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Religion and Society

What happens when different religious communities agree to share a city?

In today’s urbanized, overcrowded, and globalized world, religious communities are ever more likely to come face to face. While there are still separated Buddhist and Hindu villages in Sri Lanka, and Christian and Muslim villages in Nigeria, both are more likely to meet in urban settings. Here in New York they will meet among Hindus, Jews, and Sikhs, as well as co-religionists from over one hundred countries.



Positive religious encounter makes for anxiety on the part of many. Liberals see conservative religion as unnecessarily ridged, causing trouble when it confronts difference. Conservatives fear that intimacy with difference leads to loosing their particularity.



Fear of conversion, syncretism, and liberalization is as old as religious difference.


But these days we must think more carefully about what actually happens on the ground.



When religious communities actually meet, things are not simple.


Sometimes religious encounter leads to the ‘hard difference’ itself getting re-enforced. And sometimes that is for the good of the interfaith interaction and both communities- from their point of view.



One example is an Ethiopian Orthodox priest, Father Tibebu. Tibebu rents a small chapel in a Catholic Church in Midtown Manhattan. «We don’t even rent a church, just a church’s basement,» he says. «We are in exile, we are poor. We get a new experience …». Tibebu also engages in interfaith work through the interfaith Center of New York. Here he is often among Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. But he finds this only encourages him to clarify who he is in the public sphere, where others too must be different. «We understand God differently. It’s okay. I know who I am, and I know that even brothers are different from one another.»



In the case of urban sociologists who assume that the creation of subgroups leads to a negative view of others, again the picture is too simple. With interfaith Centre, religious groups interact positively in a way that simultaneously deepens their identity, clarifies their difference from their partners, and improves their relations with others. In New York City, during Ramadan, Muslim groups through out the city invite non-Muslims to break-fast with them. Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, and Christians are guests, among secular civil servants. In such cases, Muslims reach across religious difference by being different. They come as citizens who are different, and will remain so, but will build positive relationships over a meal and conversation.


In fact the religious leaders we work with at the Interfaith Center overwhelmingly report that interfaith encounters deepen their faith and recommit them to it, while gaining important insights into their neighbor’s religion, and finding points of resonance within their moral and social traditions.


Meanwhile, the religiously different often work well together here in New York, and in other places. They can be liberal or conservative in politics and theology. They can believe in one god, many gods, or none. They are drawn into partnership by important causes and close proximity. Their partnerships actually keep them different from one another. They learn from each other, work together, and often build friendships. It is neither polarized religiosity, nor a harmonized peace that some would imagine. It is clumsy at times. Rarely smooth, sometimes lurching, and never boring. It is what happens when religious communities agree to share a city. With it, there maybe a reason for hope.



Matthew Weiner is the Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York, and a doctoral candidate at Union Theological Seminary.