WASHINGTON, D.C. — Diana Brown has years of experience in interfaith interactions, knowing what they can be and what they shouldn’t be — the do’s and don’ts of interreligious events and experiences.
“I really truly believe that we should be learning from all different people — to see that as part of our practice of faith, but also that we should be learning to gather,” said Brown, a Latter-day Saint who is Georgetown University’s assistant director for interreligious engagement.
“We live in a very individualistic society that constantly feels like it’s fracturing into smaller and smaller pieces. So it is really hard work to learn how to bring people together.”
Beside her professional experience in helping to run religious and interreligious events at a university level, Brown has also worked with the campus’ Jewish and Muslim communities in assisting with their services, programs and retreats. “There have been a lot of principles that have been ingrained in me from those experiences,” she said.
Read more: Reverse Open House Series — how a temple open house inspired visits to other faiths’ sacred sites, events
Those principles include engaging respectfully with others, showing a level of literacy, having confidence in interactions, asking advance questions about hospitality opportunities or circumstances requiring sensitivity or awareness.
Those same principles guide the Reverse Open House Series that Brown has organized, taking small groups of fellow Latter-day Saints to visit sacred sites of other faiths and religions throughout metropolitan District of Columbia. The series is a reciprocal opportunity for her and others to visit sacred places as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prepares for its public open house of the recently renovated Washington D.C. Temple.
She has seen instances when Church members preparing for interfaith engagements treated them as one-time events, creating a checklist for communication and coordination. “It’s not an event, it’s a relationship you’re cultivating,” she said. Those of other faiths “should feel cared about from the get-go … it’s certainly not something where we should be ‘checking the box’ for an interfaith activity.”
A more conscious form of interfaith gathering “takes deliberate work to do that. It doesn’t just happen automatically.”
Mindful of the tendency to judge and stereotype those of other faiths, Brown added: “It’s important to see these as actual people, actual communities, and to engage as respectfully and caringly as you would if you were trying to cultivate a relationship with a neighbor — it’s a real person.”
Part of respectfully engaging with others includes rising to a level of literacy in knowing about their faith and their practices.
“That stops a lot of people from engaging with people of other faiths,” said Brown of limited knowledge, adding that her exposure to other religious communities “has given me the confidence to jump in, be able to ask questions confidently and not make assumptions about them.”
One doesn’t have to be an expert or scholar but rather willing to be aware of and knowledgeable about basic facts and doctrine and not be afraid to engage in conversations and to ask questions. “Pretty much everyone out there is much more open that we expect — the vast majority of communities are very willing to engage.”
Interfaith experiences take a lot of confidence, she admits, “but a level of literacy can fuel that confidence, which honestly can be learned just by showing up to things, reading and being brave to ask questions — being brave enough to feel stupid.”
And interfaith interaction isn’t questioning one’s own faith.
Often asked by others if she feels like she is sacrificing her own faith and belief in the Church of Jesus Christ when engaging with other religious communities, Brown says she doesn’t see interfaith dialogue as anything about determining truth. “I see it as relationship building and just getting to take time to sit at the feet of other people and learn,” she said, adding “there is so much to learn and experience from each other and so much love, care and interest.”
Brown has learned to ask questions in advance of interfaith events — if food is part of the experience, she asks what she and others can bring “so it doesn’t feel like we’re expecting them to do all of the work.”
Another question to ask is how to engage respectfully and appropriately in one’s sacred space — beyond what pandemic restrictions might be in place. Such situations may dictate visitors’ attire or coverings or involve gender-specific aspects, such men and women sitting apart in an orthodox Jewish synagogue.
Interfaith engagement, she said, “helps people to see what is universal about their longings for the sacred, for connection with God or for contemplative practices like prayer, meditation and worship.”