A MnMN-written article by Linda Shapiro.
The Minnesota Multifaith Speakers Network spreads information about world religions to a range of audiences – from students to adults, people of faith to corporate employees, police departments to government agencies. Representation currently includes speakers from Buddhism, Christianity (General and African American), Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, and Native American spirituality. Each brings their personal stories and beliefs to presentations. Their aim is to honor what Rabbi Jonathon Sacks calls the ‘dignity of difference’ among faiths, sharing their own religious traditions and admiring the strengths of other religions.
“There is good chemistry and a strong sense of purpose among us,” says Sally Abrams, Co-Director of the Speakers Bureau at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. “We make connections and draw contrasts among our respective faiths. We model curiosity, collegiality, and respect for differences. Presentations are always adjusted to meet the organizer’s learning goals and timetable.”
“I am a big fan of the concept of ‘holy envy’,” says John Emery, Executive Director of the Islamic Resource Group. “Understanding faith traditions other than our own can inspire us on our own faith journey. When we learn from the practitioners of different faith traditions, it can enrich our understanding of our own faith tradition.”
Abrams and Emery often present together. “Certain topics, such as the kosher dietary laws, how Jews observe the Sabbath, and holidays such as Hanukkah, always generate many questions,” says Abrams. “They also offer points of connection and contrast with other faiths. For example, when I have spoken paired with John, whichever one of us goes first explains our faith’s dietary laws and points out what Jews and Muslims have in common with regard to dietary laws. Whoever speaks second underscores that commonality along with the differences.”
Navigating the diversity of our current world propels the group’s speakers to create networks of understanding between faith communities. “We must challenge all forms of religious bias and create opportunities for collaborative justice efforts across faith traditions,” says Emery.
The educational and law enforcement foci of the Minnesota Multifaith Speakers Network came about partly because of increasing needs and demands. For example, in part because of the complex relationships between police and community, police officers are required to do a certain number of hours of diversity training.
There are many motivations for persons or groups to arrange a multifaith presentation. “I think there are as many reasons as there are audiences,” says Emery. “For school presentations we are asked to supplement the learning that students are doing through their textbooks. The Minnesota Multifaith Speakers Network brings an authentic and personal learning experience to students, answering questions that can’t be answered by the text or the teacher. For corporate/business audiences, I think the motivation is practical. Particularly for businesses and government agencies which serve a diverse clientele, the Minnesota Multifaith Speakers Network can bring practical tips for building stronger relationships with different religious communities.”
Often what begins as a mandatory session for employees becomes a meaningful exploration that begs to be expanded upon. Emery cites a virtual interfaith panel for a major international accounting firm. “We had people signing on from all over the continental U.S. The panel was arranged through a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) lens, with the intention to raise awareness of different religious traditions. Long story short, the panel was so successful that the employees invited us back for a second session to continue the discussion!”
Abrams emphasizes that multifaith presentations can be fascinating and enjoyable learning for both speakers and participants. “Last December I was part of an online, multifaith presentation for a State of Minnesota agency whose goal was to provide staff with insight into how they could best support people whose holidays fall outside the mainstream. The whole concept of such a program was so personally meaningful to me. How beautiful to live in a place where such a program is sought, where people come together in an open-hearted effort to learn about the traditions of others. In teaching about Hanukkah, I showed the Hanukkah menorah and explained how and why we light it. I knew that some of the participants worked with clients in settings where lit candles are not allowed…so I showed them an online, virtual Hanukkah menorah that could be ‘lit’ each night. It felt great to offer a digital method for lighting the Hanukkah menorah!”
Whether by finding an ingenious way to practice an ancient tradition or bringing together diverse employees within an organization, the Minnesota Multifaith Speakers Network seeks to encourage understanding through up close and personal interactions. As writer Jacqueline Woodson puts it, “Diversity is about all of us, and about us having to figure out how to walk through this world together.”
By Linda Shapiro
Linda Shapiro is a former choreographer who co-founded New Dance Ensemble. She is currently a freelance writer with published articles, reviews, and essays on dance, architecture, design, and other subjects for numerous publications in Minnesota and New York City. She is also a published fiction writer. Mary Pickard (member of MnMN’s operations team) ignited Linda’s interest in MnMN. We are grateful Linda is able to volunteer her time to gather and record these important stories.
Note: To Arrange a Faith or Multifaith Presentation
Anyone of any size group can arrange a Minnesota Multifaith Speakers Network presentation. To begin the process, please use our online presentation form.