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Deepening Interfaith Youth Ministry

Written by Patrick Heery
March 23, 2015

by Patrick Heery
This article was originally published on March 12, 2013 by Presbyterians Today
Nicole Diroff, associate executive director for the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, coordinates programs for youth, adults, and clergy at the center, which is strongly supported by area PC (USA) congregations. After a short career doing environmental statistical work, Diroff worked as a part-time youth director before going to seminary. For six years now, she has worked at the Interfaith Center. whose signature initiative, Walking the Walk, has been touted by Eboo Patel. founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, as “the most significant interfaith youth program across the country.” Diroff chatted with Patrick Heery editor of Presbyterians Today.
Why is interfaith youth ministry so important?
Faith formation happens in heightened ways for young people. As a 32-year-old ordained person, I am an exposed Christian: I hold that “reverend” title. But most of my friends, even if they were raised Christian, do not publicly identify as such or attend worship services. A lot of that has to do with how the church has historically mistreated its neighbors of other faiths. So we need this ministry, in part, to move that history in a new direction and to help young people proudly proclaim a Christian identity in an increasingly religiously diverse world.
How well is the church engaging interfaith youth ministry?
When I was a youth director, the confirmation class told the senior pastor that they wanted to know about other religions. But the pastor felt she didn’t know enough to speak on the subject. That’s probably a common story in our mainline churches—and it represents a disconnect from the pluralistic experiences of young Christians. By not having these conversations, we allow our young people to adopt a politically correct relativism that renders them silent— or worse, embarrassed to be a follower of Jesus. Interfaith work has to be a part of our faith formation_ The youth at our center report coming to a deeper understanding of their own faiths when they talk with people from different traditions. When they have to, for instance, explain the Holy Spirit without using internal jargon.
How does the Interfaith Center approach interfaith work?
First, we do not want people to give up their identities and faith commitments in order to relate to others. We have a deep commitment to denominational institutions and congregational life. Second, all of our programming grows out of a vision of sustainable social change. We are not interested in a one-time chat. Our youth, in Walking the Walk meet 12 times over the course of a year for intensive, long-term conversation and transformation. This then has ripple effects when they return to their congregations. For instance, a mosque and a church might begin sharing a food pantry. It has ripple effects in the city of Philadelphia. Each cluster of youth and congregations works with a service-learning partner: it might be a home for disabled adults or a program for providing the incarcerated with reading material— or they might work together on antihunger policies.
What is distinctive about the interfaith mindset of the youth of today?
September 11 is a huge marker. We are now working with teenagers who grew up entirely in a post-9/11 world. The National Study of Youth and Religion found that, while most teenagers feel perhaps surprisingly positive toward religion, it’s not really a big deal to them. Religious understanding/literacy is weak. They have what the study calls a theology of “moralistic therapeutic deism”: God exists, wants people to be nice and happy, but God doesn’t particularly need to be involved in one’s life unless one needs helps. But here’s the kicker: the single most important factor in creating this mindset is the parents. Young people are reflecting the values demonstrated by their parents and congregations. This means that we need all generations to be part of this conversation with people of other faiths, so that all will begin to form a deeper, more proud and committed Christian identity.
How are Presbyterian churches supporting your work?
Our main local church partner in the PC (USA) is Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church. In addition to their extensive financial support, they have involved their own young people and mentors in the programs as well as helped fund scholarships for youth in less affluent neighborhoods. Presbyterians serve on our board and on the Religious Leaders Council of Greater Philadelphia. The Presbytery of Philadelphia has been critical in that council’s grassroots initiatives.
How can other Presbyterians offer support?
If you live in the region, call us and let’s talk about possible involvement. We’d love to add you to our email list, and, certainly, donations are always welcome. We have more work to do than we have funding. If you live outside Philadelphia, we sell our Walking the Walk curriculum for anyone interested in starting a similar initiative. Also, the Interfaith Youth Core is a great resource for interfaith movement building.
What advice would you give to churches looking to do interfaith ministry?
The NCC Interfaith Relations Commission identifies seven charac-teristics of model congregations: (1) openness, (2) encounter, (3) hospital-ity, (4) leadership, (5) cooperation, (6) solidarity, and (7) worship and prayer. We find that congregations are often very good at one or a few of these qualities, but not all. A church, for instance, might be very good at hospitality but never step outside their own doors, never go to a mosque or a program that stretches them to be the visitors.
Published with the interviewee’s permission.