Building Bridges of Understanding: An Interfaith Curriculum of the California Council of Churches (2003)

In 2002 the California Council of Churches made a decision to respond to the episodes of violence and mistaken identity that followed 9/11. Their chosen response was a curriculum study guide on six of the world’s religions, which was funded by The California Endowment, Presbyterian Church (USA) Peacemaking Program, United Methodist Church Peace and Justice Program, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Reconciliation Fund and Southern California Ecumenical Council.

Building Bridges of Understanding focuses on six major faith traditions found in California, and was designed primarily for use by the Council of Churches member congregations. Although the Council has for years produced study guides for their member congregations on many topics of broad public concern, never had they considered such an academic and potentially “inter-faith” educational initiative.

The purpose of this curriculum is primarily to promote understanding and respect for the six faith traditions highlighted, and to encourage Christian congregations to reach out to their neighbors of other faiths. In order to accomplish this task, the written curriculum is supplemented by a video produced in California that focuses 10-minute segments on each of the faiths. The video content includes voices of youth in the tradition, as well as examples of community outreach.

The curriculum and video were written, produced and published by August 2002. They were first piloted in about 70 congregations who had sent representatives to a number of facilitator training sessions across California. Following the piloted sessions in churches, a brief survey was done. Many interesting things were noted by the researcher, including a hesitancy on the part of most of the congregations to take on one of the Council’s recommendations: to conduct the study with another faith tradition or as part of an interfaith collaboration.

This research project for the Pluralism Project involves conducting interviews with individuals and groups in both Southern and Northern California who have conducted the study, or plan to, in interfaith settings. This study will focus on the challenges that arise as these Christian congregations interact with people from other faiths, and on stories of understanding that emerge from those interactions.

Southern California

Los Angeles Inter-religious Council

Father Alexei Smith chairs the Los Angeles Inter-religious Council, and invited me to their monthly meeting in July. There I learned that seminarians at St John’s Seminary, Camarillo, take a mandatory course on ecumenical and inter-religious issues. The Building Bridges curriculum has been placed in the library there as a resource to these students, and has been used as a supplementary text in their course. Father Alexei also plans to suggest to the ministerial association of which he is a member that they undertake the study, and felt that it was likely they would agree.

Another member of the L.A. Inter-religious Council, Cheryl Weiner, is the director of the Interfaith Office of the National Council for Community and Justice (NCCJ) in L.A. Cheryl used the Building Bridges curriculum with a class of 8th graders in Hebrew school. She found the background information on each faith comprehensible to the students, and the study questions proved to be helpful additions to the other resources she used with the class.

Father Alexei is also a member of a group of clergy from various religious traditions who routinely advise the police department on matters of concern in their communities. As one of the many recommendations made to halt the confusion about religious identity post 9/11, particularly in Middle Eastern and South Asian communities, Father Alexei suggested that new recruits receive some education about the world’s religions. When his suggestion was met with resistance because of the challenges of developing curricula, he recommended the use of the Building Bridges of Understanding study guide. The curriculum was reviewed by the LAPD, but it was decided that there was not enough time or space in the training program to add a segment on the world’s religions.

Claremont’s Pilgrim Place

Pilgrim Place in Claremont, California, is a retirement community populated largely by former Presbyterian pastors, missionaries and scholars of religious studies. Two studies of the Building Bridges curriculum were conducted by different collections of these individuals.

The first was conducted at Claremont Presbyterian Church. The study included 20-30 people and lasted six weeks. The curriculum was used as a secondary resource, as a former professor of religion, Gordon Windsor, taught the course. This group included guest speakers for both the Islam and Judaism sections of the study.

In the course of our conversation about this course, I learned that this congregation had done interfaith world religions studies in the past. The previous study had taken place in collaboration with the local Beth Israel congregation, and included a shared Shabbat service at the temple with joint choirs. This effort resulted in a number of cooperative programs, including joint youth group meetings, service projects and sharing spaces during remodeling projects.

An attempt had been made to initiate a similar collaboration with the local Sunni mosque. According to Dr. Windsor, a lunch meeting was held a couple of times, and the youth got together once. Although there was also a joint worship service after 9/11 that included the mosque, the temple and the church, subsequent attempts to coordinate events with the mosque floundered.

The people present at our meeting speculated that greater fear in the Muslim community of being misunderstood, and fatigue as a result of requests for many interviews post 9/11, derailed the momentum of the earlier meetings. The conversation shifted to the practice of the Christian congregation to invite the Muslims to their church for various services and activities. A question was raised about whether their efforts might have been better received had the Christians visited the mosque, rather than inviting the Muslims to the church. A consensus seemed to develop that the Muslim community might have had a greater feeling of comfort had the Christian community made the effort to visit their place of worship.

In addition to the activities of Claremont Presbyterian Church, the Pilgrim Place chapter of Church Women United had also undertaken the study. At the time we spoke, this group had only studied Buddhism and Hinduism, but was planning to continue in the fall after people returned from summer travel.

