Information about this center is no longer updated. This data was last updated on 14 July 2014.Phone: 803-777-4522
Partners in Dialogue first began in 1992 in preparation for the centennial celebration of the World Parliament of Religions, which was held in Chicago in 1993. 1992 was declared the "Year of Religious Understanding" by the World Parliament and several people in Columbia, S.C., wanted to be a part of bringing about understanding in their area. Though not officially called Partners in Dialogue yet, work was begun in the summer of 1991 to plan an interfaith conference to be held in February 1992 in Columbia. Seven religious groups participated in this first project: Baha'is, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Unitarians. Dr. Carl Evans, chair of the department of religious studies at the University of South Carolina and director of Partners, said the planning of the first conference built a sense of community among the members and a genuine partnership was developed. For the conference, each group selected members from their communities to speak and represent their faiths. The conference attracted a high community interest, with around 500 people attending. Though the conference was planned as a one-time event, it received such a positive evaluation that people wanted similar events to occur annually. Partners in Dialogue formed during a follow-up activity after the conference in which 70 people representing the seven previously mentioned religious groups met at an Unitarian Universalist church to continue the interfaith dialogue. In this meeting, those present recognized the need for more interaction between different religions and to promote interfaith understanding and cooperation. Members of this group have become the core of Partners in Dialogue. Since 1992, Partners in Dialogue has continued to sponsor a yearly interfaith conference where the differen religious groups from the Columbia and surrounding areas gather to discuss such issues as racism, global ethics, and violence and what the religious communities' responses should be to these issues. The conference on racism was held in response to the burning of several predominantly black churches and the mosque in Greenville, and in response to the debate over the flying of the Confederate flag at the state capitol. Partners in Dialogue is active in social affairs and is involved with a social issues group called the South Carolina Christian Action Council, an ecumenical organization. In 2000, the groups worked together to develop a religious freedom act which they introuced (?) in the state legislature in January 2001 (?). The need for such legislation arose when the Religious Freedom Act was ruled unconstitutional in 1993 and religious issues were left to the states to work out. This legislation is aimed at dealing with the conflicts that arise between religion and government. The act proposes that when church/religious issues conflict with those of the government, that the government defer to religion. Furthermore, the legislation proposes that the government must put the least possible restrictions on religious expression and must also have a compelling interest in doing so. As previously mentioned, the main event for Partners in Dialogue is a yearly interfaith conference. However, there are also periodic (though infrequent) potlucks at different houses of worship, as Dr. Evans emphasized the importance of people breaking bread together. At these gatherings, there is typically a topic chosen for discussion and a group of panelists selected from the different faiths represented. Occasionally the group takes part in worship "open houses," where there is a special event or ceremony being celebrated by a particular religious group, but Dr. Evans mentioned that these meetings are not as frequent as he would like. Overall, Partners in Dialogue meets around three to four times per year on a completely volunteer basis. The group used to publish a newsletter, but one has not been published in the past year because the editor no longer had the time to work on it on a regular basis. Partners in Dialogue has also done some work in the public schools and has been asked to serve as a consultant for the state board of education. The group has participated in some staff development meetings at different schools in the area (the most recent being Nursery Road Elementary School) and also plans to hold some workshops in order to educate teachers on the different religious holidays and meetings and to instill a greater sensitivity toward religious diversity in schools. Partners in Dialogue is currently based in the midlands of South Carolina with its administrative home in the religious studies department of the University of South Carolina. Dr. Evans noted that the strengths of this location were its neutral ground and the connection it has with the university. However, in this location the group has limited funds and staffing with an annual budget of only around $1,500 to $2,000 coming from registration frees at the conference and individual membership fees (there is no group membership). Partners in Dialogue also receives official support and some funding from the South Carolina United Methodist Church under its committee for Christian Unity and Inter-religious Concerns (CMIC). Some of the major national and international contacts of Partners in Dialogue include the North American Interfaith Network (1997 NAIN CONNECT Conference was held on the USC-Columbia campus) the Oxford Interfaith Center (Hal French, a retired USC religion professor, is on the board of directors) and the National Interfaith Alliance (Dr. Evans was asked to serve on the board of directors). The NIA is now trying to form a chapter in South Carolina with Father Leland White of Charleston heading up that effort. In our talk, Dr. Evans mentioned many goals for the future of Partners in Dialogue. He hopes to see a full-time staff, much like that of the South Carolina Christian Action Council which would be able to send out people to train different groups, especially those in the corporate community, in having constructive dialogue and respecting religious and cultural differences. He also hopes that the group will be able to work more closely with public schools since the theme of the conference to be held in the year 2000 is "Religion in Public Schools."
Researcher CreditsBenjamin Coleman and Melissa Peterson, summer 2000