By Lucy Soucek
From the first moment I spoke over the phone with Jim Grant to finalize plans for my upcoming trip to Fresno, I instantly got a sense of its welcoming and interconnected religious community. His generosity, openness, and willingness to provide me with guidance foreshadowed my entire experience during my two-week long research project, funded by the Compagna-Sennett Fellowship from Colby College. Through interviews and meetings with interfaith leaders in the area, explored the following research questions. How do the different religious communities work together to create a sense of interfaith understanding and appreciation? What roles do the youth and young adult population play in these different religious communities?
I found that the interfaith relationships in Fresno work to break down misperceptions in order to make positive change and create understanding. Each leader that I met with generously shared information about their belief system and traditions and about what they do to forward interfaith understanding within their own communities. Along with several other organizations, I visited and learned about the Islamic Cultural Center, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno, Temple Beth Israel, the United Japanese Christian Church, the St. Paul Newman Center, and the Selma Gurdwara.
During my experience, I attended a Faith in Community conference and training session, where people of different religions came together to improve working conditions for migrant farmworkers in the Central Valley. I asked one of the leaders of the organization, Andy Levine, how Faith in Community differs from other social justice groups in the area that don’t have the interfaith focus. His response echoes the general sentiment that I experienced on my journey through the faith community of Fresno. He explained that having the interfaith component deeply grounds members, makes the group actually representative of their city and community, and breaks down walls and misperceptions so that they are able to do concrete and effective work.
Throughout my trip, I found a strong sense of community, interconnectedness, and empowerment through the beliefs and traditions that members of each religion hold dear, regardless of the religion. This trip allowed me to explore the different aspects of how many religions in Fresno find commonalities, appreciate differences, and above all, become open-minded about learning the different ways in which people try to bring light into their lives. Throughout today’s divisive political climate, it has become increasingly important to keep working to find commonalities and connections against forces that tend to divide us. This information can serve as a model for others as we work towards more understanding religious communities across the country.
Photos from Lucy Soucek’s Trip to Fresno: