By Robyn Lebron
In a world that is filled with divisiveness and turmoil, people are reaching for peace and understanding through the search for common ground. The age-old practice of offering hospitality to your neighbor and the “breaking of bread” and conversation, brings strangers to your table that can leave as friends. By creating a safe and welcoming environment, people can open their hearts and minds to see that we are more the same than we are different. Three Cooperation Circles/Affiliates in the United Religions Initiative North America region have made a difference in their communities by doing just that.
Each of these group has taken a unique approach to using food to bring people together and we present their stories in a three-part series on this topic. Keep reading to learn how a group in Florida is using a combination of engaging speakers and dialogue over coffee and tea to build community. Click here for the story of Super Suppers - how cooking and serving food to those who need it can bring people together. And click here to read about a group in South Carolina that gathers for dinner and dialogue in one another's homes.
Interfaith Cafe a Cooperation Circle member of URI, based in Delray Beach Florida, started in 2012-2013 as a way for members of the interfaith community to “connect with people of other faiths and have conversations that they may not typically have in other places,” Brett Puterbaugh, current chair of Interfaith Cafe, explained.
Puterbaugh reminisced about how he first got involved, “I went to law school and got involved in helping on an interfaith council there, and enjoyed that and found it was a great experience, so when I came here I looked up Interfaith Cafe and I have been involved ever since.” Then he added with resolve, “I want to send the message to others: ‘Let’s all respect each other and get along.’”
Paula Winker, one of Interfaith Cafe’s original founders and current treasurer, was anxious to share her passion and described the events with pride. Each month community members gather for a presentation and a discussion about pertinent topics while enjoying light refreshments. Having food “complements the atmosphere. When you bring someone into your home you offer them coffee and this or that. I think it is an important part of the event,” Winker insisted.
They started with a small group of 10-12 people, but as the event evolved it has grown into groups of 35-40 individuals from many different faith practices. At first different members would get up and take turns speaking, but they found that having an outside speaker was very motivating for more people to attend.
People come to learn about various topics that everyone can relate to, and then they have small table discussions after the speaker for more personal interaction and follow-up discourse. “Linda Prior [the Program Coordinator] is absolutely amazing at finding interesting speakers.” Puterbaugh beamed. It’s not necessarily a topic that directly relates to interfaith, but subjects that all in attendance can relate to -- “something that touches faith, and we can then have a discussion about how our faith influences our beliefs on that topic,” he added for clarification.
The community has embraced the concept with participants who identify as Christians (including Protestants, Catholics and Latter-Day Saints), Baha’is, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, and atheists attending. During the event they always allow people to make announcements of activities and events their faith practice is sponsoring and invite attendees to come.
Puterbaugh stirringly shared his personal growth from these events,“Over many meetings, I [have] come to appreciate much more the fact that many times we are simply using different vocabulary to describe the same concepts in different faiths, and that to me has been very, very enlightening to understand.”
“I love hearing someone describe something in a very different way, but at the same time, a very familiar way -- a concept or principle that I hold dear, and they describe it in a way -- from their own perspective -- a way I haven’t heard it described before -- but it’s uplifting for me to hear that,” he affirmed.
Winker also talked about her personal journey of faith. “The greatest insight is for me to really appreciate the devoutness of the people to their faith. I have been inspired by the depth of the spiritual commitment that people have to their faith.”
“The other thing that I am noticing is that people are wanting to share on a very personal level,” Winker added thoughtfully. “When we can talk about life experiences, it is the core of getting to know each other as people. “It’s not an educational discourse, but a person to person relationship.”
“I think that we really try to highlight the fact that we are part of a larger community through URI at every meeting. For me personally, having that connection, across the miles, across the continent and across the world -- of people who are doing similar things is an amazing part of my commitment to this,” Winker expressed with gratitude.
“The ‘URI umbrella’ is a very positive force and energy that is very welcome and very important,” she said.
This piece is part of a three-part series on how food is used to bring people together. Click here for the story of Super Suppers - how cooking and serving food to those who need it can bring people together. And click here to read about a group in South Carolina that gathers for dinner and dialogue in one another's homes.
This series was written by URI North America Storytelling Intern Robyn Lebron. You can read more of her work here.