Religious Diversity News

A Round Of Applause for Fremont, USA

Author: Jay Youngdahl

Source: East Bay Express News

One of the most important and unforgettable phrases uttered in my lifetime was Rodney King’s plaintive plea, “Can we all get along?” King’s aphorism exemplifies a central issue of our time. How can people from different backgrounds and cultures happily, respectfully, and productively mesh their lives together in our American melting pot?

Culture is one of the reasons contemporary Americans sometimes have a hard time getting along. While differences in ways of life have always existed, increased immigration, population density, and the instant flow of global information have thrust society’s cultural distinctions in the face of many Americans. Perhaps nowhere is this more the case than in Fremont.

Fremont became a city a little over fifty years ago, when five mostly white farming communities incorporated into one city. Beginning in the ’70s, a dramatic demographic shift began with Latino and Asian in-migration. Today, fewer than one third of the residents are white, and Fremont may be the most diverse medium-size city in the country. According to Indian-American city councilwoman Anu Natarajan, residents trace their heritage to 147 countries and speak more than 150 languages in their homes. Diversity is especially evident in the city’s religious landscape, which includes at least four mosques, three Buddhist Temples, Sikh and Hindu houses of worship, and the iconic Peace Terrace, a road on which Muslims and Methodists built houses of religion side by side.

Fremont’s evolution has not always been smooth, but given the potential combustibility of the mix, the city should be seen as a success story of how different groups can live together.

With a dwindling few exceptions like Fremont’s NUMMI auto plant, the post-Word War II industrial melting pot is but a distant memory today. Cities provide the best present-day vantage points for viewing the blessings and difficulties of cultural and religious differences.

This culture stew is the subject of a new film produced under the aegis of the Pluralism Project, a group from Harvard University that has been mapping US religious diversity. In Fremont, USA, filmmakers Elinor Pierce and Oakland resident Rachel Antell tackle Fremont’s laudable efforts to deal with cultural and religious diversity through civic engagement. The film, subtitled A City’s Encounter with Religious Diversity, explores the cultural changes that have come to Fremont.

Filmmakers Focus Cameras On Personal Stories, Societal Issues

Author: Sarika Jagtiani

Source: Dover Post

Documentary films are vivisections of societal issues, and filmmakers are the ones on the inside doing the cutting.

“The greatest tool in the documentary toolmakers arsenal is unique access,” said Sharon Baker, founder and director of the Hearts and Minds Film Festival.

Now in its third year in Dover, the festival will share that unique access with audiences Saturday, April 4. Viewers will see inside the home of a Seaford woman who considers her more than 1,000 dolls substitutes for her daughters in “Kid Collector.” Or they can find out what happened when leaders in a small southern town decided to integrate a school dance in “Prom Night in Mississippi.” And in “Fremont, USA” audiences might take a look at cultural diversity in one California city, where a mosque and a church stand side-by-side on a street named Peace Terrace.

“I think we get more and better quality films every year,” Baker said.

This year, if there is a trend, it’s to focus more on a domestic agenda. For instance, “Talkin’ Water” looks at four teenage girls and their questions about race, class and community following Hurricane Katrina. And “Concrete, Steel and Paint” is about a group of men in maximum-security prison who work with crime victims to design and paint a mural about healing. Filmmakers from “Talkin’ Water,” “Concrete, Steel and Paint” and “Hearing Everett: The Rancho Sordo Mudo Story” will be attending the festival to discuss their work.

Although the directors of “Fremont, USA” will not be in attendance, they are thrilled to have their work screen at Hearts and Minds.

“God Beyond Borders: Interfaith Education And Congregations,” a Commentary by Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook

Author: Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook

Source: Congregations

One Friday during Lent, Greg Foraker, director of adult formation ministries at St. Philip’s in the Hills Episcopal Church in Tucson, Arizona, entered the Islamic Center, the city’s largest mosque, to participate in worship with its 500 members. To the left of the entrance was a group of women in traditional attire and to the right was a room where the male members of the mosque wash their hands and feet in preparation for prayer. Feeling uncertain in this unfamiliar place, he turned to the room where he was to wash when he unexpectedly heard someone from the group of women call his name. To his surprise they turned out to be members of St. Philip’s, covered in traditional attire from head to toe, in keeping with the practice of their hosts! After a few nervous laughs of recognition, the group once again parted as the men and women gathered in separate areas for prayer and worship.

For Christians living in a predominantly Christian culture, it is relatively easy to go through life without learning about other faith traditions or seriouslyexamining our own. But Foraker and the women who attended the Islamic Center’s worship service were consciously and committedly doing so. They were part of their church’s Varieties of Religious Experience program, which grew out of the congregation’s desire to offer a less traditional Lenten program. It is essentially an experiential series of encounters focused on joining in worship with various religious traditions, followed by a meal and conversation.

The group of 18 who shared in prayers with Tucson’s Muslim community later gathered with the temple’s imam, or prayer leader, and a dozen members of the mosque community for a Middle Eastern meal, lively conversation, and an opportunity to build relationships across religious traditions. Members of St. Philip’s were impressed with the depth of the hospitality they received from the Muslim community, the shared dialogue experienced over the meal, as well as the shared commitment to forging deeper relationships across faith traditions in Tucson. “What at first seemed unfamiliar revealed connections not at first evident,” says Foraker.

In addition to Friday prayers at the mosque, the group was invited to sit zazen at Zen Desert Sangha, celebrate the festival of Ayyam-i-ha with the Tucson Baha’I, dance and chant “Hare Krishna” and at the Chaitanya Mandira, and keep Shabbat with Temple Emanu-El. The series culminated with the Great Vigil of Easter at St. Philip’s.

