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Reflections on Statewide Summit on Hate Prevention

Map of Minnesota with organizations throughout the stateMulti-Faith Relations in Rural Settings

This past week the Interfaith Institute collaborated with the Minnesota Multi-Faith Network and Shoulder to Shoulder campaign to organize and host a statewide summit on hate prevention and I wanted to share a few reflections based on my years of engagement on multi-faith relations around the country. We will continue to offer our learnings as we do our work, this is just a taste of what we have been thinking about at the Institute this week. 

Centering the National Discourse 

I’ve written about “casserole” hospitality, an ethic of care demonstrated in the Heartland of the country found in communities of various traditions who welcome new members into their midst. It may be in church, the casserole may be an Eid baklava dish offered by a Muslim neighbor to a new friend. It may have many iterations depending on the cultural context and religious practice of a community. What I mean to emphasize is that regions of the country have their own unique modalities and methods of welcoming, and opening doors. The center of this country has many rich examples to draw upon. 

Small towns and sparsely populated regions of the country can be and are home to some of the most innovative multi-faith programs and organic sets of relationships. Smaller communities  create interdependence of resources of all types. Very often, when I am at the national tables I am invited to, the norm that is being discussed is an assumption of a diversity of communities that are present in large urban settings. 

I’ve been struck by the relationships that exist between religious communities of vast difference in what is often called fly-over country. My experience has been that these are not regions to fly over, but to learn from. 

When I first came to the US, in the 1970s my father landed in Bloomington, Indiana for his doctorate program. In those years, as immigrants we had little to no access to zabiha markets where we could find meat that was permissible to eat. My father heard that my school bus driver, Mrs. Anderson, had a farm and he proceeded to speak to her about going  out to her farm and we found her open to our form of Muslim ritual slaughter of animals on her farm.  

It is a small example, let me share another from the same region I learned about when I went to a Quaker college. The headquarters of the Islamic Society of America was in Plainfield, Indiana. The campus minister at my college in North Carolina recalled how his extended family in Indiana would reach out to support Muslims when the sign for the organization had been shot at in the 80s. These are a few of the many stories of the central part of this country in which solidarity and just  pure necessity created deep and lasting multi-faith relations. What I mean to say is this is not new. 

Scholars like Edward Curtis have documented the multi-racial, multi-religious histories of communities in Indiana and beyond. We can celebrate the work of recent organizations and efforts, while recognizing it is often built on the contributions of many communities and leaders who preceded us and that multi-faith relations are not new to this region and date back even  hundreds of years. A national picture of interfaith should and must include these examples. 

Diversity and its Multi Dimensional  Presence 

If you look at the map above, we find that there are groups of people doing multi-faith work across the state of Minnesota. It may not always be by faith based actors or congregations who lead these efforts. In one conversation I had at the summit last week, I was struck by how community development organizations are harnessing opportunities to do multi-faith engagement  without utilizing the terminology or traditional venues often associated with interfaith work. 

Civic engagement opportunities for religious pluralism are and can be created by non faith actors. Universities like ours, local and municipal government, Rotary clubs and other types of service organizations can be sites for conversations on religious literacy and education about local interfaith histories. I love the example of the Abdel Kader project ( which among other things has used the fact that Iowa has a city named Elkader after a major Muslim historical figure  to develop materials on religious pluralism and practices. The very name of a city has inspired a deep connection of a small town in Iowa with a global view and vision for interfaith peace and solidarity. 

In our summit last week we discussed the idea of invisible diversity. When one walks into a room, religious diversity may not be apparent if one judges it by their own experiences and standards. We live in a moment when many Americans also join new communities besides their religious communities of origin through conversion, marriage or other means. You cannot assume the  religious identity of someone based on  how they present to you in person without learning more about someone’s stories. 

I also noted that in many communities there are  religious identities that span a wide spectrum of different communities beyond the Abrahamic. Shamanism, Buddhism, Hinduism all find homes in rural and small towns across the state in addition to the Abrahamic religions. It important to recognize the complex definition of religion and the presence of a wide array of religions and spiritual practices across the Heartland. 

Many faith communities may not have the symmetry of a congregational home or bricks and mortar space that some of us are used to. For example, in some communities which are newer or in a minority status, religious instruction may happen in someone’s home, not in a large building downtown.  People may congregate at a coffee house that serves the local community and engage in spiritual formation. 

We cannot assume our city or town is not diverse just because communities may not look like what is viewed as a common calculus of a religious entity. It takes work to know one another, time, patience and understanding that religion and spirituality look different and we can learn so much just by listening and hearing how people construct their own communities before assuming they will look like our own. 

We will continue to share more about what we are learning from our work across the state and we are so honored to have you join us on this journey!

Najeeba Syeed, El-Hibri Endowed Chair and Executive Director