Creating interfaith service events: Tips for initiating interfaith conversation


Values in ActionZachary Cole is the Values in Action Fellow for the Humanist Community at Harvard. The VIA Fellowship is partially funded by a grant from Foundation Beyond Belief. The purpose of this partnership is to develop humanist service and interfaith resources for Beyond Belief Network projects, promote humanist civic engagement nationally, and develop the VIA Fellowship into a national model for humanist service.

In my previous post, I discussed strategies for locating, and reaching out to, local religious communities to partner with on service programs. The Values in Action (VIA) program at the Humanist Community at Harvard (HCH) recognizes the importance of service and social action programs in order to better the conditions of life for others, and we believe that partnering with religious communities plays a big role in that.

At many of these events where we partner with local religious communities, there is usually a dialogue component. Interfaith dialogue can seem intimidating, but it is important to remember that the goal of these conversations is not to come to an agreement on the world’s problems or whether or not there is a God. Instead, the goal is to build alliances between religious and nonreligious communities in order to achieve mutual understanding and tolerance between those with different viewpoints.

Below are some tips for groups interested in starting to engage in interfaith dialogue at their service events. Start simple and remember that the initial focus should be on getting to know each other, listening, and striving to understand why different people decided to participate in the service project at hand. Here are a couple of starting tips on how to facilitate interfaith conversations at service events:

  • Use simple dialogue prompts: A common criticism of interfaith dialogue is that differences are ignored or glossed over. It is important to note that the goal of interfaith service is not to debate metaphysical beliefs, but instead to create a positive space for people to discuss why they get involved in service. The goal is to start simple and let people share their stories. Toward that end, it can be helpful to guide conversation using dialogue prompts posted at the event. You can make a PowerPoint presentation to cycle through prompts or print them out to post or hand out. Here are some examples:
    • Why are you here?
    • What in your religious/nonreligious tradition inspires you to do service?
    • How does your religious/nonreligious tradition address this (hunger, homelessness, etc.)?
  • Set the Tone: Depending on the type of service project, it may be difficult to have sustained conversation throughout the event. One strategy for getting around this is to bring everyone together before and/or after the service event in order to communicate that discussion and interfaith dialogue are priorities of the event. You can also encourage people to engage in conversation with new people throughout the event and make time afterward for people to share something they learned from someone else volunteering that day. Just be clear about when and where you want to bring the group back together. For example, before park clean-ups, HCH brings all participants together to briefly share why they chose to serve that day, so participants get a sense of who is involved and what inspired them.

Try these techniques as you begin to plan interfaith service events. Once you start to develop these relationships, you can build up to having events with a more substantial and developed dialogue session. Good luck, and remember to keep an open mind to the experiences of others.