Foraker notes that not only did most participants attend each encounter, despite varying schedules and multiple locations, but that “each person reported that the experience was in some way transformative. This program was not your normative Sunday morning at 10:00 a.m. adult education offering. The participants considered the encounters an adventure, and grew deeper in their own faith as a result of the process.” Some participants reported that the experience of religious differences challenged them to reflect deeper on their faith as a Christian. Others felt that the encounters opened up new channels of prayer and reflection. Still others experienced a desire to continue to forge interfaith relationships within the larger Tucson community.

Dr. S. Asif Razvi of the Islamic Center of Boston affirms the value of such encounters between Muslims and non-Muslims from his perspective. “Islam is a continuation of the other two Abrahamic faiths and it is every practicing Muslim’s obligation to inform others about our faith,” he says. “We find dialogue to be the best approach to inform non-Muslims and to correct the widespread misconceptions about Islam.”

The fact that the United States is the most religiously pluralistic country on earth is a truism, and encounters between people from different religions have reshaped American religion. The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (2008) reports that over one-third of all married Americans are married to someone with a different religious affiliation.1 Porous world boundaries due to globalization, immigration, technology, and transportation have produced a climate where religious understanding—and misunderstanding—lies at the heart of local, national, and global issues.

Religious Diversity Explored At Local Level

Author: Colleen Walsh

Source: Harvard University Gazette

Can a diverse religious community unite and heal after a brutal murder in broad daylight, one possibly motivated by religious hatred?

That profound question and others like it, questions of religious diversity and tolerance, are at the heart of the new documentary “Fremont, U.S.A.,” which was developed by Harvard’s Pluralism Project and screened last Thursday afternoon (March 5) at Boylston Hall’s Fong Auditorium.

With the fourth-most-populous city in the San Francisco Bay area as its backdrop, the film examines how Fremont, Calif., a community dramatically transformed by recent immigration, has woven a wide range of new religions and cultures into the fabric of its daily life. The 56-minute work explores how these new patterns are viewed — and to what extent they are accepted — by the city’s residents. The film also looks at how the city responded to hate crimes in the wake of 9/11.

The film’s directors and producers, Harvard Divinity School graduates Rachel Antell M.T.S. ’92 and Elinor J. Pierce M.T.S. ’96, who is a senior researcher with the Pluralism Project, chose Fremont (a location the project had already been studying) largely because of its expanding diversity and its rich cultural and religious heritage. Incorporated in 1956 when five smaller communities united to become one, today the city, with more than 200,000 inhabitants, has large Asian and Hispanic populations and is home to the country’s largest concentration of Afghans. In total, 147 different countries are represented within its boundaries. Included in Fremont’s varied religious landscape are Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, and Christians, among many others.

To underscore the city’s sense of unity and acceptance, the work’s early scenes show a mosque and Methodist church being built side by side on adjacent parcels of land. Both groups are thoughtful and respectful of one another and even use a shared parking lot. And in an official mark of unity, their access road was given the name “Peace Terrace.”

Throughout the documentary, Fremont officials discuss the importance of the role of city government in fostering relationships among different ethnic and religious groups. Organizations like the city’s Human Relations Commission play an important role in reaching out, engaging the community, and creating a climate of cooperation and mutual respect.

But while there has been acceptance and understanding in Fremont, there has also been tragedy. In 2006 a longtime resident and mother of six, Alia Ansari, was shot in the head at close range as she walked hand in hand with her youngest child along a neighborhood street. She was wearing a headscarf and many speculated the violent act was a hate crime.

Although no motive was determined, the effect of the murder was the same as if it were a hate crime, community leaders noted, as Muslims feared for their safety. The film investigates how Fremont came together in the midst of heartbreak and unrest. Community members reached out to the family and the Muslim community at large, and hosted a public memorial in a local park. When the words “Alia Ansari R.I.P.” were scrawled on the walls of a local church, members of the congregation hung a wreath over the graffiti in a sign of solidarity. When men from an Islamic society arrived and offered to remove the graffiti, a church official explained to them that it should remain as an emblem of solidarity with the angst of the Muslim community. “We talked,” said the official, “about the principle of returning a blessing for the curse.”

A panel discussion including representatives of local secular and religious groups followed the documentary. The film’s narrator, Diana L. Eck, director of the Pluralism Project — a decadelong research project at Harvard that engages students in the study of new religions and religious diversity — moderated the discussion.

Religious Leaders Discuss Interfaith Following Showing Of ‘Fremont, U.S.A.’

Author: Stephanie Fenton


Rabbis, parishioners, volunteers and interfaith workers recently participated in an active discussion following the Ann Arbor Public Library’s screening of “Fremont, U.S.A.,” a film created as part of The Pluralism Project at Harvard University. “Fremont, U.S.A.” features a personalized look at America’s changing religious and cultural landscape amid rising immigration rates and, in particular, this film focuses on Fremont, Calif., a city whose residents hail from more than 100 countries and live together respectfully.

According to co-producer Elinor Pierce, Ann Arbor and Fremont share important interfaith interests.

“Fremont, Calif., and Ann Arbor, Mich., are different in many ways, but given the large audience that came out for the screening at the public library, and the constructive interfaith discussion the following day, it is clear to me that both cities share a dedication to positive interfaith relations,” said Pierce, who is also a research director for The Pluralism Project. “We’ve studied interfaith relationships for years, and coming to a place like Ann Arbor serves to inspire and fuel our ongoing work.”

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