Religion in the Public Square: Innovative Resources, Projects & Programs in Religious Literacy and Interreligious Dialogue
by Margot Lyon/
September 14, 2021
Last week, at my local farmers market, I stopped by the local public library table and had a great discussion with some of the library staff about religious literacy and interreligious dialogue in the public square. Coincidentally, I was also recently a panelist at the International Federation of Library Association’s (IFLA) World Library and Information Congress session on “Facing the Future: Working Together to Improve Interreligious Dialogue.” This program wove together some of my professional work at Atla and my graduate studies in interreligious engagement at Chicago Theological Seminary.
Here is a tour of some excellent programs, events, and resources I’ve uncovered in my research:
#1 The Human Library
The Human Library was designed to build a global positive framework for conversations that can challenge stereotypes and prejudices through dialogue by lending real people to readers. In late 2020, I attended various online synchronous and asynchronous events connected either directly with the Human Library or inspired by the Human Library. The Human Library was developed in Copenhagen in the spring of 2000 and events are now held in at least seventy countries. A Human Library is an event that aims to create dialogue and understanding between people. Individuals volunteer as human “books” and participants in the event can ‘read’ the book- meaning they would have a one-on-one conversation with the volunteer and share in a dialogue about that individual’s experience. Books are volunteers from all walks of life who have experienced discrimination based on race, religion, sexual preference, class, gender identity, sex, age, lifestyle choices, disability, and other aspects of their life. The Human Library provides the opportunity for the community to share and understand the experiences of others in their community.
In a recent study on the impact of the Human Library (read study), one of the investigators shared that the findings indicate high satisfaction and significant short-term impact among the participants: “We focused on the intensity of people’s experiences. I was surprised to see that so many participants were able to recall vivid details of the event, as well as the recurring thoughts they had about their experiences in the months that followed. The level of detail and excitement they could recount was impressive. Based on our experience, we would label this as a significant impact.”
To apply to organize a Human Library Event, refer to the website for further information. The application asks many questions, including “What is the purpose of the event?” and “What prejudices and stereotypes do you plan to present?”
#2 Interfaith Discussion About Holy Books
Another program I found to be inspiring was a one-time event held in November 2017 organized by the Palatine Public Library District (Palatine, Illinois) hosted at a local Sikh Temple. The program included lectures by Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh leaders followed by a question/answer session, tour, and a meal.
Details regarding advance planning, marketing efforts, budget, day-of-event details, and advice for others interested in similar programs are offered in this excellent article by Marketing and Communications Manager Andrea Lublink.
I particularly appreciate the sample brochures and posters, the specific proposed schedule for the day of the event activities, and assessment suggestions. This toolkit and article would be very beneficial for a library interested in developing an interfaith/interreligious event in the community.
#3 Interreligious Institute at Chicago Theological Seminary
An Atla member institution, the Interreligious Institute (IRI) “serves as our means to engage the public as we work to reshape the public square, such that people of all religions and people of no particular religion have equal space and voice. Join us through our events, resources, and training materials.”
One noteworthy program is IRI’s Story Project, “We are meeting with different faith-based and social justice organizations, including refugee and immigrant communities, as well as Black and Latinx communities to interview and hear stories, creating space for a diverse array of voices. With increased violence towards marginalized groups, the public square is ever-changing. With this project, through story, we focus on providing tangible skill-building opportunities to help the public square function more as a place for everyone, not just the privileged few. Sharing personal narratives, that many can recognize themselves in, can be a powerful tool.”
Highlights of this work include reflections on “How to be Better Allies,” “Being Muslim in America,” “Interfaith Reimagined,” and “Good Practices for Building Community Across Differences.” A particularly insightful project was when IRI partnered with the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto in 2018, and asked Storybooth participants, “What do you believe?” The answers “illuminate the diversity of how we experience the world through faith and the ways those beliefs can shape the issues of today.”
Key components of the projects include the accompanying discussion guides and other supplemental materials. IRI’s modeling of sharing personal narratives and videos, along with the discussion guides, could serve as inspiration for libraries looking to develop similar programs and events.
# 4: Public Scholars Project-American Academy of Religion
This program is a joint initiative of the American Academy of Religion and the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute that equips scholars of religion to effectively communicate in the public sphere and foster religious literacy.
One area of focus is the video series hosted by the Religious Freedom Center, offering topics including Native Americans and the free exercise of religion with different publics; how scholars of religion can share work on religion and mass incarceration with different publics; how scholars of religion can share work on religion and pop culture with different publics; how scholars of Islam and American public life can engage different publics to raise the visibility of their work; and how scholars of religion can engage religious communities to raise the visibility of their work.
These videos could serve multiple purposes within libraries: 1) educate library staff on interreligious issues related to the public and 2) form the foundation for library programming related to certain topics. For example, a group could watch a video together on “religion and mass incarceration” and the library could host a panel with community leaders as respondents, followed by an open Q&A session.
#5: Muslim Journeys
As part of its Bridging Cultures initiative, NEH collaborated with the American Library Association (ALA) to present Muslim Journeys, a multi-faceted effort to bring humanities programming about Islamic history and culture to libraries and state humanities councils across the country. During the 2012–2014 implementation period, more than 3,140 Muslim Journeys programs were conducted in nearly 1,000 sites, reaching audiences of 414,849 people in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands. The project provided 25,000 books, 3,000 DVDs with public performance rights, over $550,000 in programming grants, and many other resources to support these public events.
This website and related materials would serve as excellent resources for community conversations and engagement: https://bridgingcultures-muslimjourneys.org/
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