Path to Religious Literacy
When I founded the DuPage Interfaith Resource Network (DIRN) more than twenty-five years ago, I saw how a community that relied on religious leaders to work out theological differences had to learn to meet the challenge of religious diversity themselves. DuPage County is part of the Western suburbs of Chicago, home to an expanding technical corridor and to an increasingly diverse, international population. When a riot over religious symbols in the schools hit the streets of the city of Downers Grove, it ended up on the front page of The Chicago Tribune. That’s when I transitioned from an interreligious affairs professional in Chicago to the creator of a suburban interfaith trouble-shooting network. I documented the process in my book, Religious Diversity in our Schools, and designed the 5 Quick Reference Religious Diversity Cards, which are also in my most recent book, Religious Diversity at Work: Religious Diversity in the US Workplace.
With a basic philosophy of “Harmonize Not Homogenize”, the Quick Reference Religious Diversity Cards train leaders to acquire information and understanding without compromising their own beliefs. The cards are designed for easy use and are structured with cross-cultural themes rather than an in-depth analysis approach. The community leaders were not equipped to deal with a theological approach. For example: Law enforcement officials made it clear that officers would need easy access, condensed information, and immediate applicability.
The Sacred Space strategy refers to the geography and physical element of religious practices. Where are the headquarters, or central authority? What is the house of worship called and what are the practices for entering? Who is the leader and what is the term for this person? In the absence of this information, law enforcement officers in one town had created distance between themselves and the community by referring to all religious leaders as “Priests”.
The Sacred Time strategy refers to the calendar. What are the weekly times for worship? When are the annual holy days? Do the dates change yearly with the different liturgical calendar? Are there seasonal celebrations? In the absence of this information, a United Nations committee called a meeting on a member’s highest holy day. The meeting was canceled but the incident was spread widely online.
The Sacred Language strategy refers to the sacred writings of each faith. What are they called, who wrote it and in what language? Who are the major prophets and how do they refer to God? What are the followers of each religion called? In the absence of this information, public speeches were made about diversity using biblical quotes that were not relevant to many audience members, excluding them from a full understanding of the presentation.
The Understand Death strategy refers to the meaning of death and the rituals surrounding it. What happens to the soul after death? To the body? What are the funeral and mourning practices that should be honored? In the absence of this information, hospital workers would not know how to prepare for the death of patients from diverse faiths.
The Sacred Food strategy refers to the dietary laws of each faith tradition. What is allowed to be eaten and when is it eaten? What is forbidden and should not be served? What food is used to celebrate and when is fasting practiced? In the absence of this information, a conference served a meal with taboo ingredients and religious leaders hurried around the room snatching food out of people’s hands.
What are the practical applications of these Cards? The charts address long-standing misconceptions and provide the right words to address others with respect. For example, they can be used to plan diverse celebrations and avoid calendar scheduling mistakes. It’s easy to schedule a major event on someone else’s holy day out of ignorance. But it’s almost impossible to regain their trust, especially when attendance is not voluntary. The Cards can mean the difference between respectful and insulting. The Cards were the culmination of four years of concentrated effort by a community to overcome its religious diversity conflicts. Decades later, the Cards are still ahead of their time, but given my recent presentation on religious diversity to a Florida chapter of Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), it appears that the workplace is catching up.