First Presbyterian Church, Baldwin Park

Dr. Charles Houdek is presently the supply pastor of First Presbyterian Baldwin Park, where he has been serving since 1996. The congregation has a very interesting and controversial history within the Presbyterian synod of Southern California.

Originally, the population around the church was largely blue collar and white, and the congregation at its height numbered about 450. Through the 1970s and 1980s, as whites moved out and people of color moved in, the congregation became smaller and was increasingly made up of artists and socially liberal members. Most of the members now live outside the 85 percent Latino community, and are commuters to the church.

Throughout its history, the church has been a bastion of liberalism in a very conservative synod that includes the powerful and populous Orange County. Among the storms they have weathered are sending a gay elder to represent them at the General Assembly, and electing a lesbian treasurer two years ago. Both incidents resulted in complaints, threats of disciplinary action and official review of the church’s charter. According to Dr. Houdek, these events strengthened the resolve of the small, 35-member aging congregation, and they are now part of the pro-gay and lesbian Presbyterian organization of “More Light” churches.

As their numbers have dwindled, this progressive group has struggled to attract new members in a conservative, largely Roman Catholic and Evangelical Latino Christian community. The church rents its space to AA groups and the Salvadoran Four-Square Gospel Church. The building is a community center for social services, and ESL classes and childcare are both offered there.

In another attempt to attract people from the local community, the church started the Building Bridges study last October, on the first Sunday of the month. They continued meeting on the first Sunday for four months and then took a break. The hope was that the curriculum might provide an interfaith way to build local bridges with their neighbors. They posted flyers on doors, involved the local police department, and invited other churches and their pastors. They got no response to any of their efforts. They decided to go ahead with the study, and had almost the entire congregation present for each lesson.

They used a unique blend of the academic and cultural to teach the curriculum and also to entice people to attend. Each session was two hours long, focusing on one tradition, and offering a break in the middle to sample food from the culture prepared by members of the congregation. A cookbook of the items prepared was distributed to the attendees that included interesting information about the foods of the culture in which that religious tradition is dominant.

Dr. Houdek said they are still stuck as to how to effectively build bridges with the community, but are not dissuaded from trying.

Northern California

Christ Episcopal Church, Portola Valley

Nikki Johnson, one of the pastors at Portola Valley Christ Episcopal Church, attended a facilitator training offered by the California Council of Churches in Northern California. At that training, we encouraged an interfaith study of the curriculum, and she was very interested in proceeding along those lines.

The study at Christ Church began October 14, 2003 with about 35 people from various Christian churches in the area. There was no one in attendance from a non-Christian congregation, except the Rabbi who was that session’s guest speaker.

Nikki used the Building Bridges curriculum as background reading for the sessions, with most of the information during the session provided by a guest speaker from the tradition being studied. All the sessions are planned with the same format, which includes a trip to a worship service of that tradition in the weeks following the lesson.

National Council for Community and Justice – San Jose Chapter

The only truly interfaith approach I found is being conducted by the NCCJ chapter in San Jose, California, which is using the Building Bridges curriculum to lead an all-women’s interfaith study of the world’s religions, called "Women in Religion."

Clarissa Moore of the NCCJ is coordinating the study that will begin in January 2004 with Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Roman Catholic Christianity. In 2005 the group will study African American Christianity, Sikhism and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In addition to study of the printed curriculum, the group intends to visit houses of worship of each faith, attend a worship service, and have a time for questions and answers with the leader of each community. Obviously, this group has expanded their study beyond the six faiths in the Council’s curriculum. According to Ms. Moore, this is because of the group’s desire to study all the faiths represented among the women participating.

Beginning in 2006, Women in Religion will launch a cultural exchange among these religious traditions in the form of a conference. Plans for this event are still being developed.

Building Bridges With Other Faiths

While offering this study shows a significant commitment on the part of the California Council of Churches’ leadership to engage with religious differences, it seems that the most successful uses of it are being made by organizations already involved in interfaith work, rather than by member congregations.

After the initial piloting of the curriculum, the editorial team added a section to the facilitator’s overview suggesting ways to engage other faith communities, and giving some advice on protocol in specific traditions, since those issues figured prominently in the feedback from the pilot congregations. We had hoped this would alleviate the apprehension many Christian congregants might feel when approaching people from a faith tradition with which they are unfamiliar. While we did receive feedback that this section was helpful, it seems that only those already comfortable with interfaith interaction, such as the NCCJ, were ultimately able to build the bridges we had intended the curriculum to facilitate.

While the planning committee and editorial team’s original hopes for robust interfaith collaboration have not yet been realized, we are still optimistic that the existence of the curriculum, and the exposure it has received in many Christian congregations across the state, will result in broader understanding of the few faith traditions that are addressed. It is certainly true that the courage and commitment to interfaith understanding represented by this study has made many Californians aware of the contribution to our communities and our state made by the American adherents of these six major world religions, and has set an admirable example of respect for religious diversity among major Christian organizations.

—Marcia Beauchamp, Pluralism Project Affiliate