POTLUCKS for PLURALISM GOAL: To promote greater interreligious literacy and appreciation among college students from six local colleges/universities.
“Potlucks for Pluralism” is a four-year partnership between Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) and MeckMIN funded by a generous grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. The goal is to promote greater interreligious literacy and appreciation among college students from six local colleges and universities. Once a semester, students from each school will have the opportunity to gather for a meal and guided dialogue hosted by a local congregation. The host congregations will represent a variety of faith traditions active in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg community. Every semester, participating students will also have an opportunity to take part in a training event focused on interfaith understanding or creating positive conversations across lines of difference.
College students in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg region will gain religious literacy and appreciative knowledge of religious traditions other than their own through a program of structured social interactions and discussions in which students can engage positively with a diverse selection of local religious communities.
Students will gain religious literacy and appreciative knowledge of religious traditions other than their own by building relationships with peers from a variety of local colleges and universities, many of whom will come from diverse religious traditions.
Through additional training events, student will build leadership skills and gain experience in promoting religious pluralism on their campuses and in their communities.
Local religious communities and leaders of religious studies and campus ministry programs on local campuses will build positive relationships with one another.
Many small religious communities will become more visible to a broader spectrum of the community as they tell their stories and build relationships with students and campus leaders across the region.
Campus leaders will gain an invaluable educational resource and expanded opportunities to deepen their own personal knowledge of diverse religious traditions.
Why Is This Program Important?
Charlotte-Mecklenburg is one of the fastest-growing areas in the United States. This rapid increase in population has meant an equally rapid increase in diversity of all types, including religious diversity. As part of the aptly named Bible Belt, our area has long been home to an unchallenged (and often unacknowledged) Christian monoculture. As the area becomes more and more religiously diverse, we recognize an urgent need to give people the skills and experiences to be good neighbors to one another. In other words, this is a great place and time for a project promoting pluralism.
“Potlucks for Pluralism” will impact positively impact student participants, religious community partners, and participating campus ministries or religious studies programs. For student participants, “Potlucks for Pluralism” will provide experiential learning opportunities in which they can encounter and explore religious traditions other than their own in a safe, structured setting, where the goal is to communicate positively the cardinal values and best qualities of the religious tradition. Students will be given opportunities to formulate questions, engage in dialogue with insiders from the religious communities as well as student peers, and articulate what they have learned in a constructive, supportive environment. We expect that most will emerge with deeper respect and empathy for the people and religions they encounter and for the value of religious freedom and religious pluralism in civil society. Religious community partners will benefit from “Potlucks for Pluralism” through the opportunity to articulate their values and interact positively with students from other religious traditions.
Especially for religious communities who constitute small minorities in the local culture, serving as hosts for these events will offer them the opportunity to frame the conversation about themselves and their traditions that they are not often afforded otherwise. The program will also foster relationships with leaders of campus ministries and religious studies programs, which will lead to additional opportunities for dialogue and shared learning experiences.
Leaders of campus ministries and religious studies programs will also be enriched and empowered by the experiential learning opportunities of “Potlucks for Pluralism.” When exploring a religious tradition other than one’s own, there is no substitute for personal relationships with religious insiders from that tradition. Few religious studies scholars or campus ministry leaders are fortunate enough to have first-hand experience with every religion they study, and few have the resources on their own campuses to provide such experiences to their students. For campus leaders, “Potlucks for Pluralism” represents an expanded personal opportunity to deepen their own knowledge and an invaluable educational resource for their
How will the activities of this project result in the changes you intend to facilitate?
The United States is one of the most religiously diverse nations in history, and people in the United States tend to be more religiously active than people in other Western nations.
Nevertheless, religious diversity alone does not lead naturally to pluralism—open, welcoming appreciation of religious difference—as a cultural value. In fact, many students enter college with little critical understanding of religious faith and its continued influence on the world in which we live. Even if they are religious themselves, they often have little critical understanding of their own tradition and shallow or inaccurate perceptions of the traditions and beliefs of others. This harmful lack of understanding is not unique to students, of course, as multiple studies indicate that most adults in the US lack even a basic knowledge of faiths other than their own.
This lack of knowledge and awareness can lead to apathy, incivility, and a failure to respect the needs and rights of different religions and cultures. As the AVD website acknowledges, “certain public goods—thriving democratic processes, for example—require that American citizens have at least a minimal understanding of the basic elements of the major world religions. The idea, in a nutshell, is that religious literacy is an important part of what it means to be an informed citizen, and thus widespread illiteracy of this sort is a major problem” (Guide Star for Undergraduate Religious Literacy).
We share the central assumption articulated in the American Academy of Religion’s "Religious Literacy Guidelines,” written with funding from AVD, that “people of differing beliefs (within and among traditions) can communicate important elements of their experience to others through mutual exploration and sharing. This approach serves to advance religious understanding by fostering productive encounters with diverse people who may not otherwise have significant interaction.”
The “Potlucks for Pluralism” program incorporates the interfaith and experiential models of learning. Students will learn about specific faiths and traditions directly from people who practice those faiths. In meeting several people from one tradition, students will begin to see the internal diversity within those traditions. Students will experience how particular traditions (including their own, if any) shape how people and communities understand and respond to specific issues. These experiences will help students develop increased appreciation for the value of religious diversity in American culture and to move beyond shallow and inaccurate perceptions.
Students will develop ongoing relationships across lines of religious difference. Likewise, they will develop increased religious literacy, and through personal involvement with people of diverse religious cultures, they will develop greater compassion, empathy, and respect for people and communities different from themselves. Furthermore, students who participate in the IFYC and Living Room Conversation training events will become skilled facilitators of conversations about interfaith issues and religious pluralism, with the potential to expand these conversations and extend the influence of “Potlucks for Pluralism” far beyond the campuses involved.