, that they’re saying, “Wow, there’s such value in these conversations.”

VALENTE: At first some residents questioned having public institutions participate in interfaith activities.

DR. KINDSCHI: There was a little bit of resistance from some of my secular colleagues at the university. They said, “What’s the state university doing promoting faith?” I said, “No, we’re not promoting faith. We’re not even promoting interfaith. We’re promoting understanding.”

Rev. Kyle Ray

VALENTE: And not all religious groups reacted enthusiastically. Rev. Kyle Ray is pastor of Kentwood Community Church in suburban Grand Rapids.

REV. KYLE RAY: I think there is a danger with going overboard in interfaith dialogue. There’s the great potential for universalism where we begin to believe that all roads lead to the same place. The reality is that if you would talk to major religious leaders, Jesus makes some exclusive claims that can kind of muddy the water whens when it comes to interfaith dialogue.

PASTOR DOUG VAN DOREN (Plymouth United Church of Christ): It’s quite the opposite of putting other faiths down. If you’re solid in your faith, then it doesn’t have to be necessarily the only way or truth. It could be a clear truth for us, and we can be solid in it, but then have other people be solid in their faith.

VALENTE: City officials estimate that as many as 30,000 of Grand Rapids’ 189,000 residents have attended interfaith events this past year. Community activist Ghazala Munir says the city has come a long way since her two children were the only Muslims in their school. In the 1990s, she tried to establish an interfaith group for mothers, but ran into resistance from other Muslims.

GHAZALA MUNIR: People were not really, they were not ready. They didn’t trust.

VALENTE: But now she’s part of a Muslim-Christian-Jewish group called “Sisters of Faith.”

Ghazala MunirMUNIR: And so we meet once a month and we discuss ideas and we have speakers and we read different books. There’s just an amazing sort of a camaraderie there. It seems to me that no matter what you believe, it all comes out to be the same, our dreams, our hopes, our fears are all the same. So really there’s no separation then. Once you come to that level, that you start talking in these tones, then there is no separation, we connect right away.

VALENTE: In the coming year, the focus will be on the younger generation. These high school students are learning about the peace process that ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. Many in the room have pledged to cooperate on social service projects with students of other faiths, or start interfaith clubs at their schools.

ELENA SCHMITT: The area I live in has a strong Calvinist influence and is very, very religious. Like we’re referred to as the Bible Belt sometimes, so I think bringing the things that I learn in this group to my area can really help people become more tolerant and open to different things.

ANNIKA ROLO: We don’t even have a cultural group at my school. So I think it would be cool to bring that into my school and educate other kids about the different religions that are out there and just let them to at least have a different perspective of even just what they’ve grown up in.

DR. KINDSCHI: I think it’s the high school students that are ready for this, and they’re the ones who have the most to gain by true interfaith understanding.

VALENTE: While fewer large scale public events are planned for this year, Grand Rapids’ interfaith dialogue will go forward with a variety of smaller individual projects, led largely by the generation about to come of age.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Judy Valente in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

  • susan mulloy

    Thank you for this wonderful story! It is truly a sign of God’s love working in our world.

  • Marvin N

    I can understand how it would be beneficial to all to get a long with one another but I can not understand how a Christians or Jewish people can worship under the same roof as the Muslim ??? …! This way of thinking will NOT work so we need to protect our CHRISTIAN FAITH !

  • Johbn W. Morehead

    This is great to see. I have past connections as a former interim pastor for a church in Utah that is part of the Dutch Reformed Calvinist tradition, and I am presently involved in interreligious diplomacy as Custodian of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. I especially appreciated Dr. Kindschi’s recognition of the need for “thick” dialogue that does not compromise religious convictions, as well as Pastor Ray’s concerns that much dialogue does just that. Additional distinction needs to be made between interfaith and religious diplomacy. The former is typically done from a progressive perspective which downplays or ignores religious differences. This then becomes the elephant in the room that must eventually be addressed. By contrast, religious diplomacy taps into the best of a religious tradition as the foundation for interreligious engagement, and then attempts to address religious differences through relationships and conversations. This work at Grand Rapids is important, not only because it involves thick dialogue among religions, but also because of the strong Evangelical presence in this area. Perhaps it can indeed serve as a model for the rest of the nation as Evangelicals learn to embrace a more positive form of engagement of religious others without compromise and in civility and live out their faith in a pluralistic and post-Christendom environment.

  • Emmy Rutowski

    I am a member of the Student Interfaith Leadership Council with Kent ISD, and thoroughly enjoy learning about other cultures and religions. The Grand Rapids 2012 Year of Interfaith Understanding is such a nice thing to have in this city to help people learn about other religions and try to appreciate/respect them as much as their own. Before joining the Student Interfaith Leadership Council (SILC) I did not have much knowledge of world religions other than my own, Christianity. However, I have always been curious about them, and eager to know more. Now I have made friends who come from all different religions; Sikhism, Islam, Catholicism, and even Atheism. From these friends and different meetings and activities the SILC does, I have gained so much knowledge of these different religions, and gained a higher appreciation for them and their followers. I have to give a big thanks to Julie Mushing, the head honcho of the SILC. She came up with the idea, and does so much for us kids to help us learn as much as we can. I am really glad PBS did a segment on this topic to spread the word of interfaith understanding!

  • Fred Stella

    It was an exciting year for all of us who were involved. Let me press the point that Doug Kindschi made about “thick dialogue.” Those who are concerned about maintaining their own faith & convictions need not fear these efforts. While it is possible that one might “switch sides” by involvement in interfaith dialogue I can’t recall it happening.

    One concern I have about the program is that it gave the impression that the these events focused exclusively on Abrahamic religions. This is far from true. As both a Pracharak (Outreach Minister) of our local Hindu temple & a member of the 2012 steering committee I can assure that every attempt was made to bring members of all religions that have an expression here in West Michigan, including Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs & others. In particular, it was stated that the Marywood Table Talk series brought only Jews, Christians & Muslims together. Not so. They were quite committed to true inclusivity.

    That said, I’m grateful to PBS for their interest in what we believe to be a snapshot of the future for our American religious landscape.

  • JDE

    @John Morehead: “Perhaps it can indeed serve as a model for the rest of the nation as Evangelicals learn to embrace a more positive form of engagement of religious others without compromise and in civility and live out their faith in a pluralistic and post-Christendom environment.”

    To what end – proselytization? You obviously have a problem withe progressive approach. What is the point, from a conservative evangelical perspective, in engaging people of other faiths – so you can tell them how wrong they are?