By Danielle Teigen
When it comes to culture, some communities tout their restaurants, fine arts scene and various demographic information. But those cities often neglect an essential component: religious diversity.
Most people likely assume that the Fargo-Moorhead community is religiously homogenous. That’s fair. The area was founded primarily by Norwegian and German immigrants who brought their Lutheran and Catholic beliefs with them. Yet, those predominant religious groups represent one component – albeit a very large component – of a rich and beautiful tapestry of various faiths and belief systems.
The reality of how religiously diverse the Fargo-Moorhead community is dawned on former philosophy professor David Myers more than a decade ago. Yet only recently have more people begun seeing that for themselves.
“When we embrace religious diversity, we become a spiritually wealthier community,” Myers said. “Having so many different faith groups makes us a more global community; it makes us more reflective of actual religious diversity in the world.”
Thanks to a robust and thriving economy, many people are coming to the area for a job and infusing the faith community with new and different beliefs and practices. Fargo-Moorhead includes several Christian congregations as well as a robust Muslim population, Hindu residents, a Jewish synagogue called Temple Beth-El, a Baha’i congregation, several Buddhist sanghas, Native American spiritual groups, a Unitarian Universalist Church and several secular organizations, including the Red River Freethinkers.
That broad spectrum of beliefs is exciting, especially considering the need for thoughtful interfaith dialogue and mutual understanding. Michelle Lelwica is the chair of the religion department at Concordia College and the interim director of the Forum on Faith and Life. The institution has deemed interfaith interaction so vital to societal growth and well being that it is one of the first schools in the nation to offer an interfaith studies minor.
“We want our future nurses, teachers, business leaders, communicators and students in all fields to develop the knowledge interpersonal skills for dealing with people who have a different worldview,” Lelwica said. “That comes from having the skill of deep listening and learning about the major teaching of different faiths.”
Listening, not converting, is an important aspect of facilitating open and honest discussion about major faiths present in the Fargo-Moorhead community. And the immense college student population appears to be leading the way in having those frank conversations about exploring faith and religion.
“Many people grow up believing people with other beliefs are wrong or threatening or scary,” Lelwica said. “Yet young people are leading the way in openness and non-fear. And that’s not to stereotype young and old people. It’s just that younger people have the advantage of not having long-held prejudices, so they are more open-minded. And I hope they represent the future of Fargo-Moorhead.”
Many of those young people may be a part of a group the Pew Research Center refers to as “nones,” a fast-growing group of individuals who identify as religiously unaffiliated, atheist or agnostic. Those individuals comprise approximately 23 percent of the U.S. population, which is an increase from the 16 percent in 2007. Interestingly, the number of people who identify as Christian fell from 78 percent to 71.
“More and more people are feeling the freedom of choice, and the notion that they don’t have to carry on the religion of their parents,” Myers said.
What’s even more interesting about this group of “nones” is that these individuals aren’t all non-religious. According to the research, many believe in God while nearly a third indicate religion is somewhat important to them. And for those who don’t believe in any spiritual being, purpose is rooted in ethics and other values.
“We need to dispel the fear of the non-religious because fear is rooted in ignorance,” Lelwica said. “You overcome ignorance by befriending someone of another perspective. It’s not easy but you can take a risk that is rooted in curiosity. Don’t let the fear of making a mistake keep you from reaching out to your neighbors. Taking risks to ask questions of your new Muslim neighbor, or your Bahá’i roommate or your Hindu fellow soccer mom isn’t easy, but it’s the only way we get to know each other.”
Learning about different faiths is so important that the Fargo-Moorhead community has a Center for Interfaith Projects as well as a Forum on Faith and Life (at Concordia) – two very important efforts aimed at celebrating different religious beliefs and increasing respect and understanding regarding those traditions. “People are happy to talk about their faith when people aren’t trying to debate them but are sincerely interested in learning what they believe,” Myers said.
Together, both groups offer outlets and resources related to religious diversity. “We increase opportunities for people of different faiths and secular individuals to get to know each other,” Myers said. “Social science research has shown that if you have a positive experience with someone from another faith and come to know something positive about their faith, it’s likely you’ll have a more positive attitude toward that faith and even other faiths.”
Even more important than just learning about different beliefs is taking action. Some steps are being taken, Myers said. He’s a member of a committee for the new Sanford Medical Center, which is designing its new chapel to be welcoming to people of all faiths. Churches United for the Homeless wants to do the same. The Cass and Clay County jails, responding to requests from inmates, have contacted the Center to provide scriptures from different faiths as well as rosaries. The Center also provides one-on-one guidance for anyone seeking more information about the various faith options available in the Fargo-Moorhead community.
Providing those various resources stems from the Center’s tenet of “One Tree, Many Branches.” That line symbolizes how – despite the great differences among faiths (which are the branches), most faiths are grounded in shared values such as compassion, generosity, kindness and justice – which is the trunk and roots.
“No one religion has a monopoly on wisdom. That is why it is important that we engage in interfaith dialogue to learn from one another,” Myers said.
The preceding story is published in Impact: The magazine for Fargo-Moorhead business and industry 2016