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Five Strategies for Leadership Development on Religious Diversity

March 18, 2015

by Deborah J. Levine
Originally published on October 7, 2013 in The Huffington Post
While leadership training will often include issues related to Diversity and Inclusion, few programs include instruction in religious diversity. Cultural awareness, cultural competence, global leadership and cross-cultural communication are embraced as the tools of the market place of the future. What accounts for this black hole of information on diverse religions? One has only to turn on the TV, open a newspaper, or check the Internet headlines to see that religion is a major factor in interactions across the planet. It is both puzzling and disturbing that a virtual vacuum of expertise exists in the relationship-oriented sectors of our society: business, education, government, and human services. As a result, few leaders understand, or wish to understand, how to avoid culture clashes of belief systems by paying attention to the details. Yet, the often paralyzing sense of being overwhelmed and under-prepared can be managed with field-tested strategies and resources designed for the religious diversity novice.
As founder of the DuPage Interfaith Resource Network (DIRN), I saw how a community that relied on religious leaders to work out theological differences had to learn to meet the challenge of religious diversity themselves. DuPage County is part of the Western suburbs of Chicago, home to an expanding technical corridor and to a increasingly diverse, international population. When a riot over religious symbols in the schools hit the streets of the city of Downers Grove, it ended up on the front page of The Chicago Tribune. That’s when I transitioned from an interreligious affairs professional in Chicago to the creator of a suburban interfaith intervention network. I documented the process in my book, Religious Diversity in our Schools, and designed the five Quick Reference Religious Diversity Cards that lead to the five strategies I recommend for my religious diversity training.
With a basic philosophy of “Harmonize Not Homogenize,” the Quick Reference Religious Diversity Cards trains leaders to acquire information and understanding without compromising their own beliefs. The cards are designed for easy use and are structured with cross-cultural themes rather than an in-depth analysis approach. Community leaders were not equipped to deal with the theological approach of “Everything you might ever need to know about Religion X” These leaders included law enforcement officials who made it clear that use of this information by officers would depend on easy access, condensed information, and immediate applicability.
Through research and field-testing with educators, business executives, healthcare workers and civic groups, five themes emerged as central to religious diversity training not only for individuals, but for their institutions.
The value of the process was underscored by the Director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the “Newseum” and senior scholar at the First Amendment Center/ Vanderbilt University. “If we are going to live with our deepest differences, then we must learn about one another in our classrooms.” And so, the Quick Reference Religious Diversity Cards emerged as easily digestible charts with the following themes: 1) Sacred Space, 2) Sacred Time, 3) Sacred Language, 4) Death, and 5) Sacred Food. Each chart is a matrix of terminology, religious practices, and taboos for more than a dozen faith traditions.
The Sacred Space strategy refers to the geography and physical element of religious practices. Where are the headquarters, or central authority? What is the house of worship called and what are the practices for entering? Who is the leader and what is the term for this person? In the absence of this information, law enforcement officers in one town created distance between themselves and the community by referring to all religious leaders as “Priests.”
The Sacred Time strategy refers to the calendar. What are the weekly times for worship? When are the annual holy days? Do the dates change yearly with the different liturgical calendar? Are there seasonal celebrations? In the absence of this information, a United Nations committee called a meeting on a member’s highest holy day. The meeting was canceled but the incident was spread widely online.
The Sacred Language strategy refers to the sacred writings of each faith. What are they called, who wrote it and in what language? Who are the major prophets and how do they refer to God? What are the followers of each religion called? In the absence of this information, public speeches were made about diversity using biblical quotes that were not relevant to many audience members, excluding them a full understanding of the presentation.
The Understand Death strategy refers to the meaning of death and the rituals surrounding it. What happens to the soul after death? To the body? What are the funeral and mourning practices that should be honored? In the absence of information, hospital workers would not know how to prepare for the death of patients from diverse faiths.
The Sacred Food strategy refers to the dietary laws of each faith tradition. What is allowed to be eaten and when is it eaten? What is forbidden and should not be served? What food is used to celebrate and when is fasting practiced? In the absence of this information, a conference planner made the meal taboo by lack of proper oversight and the religious leaders went around the room grabbing food out of people’s hands.
What are the practical applications of these Cards? The charts address long-standing misconceptions and provide the right words to address others with respect. For example, they can be used to plan diverse celebrations and avoid calendar scheduling mistakes. It’s easy to schedule a major event on someone’s holy day out of ignorance. But it’s almost impossible to regain their trust, especially when attendance is not voluntary. The Cards can mean the difference between inclusive and insulting. Embedded in the case study of DIRN, the Cards are the culmination of four years of concentrated effort by a community to overcome its religious diversity conflicts.
The next time DuPage County was in a religion story of The Chicago Tribune, it was at the opposite end of the spectrum from the street riot story. DIRN was featured as a how-to model for conflict resolution, religious diversity, and cross-cultural communication. More than a decade later, the issues remain and the case study and cards have been updated to meet the growing challenges in our communities and made available online: Religious Diversity in our Schools.
For more articles on religion visit: The American Diversity Report