Origins of the Listening Project
The Journey of an Interfaith Group
Do parts of this story sound familiar?
The MCWRET was in its tenth year of existence; and we were exhausted.
We had begun in 1994 as a dream. We had become a respected and established organization with the inspired leadership of Dr. Roshan Chaddha. The Board, our core group of about twenty volunteers, created well-attended monthly programs for a large interfaith community in one of the most diverse counties in the United States. We had produced almost a hundred community events full of panel discussions, guest speakers, workshops, exhibits of religious art, intercultural dinners and an endowed annual “Shanti (Peace) Lecture”.
The 9/11 tragedy hit Monmouth County strongly and brought a new urgency to our work. Due to its proximity to New York City, the county was directly affected by the disaster. In one town alone, 36 people died in the tragedy. Within days of the disaster, we created an Interfaith Dialogue Meeting in which 250 people from a wide range of local faith communities participated.
After September 11, 2001 there had been tangible fear in some local minority communities like much of the rest of the nation. There were incidents of prejudice. Many residents became fearful of wearing their traditional ethnic clothing, some cancelled travel plans for concern of being profiled, some were physically and verbally accosted. Expressions of prejudice were heard in supermarkets, college campuses and other public places.
At Thanksgiving that Fall we brought together our different religious communities to share the same Thanksgiving programs they had just presented at their own varied places of worship. That program, “United We Sing”, became a large, much anticipated annual event that required detailed and delicate teamwork and cultural sensitivity.
Our momentum had definitely intensified. We were in high gear producing programs from an endless flow of great ideas. But by 2005, the end of our first decade, many of us were beginning to feel overextended and overwhelmed.
Some of us wanted a quieter atmosphere to consider where we’d been and where we wanted to go, individually and as a group. We felt the familiar old conflict between wanting to be active in our communities, and needing more quietness in our personal lives.
We were concerned about losing our focus and momentum. Finally, we decided that we needed to scale back most of our community programs for a while. As wonderful as the community programs were, we found it difficult to have the deeper conversation possible in a smaller group.
The original dream of Rev. Harold Dean, our visionary founder, had been to create “a place of quiet where individuals of all persuasions could come to compose themselves, to meditate, to seek their souls, to pray, to use whatever practice to reaffirm the best they know”. The East Room of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Monmouth County, where our core group met, had been designed as a quiet place for people of all faiths. In this room we had become a significant activist interfaith group even though the founding images were quieter.
Launching The Interfaith Listening Project
Our core group held a series of agenda-less meetings, just to find out what needed to be said. We wanted more depth, to know where each of us was “coming from”. We wanted to know how each of us was living and practicing our spiritual traditions and paths. We wanted to explore our specific interfaith interests. We wanted to address potentially controversial interfaith issues in a safe environment.
Several Board members were familiar with the MIT Dialogue Project and the Council Process, and had much experience in the methodologies of interfaith dialogue, group process and journal writing. We developed a more structured format, and initiated a series of internal meetings for the Board.
A typical session began with a short period of writing or some other introspective method. Then we worked with the interfaith theme that emerged. We all entered into the conversation, even though that was optional. Although the methods of dialogue seemed artificial at times, they slowly became the way we interacted.
In the first session participants were asked to consider what would seem to be the current period in their lives. When did this period begin? Were there important precipitating events?
In the second session, we took more of a life-long approach and considered questions such as: What are some important “treasures” from our past that continue to have some impact on our present spiritual lives? Members brought artifacts that expressed something about their present spiritual lives. One person described songs she sang with her childhood girlfriends; another brought special prayer stones. Another brought a Mongolian painting about friendship. Another described the childhood discovery of silence, and then wrote an article about it.
In the third session of the Listening Project we looked at our individual “spiritual turning points”. People mentioned becoming a soldier, giving birth to a son, surrendering one’s self to a trusted teacher, dealing with a failed marriage, dealing with a spouse’s death, and realizing one’s independence after feeling dependent.
We used the fourth session to consolidate what we had learned and what it all meant. By turning inward, we had reawakened our energies for the wider interfaith community. We had also regained a balance with the deeper and quieter meaning of it all.
The Interfaith Listening Project was a laboratory where we could learn, firsthand, about interfaith communication. Along the way we began using the term “listening” to be a more accurate term for what we were doing, than “dialogue”. Journal writing became a grounding method for our group. It provided participants with a centering and concrete method that provided some structure where needed, and yet retained some of the potential for the great depth and breadth needed to understand great diversity.
The atmosphere of these sessions continues today, a half-dozen years later. We often briefly review the principles of the Interfaith Listening Project at the beginning of our meetings. We now intersperse “business” and “listening” meetings and seem to need two different “containers” for these different levels of work together. “Business” meetings are more clearly informed by our practice of listening and by awareness of each of our individual spiritual faith journeys. Alternating the meetings has added much depth to all of our meetings and to our interfaith organization as a whole. Listening to each other has become our culture.
Two new projects, Spiritual Journeys and The Solitude Project were born out of the Interfaith Listening Project. This group model provides a natural focus on each of our own religious/spiritual experiences and practices. We hope other interfaith communities will find these ideas and processes useful.
Robert C. Smith, Ph. D., A founding Board Member: August,2011
The materials in the Interfaith Listening Project section of this website, illustrate how our learnings in interfaith dialogue and the Listening Project have informed our work in the larger interfaith community.