A two by four is a two by four whether you are a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew or a Hindu. So is a wrench, hammer, and Phillips screwdriver.
As church attendance declines and people identifying with a religion declinemany faith leaders have gone from “Come worship in our house” to “Help us build a house,” reaching out to communities outside of their own with the call to service rather than prayer.
A shining example of that change is Habitat for Humanity, the multi-faith charity that has helped more than 46 million worldwide find a home Everyone has to live somewhere, there’s no arguing with that. And everyone knows that helping your neighbor is a good thing.
So what better way to promote interfaith unity, partnership and understanding than to work side by side on a project that requires teamwork and commitment, like building a house for someone in need?
An example of the win-win idea is the Greater Nashville Habitat for Humanity which has helped 1,000 families in home ownership.
Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Christian clergy not only mix their congregations through woodworking and drywall, but also through interfaith dialogue and worship services at a local synagogue, Ohabai Sholom.
Those congregations believe very different things about God, notes Kevin Roberts, director of faith relations and mission integration for Habitat for Humanity of Greater Nashville. But they share a common passion for helping their neighbors.
The synagogue’s rabbi, Shana Mackler, says his temple first became involved in a social action project with two other congregations through a project called Unity Build.
And that project has grown into many, now involving nearly two dozen congregations of different faiths.
“We have stayed involved in large part because people love direct action projects and because it gives us the opportunity to connect with other houses of worship and religious communities to do good and meaningful work,” he said.
A later entry into the peace gambit through construction is Pikes Peak Habitat for Humanity, which just dedicated its second interfaith residence, an effort shared by Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Native Americans. The group also hosts interfaith dialogue events, last year highlighting the themes of increasing black homeownership and building an inclusive community.
“We try to bring two religious congregations of different traditions together so that they have the opportunity to meet each other during the day at the construction site,” said Chloe Henry, Faith in Action program manager for Pikes Peak Habitat.
Someone whose life was shaped in part by the Habitat for Humanity model is Eboo Patel, president of Interfaith America, who experienced its positive results firsthand working on an overseas Habitat for Humanity project in Hyderabad, India, ago. Two decades.
Hyderabad at that time was a city scarred by religious violence, and yet when it came to building something for the community, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians put their differences aside and worked together.
Inspired, Patel saw that service was the key to unlocking interfaith dialogue. The idea of helping your neighbors, he said, is common among many religions. No matter what they believe about God, every religion has its version of “hammer theology,” as Habitat founder Millard Fuller called it. According to Patel, there is something “extra sacred” when people of different faiths work together for the benefit of others.
“Everyone has a story to share,” he said. “It has opened up what we call mutually enriching conversations between people of different faiths.”
In an increasingly polarized religious and political climate, where the willingness to listen to another person’s point of view, the simple act of building an all-encompassing and all-inclusive house for your neighbor strikes a chord with everyone, regardless of the name of their deity or the way they worship.
“Radically inclusive” is how Jonathan Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity International, describes the outcome of the social change strategy, which combines faith and community service.
“My observation is that when people serve together, they focus on what they have in common,” Reckford said. “They focus on shared values, unlike when we sit alone online. So it’s all about how we’re different.”
Reckford hopes to take that bridge-building to a new level through a new initiative called Team Up: a partnership of Habitat, Catholic Charities, the YMCA and Interfaith America First. Announced last fall at a White House summit. The idea addresses the divisions of the nation by inviting people to build friendships while serving together to meet the needs of the community. For Habitat, that will likely mean more intentional community building in the workplace and a greater focus on interfaith cooperation.
Reckford said Habitat’s core Christian identity and its commitment to interfaith work go hand in hand. Faith in God is at the center of Habitat, but God “is not a border” to keep others out.
Or as Kevin Roberts put it: “When you walk into a Habitat construction site and someone puts a brush, hammer or saw in your hand, no one asks, ‘Who did you vote for?'” Did you go to church, or did you go at all?’”
A longtime volunteer from Nashville, Lauren Brooks-Gregory first became involved with Habitat for Humanity as a teenager through Calvary United Methodist Church and is now in her fourth decade with the group. She is glad that construction projects mixed with interfaith dialogue is a concoction that strengthens relationships between people of different faiths. The job gives people who otherwise might never be within a hundred yards of each other the chance to do something together and get to know and understand each other as a happy outcome.
She sums it up: “Let’s practice interreligious dialogue. But also, give me that two for four.